a man wearing sunglasses and holding a microphone

Photo credit: Jørund Føreland Pedersen

The Wu-Tang Clan’s latest album, Once Upon A Time in Shaolin, is ambitious. It’s not the music that stands out — at least as far as anyone knows — but the business model.

The album will not be available in stores or on iTunes, and the group has no intention of performing any songs from the album during live performances. The group has produced exactly one physical copy of the new album, which is stored in “a hand carved nickel-silver box designed by the British Moroccan artist Yahya.” The Wu-Tang Clan intends for the album to go on tour, like a famous artwork, so museum patrons can pay $30-$50 to listen to the album on headphones. After that, the album will be sold to a single customer.

According to members of the Wu-Tang Clan, they have received several multi-million dollar offers for the album. It’s unclear whether the group would welcome a buyer who releases digital copies for free, or a company that buys and distributes the album.

It’s essentially the strongest reaction yet to the reality of customers downloading music for free in the piracy age. Artists like Radiohead have reacted by letting their fans “pay what they want” for a new album — whether that’s $10 or nothing. The Wu-Tang Clan has decided to do the opposite. “The idea that music is art has been something we advocated for years,” rapper and producer Robert Fitzgerald Diggs told Forbes. “And yet it doesn’t receive the same treatment as art… it’s been devalued and diminished to almost the point that it has to be given away for free.” He later adds of the physical album, “This is like somebody having the scepter of an Egyptian king.”

As performance art, Once Upon A Time in Shaolin does a great job making Wu-Tang’s point. It’s easy to advise that music executives forget fighting piracy and find other models for funding music; it’s harder to acknowledge that when we illegally download music, we enjoy the fruits of some very talented labor at no cost. “Industrial production and digital reproduction have failed,” the album’s website reads. “The intrinsic value of music has been reduced to zero.”

Wu-Tang, however, very seriously intends the album’s release as the precedent for a new model: a “private music album.” Producer Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh concedes that “it might totally flop,” but says that they want the album to “inspire creation and originality and debate.” The plans for the album are no joke.

We’d like to enter that debate by arguing that the Wu-Tang Clan’s plan to get people to recognize the value of music misdiagnoses the problem.

The Wu-Tang Clan wants to create a premium product that — unlike a digital copy of its songs — is valued (financially) as a work of contemporary art. But this already exists, and it’s how bands make the majority of their money: live shows. A band like the Wu-Tang Clan likely makes around $100,000 per show, which is much more than the group would make by selling tickets to listen to the new album on headphones at the Tate. 

Albums may seem increasingly devalued, with people choosing to grab singles for free. Yet even as album sales have plummeted, revenue from live performances have grown at a healthy clip. According to one industry source, concert ticket revenue increased from $1.5 billion to $4.6 billion from 1999 to 2009. Festivals like Coachella, which bring together over one hundred thousand people for a weekend (or two) of live music, have grown from nothing to bringing in tens of millions of dollars in sales and fighting over headliners with $4 million offers. Coachella tickets invariably sell out within 24 hours. It’s a funny time to say people don’t value music. 

On the website for Once Upon A Time in Shaolin, the Wu-Tang Clan maligns the fact that whereas “great musicians such as Beethoven, Mozart and Bach [were] held in the same high esteem as figures like Picasso, Michelangelo and Van Gogh,” today the work of musicians like Kanye West and Dr. Dre “is not valued equally to that of artists like Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst or Jean-Michel Basquiat.” While Sotheby’s auctions off the work of Damien Hirst for millions of dollars apiece, teenagers everywhere download the latest Kanye album for free. 

Wu-Tang diagnoses this as a problem of exclusivity versus mass replication, with the mass replication of digital music leading not to profitable mass sales but to devaluation. Producing a single digital album is an attempt to make music as exclusive as a piece of fine art. 

But the exclusivity of music has nothing to do with the availability of the music, it’s the fact that there is only one band. Seeing a band perform live is already an exclusive experience that leads people to spend thousands of dollars during a recession and endure Los Angeles heatwaves at Coachella. 

Wu-Tang’s idea of a “private” music business also seems like a terrible fit for music. The band imagines the album representing a new “luxury business model for those able to commission musicians to create songs or albums for private collections.” But as journalist Felix Salmon points out, music is a shared experience. Some people may prefer concerts in small venues, but no one wants a band to perform a set for him or her alone. Listening to recorded music alone can be a pleasure, but we love sharing our favorite tracks. 

Star musical artists enjoy popularity around the world across the lines of class, gender, and often even age. Great painters see their work become status symbols for the 0.1%. If a “private music” model succeeds, it would make musicians experience more of the latter situation. Already people are rebelling, with Wu-Tang Clan fans complaining about some billionaire owning an album they desperately want to hear. 

Artists and Exposure

The market definitely does undervalue the work of musicians, but in a way that applies not to the Wu-Tang Clan, but to the innumerable striving, starving artists who would kill for the number of loyal fans Wu-Tang’s new album is alienating. 

Many bands perform live for literally nothing except “exposure.” It’s so common that it’s jarring to remember that this is asking someone to work for free. A band once responded to a Vancouver restaurant’s Craigslist ad that sought a band to play a few gigs purely for the benefit of promoting its work by asking the restaurant to cater a few meals at the band’s house “to promote [the] restaurant.” 

It’s a condition that’s common across creative industries, and almost never limited to new performers just getting their start. In 2013, The Atlantic Magazine got in trouble when an editor asked a journalist, who The Atlantic had once made a six-figure job offer, to write a short article for no pay. Accomplished essayist Tim Kreider wrote in the New York Times of constantly being asked to write for free, “‘Artist Dies of Exposure’ goes the rueful joke.”

Part of the reason people expect performers, writers, and artists — and not consultants or long haul truckers — to work for free is that those roles are seen as cool and enjoyable, which means there is also an endless supply of aspiring creative-types willing to take the bum deal of free work for exposure. In an open letter, one bar owner informs musicians, “You might be surprised at how much competition you have. I get emails, voicemails, regular mail, fed-ex packages left for me, all with earnestly concocted press kits and demos.” 

Similarly, Kreider uses his platform on the Times to urge younger colleagues to stop giving away work for free. Businesspeople, he writes, “get away with paying nothing only for the same reason so many sleazy guys keep trying to pick up women by insulting them: because it keeps working on someone.” Yet he still concedes of when he first got a piece published in a national journal in exchange for nothing but a few free copies, “I’ve never had a happier moment in my career.”

The ubiquity of digital music has eroded album sales, but it has made people value live performances more than ever. That benefits performers like the Wu-Tang Clan enormously, but it doesn’t extend to aspiring musicians who haven’t established their name. Wall Street compensates Ivy League graduates highly because they can make firms a lot of money and because no one would spend 18 hours a day on Excel for anything less than boatloads of money — not because society values financial analysis. The market undervalues most musicians’ work, but only because we love music so much.

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google PlusTo get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.