Are you a fan of the Wu-Tang Clan? How would you like to have the one and only copy that will ever be made of the influential rap group's new double album?
It can be yours, if you're the highest bidder. The only hitch: The offers are reportedly already running into the millions.
The album, "The Wu—Once Upon a Time In Shaolin…," consists of 31 tracks which have been recorded over the past six years. It was produced by Tarik "Cilvaringz" Azzougarh, "under the tutelage" of the RZA, a founding member of the group. The album features guest appearances by Redman and Bonnie Jo Mason, among others.
The music, we are told, will not be available digitally or in any other existing mass format. The plan is for the album to initially be a traveling exhibit, where fans can pay to hear it "as a one-off experience," before one buyer takes possession of it.
In a statement on a site devoted to the new album, Cilvaringz and the RZA explain the method behind their madness. "History demonstrates that great musicians such as Beethoven, Mozart and Bach are held in the same high esteem as figures like Picasso, Michelangelo and Van Gogh. However, the creative output of today's [recording] artists such as the RZA, Kanye West or Dr. Dre, is not valued equally to that of artists like Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst or Jean-Michel Basquiat… Is contemporary art overvalued in an exclusive market, or are musicians undervalued in a profoundly saturated market?"
OK, modesty isn't the RZA's strong suit. But Wu-Tang is definitely rap royalty. Each of the group's first two albums, 1993's "Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" and 1997's double album "Wu-Tang Forever," topped the 2 million mark in U.S. sales, according to Nielsen SoundScan. "Wu-Tang Forever" sold 612K copies in its first week, which was the second-highest first-week sales tally of 1997, just behind Garth Brooks's "Sevens."
Wu-Tang's three subsequent studio albums didn't sell nearly as well: 2000's "The W" sold 1.1 million; 2001's "Iron Man" sold 470K; 2007's "8 Diagrams" sold just 202K. A statement on the album's site suggests that the new album was a conscious attempt to recapture the glory of the first two releases. "The album … is produced in the original Wu-Tang style of the 90s," it says.
The intriguing story has been picked up by more than 50 media outlets, including Forbes, The New York Times and Time.
Is this for real? Apparently. But it's hard to imagine that it will become a serious business model. It seems more of an attention-getting stunt. Wu-Tang Clan is releasing a regular, commercially available album, "A Better Tomorrow," in July. (If the group had known how much publicity this one would receive, they might have put "A Better Tomorrow" out now, to capitalize on all the press.)
Here's more from the statement from Cilvaringz and the RZA, so you can better understand their thinking. "We hope to inspire and intensify urgent debates about the future of music. We hope to steer those debates toward more radical solutions and provoke questions about the value and perception of music as a work of art in today’s world.
"While we fully embrace the advancements in music technology, we feel it has contributed to the devaluation of music as an art form. By taking this step, we hope to re-enforce the weight that music once carried alongside a painting or a sculpture. The album will be put on listening display in renowned galleries, museums, venues and exhibition spaces around the world for only the most dedicated to experience before it disappears into the private collection of a buyer. The public will know that what they will hear will be a once in a lifetime experience.
"…A new approach is introduced, one where the pride and joy of sharing music with the masses is sacrificed for the benefit of reviving music as a valuable art and inspiring debate about its future among musicians, fans and the industry that drives it."
Two comments in that statement suggest how this plan goes against musicians' natural instincts to have their music heard and enjoyed. Cilvaringz and the RZA write that the album will "disappear" into a private collection. An interesting word choice, and not something that most creative people want to have happen to their work. And they write that "the pride and joy of sharing music with the masses is sacrificed." That's a lot to sacrifice, no matter how big a check you receive.
The RZA told Billboard that the early response has been positive. "Offers came in at $2 million, somebody offered $5 million yesterday," he claimed. "So far [that's] the biggest number. I don't know how to measure it, but it gives us an idea that what we're doing is being understood by some."
Is a Wu-Tang Clan album worth $5 million? The obvious answer is that it's worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it. But since neither of the group's last two albums has sold 500K copies, it seems high.
Still, desperate times call for desperate measures, and the music industry is in desperate shape. Just one album sold 1 million copies in the first quarter of 2014—the "Frozen" soundtrack (which sold 1,457,000 copies in the quarter). Just one other album sold 500K copies in the quarter: Beyoncé's "Beyoncé" (which sold 604K copies in the quarter).
(Beyoncé's album also had an unconventional release. It dropped suddenly in December, with no build-up or fanfare. The counter-intuitive strategy worked: The album sold 1,301,000 copies in the last three weeks of 2013.)
Other artists have experimented with unconventional release strategies in recent years. In late 2007, Radiohead famously employed a "pay what you want" approach for its album, "In Rainbows." The strategy may well have cost the album some sales, but it also created a huge amount of buzz. The album reached No. 1 in both the U.S. and the U.K. and wound up with a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. It also set up a successful worldwide tour.
Prince and Jay Z have also challenged industry structures and conventions.
"The music industry is in crisis," states an "edictum" on the album's site. "Creativity has become disposable and value has been stripped out. Mass production and content saturation have devalued both our experience of music and our ability to establish its value.
"Industrial production and digital reproduction have failed. The intrinsic value of music has been reduced to zero. Contemporary art is worth millions by virtue of its exclusivity. This album is a piece of art. The debate starts here."