It turns out that a one of a kind Wu-Tang Clan album has already attracted some pretty hefty bids, including one for $5 million.
A duo of fans, Russell Meyer and Calvin Okoth-Obbo, have turned to the crowdfunding powers of Kickstarter to raise a similar amount and prevent "some uber rich bastard keeping it to himself like a collector's item."
Can these two fans succeed in democratizing this unique piece of art? There are quite a few roadblocks in the way, leading fellow Fool John Edward Casteele to believe their dream is "impossible." I believe their efforts are honorable and that their success is not only good for The Wu-Tang Clan, but the music industry in general.
Is this a legitimate project?
Buying an album and putting it on the Internet isn't much of a creative endeavor. As a result, John believes Kickstarter will remove the project, or that it'll receive quite a bit of criticism from the community (resulting in removal).
Other projects have been shut down because they infringe on intellectual property. That's not an issue in this case. The winning bid for "Once Upon a Time in Shaolin" will receive the master recording and the producer's publishing rights.
I see no reason this project should get shut down prematurely. Not to mention Kickstarter has the potential to bring in $250,000 in revenue if the project is fully funded.
But will they reach their goal?
$5 million is a lot of money, but Wu-Tang fans have spent that kind of money on previous releases.
Wu-Tang Forever sold over 4 million copies in four months after its release. With a lack of promotional singles and a required purchase pre-release, that kind of uptake may be hard to come by for Once Upon a Time, though.
$5 million is the equivalent of 250,000 people paying $20 for the album. The Wu-Tang clan has only topped that number twice in its first week of sales; that was for Wu-Tang Forever and The W.
Its more recent albums -- Iron Flag (153,000 first-week sales) and 8 Diagrams (68,000) -- failed to meet the mark. Of course, those albums were released in the age of digital downloads and piracy. Those forces aren't at work in this case.
Then again, the average backer is ponying up less than $7 indicating, as John asserts, album buyers and Kickstarter backers aren't necessarily the same crowd.
It's feasible that the project could get enough backers to reach its goal, but it won't be easy.
Will RZA even sell the album to these guys?
The entire point of this project is to make people reconsider music as art. It will tour museums and galleries before the one-of-a-kind piece is auctioned off to the highest bidder. As John says, selling it to someone who explicitly intends to reproduce and distribute the art for free kind of defeats the purpose.
In an interview with DNAinfo, Meyer said, "I can't imagine RZA being upset if enough Wu-Tang fans get together and raise enough money to purchase [the album]."
Perhaps there's a bit of compromise to be made here. There's a lot of art in museums that also finds its way into peoples homes in the form of reproductions and prints. The project creators have stated they will most likely donate the physical content to a museum, which could curate a pristine listening experience. The fact that people have a copy of the art won't necessarily diminish its value or artistic integrity.
It should be obvious, if the Kickstarter is a success, that Wu-Tang fans appreciate RZA and co's art more than any solitary buyer ever could.
How the music industry wins
The Kickstarter model "is the distant progeny" of "the centuries-old patron model," as author Zack O'Malley Greenberg points out in his article for Forbes. If the music industry really wants to fight against piracy, the crowdfunding model may be a good place to start.
If fans of Wu-Tang all over the world successfully fund this project, it could be an important proof of concept -- just not the concept RZA envisioned.
Instead of relying on delayed and uncertain sales, musicians and labels can see an exact measure of how much demand there is for an artist and only produce the entire album after reaching its goals. This model could help prevent losing album sales -- which generate the bulk of revenue -- to single downloads and piracy after an album's release.
While there are other factors dragging down album sales, a crowdfunded model has the potential to improve the industry and its overall product -- as fans get to decide what's worth producing. It could also help the industry become more profitable. Nearly 90% of all albums released fail to make a profit. I understand the inner workings of the music business are more complicated, but it might be time to do away with the old model.