As a columnist, I can pour everything into the 600 words or so I’m allotted each week. I can toil endlessly, doing everything in my power to convey my passions and opinions about the importance of music. But no matter how hard I try, everything I say will fade in comparison to the brilliant, industry-altering move that legendary hip-hop crew Wu-Tang Clan just made.
For those less interested in the captivating subculture of ‘90s rap groups, the crew consists of nine members: RZA, GZA, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, Method Man, Ghostface, U-God, Masta Killa and the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard. And just as their name suggests, the group has never shied away from eccentricity.
This is the group that grew to fame by fusing elements of kung-fu and hip-hop together in their albums. The same group that saw one of its members sue the other and then rap on the same song weeks later. The same group whose member saved a child from a car accident, then went on to try and kill rapper 50 Cent over an old beef. The same group who called Marvel “super wack” for suing them over an Iron Man sample they used in an album.
But in a move fit for the history books, Wu-Tang Clan has just announced their newest album, The Wu: Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, which they’ve been secretly working on the past few years . The catch? They’re only producing one copy, encased in an elegantly handcrafted chest design by famous British-Moroccan artist Yahya.
“The idea that music is art has been something we advocated for years,” RZA said in an interview with Forbes magazine. “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.”
Wu-Tang Clan’s message in this one-album strategy parallels everything I’ve been attempting to convey throughout the majority of this music industry column, only much more effectively because it includes practical application.
Before selling the album, the crew plans to display it on a circuit of festivals and museums around the world, much like a film or a painting. Only people present at these festivals and museums will be able to hear the album; there will be no online circulation. No iTunes. No Spotify. No $9.99 physical copies at your local Walmart.
Through this endeavor, Wu-Tang Clan is trying to teach the world a lesson: that music, in its purest element, is an art form. Unfortunately, the fact that we see this as such an odd mode of presenting music proves how much our world needs this lesson.
Many will compare this move to Jay-Z’s recent deal with Samsung, in which Samsung paid him $5 million so that one million Samsung phones could download his newest album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, for free three days before its release date. However, the two deals couldn’t be more opposite. Jay-Z was motivated entirely by money and sales. On the other hand, Wu-Tang Clan’s main motivation is the message they’re trying to send.
Don’t get me wrong, Wu-Tang isn’t getting skimped on this deal at all. The buying price is expected to be upwards of a couple million dollars. But while the world may soon forget Jay-Z’s deal, Wu-Tang’s strategy will be remembered by the music community for many generations to come. If perceived correctly, the one copy of The Wu: Once Upon a Time in Shaolin could create ripple effects in the industry for a long time by restoring our faith in the album as a piece of art, not a product.
The Declaration of Independence belongs in a museum. Mona Lisa belongs in a museum. Hopefully, The Wu: Once Upon a Time in Shaolin’s final resting place will be in a museum, and the Wu-Tang Clan is teaching us that that’s the way it should be.