Why Using Kickstarter to Fund the Purchase of the New Wu-Tang Album Defeats the Purpose

A Kickstarter campaign has been launched to fund the purchase of the Wu-Tang Clan's "Once Upon a Time in Shaolin" to distribute it digitally. Does it have a chance of succeeding? If it does, will it destroy the whole concept behind the album?

Apr 21, 2014 at 1:05PM

As you may have heard, The Wu-Tang Clan recorded a 31-track album titled "Once Upon a Time in Shaolin" that will have only have a single copy made. It will tour the country, allowing fans to hear it (after being checked for recording devices). After the tour, one lucky (and rich) fan will then buy the only copy and its masters. With rumored bids already hitting millions of dollars, there has been a lot of discussion about whether it's right to release it like this.

One pair of fans has decided that it isn't, and wants to bring the album to everyone. Russell Meyer and Calvin Okoth-Obbo have launched a Kickstarter campaign to buy the album and distribute it digitally. Fellow Fool Adam Levy and I have discussed this plan, but we don't exactly see eye to eye.

Is this a legitimate use of Kickstarter?
First of all, a campaign to collect money to buy something rare might not reach the end of its funding period. Adam believes that it's a legitimate creative project, but I'm not sure. Kickstarter reviews projects before launch, but they aren't checked in-depth for content. If people start complaining, it could be reviewed again and removed from the site. Given that they're not actually creating content, this is definitely possible.

When Team Pixel launched a campaign to buy the "Homeworld" franchise in the THQ asset auction, the company at least focused on creating remastered and touch-enabled versions of the original games (and hopefully a third "Homeworld" game as well). With "Once Upon a Time in Shaolin," everything will be distributed as is. That seems to be skimping on the "creative" part of Kickstarter's "creative project" mandate.

Adam does bring up a fair point in that Kickstarter stands to make money if the project goes all the way, $250,000 to be exact. That doesn't necessarily mean that Kickstarter won't act, though. It has pulled projects before, and even banned an entire class of projects after the "glowing plants" campaign drew controversy. If there are enough complaints, the site could pull the project to save its reputation as a place for creative projects. With over $500 million in creative projects being funded last year alone, that reputation is more important than a single big payday.

Can they raise the money?
Even if the project does stay up, I think it's unlikely that anything will come of it. It needs too much money to be successful, and despite Adam's assertions I don't think that the money will come strictly from Wu-Tang fans.

There have been some wildly successful Kickstarter projects in the past few years; some, like the "Veronica Mars" movie, have earned millions. These projects typically have one thing in common: support from the Kickstarter community.

I asked members of the Kickstarter fan community BackersHub for their thoughts, and the small sampling of responses I got showed no support for the campaign at all. A lack of community support can be a death sentence for a high-goal project. General fans might balk at the uncertainty of the campaign's "what if" scenario or the delay in receiving rewards after backing; they certainly won't make up for the lack of Kickstarter community followers.

Will they even get the album?
Let's say that the campaign does the impossible and reaches its funding goal. Will The Wu-Tang Clan sell the album to these buyers, knowing that they're going to immediately release it? Adam seems to think so, but I have my doubts.

While the sale would include publishing rights, releasing the album could not only diminish its artistic nature but could also prevent similar "listening tours" or concert kiosks in the future (assuming that the terms of the sale allows for such things). With its rarity intact, the album stands as a work of art that was created to push boundaries in the struggling music industry. With it available to anyone with Bittorrent, it's just a fancy disc in a fancy box. As producer Tarik "Cilvaringz" Azzougarh said, "One leak of this thing nullifies the entire concept."

This is why I think that they'll be more selective in who the final buyer is. Not that there's any guarantee that the Kickstarter duo will have the highest bid, regardless; they're simply matching the largest rumored bid so far. Future bids could be significantly higher. The "Homeworld" fundraiser was a good example of this; while Team Pixel raised a few hundred thousand dollars between Kickstarter, IndieGogo, and other funding, the IP ended up going to Gearbox Software for $1.35 million. There's just no guarantee that the Kickstarter campaign will even be in the ballpark.

Final thoughts
The Wu-Tang Clan is trying out something new with "Once Upon a Time in Shaolin," and there's going to be a lot of money made between the listening tour and the album sale. A lot of that money hinges on the album's exclusivity, however. If fans believe that they'll be able to download it later, it will take the draw out of the listening tour, which could in turn drive down bids on the physical album. It may also lead to a lot of disappointed fans, because despite Adam's arguments, I just don't believe that this campaign will go anywhere.

Click here to read Adam's perspective.

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