NEW YORK, NY—On March 26, 2014, the Wu-Tang Clan made the surprise announcement that, in addition to releasing A Better Tomorrow, a new album celebrating its 20th anniversary, the group would be making a second, secretly produced album available as a single-copy collector’s item to the highest bidder. According to Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh, a longtime Wu-Tang affiliate and producer, “The whole concept of the album was to inspire debate about the value of music in today’s digital age.”
Wu-Tang Clan mastermind Robert “The RZA” Diggs with the PMC MB2-XBD monitors that will accompany the group’s one-off album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. Six years in the making and featuring all eight surviving members of the Wu-Tang Clan, the album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, comprises 31 tracks and skits, is 128 minutes long and features various guests, including Cher. It was recorded in part at the Wu-Tang’s base in Staten Island, N.Y.
The sole copy was put up for bid in March 2015, by auction house Paddle8 on the understanding that there are no other physical or digital duplicates in existence. The terms of sale stipulate that the buyer may not release any of the content for a period of 88 years.
In an effort to bring value back to music, or at least spark debate on the matter, “We wanted to do something that was radical and the complete opposite of everything the music industry stands for,” says Azzougarh, speaking via Skype from his home in Morocco. “Which is, instead of selling the most amount of records, we’re going to sell the least amount, one, price it in the millions and, to show people that this is not some marketing stunt, slap an 88-year non-commercialization clause on top.”
He emphasizes, “I’m not just talking about the monetary value; I’m talking about the experiential and artistic values as well.” In the past, record releases were more of an event. “They were soundtracks to moments in your life,” he says. But now, “It feels like it’s something you play in the background while checking your Twitter feed and updating your Facebook status.”
The album package includes an engraved silver-and-nickel box and a 174-page manuscript containing lyrics, credits and anecdotes, printed on gilded parchment and encased in leather by a master bookbinder. It is also accompanied by a pair of customized PMC MB2-XBD studio monitors.
“Every artist curates how he wants his art to be perceived,” says Azzougarh. “We would like to curate the listening experience of this record, so let’s use the speakers that we used during mixing and mastering.”
Azzougarh co-produced the one-off release with Wu-Tang Clan founder RZA, and both are longtime fans of PMC monitors. “He’s been mastering on them for a very long time. I first experienced PMCs in 2007, when I mastered at a studio in Belgium,” Azzougarh reports.
“They just make everything sound incredible. I like hearing my music super-duper loud, and what I love about those monitors is that you can go so loud and they simply won’t distort. It’ll keep the sound and the mix intact.”
Azzougarh, who initially came up with the album-as-artifact concept, was inspired by the patronage of art in ancient Europe. “It’s patronage in reverse. We made an album then found a patron, instead of the other way around.”
The auction attracted controversy in early December when Bloomberg Businessweek revealed that Martin Shkreli, CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, had placed the winning bid of $2 million. (Guinness World Records has since certified it as the most valuable album in existence.) Shkreli was widely vilified in September for increasing the price of his company’s toxoplasmosis drug by over 5,000 percent. As part of the bid process, Paddle8 had arranged for potential buyers to listen to excerpts from the album—Shkreli sent an assistant, and at press time claimed to have still not listened to it.
RZA, in an e-mail to Bloomberg Businessweek, stated, “The sale of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was agreed upon in May, well before Martin Skhreli’s [sic] business practices came to light. We decided to give a significant portion of the proceeds to charity.”
“The Wu-Tang have been longstanding clients and being part of their innovative and world record-breaking art project has been extremely exciting,” comments Keith Tonge, U.K.-based creative director for PMC. “It has given us the opportunity to convey our ‘Studio to Home’ message, where we believe that there are huge benefits of using loudspeakers with identical characteristics throughout the production chain and finally in the home.
“We understand that the negotiations for the purchase of the album started many months ago with an undisclosed buyer. With this in mind, no party, apart from the buyer, would have been aware of what would unfold in recent weeks. These are certainly exceptional circumstances.”
“We wanted to do something to inspire artists,” says Azzougarh. To stimulate debate, “Let’s sacrifice a record for that point to be made,” he says. “It will only hit home if you make it untouchable—which is sending it into the next century, when all of us are dead. It’s a statement we’re making, not about the money we’re making.”