Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Why Wu-Tang Will Release Just One Copy Of Its Secret Album

Somewhere on the outskirts of Marrakech, Morocco, inside a vault housed beneath the shadow of the Atlas Mountains, there sits an engraved silver-and-nickel box with the potential to spawn a shift in the way music is consumed and monetized.

The lustrous container was handcrafted over the course of three months by British-Moroccan artist Yahya, whose works have been commissioned by royal families and business leaders around the world. Soon, it will contain a different sort of art piece: the Wu-Tang Clan’s double-album The Wu – Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, recorded in secret over the past few years

Like the work of a master Impressionist, it will truly be one-of-a-kind—in lieu of a traditional major label or independent launch, the iconic hip-hop collective will make and sell just one copy of the album. And similar to a Monet or a Degas, the price tag will be a multimillion-dollar figure.

“We’re about to sell an album like nobody else sold it before,” says Robert “RZA” Diggs, the first Wu-Tang member to speak on record about Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, in an exclusive interview with FORBES. “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.” Wu-Tang’s aim is to use the album as a springboard for the reconsideration of music as art, hoping the approach will help restore it to a place alongside great visual works–and create a shift in the music business, not to mention earn some cash, in the process. The one-of-a-kind launch will be a separate endeavor from the group’s 20th anniversary album, A Better Tomorrow, which is set for a standard commercial release this summer.

According to RZA and the album’s main producer Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh, a Morocco-based part of Wu-Tang’s extended family, the plan is to first take Once Upon A Time In Shaolin on a “tour” through museums, galleries, festivals and the like. Just like a high-profile exhibit at a major institution, there will be a cost to attend, likely in the $30-$50 range. Visitors will go through heavy security to ensure that recording devices aren’t smuggled in; as an extra precaution, they’ll likely have to listen to the 128-minute album’s 31 songs on headphones provided by the venue. As Cilvaringz puts it: “One leak of this thing nullifies the entire concept.”

Though no exhibition dates have been finalized, Cilvaringz says Wu-Tang has been in discussions with a bevy of possible locations, including the Tate Modern (a representative from the institution did not respond to a request for comment). Other venues, including art galleries and listening tents at music festivals, could eventually round out the tour.

Once the album completes its excursion, Wu-Tang will make it available for purchase for a price “in the millions.” Suitors could include brands willing to shell out for cool points and free publicity (just as Samsung spent $5 million to buy copies of Jay Z’s latest album for its users) or major record labels hoping to launch the album through the usual channels (they’re used to paying top acts seven-figure advances).

There’s also the possibility that a wealthy private citizen could buy it and either keep the album or release it to the public for free in the name of democratizing a cultural artifact. That’s essentially what clothing mogul Mark Ecko did by purchasing Barry Bonds’ 756th home run ball for $752,467 and conducting a plebiscite to determine if he should blast it into outer space, send it to the Hall of Fame unblemished, or brand it with an asterisk (he eventually did the latter and sent it to Cooperstown). “The idea that music is art has been something we advocated for years,” says RZA. “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.”

Once Upon A Time In Shaolin’s origins date back to 1997, while Wu-Tang was on tour in Europe. At one show in Amsterdam, the group allowed a few of the fans to hop up on the stage—and one of them happened to be Cilvaringz, then an 18-year-old just beginning to study entertainment law and music management. “I recognized his energy,” says RZA. “There was something about him different from the rest of the audience.” Cilvaringz kept in touch with the producer and even took the step of traveling to New York with friends to try and arrange a meeting, only to find that RZA was too busy to sit down with him. But when the Wu-Tang star’s mother met Cilvaringz hanging around the office, she was so impressed by his demeanor that she contacted her son and urged him to make time.

RZA did exactly that, and found himself even more knocked out by the up-and-comer than he’d been in Amsterdam, urging him to go back to school and continue learning about the music business. He soon became a mentor to Cilvaringz, showing him the ropes of production and the industry itself. By the late 2000s, RZA and the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan were ready to start working on the project that would become Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. Cilvaringz’s aim as producer was to create an album with a vintage Wu-Tang sound, the same one that drew him to the concert in Amsterdam a decade earlier.

