The Wu-Tang Clan are releasing an album which will be limited to a single physical copy. The album will be ‘toured around museums and galleries’ (as a playback not as live performance) before the single copy is sold in a lavish box. Apparently they’ve already been offered $5m for it. Clan member RZA explains the reason thusly:
“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.”
I’ve quietly despaired of the effect digital consumption appears to be having on people’s relationship with music (though that’s a blog for another day). I love physical formats, and I want people to value music more than the current ‘get every song ever recorded free with your new mobile phone contract’ approach encourages them to. But this is not the way to achieve that.
Firstly, it’s elitist. Sometimes a commercially released recording is not the intended context for hearing a piece of music. ‘Sound installations’ paired with visual artworks in a gallery would be one example. Orchestral classical music or opera would be another.
You can get a reasonable approximation of a classical piece from a decent recording, but most classical music was written before there was a prospect of hearing it on two speakers, alone, in your home. It was written to be experienced in a large, acoustically appropriate venue, alongside lots of other people, probably with a glass of wine in your hand.
That costs money. First you have to build and maintain a concert hall. Then you have to pay potentially hundreds of instrumentalists, some of whom will have taken decades of their lives to learn their craft. I could go on… the point is you end up with a concert which costs £lots to put on, and has expensive tickets as a result – tickets which only wealthy people would have been able to afford.
Being able to attend such concerts was therefore a mark of status. The unwashed masses would sit outside with washboards and bits of string ad-libbing whimsical folk songs about maidens falling over in the mud and accidentally showing their bums. The quaffing classes would sip sherry and talk loudly over Mozart or whatever.
The point is that neither of these situations is actually a comment on the ‘value’ of the music itself, or the ‘respect’ it deserves. Some kinds of musical performance inherently cost more to put on, and some people won’t be able to afford to attend those concerts. So it goes. Pop music isn’t some kind of poor cousin to classical just because it’s cheaper to make. Playing a pop recording in a gallery is an odd attempt to equate it with more supposedly respectable forms of music (even if I concede it might make for a more focussed listen than ‘iPod on the bus’).
Secondly, scarcity doesn’t in itself confer value on something. People might spend millions at auction on a Picasso because they want to own an original, but they won’t spend the same on a painting by me, just because there was only one copy (although if they would they should get in touch).
Imagine, if you will, that there was a way to duplicate a Picasso so that no expert alive could tell which was the copy and which was the original. It’s not unreasonable to assume that people would be less willing to pay as much for either – given that they would never know whether they were getting the ‘real’ one touched by Picasso’s fair mits or not.
With any recorded music there is no ‘real’ copy. A collector might pay a stack for the original master tapes of a famous album, but once it’s booming out of the speakers she’s not hearing anything different than you or I.
The mistake Wu-Tang have made is to measure the ‘respect’ Serious Art apparently receives – and which pop music apparently doesn’t – solely in monetary terms, conflating ‘value’ with ‘price’. In response they are artificially imposing an elitist financial constraint on listening to their new record. Politically speaking, this makes me do sick in my mouth (you may feel differently).
I haven’t heard ‘Once Upon A Time In Shaolin’ (clearly) and probably never will, so it’ll be for the people who hear it to decide whether the ‘art’ contained within stands up to being presented in a gallery. I’ve no problem with Wu-Tang or anyone else creating music to be heard in a particular space. Recorded music designed for a particular context can be exciting and innovative – like, for example, the Flaming Lips’ parking lot/boombox experiments.
If there were no copies of this album whatsoever then that would be fine. By making a copy, the person who owns it can listen to it wherever they want – undermining the idea that it needs to be heard in a particular setting. If you’re making one copy you might as well make more.
It’s not been stated whether the person purchasing the album will also own the rights to the music – I’m guessing not. But even if they don’t there’s nothing to stop them ripping it and sharing it. Once something is leaked it stays leaked.
And I think this is what really bugs me. I don’t know Wu-Tang’s music very well, but I know they’re a band who inspire real loyalty in their fans. Many of those fans will now never be able to hear this music (legally) in any setting – either because they don’t live near a gallery or because they don’t have $5m. Yet the only reason Wu-Tang are in a position to make a single copy of an album and sell it for millions is because so many ordinary, non-millionaire fans have paid what they can afford for their records, concerts, and merchandise over the years. This is something of a fuck you to those fans.
I have a similar problem with any kind of artificially limited release which stops you being able to hear a particular recording – things like Record Store Day special releases (though I must emphasise that I love independent record shops!).
I don’t have a problem with people doing lavish physical editions which are limited and expensive – as long as Joe Schmoe can get hold of the actual music to listen to for a reasonable price. Many of the people who obtain RSD special editions whack them on eBay immediately, selling them at an inflated price (and at no benefit to independent record shops whatsoever).
And I guess that’s the point Wu-Tang are clumsily trying to make. What is an album worth?
When you’ve spent a lot of time, effort and money making a record for others to enjoy (presumably), their unwillingness to pay for it can be disheartening. Albums generally cost less now than they did when I was a teenager making the bus trip into Bolton once a week to buy them. Back then £9.99 was an amazing bargain. These days you can generally get a new album on CD from an online retailer for £8 or less (if you don’t mind subsidising tax avoidance and unethical employment practices).
Trying to sell a handmade CD copy of an independently pressed album for £10 at a gig can feel ambitious bordering on self-defeating*. But that’s not because you desperately need a tenner, it’s because you want someone to like it enough to commit. You want the validation of someone saying ‘I like this music enough to spend ten pounds for the ability to hear it again, whenever I want, for the rest of my life’.
Someone out there is clearly willing to pay $5m for a Wu-Tang clan album. Would that same person would pay $5m for it if every other oik could get the same music for $10? If not, the added value of that sole copy is in the exclusivity, not the music. That’s the opposite of what Wu-Tang claim to be trying to do. Or are they somehow saying this new record will give $4,999,990 worth of additional pleasure to its owner than any of their other albums? Do they really just want the validation of one wealthy idiot rather than the millions who already love their music?
Wu-Tang’s futile, reactionary, self-indulgent, illiterate, insecure gesture looks to me like another death rattle of an industry we don’t need anymore.
*Funnily enough, last year I calculated what I would have to charge for a single copy of ‘Dinas Powys’ in order to recoup what I had spent on it. This included the cost of every instrument I used (even ones I’d owned for years and therefore hadn’t bought specially), the computer I recorded it on, speakers to mix it on and so forth, as well as paying myself minimum wage for time I estimated I’d spent recording and mixing, and ‘session fees’ for the guest musicians. It came to just over £10,000.
I had planned to list a ‘special edition’ version for sale on Bandcamp at the exact price I’d calculated, just to make a small point about the (financial) ‘value’ of the work. The plan was scuppered as Bandcamp have a limit on what you can charge for a single item, but the point remains…
Wu-Tang aren’t the first act to do this. Jean Michel Jarre made the same facetious point before the internet made the statement redundant. I’d also heard, until I checked just now, that noise artist Merzbow had made an album only available by buying a car which had the CD glued into the stereo. Turns out that isn’t true but there’s the story anyway. The Residents’ second album was entitled ‘Not Available’ and was intended never to be released, however they shit out and ended up doing so in response to label pressure.