December 7, 2022
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Wu-Tang Clan and the “value of music”

In December, when I wrote about the surprise release of Beyoncé’s self-titled fifth album for Imprint Magazine, I dismissed the argument that its marketing gimmick was the only force behind its explosive sales, but it seemed like a no-brainer that we’d see record labels taking risks with their methods of distribution for a chance at higher sales. One major act, despite not having had a hit album in 14 years, announced today that they’ll be going the opposite route: releasing just one copy of a mysterious new album.

Wu Tang Clan, frequently hailed as one of the greatest and most influential hip-hop groups ever, are calling their double-album The Wu – Once Upon a Time in Shaolin a “single-sale collector’s item… like somebody having the scepter of an Egyptian king.”

In a well-reasoned, if not absurdly pretentious online press release, Cilvaringz and The RZA (a producer affiliated with Wu-Tang, and the group’s leader, respectively) presented the business model by which the unusual approach will increase the music’s intrinsic value and its potential for profit: the 31-track record will be travel for display in museums and galleries around the world, where listeners will have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to listen to it. (Recording devices, of course, will be strictly banned). Eventually, the lone copy will be sold to the highest bidder for millions of dollars.

From a business perspective, it makes sense in theory; it’s the scarcity effect taken to its extreme. It works from a marketing standpoint, too: the “hip factor” is through the roof. As an artistic move, it makes a bold and immediate statement about the place of music in world of art, which has been (say Wu-Tang) diminished by its ubiquity and ease of access.

In practice, though, the concept is extremely presumptuous, and quite possibly destined to be an embarrassment. Never underestimate the willingness to pay of music “superfans,” but most people don’t have the means or time  to visit a museum to hear an album. Nor do most people listen to new music that way: in a public setting, surrounded by strangers, in a 31-song sitting.

Will there be a buyer willing to shell out millions for an album? It’s worth noting that the record will be “encased inside an engraved silver-and-nickel box,” so at least there’s that. RZA speculates that the copy may be snatched up by a corporate buyer, if not to an art collector.

Will Shaolin really allow music to regain its status as a redeemed and appreciated art form on the level of the classical masters? … I’ll let you know once I’ve torrented it.