Once Upon a Time in the Art Market: Wu-Tang’s New One-of-a-Kind Record

Charlie Ambler
Jul 8, 2014 2:30PM

Later this month, Wu-Tang Clan is scheduled to release their new full-length LP album, A Better Tomorrow. Far more intriguing is that they will also be releasing a second new album, the secretly recorded Once Upon A Time in Shaolin. There will only be one copy of the 31-song, 128-minute double-album, enclosed in an ornate silver-and-nickel case designed by British-Moroccan artist Yahya. A teaser clip was released by Forbes after journalist Zack O’Malley Greenburg traveled to Marrakech to meet Cilvaringz, a Moroccan-based Wu-Tang satellite member who produced the album. While several plausible rumors have circulated surrounding artists featured on the record, more thought-provoking has been the announcement of the concept itself. Once Upon a Time in Shaolin will make its rounds as the centerpiece of ticketed listening sessions (with stringent security checks to prevent bootleg recordings) at museums, galleries, and festivals worldwide. At the end of its tour run, the record will be auctioned off at a to-be-determined location, at an estimated seven-figure price or above.  

Wu-Tang member RZA said, “The main theme is music being accepted and respected as art and being treated as such. If something is rare, it’s rare. You cannot get another.” This begs the question: What place does a one-of-a-kind record have in the realm of the art world? And, regardless of its categorization, what does it say about the state of our culture industries? In the age of peer-to-peer file sharing, to forcefully prevent the reproduction of an object like a CD (which has both a short material life-span and is easily reproducible) is a fascinating juggling act of modernism’s age-old ethical dilemmas. Reddit co-founder and RapGenius investor Alexis Ohanian told Artsy, “It reflects how the internet has made distribution virtually trivial and there’s a new value in scarcity at a time of great abundance. I don’t expect it to survive a tour without being leaked, though.”  

This seems foreboding given that Cilvaringz recently said, “One leak of this thing nullifies the entire concept.” The ultimate refutation of Wu-Tang’s concept would be someone finding a way to reproduce the work for fans, many of whom would likely be unwilling to travel to a museum and pay $25 to listen to something once. But more art-centric troubles are also at hand, particularly concerning the co-opting of art world elitism by musicians who think that gaudy opulence, limited audience, and a high price tag are what constitute art. This false perception is only strengthened by the fact that the record will be released alongside A Better Tomorrow, the accessible, affordable alternative.

“We’re about to put out a piece of art like nobody else has done in the history of music,” RZA said. “We’re making a single-sale collector’s item. This is like somebody having the scepter of an Egyptian king.” It doesn’t take a critical theorist to wonder about the disappointing implications of RZA using the example of an Egyptian king. The entire concept of recorded music is rooted in populism. To reproduce a work of music allowed for a greater audience and didn’t require expensive concert-hall entry fees or any pomp-and-circumstance. Recorded music revolutionized an artistic medium by allowing it a certain degree of folk appeal for non-musicians. To knowingly restrict a potentially reproducible work of art to a privileged audience, which is essentially what RZA seeks to do, reverses this. Such an act reveals how some high-status individuals with cultural purchasing power perceive the art world: an elitist trophy-exchange. 

frieze magazine co-editor Dan Fox wrote in a note to Artsy, “If the only way we can enjoy music is on a booth at an art fair or in a white cube gallery then things are truly screwed up. Music does not need the art system in order to legitimize it.” RZA counters, “...[music] 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.” The fundamental misconception here is that the inherent value of a work of art is analogous with its market value. This is simply not the case.  

In a strange sense, giving away a work of art for free is the ultimate act of artistic freedom. For artists to liberate themselves from the constraints and pretentions of the market is a frontier long-traversed but still not fully explored. When the dollar value of an artwork is hyperinflated, the work loses some of its conceptual value as an object of cultural progression or subversion. But when the dollar value goes away and an audience is given the freedom to experience a work without market implications, beautiful things can happen. An online leak may be the best plot twist Once Upon a Time in Shaolin could ask for.  

Images courtesy of Tarik Azzougarh / Cilvaringz, 2014
Charlie Ambler