In 2013, Beyoncé dropped her visual album out of nowhere; Daft Punk embarked on the world's longest ad campaign for Random Access Memories and Boards Of Canada encrypted message boards with ways to listen to their latest album Tomorrow's Harvest. But hip-hop's legendary stalwarts Wu-Tang Clan have devised a beautifully simple concept for their new double-album The Wu – Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. There will only be one copy made. And it'll probably cost millions.
Somewhere in Marrakech, in a vault below the Atlas Mountains, lies an engraved silver box designed by British-Moroccan artist Yahya. Soon that case will contain the only copy of Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. So why just one?
In an exclusive interview with Forbes, Wu member RZA says, "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."
According to RZA and album producer Tarik "Cilvaringz" Azzougarh, the plan is to take Once Upon A Time In Shaolin through museums and galleries, charging entrants regular exhibition prices, complete with tight security, door searches for recording devices and a policy of headphones–only listening. As Cilvaringz notes: "One leak of this nullifies the entire concept".
Once the album has finished its "tour", it will be auctioned to the highest bidder to do whatever they want with it. That bidder could be brands, record companies, or most excitingly, a single person or guerilla group with a lot of cash who will never let the album see the light of day.
The Wu are hoping to reclaim the idea of music as art and the release concept opens a deeply interesting conversation about the value of music, or indeed, about the kind of value we place on physical representations of music. In today's world, there's actually no need for more than one physical copy (if there's a need for a physical copy at all). As we listen to more and more music, are we beginning to consume it, rather than appreciate it?
"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."