Everything about acclaimed rap group the Wu-Tang Clan’s upcoming album "Once Upon a Time In Shaolin" sounds like a publicity stunt. It’s contained in a silver box engraved by a British-Moroccan artist named Yahya. Its website mentions the group in the same sentence as Warhol. It will soon make appearances at museums around the world, where, after a security pat-down, fans and critics alike may listen to it one at a time, before—and this is the important part—the only copy will be auctioned off, secreted in the home of its super-wealthy new owner, and kept insulated from the prying ears of the masses.
The concept of auctioning off a single copy of an album sounds bizarre (after all, don't they want people to hear their music?), but that’s what the Wu-Tang Clan is doing, and the group has reportedly already received a bid of $5 million. A statement on the album’s sleek website says the plan is patterned on a “400 year old [sic] Renaissance-style approach to music,” one in which a wealthy patron commissions a one-of-a-kind piece of private artwork.
The patronage model, of course, cuts a sizable (and sometimes entitled) group out of the deal: fans. Already, two outraged yet committed Wu-Tang fans have launched a Kickstarter project to match the bid of $5 million (they have not yet broken $20,000), in hopes that “the rest of us get to enjoy an epic album instead of some uber-rich bastard keeping it to himself like a collector's item.” One man’s patron, it seems, is another man’s uber-rich bastard.
The (very) limited release of Shaolin has led to conversations about music’s value in the digital era—conversations, it should be noted, that masquerade as debates but really boil down to people uniformly arguing that others should make a point of paying for music. Digital holdouts like Radiohead’s Thom Yorke have complained about the devaluation of music at the hands of streaming services like Spotify and Rhapsody, and this album’s single-unit sale is an attempt—however high-minded and quixotic it may be—to restore music’s lost import. “One leak,” as the album’s producer, Tarik Azzougarh (aka Cilvaringz), puts it, “nullifies the entire concept.” (Azzougarh recently hosted a Forbes reporter in Morocco, allowing him to record and distribute 51 seconds of the album, which, theoretically, might amount to about $50,000 worth of music.)
In the coverage of all this, though, Azzougarh’s own background—he’s studied music management and entertainment law—has taken a back seat to the brazenness of the sales concept. Shaolin may seem like some half-baked one-off, but in fact, Azzougarh claims on the album’s website, its release marks the launch of what he calls “the world’s first private music service.” While such a service could conceivably devolve into an Uber for music, allowing the wealthy to frivolously commission private albums as they please, Azzougarh is hoping it might “save the music album from dying.”
The question of whether the private-service model is at all sustainable remains to be answered. Syd Schwartz, founder of the digital marketing and strategy firm Linchpin Digital, points out that this concept is only available to well-established artists. “The Wu-Tang Clan has 20-plus years of multi-platinum success behind them,” he says. “Without that, this wouldn’t even be a conversation.”
Schwartz views the plan as an attempt to gin up the hype that used to accompany record releases. He remembers when, in the 1990s, midnight sales of new releases from Garth Brooks and Pearl Jam would force the Tower Records in Hollywood to hire extra security. “But you can’t rally that kind of hype around something that excludes the fans,” Schwartz says.
Despite Azzougarh’s claims to being “first,” his ideas are not without modern precedent. “We already see this type of private music service when we read about a big act doing a private gig for a royal or rich person for a million dollars,” explains Catherine Moore, a professor of music business at New York University. “That’s not new.” That model, of course, comes with its own host of potential landmines: after years of soul-searching, singer Nelly Furtado decided in 2011 to donate to charity the $1 million she received for a private show back in 2007 put on for the family of Muammar Qaddafi.
John Strohm, a music lawyer who advises artists such as Bon Iver and the Civil Wars, is equally unconvinced that this is, at its core, a new idea. “What’s new is the way this is being framed,” he says. Typically, a record label will purchase an artist’s master recordings (and the distribution rights to them), which is different from The Wu-Tang Clan’s model only in that the buyer is a company rather than an individual. “It’s almost exactly like the kind of deal they might make with Sony,” Strohm says.
Even if selling a master recording to a private buyer isn’t entirely new, the idea has still produced significant buzz, and will likely attract a supremely wealthy bidder that a Kickstarter campaign will have no hope of matching. All is not lost for the everyman, though: In tandem with "Shaolin," the Wu-Tang Clan is planning on releasing another album, "A Better Tomorrow," through traditional, democratic avenues. It’ll probably be available for $10 on iTunes—for the foreseeable future.