The group was no stranger to collaborations with international artists like IAM, the French hip-hop group that collaborated on the 1997 track “La Saga” with members of the Wu-Tang Clan. The song features two verses in English, two in French, and shoutouts to cities from Medina to Marseilles. So it wasn’t much of a stretch for Wu-Tang to work with Cilvaringz, who’d subsequently relocated to Marrakech, for Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. The pieces slowly fell into place, with the group’s original members agreeing to participate alongside few special guests. The lengthy leadup gave him plenty of time to think about how to ensure a lasting impact for the album. “It took a long time,” says Cilvaringz. “After five years, I’m sitting here and I’m like, ‘Am I really going to release this record and see it die after a week?’” That sentiment led him, along with RZA, to come up with the one-copy concept. After watching Jay Z debut his album in partnership with Samsung last summer—and buy 100 copies of Nipsey Hussle’s $100 mixtape—Cilvaringz and his Wu-Tang compatriots had something resembling proof of concept for Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. “I think it’s a musical portrait that’s going to revolutionize music in the future,” said Wu-Tang member Jamiel “Masta Killa” Arief, via electronic message. “And I’m thankful to my brother Ringz, to collaborate with, and I’m ecstatic to be a part of it.” Now, all that remains to be done is to transfer the digital files of Once Upon A Time In Shaolin to a physical disc, enclose it in the silver box, and nail down some dates for the exhibition. To be sure, there’s always a chance that this carefully conceived plan will combust before it sees the light of day, a possibility that Cilvaringz recognizes. “I know it sounds crazy,” he says. “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.” The plan almost resembles a Kickstarter campaign in search of a single, super-wealthy backer; there are also parallels with Jack Conte’s Patreon. But it more closely mirrors the centuries-old patron model, where aristocrats would commission painters or bankroll resident musicians to create works of art. Indeed, crowdfunding on the whole is the distant progeny of that system, as is the aforementioned activity of Samsung. Wu-Tang is betting that a full-circle return will yield industry-shaking—and pocket-fattening—results. Cilvaringz is even hoping the album will mark the beginning of a scaleable private music service. And as far as RZA is concerned, the move is an opportunity to attain a unique form of immortalization, not just through music, but through model. “There will be a time when we can’t tour, and that’s just the natural evolution of man,” he says. “And yet this particular privatized album, I think—this idea we have—will be something that will go longer than all of us.”


Kim said...

There's also an official site for this project :

Especially interesting is the 'Conceptus' section on that site. It further explains the reasons why 'The Wu : Once upon a time in Shaolin' will be released this way.

Also of interest is the fact that this website is owned by a company which considers this the FIRST deal of this kind, hopefully leading up to similar deals with other (high profile) artists. So other artists might follow suit if this venture proves to be successful.

Personally, I'm very much in favour of this idea. Obviously, just like any other Wu fan, I would like to listen to this album (hopefully this will happen if the 'tour' hits my region). I also think it is natural to feel the urge to actually possess a physical copy. However, I can see what RZA and Cilvaringz are trying to do here. They want to turn listening to music into an experience again - a one of a kind experience. Also, they want musicians of any kind to be respected in the same way as other artists such as sculptors, painters,... who make one of a kind works of art, which because of their very nature are not replicated.

You could argue that it is very difficult to get into the album by only listening to it once (on tour), especially to an album this long. (It's a double album after all.) Hardcore fans could consider buying several tickets to an 'exhibition'. This way, they could listen to the album a few times in a row on, say, a Sunday, during an exhibition or on a festival. On the other hand, 30$-50$ is a lot of money and most people cannot afford to shell out this amount a few times in a row.

