Is music art? Most people would probably regard Johann Sebastian Bach‘s compositions as art, while fewer would give the same label to Ariana Grande‘s work. One group of people who definitively define music as art is Wu-Tang Clan. In March 2014, the New York City hip hop group announced that they would be releasing exactly one copy of their next album, Once Upon in Shaolin. Many artists make special collector’s editions of their albums, but Wu-Tang certainly decided to take it to the next level, as explained by member RZA:
“The idea that music is art has been something we advocated for years. And yet its doesn’t receive the same treatment as art in the sense of the value of what it is, especially nowadays when it’s been devalued and diminished to almost the point that it has to be given away for free. […] We’re about to put out a piece of art like nobody else has done in the history of [modern] music. We’re making a single-sale collector’s item. This is like somebody having the scepter of an Egyptian king.”
You might think that this isn’t really a problem for people who would want to listen to the album. Sure, that one exclusive copy would be expensive, but why couldn’t a record label simply purchase the album and make it available through streaming and hard copies? They’d quickly cover the cost of purchasing the master album through licensing and sale of copies, wouldn’t they? In theory, it’s a great idea, but the good fellas of Wu-Tang are way ahead of you: The sales contract contains a clause that the album can’t be commercially exploited until 88 years after its purchase. It can be exhibited publicly and it can be given away for free, however, but that meant the buyer had to be a good guy without any commercial incentives, and people like that are few and far between.
Disregarding RZA’s massive ego, I thought what Wu-Tang was doing with Once Upon A Time In Shaolin was brilliant.
Many of the band’s fans, on the other hand, thought otherwise. The fear that someone with no real interest in the album and too much money would buy it, sparked not one, but two Kickstarter campaigns to raise the money to purchase the multi-million dollar album and free it from the clutches of some unknown, evil materialist. Both the campaigns failed, however, one of them with an unimpressive $243 raised – $5,499,757 shy of the campaign’s target. I’m sure most Wu-Tang fans tearfully regretted they didn’t pledge more when the news broke in the begging of December this year that Once Upon A Time In Shaolin had been sold to no other than this guy:
Meet Martin Shkreli. Until very recently, he was the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals AG, and best known for being the guy who obtained the manufacturing license for the antiparasitic drug Daraprim and raised its price by 5,556 percent per tablet. Shkreli spent $2 million to purchase Wu-Tangs self-proclaimed equivalent of an Egyptian king’s scepter and pretty much everyone who even cared a little about Once Upon A Time in Shaolin thought the album was lost forever.
But Shkreli wasn’t able to enjoy the exclusive album for long: On December 17, 2015, he was arrested following a federal indictment by the FBI on $65 million worth of securities fraud charges and there are now some rather imaginative speculations surfacing about the future fate of the Wu-Tang album. If any of the 65 million was used to buy the album, the FBI could seize it. According to TMZ,
“it’s actually likely they would target the album, because it’s an expensive asset that could easily be auctioned off to pay the restitution judgment.” This means that Once Upon A Time In Shaolin could soon end up in the hands of someone else.
Even if the FBI doesn’t seize the album and auction it off to someone else, it might not remain in the possession of Shkreli. There is an alleged clause in the contact that Wu-Tang and/or actor Bill Murray can steal back the album with no legal repercussions:
“The buying party also agrees that at any time during the stipulated 88 year period, the seller may legally plan and attempt to execute one (1) heist or caper to steal back Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, which, if successful, would return all ownership rights to the seller. Said heist or caper can only be undertaken by currently active members of the Wu-Tang Clan and/or actor Bill Murray, with no legal repercussions.”
Since very few people have seen the actual contract, it’s hard to say if the clause exists or not. But it’s a movie I’d pay to see, and, if true, a damn brilliant plan by the Wu-Tang Clan to create a lot of public attention when it suits them.
Heist-clause or not, one thing is for sure: The final chapter of tale of Wu-Tang Clan’s brilliant Once Upon A Time In Shaolin hasn’t been written yet. But if more than a few lucky ones will be able to listen to it before 2103 is still an open question. Even if you can’t listen to the album, there are quite a few official photographs of it available, and here are a few: