By Joey Sare
Before reading on, If you’ve never listened to Wu tang clan, stop here. Rather than wasting your time on this article, go put some good headphones on, pour yourself a glass, cancel your plans, and stick on the first two albums.
Wu-tang clan aren’t something I grew up with. My parent’s house was always full of music, but my dad’s aversion to hip-hop meant I was raised on a diet of Zeppelin and Simone rather than Ghostface or RZA. And it stayed that way until I was 14 or so when hip-hop really entered my life. It started with more contemporary rappers, OF, ASAP, Kendrick, TDE, Staples, Rejjie Snow to name but a few of those I can remember. And after the coming months of exploring what felt like the forbidden fruit, the clan became a staple; their soul samples and harsh verses became the soundtrack to my adolescent summers of discontent.
But the clan weren’t too impressed with me. Or you for that matter. With the emergence of the internet, music became a commodity. Even after the collapse of LimeWire and the other illegal downloading sites who simply stole artist’s music, Spotify and Apple music still exploit musicians for a minimal fee for the convenience of the customer. What was once an art form whereby a pilgrimage was undergone to both find and then purchase an album, it has become available to everyone, everywhere, all the time? And as such, our valuation of music dramatically decreases.
Human value often tiers itself upon the supply and demand system; when something is rare or expensive, we often assume it to be more valuable than products readily available to all. And when music became democratised by the internet, supply’ skyrocketed, meaning the balance became out of kilter. What we once sought after like precious metals, we dipped into as regularly as we wanted.
And so a question was asked by RZA: what would it take for people to value music again? The answer came from one of the lesser known members of the clan, a guy called ‘Cilvaringz’; a producer and rapper of the more classical style of the clan a la 36 chambers and Wu-tang forever (He also has a mad story about how he got involved with the clan in the first place, which is worth checking out). One night, sitting upon one of the great pyramids of Egypt, he realised that the reason other art forms still maintained their value was because there was a single copy – although you could get reproductions or photographs, there is still only one. So, he began his next venture; Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, an album of which only one copy would be produced, and there would be only one buyer.
As a statement, it’s pretty simple. Yet it worked on so many levels. First of all, if you reposition an album as you would a painting, the reaction is very different. You can already guess; the internet went crazy. On one half, people understood the message, that music ‘commodification’ had gone too far, that musicians needed properly protecting and representing on the internet, and on the other, they were angered that a band had the audacity to prevent them from listening to something after so many years of support. It’s a tough call to say who’s right, but it boils down to whether you believe musicians need the fans or the fans need the musicians. In short, the album questioned the emotional vs economical value of music, as well as true ownership of a piece of art.
The album also made another point clear; free market economics don’t work for all. I’m not going to get into all the complications that went in between the announcement until the sale, but it was eventually bought in private by a man named Martin Shkreli. For those who don’t know who he is, you can check out this article here, but in short, he is a businessman who raised the price of a certain type of medication used to treat AIDS from around $4.50 a pill to over $700. One paper branded him ‘the most hated man in America’, a name that has since stuck. People were mad. But what he had done wasn’t entirely different from the clan’s album; take something that is seen as somewhat a commodity, and turned it into a luxury through price and availability. On one hand, arguably music isn’t as necessary as AIDs medication when you When music rights are marketed off to the highest bidder, you never know what will happen.