Did Wu-Tang Really Make an Album that Cost Millions?
Wu-Tang Clan produced an original album called Once Upon a Time in Shaolin that sold for $2 million to Martin Shkreli in 2015. There was only one copy of the album ever made. The album can be given away, but can’t be sold commercially for 88 years.
About Once Upon a Time in Shaolin
- Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is a unique double LP recorded in secret over the course of six years by the hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan emphasizing their return to their old-school, ’90s hip hop sound.
- Upon finishing the recording, mixing, and mastering, all digital copies of the tracks were destroyed – not even Wu-Tang clan’s members have a single copy of any piece of the album.
- The entirety of the Wu-Tang clan appears on the album as well as a variety of guest performers including Cher, Redman, and Carice Van Houten.
- The only existing copy of the album was sold on the online auction service Paddle8 in 2015 for a total of $2 Million USD.
A short clip of the album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.
- The buyer of the album was later identified as the infamous hedge-fund manager and pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli.
- Shkreli’s purchase included the album of 31 tracks presented in an original nickel-silver casing crafted by renowned British Moroccan artist Yahya, a 174-page book of lyrics, anecdotes, and credits, a gold-leafed authenticity certificate, and $55,000 set of custom speakers.
- The album was certified by Guinness World Records as the single most valuable album in history.
- Part of the legal agreement of the album’s purchase is that the album can not be commercially released for 88 years (until 2103). However, its owner can release it for free or allow other people to listen to it at private parties.
MYTH: Despite internet rumors there was no clause in the contract that stipulated that Bill Murray could steal back the album.
Million Dollar Wu-Tang Album Finds Owner.
Why Make a 2 Million Dollar Album?
In short, for rarity and posterity. With the rise of the digital age, music has become increasingly available at little or no cost to the listener. Almost as soon as any major album is released, anyone can go online to Spotify and listen to it practically for free. Music can easily be pirated, listened to on YouTube, or found on third-party distributors like SoundCloud.
Some, including RZA and Cilvaringz of Wu-Tang, believe that this has some serious implications for the way we, as a people, view music. Whereas some will spend thousands of dollars on pieces of visual art such as paintings and sculptures, it is rare nowadays for anyone to see music as a valuable “art” in this same way. The group, and especially Wu-Tang affiliate, Cilvaringz, wanted to recreate the Baroque-style concept of music as a highly-valued, commissioned artistic entity.
As Wu-Tang’s primary producer, RZA puts it,
“The main theme [of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin] is music being accepted and respected as art and being treated as such. If something is rare, it’s rare. You cannot get another.”
Releasing the $2 Million Dollar Album
The legality of the purchase was tricky and unprecedented since an agreement that the album would not be released until the year 2103 accompanied it. The choice of an 88 year waiting period was due to that number having significance to the group.
As mentioned above, the primary reason for the delayed release is the rarity it confers. However, one other purpose of reserving the release for the future seems to be the opportunity to preserve and “seal” the legacy of the Wu-Tang Clan. This album is, in a way, an attempt at “artistic immortality” – a chance to show the artists of the next century what hip hop was like. It is a rare opportunity for posterity to get excited about the history of hip-hop with the, hopefully, legendary and definitively long-anticipated, release of the Wu-Tang Clan’s final album.
The Shkreli Controversy
The buy was somewhat ironic as Shkreli had just come under public scrutiny for raising the price of an AIDs drug at his pharmaceutical company. The company, under his direction, raised the price of a 70-year-old life-saving drug Daraprim from $13.50 to $750 overnight. After the public backlash, Shkreli said he would lower the price, but never made good on the promise.
In late 2015 Shkreli was arrested on federal securities fraud charges. His bail, which he paid, was $5 million. Given Shkreli’s history of giving away things for free and current status with the SEC, we may just have to wait 88 years to hear the album.
While the album was a commentary on rap music as art, the purchase of the album shows another central theme in hip-hop, which is that, in America, “cash rules everything around us.”