The Most Expensive Piece of Music Ever Sold (it’s a mess)

Way back in 2014, Wu-Tang Clan finished and pressed a single copy of ‘Once Upon a Time in Shaolin’, a secretive album that took them 6 years to make. When sold at auction a year later it became the most expensive piece of music ever sold, raising plenty of questions about the value of music and the obstacles that come with making it exclusive.

As part of the sale, it was stipulated that the album could not be commercially exploited until 2103 – another 88 years – but it could be played at listening parties.

It’s an interesting experiment, designed to replicate what is seen in the contemporary art world, where value is placed on exclusivity. Inspired by the centuries-old practice of music patronage (where music was commissioned by wealthy patrons), it was always going to be interesting to see how the process would play out in a modern-day setting.

In a move that no one saw coming, the purchaser at the time was disgraced ‘pharma bro’ Martin Shkreli (the guy who raised the prices of multiple life-saving drugs), which caused a fair amount of controversy and led to the members of Wu-Tang donating a significant portion of the proceeds to charity as a result.

After Shkreli was convicted of securities fraud the album was seized by authorities and ended up being sold for $4 million to a group called PleasrDAO, back when crypto music and DAOs were having their moment in the spotlight.

Last month it was announced that the album was going to be on loan to the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania for an upcoming exhibition, and of course, Shkreli couldn’t help stirring the pot by playing the album to thousands of listeners during a ‘spaces’ session on X the other day, as well as continuously talking about how he’s made multiple copies of the album that are out in the world.

He’s now being sued by PleasrDAO, which is probably going to be difficult given the nature of DAOs in general. Days later PleaserDAO has followed up by announcing a strange NFT drop:

For $1 fans can buy an NFT that gives them access to an encrypted version of the album that they can’t listen to (???), as well as a five-minute ‘never-heard-before’ sampler of the album. Every purchase also reduces the amount of time until the album can be released by 88 seconds, doing the maths that’s over 30 million sales required to get it released anytime soon!

To me this looks like a cash grab that’s likely to tarnish the album’s reputation as opposed to gaining any sort of cultural traction. The album sampler will no doubt find its way onto YouTube, and the encrypted album just seems like digital clutter.

It also raises questions about the initial stipulations of the sale, and from what I can see they seem to have relaxed the rules around making money off the back of the music to do this.



A Failed Experiment?

Given all that’s happened, how does all this reflect on the group’s initial goal to release music differently and draw attention to the lack of value surrounding music?

While it has undoubtedly succeeded in creating value around the music in one way (the price tag), it has also highlighted the downsides that come with this way of releasing.

You hand over sole control of the art to someone who has the money to afford it, at the same time preventing die-hard fans from being able to engage with it. Had the original purchaser been more philanthropically minded this could have played out in so many interesting ways, but instead, we’re looking at a strange attempt at squeezing money out of the project.

I still think there’s a better balance when it comes to the ownership model of music which is yet to be found. I wrote a couple of years ago about a type of generative music (not AI) as an example of how artists could create thousands of unique variations of their songs for private ownership, while still keeping the original in the public domain for everyone to appreciate, which I think is just one of many ways things could work.

Maybe things will change in the future, but for now, unlike the world of contemporary art, the ‘original’ in music commands little in terms of value.

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