When an artist releases a new album, they usually promote the forthcoming product, hoping for the type of boom that takes them to a high spot in the charts. This is not the case for Wu-Tang Clan, whose new album, titled The Wu- Once Upon a Time In Shaolin, challenges the structure of the music industry by becoming the first high-profile album in history that will not be commercially released.
The Wu-Once Upon a Time In Shaolin is a 31-song double-album which involves all members of Wu-Tang Clan, as well as involvement from special guests Bonny Jo Mason, Redman, and some FC Barcelona football players, among others. It is unsure yet whether they will all be spitting beats with the Clan.
The album will not be released to the general public and will instead be sold exclusively to just one person – one lone buyer. However, before the private sale, the album will make a tour of museums, galleries, festivals, and other exhibition spaces and fans will have the opportunity to enjoy a one-off listening experience at one of the venues before the album disappears into private hands.
Fans of the old-school should enjoy The Wu-Once Upon a Time In Shaolin, which they say will capture the essence of their original 90’s style by returning to their dark funk sound.
The album will not be available on digital streaming and will not be mass-produced in any way. Checking out the album in a gallery might actually be the only way for anyone who does not have a few million with which to bid to catch a listen. The Clan has not given an estimated price, but the album is expected to fetch millions when it finally is sold to a private buyer.
The motive for the unusual approach is stated explicitly on the album’s website, where Wu-Tang Clan outline their disgruntled view of the music industry and make a comparison with other contemporary art industries. They hope to raise questions and encourage discussion about the “value and perception of music as a work of art in today’s world,” and believe this perception may have been damaged by “mass production” and “content saturation.”
The Wu-Once Upon a Time In Shaolin, will therefore be marketed in a similar way to other contemporary art, by being placed in exhibitions before finally being sold privately, in much the same way as a painting. The Clan recognises that a certain sacrifice has been made in their decision not to share the album with the masses, but aim to revive music as a valuable art and inspire debate within the industry.
Wu-Tang Clan not only claims that the new album challenges perceptions of the music industry, but they also hold that the method represents a new business model – a structure that can be used by other artists who could be commissioned to produce songs or albums for private collections.
The album is receiving notable publicity due to its deliberately predefined rarity, and the promotional value of such an unusual release cannot be ignored. Avid fans will undoubtedly want the opportunity to listen to the album, and tickets may sell for as high as $30-$50 at participating venues, although no price has yet been confirmed.
With high-selling ticket prices and a one-of-a-kind album hard copy that is expected to sell for several million dollars, the unorthodox release may do more than inspire debate; it might also prove to be financially lucrative, and will surely provide a boost to the profile of the Clan.
Wu-Tang Clan will also release another album this summer titled A Better Tomorrow, which will be released commercially in the traditional manner in which albums are released. Whether or not this detracts from their overall point is debatable, as too is the idea that their rarified album The Wu-Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, will shape the music industry in any way. Perhaps the future will see highly valuable one-time albums released by musicians. For now, the public can be sure that most artists, including Wu-Tang Clan themselves, will continue to publicly release their work.
Not everyone will agree that this is the shake-up that the music industry needs. Musicians do after all already have a means of offering private one-time pieces of art which are displayed only to a select group who purchase a ticket. They are called live shows, and when orchestrated with true creativity, the experience cannot be digitally streamed or mass-produced. People who like to enjoy music from the comfort of their own home may also have their reservations.
Nevertheless, some interesting points have been raised by Wu-Tang Clan concerning the music industry and the perception of music as being less valuable than other contemporary art. In this respect they have succeeded in at least one of their aims, and debate is likely to ensue among other artists. Time will only tell whether the format of displaying music for listening within public spaces will be successful, and whether change will come following the release of their new album, The Wu-Once Upon a Time In Shaolin, and the challenges it makes to the current structure of the music industry.
By Matthew Warburton