With less than a month left in 2015, a new tale involving the Wu-Tang Clan, a disgraced millionaire, and possibly Bill Murray is making a serious play for Weirdest News Story of the Year.
The basics are as follows: The legendary rap group decided to try something different with their latest album, painstakingly producing, promoting, and releasing just a single physical copy of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. The idea was to auction the album — which would not exist in a digital format or be available to stream — to the highest bidder, making the winner the sole owner of the music contained therein.
This month, we learned that said winner, who paid "millions" to make Shaolin his very own, is none other than Martin Shkreli, the notorious 32-year-old Turing Pharmaceuticals executive who earlier this year made headlines for raising the price of an anti-parasite pill from $13.50 to $750 a pop. When Shkreli got arrested for securities fraud on December 17, just a little over a week after he was unmasked as the owner of Shaolin, it spurred some of the internet's most gleeful displays of schadenfreude possibly ever recorded.
But what were the circumstances that ultimately led to Shkreli acquiring the world's "most exclusive" rap album? And what the hell does Bill Murray have to do with any of this?
Wu-Tang Clan were struggling to sell albums, so they decided to pour all of their energy into creating a one-of-a-kind collector's item
Wu-Tang Clan have been one of the most influential rap groups in the world since they released Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in 1993. Their ever-changing roster of members has at times included artists who would go on to become famous in their own right, like RZA, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, and Ol' Dirty Bastard, among others.
But succeeding in the music industry was far different — and, some would argue, much easier — in the '90s, when streaming wasn't fracturing revenue streams. And so in recent years, Wu-Tang have gone from being a hugely influential group to a being a nostalgic favorite, even though they have continued to put out new music every few years or so.
So rather than try to come up with a different way to stream or distribute their newest album in search of the widest possible audience, Wu-Tang decided to do the opposite and create something singular. RZA called upon all living Wu-Tang members, both past and present, to come together to produce Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, even though there would only ever be one copy.
There's also an alleged cavalcade of guest stars on the album. For example, in this 51-second clip that Wu-Tang rapper and producer Cilvaringz played for Forbes in Marrakesh — the site of Shaolin's secret recording sessions — you'll hear Ghostface Killah featuring none other than Cher:
In March 2015, the Museum of Modern Art hosted a listening party in New York City to gather potential buyers. The online auction company Paddle8 was in charge. Per Bloomberg's description of the event, there was no shortage of pomp and circumstance:
The 31-track album would come in a hand-carved box, accompanied by a leather-bound book with 174 pages of parchment paper filled with lyrics and background on the songs.
Attendees handed in their phones and recording devices and got to listen to just 13 minutes of the album. According to Bloomberg, it "sounded like the best Wu-Tang album in years."
"We’re making a single-sale collector’s item," RZA had previously told Forbes in March 2014, when Wu-Tang announced the album. "This is like someone having the scepter of an Egyptian king."
With nothing to lose and only more notoriety to gain, Wu-Tang had turned to one of the oldest traditions in artistic history: seeking out a patron.
As the new owner of Shaolin, Shkreli gets to determine its future
RZA once imagined Once Upon a Time in Shaolin as a kind of exhibition piece, one that fans could pay to listen to in a contained space, much like looking at a piece of art in a museum. From there, Wu-Tang considered finishing the album but prohibiting its sale for 88 years to further preserve the mystery. Finally, the group decided that a single buyer could own it completely, and sooner than 88 years from its completion, as long as that buyer would agree to never sell the album commercially. Bloomberg explained the possible outcomes of such a situation:
That meant the owner could listen to the record in a soundproof room, drive a pickup truck over it, or release it for free on the Internet. If the owner desired, he could be the only one who ever heard it. In an era where people are happy to stream music rather than actually possess it, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin offered a chance to own something truly unique.
Enter Martin Shkreli.
Shkreli initially made his name on Wall Street for his aggressive entrepreneurial tactics, founding two hedge funds as well as his own pharmaceutical company, which he later had to leave due to what Bloomberg describes as "an internal investigation that [revealed] he’d [allegedly] abused his position and misused assets." Undeterred, he then founded Turing Pharmaceuticals, where Shkreli gained a terrible, far more public reputation for dramatically raising the price of the lifesaving drug Daraprim and expressing little to no remorse for doing so — which is probably why his December 17 arrest for securities fraud has made so many headlines.
So when news broke on December 9 that Shkreli was the highest bidder in the auction for Shaolin, and that he might be looking to commission more "private albums" from artists he likes, a swift and vicious backlash ensued against both Shkreli and the Clan. Why should Shkreli, above anyone else, get to listen to this album? How does he deserve it? Will he even appreciate it like the real fans would?
It doesn't matter to Shkreli's disgruntled detractors that he is, in fact, a self-professed Wu-Tang fan, or that he met with RZA to discuss the potential buy before they went through with the sale. What matters is the bigger picture of what he, a millionaire with cash to burn, might represent for the future of artistic curation and distribution.
Patrons have always funded art, even as its industries rapidly change
Of course, the question of who deserves to listen to Once Upon a Time in Shaolin would have arisen no matter who became the album's new owner. Because it is an exclusive, very expensive item, it's become yet another piece of art sold to the highest bidder. Sure, "releasing" Shaolin to only one person is an exciting concept, but it's also one that shuts out millions of fans from an experience they desperately want. Is that even fair?
