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Will Wu-Tang’s $1 Million Album Change Music for the Worse?

Posted by Nathan S. on 03/26/14 | Filed under Podcasts, Sales, Wu Tang Clan, Bonus Points

“We’re about to sell an album like nobody else sold it before. 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.” - RZA to Forbes

Even in the age of the surprise Beyonce album, which truly signaled the dawn of the #newrules era, the news that the Wu-Tang Clan would soon be releasing a new album, "The Wu – Once Upon A Time In Shaolin…", was mindblowing. The Clan's 20th anniversary had just come and gone with only "it doesn't look like they'll be making an album anytime soon" pieces, and here was a new project from hip-hop's most legendary group. But as if that wasn't enough, RZA announced that they'd only be making one copy of the album, which would be stored inside a specially designed silver box and sold to the highest bidder, presumably for millions. Also, anyone caught looking inside the box unauthorized will have their face melted off, or something. The details are still kind of hazy. 

My gut reaction was, "This is fucking awesome." The one album copy idea, merged with the Indian Jones-esque box presentation, felt legendary. It felt groundbreaking. It felt like an event, and in an age when albums come and go with astounding speed, to feel like an album is truly important is amazing. Hip-hop still really, truly matters. 

Beyond that, on an industry level I'm all for artists taking more control of their own musical and financial lives. And if they get to break down some ideas about what can and can't be done in the process, hell yeah then. The more creative, original force is out there in the world the better.

But then.....

...the reality of what Wu-Tang probably mostly RZA would doing started to really sink in. Wait, so....I'm not going to be able to ever own this album? And no one I know ever will either? Some rich fuck is going to buy it and keep it locked up in the west wing of his crumbling mansion (the WEST WING IS FORBIDDEN!!!)? Or what if some company comes in and buys it? Suddenly I'm having visions of having to give Coca-Cola my social security number through their special app to download it. That's....kind of fucked up? Right? 

Now, RZA also said he has plans to tour the album in museums across the world; if all goes according to this plan folks will be able to pay $50 to listen to the album in a room in the Tate Modern or Louvre, which again sounds completely fucking awesome and kind of depressing. Of course I want to go to a museum and sit in dark room and have them bring out the album like it's the Ark of the Covenant, that'd be amazing. But the truth is that the album might never come anywhere near me, and if it does it'll sell out in .05 seconds. And that about all those people, those literally hundreds of thousands of people who make the Wu a global phenomenon who don't live anywhere near a world-class musem, and couldn't afford the ticket even if they did?

The problem RZA, and Jay Z, and Beyonce and Nipsey Hu$$le and everyone else, is trying to fight against is an overabundance of music. When I can stream close to a billion songs on iTunes from my couch anytime, one album feels just as special as the next. The way to combat that overabundance is to institute some measure of exclusivity: it'll only stream through this one app, it costs $100, it's available RIGHT NOW GET IT RIGHT NOW. And with "Once Upon a Time in Shaolin" we've already hit the peak of exclusivity; there will only be one album. 

That's amazing, but it's also oddly moving artists towards becoming the labels and corporations we mock for failing to adapt to reality in 2014. The major labels are wheezing their last breaths because as the internet democratized and opened access to music, they hunkered down and clung to every shred of exclusivity they could. Are we, as music fans, really better off if artists start doing the same thing, start putting up as many barriers as possible between the fans and their music? At what point do the #newrules stop being awesome and start leaving us worse off than we were under the #oldrules? 

UPDATEAccording to RZA, Wu-Tang's 'Once Upon A Time In Shaolin' LP Gets $5 Million Offer

Good questions. Frankly I don't have the answers, all of this was too much for me to handle alone, so I grabbed the one and only Donwill to talk things over on a new "Bonus Points" podcast. Get ready for some unedited talk about #newrules, Wu-Tang and Remy Ma's post-prison plans. 

(For the record, this Combat Jack Show with Kweli and Ma Dukes is a must listen, and here's Donwill as a cartoon.)

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