Cash rules everything when it comes to the Wu-Tang Clan, but some fans aren’t pleased with the rap group's latest moneymaking pursuit. When Wu-Tang announced plans to create only one copy of its upcoming album, “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin,” and auction it off to the highest bidder, a pair of Wu-Tang fans launched a Kickstarter campaign to liberate the record and distribute it to millions of fans.
Last month, RZA, the producer and de-facto leader of the legendary Staten Island, N.Y., group -- which in its heyday in the mid-'90s boasted nine distinct MCs -- announced that he had secretly been recording a new Wu-Tang album for the past six years, and that only one copy of the 31-song “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” will be released. In elaborate Wu style, it will be sealed inside an engraved silver box. Before the album is released, RZA says, he wants to take “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” on tour to museums and festivals, giving fans the experience to pay somewhere between $30 and $50 to sit down with the album one-on-one.
But not everyone is buying this approach. Russell Meyer and Calvin Okoth-Obbo, both longtime Wu-Tang fans, believe Wu-Tang Clan’s music should continue to be “for the children,” as late member Ol’ Dirty Bastard put it. Meyer and Okoth-Obbo have launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to reclaim “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” for the fans. If they manage to hit their $5 million funding goal -- the same amount RZA claims to have been offered for the record by an unnamed bidder -- they plan to give out digital copies of the record to every Wu enthusiast who donated.
Meyer, who grew up in California and now lives in Astoria, Queens, and Okoth-Obbo, who was raised in Uganda and now lives in Brooklyn, say they’ve been fans of Wu-Tang Clan for years, but they are not fans of a significant album becoming an exclusive collector’s item.
“I'm all for musicians getting paid -- but telling someone to buy a phone or pay $30-$50 before they hear a single bar? ... The whole thing just seems exploitative and lazy,” Meyer said. “You can still be clever about generating buzz, cultivating a fan base, or putting together an ‘event’ album without fleecing your fans.”
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Unlike a typical Kickstarter campaign, which offers tiered incentives based on the amount of money donated, the “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” fundraiser offers the single reward of a digital copy of the album, no matter how much a backer contributes.
“Let's raise enough money to buy this album and then turn around and give it away for free,” the Kickstarter page reads. “Wu members can still get their [cash] and the rest of us get to enjoy an epic album instead of some uber rich bastard keeping it to himself like a collector's item.”
If they do nail the $5 million mark, the two say they plan to set up a site and release the entire album for free download. As for the ornate single physical copy, they say they plan to donate it to a museum.
“I think it's selfish for any one person to own the physical piece itself,” Meyer said. “It's a group effort to get ahold of it in the first place so no one person should be elevated above others, myself included.”
RZA said the “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” project is an effort to get away from traditional distribution of music as a product, not an exclusive piece of art. A description on the album on its official site bemoans the lack of value music carries in the digital age, and likens “One Upon a Time in Shaolin” to a work of fine art that belongs in a gallery.
"Industrial production and digital reproduction have failed. The intrinsic value of music has been reduced to zero," it reads. "Contemporary art is worth millions by virtue of its exclusivity. This album is a piece of contemporary art."
Speaking of lofty goals, if Meyer and Okoth-Obbo reach theirs, they will have created the fifth-most successful Kickstarter campaign of all time, just behind the crowdfunding campaign to bring Kristen Bell’s canceled detective show, “Veronica Mars,” back to life as a movie. So far, it's not looking terribly promising: They’ve raised $2,447 at the time of writing, and acknowledge that it is “unlikely” they will get to 5 million.
“There are a lot of ways to succeed even if we don't get enough money to win the bid, though," Meyer said. "I hope RZA and the other members have at least seen this story and appreciate that some of their listeners are willing to grind for their chance to hear their work.”
So far, it’s unclear if word of the project has made it to RZA. Meyer and Okoth-Obbo note that other Wu-Tang members like Method Man are known for enthusiastically embracing their fan base, to the point of stepping out into the crowd at concerts and trusting fans to hold them up.
“It's a bit of a symbiotic relationship isn't it? The music ‘belongs’ to the creator but it's created for audiences who want to consume it,” Meyer said. “Once you become an artist as your profession there is a responsibility to appreciate and recognize the fans who have given you your shine.”