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Why Wu-Tang's Stunt Could Actually Work
The rap legends claim to have a $5 million bid already on the one and only copy of their next album as its heads to auction.
Fans have been waiting for a Wu-Tang Clan reunion record since 2007 — but would one pay millions to hear it? That's what the rap group is counting on by manufacturing only one copy of its new 31-track album, "The Wu — Once Upon a Time in Shaolin." "Offers have come in at $2 million; somebody offered $5 million," Wu-Tang's leader, RZA, tells Billboard. "I don't know how to measure it, but it gives us an idea that what we're doing is being understood."
The concept of the one-off, one-of-a-kind record is as old as the phonograph itself (before mass production, every record was by necessity a unique performance). But there's no question that Wu-Tang Clan has turned the idea — as well as the entire model of creators' compensation — on its ear with its forthcoming release, recorded in secret during the past six years. Housed in a hand-carved silver-and-nickel box by British-Moroccan artist Yahya, the album, which currently resides under heavy security in Morocco, will go on a museum tour where paying attendees will be able to hear it — after being screened by security to avoid leaks. It will then be sold to the highest bidder. The idea is, in part, a reaction to the devaluation of music on the Internet (album sales have declined by around 50 percent in the last decade, according to the RIAA), offering exclusivity as opposed to mass-market appeal. But it has also garnered Wu-Tang Clan, decades removed from its 1990s heyday, more buzz than it has received in years.
Longtime hip-hop executive Rich Isaacson, who signed Wu-Tang with partner Steve Rifkind to Loud Records in 1993 for $10,000, is among those who think it will work. "Those guys are smart, real street hustlers," he says. "They must be thinking they can't get more than a half a million advance from a label. So why not do this, get a million bucks, tons of press and everyone talking? They're always looking for an angle."
"This is an exciting concept that could resonate well with devoted collectors of pop culture," says Caitlin Graham of Christie's International. "An auction is an interesting way to sell something like this, since you can open up the bidding on a global level and let the market decide how high the price will go."
RZA, however, insists, "It ain't really about the money. The main theme is music being accepted and respected as art and being treated as such."
No singles have been released, although a website dedicated to the project says it will feature appearances by Redman and soccer pros from FC Barcelona. It's still unclear if it will eventually hit digital retailers, radio or streaming services, as the band may relinquish rights upon sale. "If somebody was to buy it and say, 'I'm gonna resell it,' I don't see where there's a problem with that. But we're still doing research," says RZA, who adds that recording costs justify the high price tag. "To make a Wu-Tang record costs a lot of money. It's nine guys, musicians, and studios still cost a thousand dollars or more a day. We spent years developing it and we're saying, 'It ain't just music, it's a piece of art.' It's a business model. This can change the idea and the venue of music."
As it turns out, RZA's crew isn't the first to come up with the idea. French synthesizer guru Jean Michel Jarre created the album Musique per Supermarche (Music for Supermarkets) in 1983 for an art exhibition and allowed Radio Luxembourg to broadcast it once in its entirety before he auctioned off a single vinyl print for 70,000 francs (approximately $15,000 in today's U.S. dollars) as a protest against the "silly industralisation [sic] of music."
In fact, the collectors' market for music has never been stronger, with the holy grail still thought to be the stereo version of The Beatles' Yesterday and Today with its original "Butcher" cover, featuring the band in white smocks covered with decapitated baby doll parts and pieces of meat. The Sex Pistols' 7-inch U.K. version of "God Save the Queen" on A&M — never released because the band was kicked off the label — now sells for $10,000.
Will Wu-Tang Clan break the bank with Shaolin? "Don't underestimate RZA," says Isaacson. "He built an empire once. He can do it again."