What Does Wu-Tang's Single-Copy Release of Their Secret Album Say About the Value of Art?
One of the most influential musical groups of the last 20 years, the Wu-Tang Clan, recently announced the release of their secretly produced album, The Wu -- Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, which will surely be one of a kind -- literally. The hip-hop group has decided to release a single copy of the double album with a purchase price somewhere in the millions, hoping to shine a light on the value that is put on art and intellectual property -- a hot button topic that has been in the mouths of many filmmakers since the proliferation of VOD. How much is art really worth in the modern age, and who stands to lose or gain as the value goes up or down? Join the discussion after the break.
Let me be completely honest -- I haven't even thought of Wu-Tang since 2000 when I bought their album The W with my birthday money (I probably listened to "Gravel Pit" a bazillion times). But this unique distribution tactic they're doing for Once Upon a Time in Shaolin has piqued my interest not just as a fan, but as a filmmaker.
Essentially, Wu-Tang's new album will be the first ever modern private music album. There will only be one copy made, which will then be encased in an engraved silver and nickel box, masterfully crafted by British-Moroccan artist Yahya. The album, including the master recording and the producer’s publishing rights, will go for millions to some lucky superfan, collector, company, or Tad -- or the anti-Tads (more on that later). Whomever it goes to, which is just as much a concerning topic as the album's distribution model, it's important to first understand the group's intentions behind this privatized release. Group member RZA explains the heart of their motivation in this Forbes article:
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.
Music and film are definitely art forms, but the pieces that come out of them are definitely not valued monetarily as much as pieces created in the plastic arts (paintings, sculptures, etc.). Many independent filmmakers can relate to RZA's sentiment. We put in a lot of work to create films, music, etc., that people enjoy (maybe not a lot of people, but people nonetheless), and it's disheartening to think that, in some ways, our art is -- worthless. I mean, it's no secret that lots of people rip off creative content through torrent sites and have been getting thousands of songs and hundreds of movies for free for years. And even if you're not participating in that, DVDs are so inexpensive that they're practically being given away. I mean, I do admit I love sifting through movies in the $5 bin at Wal-Mart, but I do feel a small tinge of sadness as I gorilla-arm through them, thinking, "Is this what you've been reduced to, Casablanca? Seemingly discarded into a metal cage that regulates your purchase price, where your plastic case gets scuffed by old Westerns and Madea movies?"
But maybe that's where we're at now. Movies aren't bought and sold based on quality of the art (which is why I've found plenty of classic and cult films sandwiched between the dregs of cinema in those damn $5 bins). If there are thousands of copies of Citizen Kane, why would anyone pay top dollar to buy a copy? What Wu-Tang is trying to do is take away the availability of the content to up its value. Though they will "tour" it through museums, galleries, and other venues, giving fans an opportunity to hear it through headphones for something around $50 a pop, the value of the album goes up because of its rarity.
But who, in the end, does this serve? Wu-Tang? The major label that may swoop in and purchase it and sell it like a normal record? Maybe. Depending on the final price of the album, the group could probably make much more going through traditional channels, and the final buyer may just be a really, really rich fan with no plans to monetize the album. But, I'll tell you who it doesn't serve -- fans -- or as we'll call them in this article, and this article alone, anti-Tads. A group of fans have banded together to start an Indiegogo campaign to raise $1M to purchase Once Upon a Time in Shaolin before "some rich asshat [they've] codenamed Tad" gets his hands on it first.
See, the Wu-Tang Clan not only stands to lose money with this distribution model, but they may also alienate their fans. But, that's not the group's main concern for this record -- gaining money and pleasing fans -- nor does this seem like an attempt to revolutionize music distribution. This is strictly about making a statement about art and its value, one that filmmakers should definitely hear and flesh out themselves. One of the album's main producers, Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh, says this about their decision to distribute a single album:
I know it sounds crazy. It might totally flop, and we might be completely ridiculed. But the essence and core of our ideas is to inspire creation and originality and debate, and save the music album from dying.
For a quite a while now, film experts and enthusiasts have compared the film industry to the music industry, even anticipating that film distribution will follow that of music -- which it did with VOD. This nagging concern among filmmakers is brought to the forefront once again: "Will my film have any value as time goes on, or will my film just be another top-seeded torrent?" Is our art priceless? Worthless? Worth exactly 8 bucks at the ticket window? Wu-Tang isn't necessarily calling for a change in business, but for a change in perspective. And honestly -- from this view -- I can see all of the songs and movies that changed my life.
However, if these pieces of art are truly worth hundreds, thousands, millions of dollars, and are therefore not as accessible to those with lesser means, what impact could they truly make? If a film plays and no one can afford to see it --
What do you think of Wu-Tang's distribution plan for Once Upon a Time in Shaolin? What is the value of art? Can you provide a different perspective on this issue? There are virtually endless points to be made on this topic, so fire away in the comments below.