Wu-Tang Clanger -- or have the rappers got it right?

Old Kats occasionally come back as guest Kats, which is why this weblog is so pleased to give a hearty welcome to this post by emeritus Kat Catherine Lee (a.k.a. Cat the Kat). Recent readers may not know that Cat is the author of two of this weblog's all-time most-visited blogpost, "Goodbye Cathy: Hello Kitty and Miffy settle copycat case", which has received 238,887 "hits".
Wu-Tang Clan

The music industry is no stranger to publicity stunts creativity when it comes to releasing new albums to the public.  For instance, in December 2013, after months of rumours of scrapped songs and delays, Beyonce released her self-titled album Beyonce on iTunes without prior announcement or promotion. At the time, Beyonce stated that this was "an unprecedented strategic move" and that this was music "stripped of gimmicks, teasers and marketing campaigns".  The album went on to sell more than five million copies around the world and to be awarded numerous platinum and gold certifications.  
Then more recently in September 2014, U2 added its album Songs of Innocence to the libraries of over half a billion iTunes users without permission and without clear instructions on how to delete it.  The release was described in the Washington Post as "rock-and-roll as dystopian junk mail" and later led lead singer Bono to apologise:  
"Oops, I'm sorry about that … "I had this beautiful idea and we got carried away with ourselves. Artists are prone to that kind of thing".
The latest attempt at milking the publicity potential for an album launch comes courtesy of American hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan.  The efficacy of this publicity stunt can be measured from the fact that this emeritus Kat must admit to not having heard of this group before preparing this post.  However, she notes that Rolling Stone labelled Wu-Tang Clan "the best rap group ever" and NME described them as "one of the most influential groups of the last ten years".
Wu-Tang Clan
Wu-Tang Clan's latest album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is available for purchase on art online auction house Paddle8.  The album contains 31 tracks from 9 members and took 6 years to make. The catch?  Once Upon A Time In Shaolin is described as 'An edition of one and one alone, for all time'.  In the words of Wu-Tang Clan, the album is a 'piece of art in the same way that the Mona Lisa or the Sculpture of David is a piece of art'.  Like a piece of art, the album is available for purchase and ownership by one individual only. It is also described in Paddle8's catalogue: 
'It is presented in a hand-carved nickel-silver box and accompanied by a 174-page manuscript containing lyrics, credits, and anecdotes on the production of each song, printed on gilded Fedrigoni Marina parchment and encased in leather by a master bookbinder'.  
Wu-Tang Clan will provide the Buyer with a Certificate of Authenticity for the Artwork at the time the Artwork is delivered to the Buyer'. 
Further, the terms of sale provide that the Buyer’s right of ownership of the Artwork and its content is for private use only.  This is because Wu-Tang Clan 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'.  
As is explained on Paddle8: 
"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". 
Accordingly, the Buyer will "acquire full public and commercial rights in the Artwork eighty eight (88) years from the date of sale". Wu-Tang Clan has agreed, 
"as a condition of the sale, not to ever release any of the content on the Artwork in any form, format, channel, medium or manner (including, print, disk, tape, electronic or virtual) to the public. This Artwork is offered for sale without copyright, broadcast rights, performers (sic) consents, and other reproduction rights. The Buyer must apply to the relevant parties to obtain such clearance and consents as may be necessary." 
Shaolin monks: not to be trifled with?
So what does this mean?  Although not drafted in eloquent terms as one would normally see in a copyright assignment or licence, the intention of Wu-Tang Clan is that 'the right to release the album would be transferred only after 88 years have passed'.  On the duration of 88 years, Wu-Tang Clan stated it placed great symbolic significance on the number eight:  Wu-Tang Clan originally had eight members; Paddle8 has eight in its name; it is the sum of the digits in 2015 when the record is being sold; and when read horizontally, it is the symbol for infinity. 
Not surprisingly there has been much speculation about the album.  The IPKat notes some of them here.  Apparently 
  • the single copy is locked away in a hotel vault in Marrakesh, Morocco [there is an alternative reading of this link, notes Merpel, which would suggest that it is the group who are locked away in the hotel vault].   
  • 200 people attended a public listening to a 13 minute excerpt from the album in New York City this week, where all mobile phones were handed over to the front desk.
Merpel cannot help but wonder: is this an example of music reaching the highest form of fine art?  What are the terms of sale and are they enforceable?  What would you do if you purchased Once Upon a Time in Shaolin? She also recalls that the Shaolin monks have an interest in their name too, and wonders what their reaction might be.  The IPKat suspects that there is no unusual means of promoting an album by a famous band or artist will will not succeed, given its inherent newsworthiness and the vast amount of free publicity in which the launch will be bathed.

All Kats are now seriously considering contacting Paddle8 about the prospect of auctioning their next blogpost, making it available only to the highest bidder.

Katpat to Chris Torrero for sending us the original news item on which this post is based.
Wu-Tang Clanger -- or have the rappers got it right? Wu-Tang Clanger -- or have the rappers got it right? Reviewed by Jeremy on Thursday, March 05, 2015 Rating: 5


  1. This idea isn't new, Jean-Michel Jarre's 1983 album "Music for Supermarkets" was a limited edition of just one copy too.

  2. Thanks, Andrew. Now I know why I could never find it in the shops.

  3. It's interesting to consider the status of bootleg copies here... if (as Jarre claimed) the artist has destroyed all their mechanical copies of the recording and can't therefore make more, can they reasonably claim any economic harm comes from unauthorised mechanical reproductions? Does the owner of the sole copy implicitly acquire the right to claim economic harm, as it's (arguably) devaluing their copy only?


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