Finding a wealthy sponsor, or courting sizable donations, has always been a part of how art is made. While the internet has made it easier for artists to gain exposure and to fund their work through sites like Kickstarter, it still takes time, money, and resources to create something from which they can earn a living.
Nicole Cliffe, co-founder of the feminist humor site the Toast, recently summed up on Twitter how creating financially viable content still requires some kind of monetary assistance if you're not operating within an established company or framework — and that usually means finding a patron.
You honestly can't start an indie site without VC money or a rich husband or a check from a Real Company, and that's #realtalk— Nicole Cliffe (@Nicole_Cliffe) October 30, 2015
Sometimes I see people wish for the era of wealthy art patrons, and I'm just...that is still how your indie sites work.— Nicole Cliffe (@Nicole_Cliffe) October 30, 2015
The Eccentric Millionaire is still behind a lot of places you enjoy reading!— Nicole Cliffe (@Nicole_Cliffe) October 30, 2015
Cliffe was specifically talking about ESPN's shutdown of Grantland, and how the Toast received startup capital from her hedge fund manager husband, but her conclusions still apply to plenty of artistic situations. No, Wu-Tang Clan trying to make money by selling albums isn't exactly the same thing as trying to start an indie website. But trying to keep up with a rapidly changing industry can be just as incredibly difficult as building something from scratch. So if Wu-Tang could bypass the middleman, convince an Eccentric Millionaire to cough up a reported $2 million, and attach some grand artistic purpose to it like the group did with Shaolin, why not give it a shot?
Wu-Tang's last album before Shaolin was 2014's A Better Tomorrow, which only sold 60,000 copies. Since that album's release, artists like Adele, Taylor Swift, and Coldplay have tried to boost their own album sales by bypassing streaming, but not every artist is "big" enough to feasibly do the same.
And as Shaolin began to come together (Wu-Tang worked on it concurrently with A Better Tomorrow), Cilvaringz began to feel preemptive disappointment over how lukewarm the reaction could very likely be. "It took a long time," he told Forbes. "After five years, I’m sitting here and I’m like, ‘Am I really going to release this record and see it die after a week?'"
After 20 turbulent years in the business, Wu-Tang decided they were done hedging their bets. While $2 million might not be not astronomical money in the music industry — that kind of figure belongs to Adele and her 3.4 million albums sold in a single week — Wu-Tang are nonetheless doing something unique in an increasingly tumultuous industry, and others could very easily follow suit.
So what was that about Bill Murray, you terrible tease?
Unusual pop culture news is almost always accompanied by a whole mess of memes and jokes; it's a simple truth of the world we live in now. On Wednesday, Rob Wesley (who, in his own words, is just "some guy on Twitter") posted what looked like a screenshot of the contract Wu-Tang had drawn up for whomever bought Shaolin. The screenshot appeared to highlight a truly bonkers caveat:
Forget the $2M, this is easily the most interesting part of the whole deal between Wu-Tang and Martin Shkreli. pic.twitter.com/5nSshXhjnJ— Rob Wesley (@eastwes) December 9, 2015
As tweeted by Wesley, the "contract" read:
The buying party also agrees that, at any time during the stipulated 88 year period, the seller may legally plan and attempt to execute one (1) heist or caper to steal back Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, which, if successful, would return all ownership rights back to the seller. Said heist or caper can only be undertaken by currently active members of the Wu-Tang Clan and/or actor Bill Murray, with no legal repercussions.
Understandably, this bizarro stipulation made people lose their minds.
100% convinced Wu Tang sold to a supervillain so that we could all enjoy the story of how they stole the album back with Bill Murray.— Kylo Ram (@ramtower) December 9, 2015
I wanted to see if I could find any other zany tidbits in this in this alleged contract — you know, for posterity. But finding the document proved nigh impossible, because it doesn't seem to actually exist.
As Kevin Donnellan wrote at Medium, Wesley's Twitter feed is full of similar stunts that put hilarious words in people's mouths; he also pointed out that "we have not seen any online record of a contract between the two parties and Wesley’s tweet is the first to mention such a clause online."
On December 10, RZA essentially confirmed that the rumor was false:
We're really getting the urge to call Bill Murray.— RZA! (@RZA) December 11, 2015
The mysterious production, distribution, and discussion of Shaolin brings several truths about the music industry and the media to a head
I understand why many people — as well as some major news outlets! — latched onto the idea of a possible "heist or caper" starring Wu-Tang Clan and Bill Murray. Even Shkreli tweeted his support, albeit with a warning that he's "not the one to steal on." Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is cloaked in mystery, and its exclusive nature and "distribution" via an auction are just unprecedented enough that this ridiculous clause seems plausible. Also, it's exactly the kind of off-kilter piece of information that is primed to make a story go viral, if only because people so badly want it to be true. (And Murray, at least, has a habit of poking his head into unexpected situations, the better to startle and delight unsuspecting civilians.)
But even though it's somewhat disappointing that we'll never get an improbable high-octane sequel to A Very Murray Christmas co-starring the Wu-Tang Clan, the truth is that the sale of Shaolin didn't even need Murray to be noteworthy.
This story has everything: secret recording sessions in Marrakesh, an antagonist millionaire, and a band of estranged hip-hop heroes coming together in the name of creating a mysterious and exclusive artifact. It involves one of the biggest musical acts of the past 20 years, introduces a unique approach to the contentious issue of ownership and distribution in the music industry, and represents a future that's either encouraging or disturbing, depending on whom you ask. Are you not entertained?!