In 2013, a 78-rpm record of “Alcohol and Jake Blues” by Tommy Johnson sold on eBay for thousands of dollars. It was the highest amount ever paid for such a recording, one of only two copies known to exist. The buyer, John Tefteller, thinks he got a bargain. “When someone is shocked or awed to see that a record sold for $37,100, because that is a large amount of money in anybody's bank account, on one hand you could say, ‘That's nuts. Why would someone do that? That's crazy!’" he told a reporter at the time. “But when you think of the historical importance of what this is, how do you put a price on it?”
There will soon be another ultra-rare record put on the market, but under more controlled circumstances. Rap stars Wu-Tang Clan have decided to sell only one copy of their new double album, “The Wu – Once Upon A Time In Shaolin.” The only existing copy is, for now, in Morocco, inside an engraved silver box. “We’re about to put out a piece of art like nobody else has done in the history of [modern] music,” Wu-Tang member Robert “RZA” Diggs said. “We’re making a single-sale collector’s item. This is like somebody having the scepter of an Egyptian king.”
“The Wu – Once Upon A Time In Shaolin” will first go on a listening tour, through art galleries and museums — tickets could go for as much as $50 — and then be sold, possibly to a private collector. The buyer, who will then own the only master copy of the album, can decide its fate, and is free to keep the album’s contents private, if he or she so chooses. “The idea that music is art has been something we advocated for years,” RZA said. “And yet it doesn’t receive the same treatment as art in the sense of the value of what it is, especially nowadays when it’s been devalued and diminished to almost the point that it has to be given away for free.”
RZA’s point is indisputable. In the last five years alone, CD sales have dropped precipitously, from more than 136 million in the first half of 2009 to just under 63 million in the same time period of 2014. The transition of music’s medium from physical copies, like CDs or 78s, to digital files has lowered its intrinsic value to almost zero. Digital files, after all, are infinitely reproducible, so they will never need shelf space or attain value through scarcity.
Wu-Tang Clan’s decision is novel, but not new. In 1983, the electronic artist Jean-Michel Jarre decided that there would be only one pressed copy of his album “Music For Supermarkets.” Inserted in its sleeve were eleven Polaroid pictures of the making of the record, with one space reserved for the buyer to place his own picture. After the album was pressed, Jarre destroyed the master plates with an acetylene torch. He then played the record in its entirety on an AM radio station, after telling listeners to bootleg the recording.
“Music For Supermarkets” subsequently sold at auction for almost 70,000 francs — worth about $25,000 today. “In a time when everything is standardized, overbroadcast, a time when we are endlessly overinformed, saturated with sounds and images,” Jarre wrote in a piece elaborating on the work, “it seemed to me worthwhile to demonstrate that a record is not only a piece of merchandise without value, infinitely multipliable, but it can be, like a painter’s picture or a sculptor’s bronze, an integral part of a musician’s creation.”
Wu-Tang member RZA has said he’s already been offered several million dollars for “The Wu – Once Upon A Time In Shaolin.”
Tommy Johnson, who recorded “Alcohol and Jake Blues” in the 1930s, never lived to see his work become scarce and valuable. His estate did not benefit from the recent sale of his recording. It was he, and not the better-known Delta blues artist Robert Johnson, who claimed to have sold his soul to the devil. “About that time,” Keith O’Brien wrote, “Johnson met the devil at the crossroads at midnight and handed him his guitar. When the devil handed it back, Johnson told them, he could play anything he wanted.” Johnson told people this story to explain his extraordinary ability, and though misattributed for years, the story stuck.
In subverting industry standards — an artist making an album that might never be heard and being paid the lion’s share of profits — Wu-Tang Clan also appears to be making a deal with the devil. It is, however, the devil they know.