The Wu-Tang Clan has been making headlines in past weeks as they recently announced that their new record, The Wu – Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, is only being pressed into one copy. Immodestly comparing their work to art pieces by Picasso, Warhol, as well as Beethoven and Michelangelo, they argue that, unlike a work of art, the populist nature of music lends itself to being inherently devalued. By limiting the copies of their album to one single pressing, preserved, of course, in a handmade silver box, they feel they can drive demand prices to levels currently expected for high art in non-aural mediums.
Once Upon a Time in Shaolin attempts to fly in the face of music’s desktop and smartphone ubiquity by making it almost completely inaccessible—and therefore capturing, to some extent, the glamour of the golden years of the business. The album was recorded in secret over six years with Wu-Tang’s main producer, Cilvaringz, and the entire production attempts to convey a sense of high-art, rather than an album created for mass consumption. The container for the album was “handcrafted over the course of three months by British-Moroccan artist Yahya, whose works have been commissioned by royal families and business leaders around the world”[i]. Much like any other piece of art, this album is one-of-a-kind. According to Cilvaringz, “the plan is to first take Once Upon A Time In Shaolin on a ‘tour’ through museums, galleries, festivals and the like”[ii]. There will be a cost to attend, much like a ticket to a concert, and visitors will be put through heavy security to prevent bootleg copies and illegal recordings of the precious album.
Bids have already begun to pour in. Even before seeing the finish of the exhibition tour, “[t]he rap legends claim to have a $5 million bid already on the one and only copy of their next album”[iii]. Despite having fallen from the limelight, and thus far removed from the mainstream success that they experienced over a decade ago, their ploy has created a surge of attention. Still, in the wake of Beyonce’s surprise album and other similar publicity stunts in the music world, this may prove to be one of the cheekiest attempts yet. There is already huge interest, and the Wu-Tang clan could potentially stand to make a handsome profit. This kind of attention, at the very least, boosts interest in Wu-Tang’s previous albums.
The future of the album’s availability is uncertain. A record label may potentially purchase the album, which would allow them to make pure profit in exchange for a one-time expense. Although the situation remains unclear as to whether all the rights to the album will be transferred to the purchaser, the intent seems to allow the buyer to use the music however they please. A generous mogul might decide to make the music available to the masses for free. A pop-art collector might keep the album to themselves, content to have access to an extremely rare item that is unavailable to the rest of the world. A large corporation might purchase the album and use the music to sell various products, promote films, or create unique advertisement.
Clearly, this is a move that cannot be easily replicated. It would be impractical for most musicians to only make one copy of their albums, let alone make a livelihood. Seeking new music in museums, galleries, or Sotheby’s would be pretty artificial, while performers would have to deprive the public from their singular hit (‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, anyone?). Wu-Tang may hope that more and more listeners will begin to treat music with the respect it deserves but is often not afforded. But if the group is trying to make a statement about the low value of music, its example is unlikely to reverse it.
By Christian Florez
1. Greenburg, Z. O. (2014, March 26). Why Wu-Tang Will Release Just One Copy Of Its Secret Album. Retrieved from Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/zackomalleygreenburg/2014/03/26/why-wu-tang-will-release-just-one-copy-of-its-secret-album/
3. Asward, J. (2014, April 8). Why Wu-Tang’s Stunt Could Actually Work. Retrieved from Billboard: http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/the-juice/6042206/why-wu-tangs-stunt-could-actually-work