When It Comes to Fighting The Commoditization of Art, Wu Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing Ta Fuck Wit

[Author's Note: there's some heavy cursing in this post. I apologize in advance and hope you can fucking forgive me.]

Last year, Forbes broke the story that Wu-Tang Clan was producing a new 31-track double-album called Once Upon A Time in Shaolin. Only one copy of the album would be produced and auctioned off to the highest bidder, with all remaining digital and analog copies erased from history. According to RZA, the founding member of NY-based rap group, this was done to combat the heavily commoditized world of modern artistic endeavors.

"When you buy a painting or a sculpture, you’re buying that piece rather than the right to replicate it. Owning a Picasso doesn’t mean you can sell prints or reproductions, but that you’re the sole owner of a unique original. And that’s what Once Upon A Time In Shaolin is. It’s a unique original rather than a master copy of an album."

It's hard to argue that our art today isn't heavily commoditized. From movies to television to music to books, everything is bought and sold thousands of times over per day. RZA clearly resents it, and the result is one of the most weirdly inspiring, if controversial, art project stunts around. Wu-Tang's goal is to use the album to jump-start a conversation about the place of music in the artworld at large. And that means stripping the album of its usual commercial revenue streams. According to the album's producer Cilvaringz:

"We felt that retail commercialization and mass replication would dilute the status of the album as a one-off work of art and compromise the integrity of our statement."

But it's not just the one-album concept that makes the project fascinating... or the fact that all backup copies will be destroyed... or the fact that it'll be auctioned off to the highest bidder... or the fact that the final track listing will only be available to the buyer... or the fact that the album will come in a beautiful hand-made silver box that itself is a priceless work of art... or the fact that the album is being kept in a locked vault in Marrakech until the auction... or the fact that this might be the last Wu-Tang album ever... or even the fact that Wu-Tang unveiled 13 minutes of the album at the MOMA last week as part of a museum and gallery tour (each of those things are fascinating on their own). The licensing of the album is also incredibly unique.

According to the website set up to hype the project, Wu-Tang will own the copyright and all public and commercial rights to the album for 88 years. Why 88 years? 

"Anyone who knows the Wu-Tang Clan knows that we often apply numerology, mathematics and symbolism to the things we do. There were 8 original members of the Clan when we made Protect Ya Neck and M.E.T.H.O.D Man. The individual numbers of this year also add up to the number 8. The broker of this work carries the number 8 in its name. The number 8 on its side is a symbol of infinity, as it was used on our album ‘Wu-Tang Forever’. You can call it mathematical coincidence, but it’s always had great symbolic significance for us. For us it also addresses the issue of music’s longevity in a time of mass production and short attention spans. Nothing about this record revolves around short-term gains, but rather around the legacy of the music and the statement we’re making."

The term limit interests me because it demonstrates the amount of thought and care put into this project. Under the Copyright Act, copyrights can live for as many as 170 years (life of the author plus 70 years). Wu-Tang is making a statement and that requires control. And to exercise the kind of control they want, they understand that they need longevity on their side. However, RZA seems particularly tuned to the fact that the kind of control offered by the Copyright Act isn't always in the best interest of the artist or the fans, especially with the commercial interest a project like this is going to generate. How does it benefit anyone (except the artists who are already well-off) to keep the rights to the music locked up for six or more generations? He knows that people are going to want to hear it. And after 88 years, when the novelty has worn off and the point has been made, they may finally get to. All art needn't be democratized across the board, but it needn't be walled off from society forever either.

Also important, it means that whoever buys Once Upon A Time In Shaolin for the many millions it will go for will not have the right to profit from the album until some time in the early 22nd century. As RZA sees it (correctly so), just because you own a Picasso doesn't mean you can sell prints or reproductions. That would be copyright infringement and would cut against what Wu-Tang is trying to accomplish.

That wasn't always the case by the way. The original plan was to transfer all rights of public release to the eventual buyer. That person would then be able to squirrel the album away, never to again see the light of day, or release it to the public at large either for free or profit. But that all changed once the group discovered how much commercial interest there was in the album. Ultimately, according to Cilvaringz:

"We genuinely felt that a swift public release after such a radical concept would neutralize the statement we are making. So we decided that the right to release the album would be transferred only after 88 years have passed."

Not all members of Wu-Tang are onboard with this approach however. In a recent interview with XXL Magazine, Method Man wasn't shy about his displeasure.

"What do you mean 88 years? Fuck that album. I'm tired of this shit and I know everybody else is tired of it, too... When music can't be music and y'all turning it into something else, fuck that. Give it to the people, if they want to hear the shit, let them have it. Give it away free... Stop playing with the public, man."

He's got a point, and my history on this blog would probably support his give-it-to-the-people attitude. You might even call it a socialist streak. In this case though, I'm with RZA. I don't know if this album release is going to do what he hopes it'll do, but I want him to succeed. RZA claims that this project will help reattach economic value to art, and therefore artists will actually be able to thrive. Frankly, I can get behind that, even if it means most of us will never get to experience Once Upon A Time In Shaolin in our lifetimes.

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA