There are some valuable records out there. Earlier this month, Ringo Starr’s ‘No. 0000001’ copy of The Beatles (also known as the White Album) achieved $790,000 at auction, and a copy of The Sex Pistols God Saves The Queen/No Feelings single on A&M in good condition could fetch $10,000 with the wind in the right direction (A&M hired and fired the band so rapidly, there are only 300 of these singles reputedly in print). But, when it comes to rarity value, nothing tops… the Wu-Tang Clan.
In March 2014, the hardcore hip-hop group announced that alongside the release of their latest album A Better Tomorrow, they also recorded a compilation album called Once Upon A Time in Shaolin. Generally expensive and rare records become expensive and rare because ‘something happened’, such as a record company equivalent of the ‘Inverted Jenny’ stamp on the label, or a record that was withdrawn and only a handful of discs survive. In this case, the ‘expensive and rare’ component was factored into the recording itself – only one pressing of the 31 track double album was ever made, with the discs wiped and the master tapes destroyed. The album was encased in a specially made silver and nickel box, and was accompanied by a 174-page manuscript containing lyrics, credits and anecdotes on the production of each song, printed on gilded Fedrigoni Marina parchment, and encased in leather by a master bookbinder.
This one-off album featured everyone from Cher to members of the FC Barcelona team singing. It was covered by almost every music magazine, website, and blog, effectively rebooting the visibility of the Wu-Tang Clan (useful when a band has been in the public domain for more than 23 years). And it originally came with a very specific rider for the prospective owner – the music and artwork was not for public consumption for another 88 years. There are no physical or digital duplicates.
There was also a hi-fi connection. British loudspeaker manufacturer, PMC, was commissioned to produce a one-off pair of its MB2-XBD loudspeakers for the project. These six-foot tall loudspeakers, each with a pair of 12” drivers, are designed to handle up to 2kW and are proving very popular with studios and recording artists alike. These loudspeakers were chosen on the grounds that Tarik Azzougarh (a.k.a. Cilvaringz) produced this one-off project using a pair of these monitors in his own studio.
In talking about the speakers, Wu-Tang rapper/producer Robert ‘The RZA’ Diggs said: "In order to curate the experience of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin for the collector, we decided to have two PMC MB2-XBD speakers included with the album. These speakers were used during production and mastering and distil this work into its purest form, and in sculpting each beat, each frequency and each flash of feeling, they are themselves a work of artistry."
According to The RZA, the motivation behind the album was to restore the idea of a cash value to music, a concept undermined by streaming sites, illegal downloads, and YouTube channels. Music has, “been devalued and diminished,” RZA told Forbes magazine in 2014, “to almost the point it has to be given away for free.”
The album was put on display in a tour of museums and art galleries before finally being sold through the online auction house, Paddle8. Rumors abounded that the buyer might be dubstep superstar Skrillex, or possibly even Quentin Tarantino (who has worked with The RZA on movie projects in the past). But at the end of November this year the rumour mill ground to a halt, and the album was sold. For $2,000,000.
All of which should have made for a great story and excellent publicity for the Wu-Tangs, Cilvaringz, PMC, and even the Anglo-Moroccan artist Yahya who fashioned the album cover. That was, until it was discovered that the whole package was bought by Martin Shkreli, the 32-year old entrepreneur and – until today, at least – CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals AG. Although the original plan was to preserve the anonymity of the purchaser, that was never going to be part of Shkreli’s plan:
Shkreli made headlines in September this year, because his company raised the price of the drug Daraprim (used in the treatment of pneumocystis pneumonia and toxoplasmosis for HIV/AIDS patients) from $13.50 to $750 per pill, and was dubbed, ‘the most hated man in America’ by the BBC as a result. Worse, Shkreli was arrested by the FBI on December 17 and charged with ‘widespread fraudulent conduct’, citing seven counts of conspiracy to commit wire and securities fraud, and securities fraud, dating back to his time at hedge fund firm MSMB Capital Management and biopharm company, Retrophin (both founded by Shkreli).
The FBI did not have authority to seize the album under the terms of the arrest warrant, as they were quick to tell fans hoping to hear the album:
Even before Shkreli’s arrest, when it became public knowledge that he had bought the album, The RZA was quick to distance himself from the purchaser, and announced the Wu-Tang Clan “decided to give a significant portion of the proceeds to charity.” And, although Miles Roberts, PMC’s head of sales and marketing, said, “We’re sure the lucky owner will be delighted with the performance," Shkreli admitted that he has no plans to listen to the album: “I’m going to kind of save it for a rainy day,” he said to Bloomberg Newsweek.
I think it’s raining, Martin! Maybe you should go off and listen to that album through some kick-ass PMC loudspeakers, because maybe - just maybe - it might make you a little less of a butt-crack.