Wu-Tang Clan Has The Future Of The Music Business Locked In A Black Box

April 4, 2014


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.

Zack O’Malley Greenburg has a hell of a story over at Forbes. The Wu-Tang Clan is fed up with music being treated like a commodity, with little more value than the latest buzzed-about YouTube video.

In a fascinating twist, the group is producing a single, highly protected copy of its new album. The band isn’t touring to promote the album; the album itself is touring, and that’s the only way you’ll be able to hear it.

Unless, after its tour, its buyer — and Wu-Tang Clan does intend to sell this lone copy of the artwork — elects to make it public. The music might be made freely available to the world, perhaps if it’s purchased by a benevolent (and loaded) music fan. The music might instead be distributed by a much more traditional model, if it’s purchased by a record label.

This news from the Wu-Tang Clan could change the music distribution business forever and/or is just a clever publicity stunt, depending on who you ask. But this is about more than economics and a fancy black box (and I suppose there’s a metaphor in that black box, too). It’s about art and trying to return to a place where a great album is held in the same cultural regard as a great painting or sculpture.

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. […]

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.

Imagine a similar concept if undertaken by a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson, a novelist like Chuck Klosterman or Jonathan Franzen, or an illustrator like Matthew Inman or Scott Adams.

Or I suppose we could continue on the current path. This seems to be working well for everyone.