Wu-Tang Clan turned the concept of artist compensation on its ear last week with the announcement that they’ll be manufacturing just one unique copy of their forthcoming LP, “The Wu — Once Upon a Time in Shaolin,” and then auctioning it off for a price they expect to reach into the millions.
The group’s RZA, who masterminded the project with producer/Wu-Tang extended family member Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh, told Billboard that their goal got closer to reality this week.
“Offers came in at $2 million, somebody offered $5 million yesterday,” he said via phone from Los Angeles Tuesday, during a break from promotion work on “Brick Mansions,” his forthcoming film with the late Paul Walker, and “Gang Related,” his Fox show launching next month. “I’ve been getting a lot of emails: some from people I know, some from people I don’t know, and they’re also emailing other members of my organization.
“So far, $5 million is the biggest number,” he continued. “I don’t know how to measure it, but it gives us an idea that what we’re doing is being understood by some. And there are some good peers of mine also, who are very high-ranking in the film business and the music business, sending me a lot of good will. It’s been real positive.”
The 31-track album, which was recorded in secret over the past few years and produced by Cilvaringz “under the tutelage” of the RZA, was announced a week ago today. It will be housed in a hand carved nickel-silver box designed by British-Moroccan artist Yahya.
In a manifesto on the project’s website, the goal is to make a statement about music as a work of art in the ongoing debate over creators’ compensation in the context of the digital revolution. “The intrinsic value of music has been reduced to zero,” it reads. “Contemporary art is worth millions by virtue of its exclusivity. This album is a piece of contemporary art.”
“The main theme is music being accepted and respected as art and being treated as such,” RZA told Billboard. “If something is rare, it’s rare. You cannot get another.”
While the site’s claim that “This is the first high-profile album never to be commercially released to the public and the first of its kind in the history of music” is not entirely accurate — one-off releases from Radiohead and Jean-Michel Jarre, among others, have been created and sold — the project is unquestionably an interesting twist in the music industry’s ongoing dilemma over artist compensation.
See this week’s Billboard for more from our interview with RZA, including his views on art, collecting, ownership, and the rights of the ultimate owner of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.