The Wu-Tang’s self-defeating unique album

By Felix Salmon
March 28, 2014

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I’ve had a couple of requests to write about the economics of the The Wu – Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, the new album from the Wu-Tang Clan. The album is being released in a beautiful box, in an edition of exactly one:

Like the work of a master Impressionist, it will truly be one-of-a-kind.. And similar to a Monet or a Degas, the price tag will be a multimillion-dollar figure.

Wu-Tang’s aim is to use the album as a springboard for the reconsideration of music as art, hoping the approach will help restore it to a place alongside great visual works–and create a shift in the music business.

This might be innovative, but it’s also more than a little bit peevish. Go to the official website for the album, and you’ll find a manifesto, of sorts, which basically boils down to art-market envy.

History demonstrates that great musicians such as Beethoven, Mozart and Bach are held in the same high esteem as figures like Picasso, Michelangelo and Van Gogh. However, the creative output of today’s artists such as The RZA, Kanye West or Dr. Dre, is not valued equally to that of artists like Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst or Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Is exclusivity versus mass replication really the 50 million dollar difference between a microphone and a paintbrush? Is contemporary art overvalued in an exclusive market, or are musicians undervalued in a profoundly saturated market? By adopting a 400 year old Renaissance-style approach to music, offering it as a commissioned commodity and allowing it to take a similar trajectory from creation to exhibition to sale, as any other contemporary art piece, we hope to inspire and intensify urgent debates about the future of music…

While we fully embrace the advancements in music technology, we feel it has contributed to the devaluation of music as an art form…

The music industry is in crisis. Creativity has become disposable and value has been stripped out.

Mass production and content saturation have devalued both our experience of music and our ability to establish its value.

Industrial production and digital reproduction have failed. The intrinsic value of music has been reduced to zero.

This is all rather misguided, on a number of levels.

Firstly, you shouldn’t aspire to being like Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, for the very good reason that Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat are dead. Posthumous market success can make lots of money for dealers, collectors, and heirs — but neither Warhol nor Basquiat ever sold a painting for anything near $50 million during their lifetimes.

Secondly, the contemporary art market is in the midst of an unprecedented bubble right now. Different bubbles have different dynamics, but all of them are based, in one way or another, on price spirals. The general public needs to be able to see a given asset — tulips, dot-com stocks, houses, Richters, you name it — going up in price at an impressive clip. In order for any asset, or asset class, to become expensive, it first needs to start cheap, and work its way up. The Wu-Tang Clan not only want to create a whole new asset class; they also want that asset class to be valued at bubblicious levels right off the bat. Sorry, but markets don’t work that way.

Thirdly, the Wu can’t work out if they want their album to be treated as a piece of fine art or as a luxury good. They say that their approach “launches the private music branch as a new luxury business model for those able to commission musicians to create songs or albums for private collections”. It’s true that the distinction between art and luxury is eroding, with artists like Takashi Murakami and Damien Hirst at the forefront of that trend. But there is still a distinction, and the Wu-Tang Clan clearly want their album to be on the art side, rather than on the luxury side: they want to be artists, not artisans. At the same time, however, the ornate packaging of their album signifies an emphasis on artistry, rather than art. I suspect that they would have been better off selling a simple USB thumb drive for a couple of million dollars, rather than trying to create a new class of luxury object.

Fourthly, there actually isn’t as much of an economic difference between the contemporary art market and the contemporary music market as the Wu would seem to think. Kanye West and Dr Dre, to use their own examples, are making just as much money as any contemporary fine artist you might care to mention: both markets have skewed themselves towards a winner-takes-all model where a very small number of people are making gobsmacking amounts of money, while everybody else struggles. That said, the gross size of the contemporary music market, however you measure it, is still orders of magnitude greater than the gross size of the market in contemporary art. And musicians can always tour — an option which isn’t even available to fine artists. All in all, while there are many struggling artists in both camps, the average professional musician is probably still going to be better off than the average professional artist.

Fifthly, industrial production and digital reproduction have not failed — they have succeeded enormously. While the profits of record labels have fallen, the global experience of music is broader and deeper than ever. Today, everybody has a music player in their pocket — and billions of hours of music are listened to every day. Music consumers have never had it so good, and musicians have never had access to a larger audience. The business being lost is just the business of selling physical objects on which music can be imprinted. But it’s silly to say that the value of those physical objects is, or ever was, the same as “the intrinsic value of music”. After all, if the price of a CD really was the intrinsic value of the music on that CD, then essentially all music would have identical value.

Lastly, and most importantly, the Wu-Tang Clan here are flying in the face of the very nature of music itself. Art and music are at two different ends of an important spectrum: art appreciation is fundamentally a solitary experience, which is one reason why people like to live with art in their own homes, and generally dislike overcrowded museums and galleries. Music, by contrast, is fundamentally a social experience. You might prefer small venues to large arenas — but you’d still rather go see a gig at a small venue than have a band play a set for you and you alone. That would be weird.

It’s true that recorded music is often enjoyed in a solitary manner, through headphones. But even then the shared experience is important: file-sharing sites exploded in popularity not only because they allowed free access to music but also because the first thing that you want to do, when you listen to something you love, is to share it with others. The world’s biggest recording artists, including the Wu-Tang Clan, don’t achieve success purely through the intrinsic value of their music; they achieve success through the way in which their music is loved and shared. The love of music is a fundamentally communal experience, in a way that the appreciation of fine art is not. To turn an album into a unique object, belonging to just one person, is to defeat the very nature of music and music-making. This model from the Wu-Tang Clan does nothing for the cause of “reviving music as a valuable art”, to use their words. Instead, it simply mummifies and fetishizes it. It’s silly, and I hope it doesn’t catch on.

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