Can Wu-Tang Clan Save the Record Album with “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin”?

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When I first heard that trailblazing rap collective Wu-Tang Clan intends to release just one copy of its new album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, I stopped what I was doing and had to learn more. And therein lies the point of  Wu-Tang Clan’s strategy: create intrigue for a fading art form, the record album.

The album has become practically an anachronism in the era of digital disposable content. Listening to an album all the way through requires focused attention. But consumers like to stream our music in small morsels while we’re shopping, exercising, gaming, and generally doing anything but focusing our attention on music. It’s no wonder that album sales continue to decline, decreasing by 8.4 percent in 2013, including a downturn for digital albums.

Enter Wu-Tang Clan, which made one of the most influential rap albums of all time, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), in 1993 (long before album sales started their decline).


The strategy behind Enter the Wu-Tang — the group’s first album — was as inventive as its sound. The group wanted Enter the Wu-Tang to be a launching pad for the careers of its individual members (not just Wu-Tang Clan, per se) and the approach worked: Method Man, RZA, Raekwon, GZA, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard were among the original members who capitalized on the album’s popularity to record well-received solo music and develop their own careers.



But the public wanted more Wu-Tang Clan, and Wu-Tang Clan obliged, occasionally recording more critically acclaimed music collectively but also forming a successful clothing line that influenced hip-hip culture (a business model that rappers such as Jay Z and Nelly would emulate). And the group’s members were featured in a video game for PlayStation in 1999.

In other words, Wu-Tang Clan created a brand.

Wu-Tang Clan would continue to successfully follow its model of recording as a group and releasing solo albums, a very tricky approach (Kiss famously tried and failed to release solo albums while recording as a group) — never flooding the market with too many Wu-Tang Clan albums, which stoked demand for more product. So the imminent release of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, a new album recorded in secret, was not only news but an event. But as it did in 1993, Wu-Tang Clan is trying something different. According to Forbes, Wu-Tang Clan will sell just one copy of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, encased in an engraved silver-and-nickel box that was handcrafted by British-Moroccan artist Yahya.


As RZA told Zack O’Malley Greenburg of Forbes, “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.”

The price tag will be into the millions, akin to selling the album like a rare work of art. But before the album is sold, the group wants to display it at museums and offer special listening sessions, with tickets costing $30-to-$50 for the privilege of experiencing the album. Tight security will guard against bootlegging, or at least that’s the plan. The approach of treating music like a touring work of art is supposed to make us reconsider the album as a full-length listening experience (you can’t take the music home with you to play while you’re cooking dinner). And the here today, gone tomorrow tour will play to a time-honored marketing technique for high-end products: limit the availability.

According to Forbes, the strategy (conceived of by producer Cilvaringz and RZA) was influenced by rapper Nipsey Hussle making $100,000 by selling 1,000 copies of his Crenshaw mixtape for $100 and by Jay Z selling the first run of his Magna Carta Holy Grail album to Samsung for $1 million. (Side note: Nipsey Hussle got the idea for a limited-run $100 mixtape by reading Jonah Berger’s book Contagious, which tells the story of how restaurant Barclay Prime marketed a $100 Philly steak sandwich.) Cilvaringz also intends for the album to help launch a private music service.



Will the gambit succeed? Time will tell. The strategy could create a number of revenue streams, such as:

  • Money made from ticket sales for the “album tour.”
  • The sale of the album, which will inspire its own marketing event, depending on how brand-savvy the buyer is.
  • Related merchandise and brand extensions — remember, this is the band that created the template for creating a hip-hop clothing line.
  • Touring by the band itself to showcase the music (assuming a live tour does not conflict with any legal obligations related to the one-time sale of the album).

I certainly like the idea of treating an album like a coveted piece of art that commands respect, and the irony at work here is both delicious and hilarious. Once upon a time, musicians toured to support record album sales. Then musicians released albums to support tours. With Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, the album is the tour. On the other hand, Wu-Tang Clan is taking an enormous risk that the album will be bootlegged — especially if the tour materializes as planned, which increases the likelihood that someone will find a way to surreptitiously record it. If digital has taught us anything it’s the ease with which content can be stolen and shared. A leak would undermine the entire strategy.

But it the music can remain under wraps, someone will fork over a large sum of money for Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. A buyer could emerge from a number of quarters, such as the ranks of the entertainment elite (Jay Z comes to mind) or forward-thinking organizations (like a fashion brand or an art museum). Meantime, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin already has already successfully generated interest in the neglected album format, which is no small feat. Gizmodo, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Spin, Stereogum, and The Verge were among the media that covered the news about Once upon a Time in Shaolin even though they were scooped by the Forbes exclusive.

“I know it sounds crazy,” Cilvaringz told Forbes. “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.”

Let the debate begin. And long live the record album.

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