Finally, this thought also crossed my mind : if the album is eventually sold to a rich private person, I think the new owner should agree to have the album 'go on tour' around the globe every few years, so people can enjoy it once in a while. Kind of the same as paintings from private collections being lent to museums for temporary exhibitions once in a while.

Sorry for the long post. I just thought Cilva's idea was a fascinating concept. It could really change the music industry if it turns out to be successful.

Kim said...

This is the tracklist for 'The Wu : Once upon a time in Shaolin'. It only shows you what artists are featured on the songs.

Cilvaringz himself only raps on one track, "In the name of Allah" (included on in his official debut album "I", along with the original version of "The weeping tiger", of which a remix is included on this project).

The actual song titles aren't known (except for a few songs).

01: Intro w/ Raekwon The Chef
02: Inspectah Deck, Killah Priest, Killa Sin, Streetlife & Method Man
03: Ghostface Killah, Shabazz The Disciple, Killa Sin, Killah Priest, Raekwon The Chef & U-God (Chorus)
04: Skit - Part I [Interlude] RZA w/ Ghostface Killah, Killa Sin, Raekwon The Chef & U-God (Background Vocals)
05: Ghostface Killah, La The Darkman, 12 O'Clock, Killa Sin & Raekwon The Chef
06: U-God (Solo)
07: Method Man, Redman, Raekwon The Chef, Inspectah Deck, U-God & Masta Killa
08: "The Weeping Tiger" [Remix] w/ Inspectah Deck & Raekwon The Chef [prod by RZA]
09: Masta Killa, Killah Priest & Shyheim
10: GZA/Genius, Inspectah Deck & Raekwon The Chef (Chorus)
11: Poppa Wu, Inspectah Deck, Killa Sin & Shabazz The Disciple
12: RZA & U-God
13: Skit - Part II [Interlude] RZA w/ T.B.A.
14: Interlude - Movie
15: "In The Name Of Allah" w/ Masta Killa, Killah Priest, RZA, Cilvaringz & Shabazz The Disciple (Chorus) [prod by RZA & Cilvaringz]
16: "Hail, Snow & Earthquakes" [Rainy Dayz Part II] w/ Ghostface Killah, Raekwon The Chef & Blue Raspberry (Chorus)

01: Intro w/ Inspectah Deck & Raekwon The Chef
02: "Winter Windz" w/ Ol' Dirty Bastard, Shabazz The Disciple, Prodigal Sunn, 12 O'Clock & Zoo Keeper
03: Cappadonna (Short Solo) & Vanessa Liftig (Chorus)
04: Shabazz The Disciple, Prodigal Sunn, Beretta 9, Killa Sin & U-God
05: U-God (Solo) & Poppa Wu
06: Raekwon The Chef, RZA, U-God & Killah Priest (Outro)
07: Raekwon The Chef, Masta Killa & Method Man
08: RZA, Cappadonna, 12 O'Clock & Poppa Wu
09: Ghostface Killah, Raekwon The Chef & Tekitha
10: "Swords Stained With Royal Blood" [The Fatal Flying Guillotines] w/Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah, Cappadonna, Killah Priest & Shabazz The Disciple [prod by Cilvaringz]
11: RZA (Solo) w/ Raekwon The Chef & Killah Priest (Intro & Background Vocals)
12: "Diary Of A Mad Woman" w/ Frukwan, RZA, Featherz & Tekitha (Chorus) w/ Shabazz The Disciple & Killah Priest (Intro)
13: Shabazz The Disciple & Killah Priest
14: Outro - Movie
15: Instrumental Outro

As far as I know, a few people have heard the album. RZA, obviously, who has been quoted as saying it was 'good' and that he particularly liked the skits because they made the album sound like a real group album. Andrew Kelly as well (he heard large portions of the album) ; Kelly has produced quite a few recent Wu (fam) songs. He was very enthusiastic about what he heard.

A few months ago some snippets (only 20 to 30 second snippets of 2 songs, if I remember correctly) were posted on Cilvaringz' Soundcloud page so fans could express their opinion, but unfortunately these were taken off later.