English: Wu Tang Clan co-founder RZA in New Yo...

Wu Tang Clan co-founder RZA | Photo credit: Wikipedia

Music has had a tough time adjusting to the digital era, with the album format being one of the biggest casualties. Although digital sales are rising and streaming services gaining popularity, singles and playlists are the preference of many listeners as albums are left for hardcore fans and purists.

The Wu-Tang Clan has grand plans to change that, paradoxically by releasing just one physical copy of their next project.


Enter the Wu-Tang

With new album ‘Once Upon a Time in Shaolin‘ the rap collective will stoke discussion on how we relate to music and value its release.

The details are intricate, but in short the group is to release a single physical copy of the album that will first go on tour for private listening experiences around the world, followed by a sale that could stretch into seven figures. It’s a bold, creative move, and one which will undoubtedly get industry tongues wagging.

The group’s next project is already even more anticipated than usual thanks to the recent passing of its 20th anniversary (since its first release).¬†According to co-founder RZA, the Wu-Tang Clan aims to “put out a piece of art like nobody else has done in the history of [modern] music.”

But how far can a single release by an established act impact the wider music industry, which has come to focus on offering everything and satisfying the individual itch to listen as and when it arises with digital downloads and streams?


Publicity or Progress?

This is the latest in a long line of innovative digital era release strategies pursued by acts that rose to fame before the Internet was in widespread use. As such, it’s tempting to look back over the success of each to flag those that revolutionized the industry.

The reality, unfortunately, is that none were able to do so. Here’s what we see:

  • 2007: Radiohead’s ‘pay what you want’ for ‘In Rainbows’ – The album itself charted and was received well, but it was also accessed on pirate sites 10x more often than the legitimate free channel where listeners could pay $0 for a download. The idea has been widely employed on indie sites like Bandcamp, but there are many other free sources of music now and few major artists have followed Radiohead’s example since.
  • 2009: Mos Def pioneers the t-shirt album with ‘The Ecstatic’ – A simple switch up of the old CD + merchandise combination pack, involving a free download code attached to the t-shirt that listeners buy. Mos Def’s move was certainly more accessible to independent artists but failed to garner the wider headlines of the other tactics listed here. Nonetheless, the rapper should be lauded for experimenting with an idea appropriate for artists at any level.
  • 2012: Beck releases ‘Song Reader,’ an album of sheet music only – There were some truly creative interpretations of Beck’s sheet music songs, with plenty to attract existing fans and music students, but this was really a niche release in the grand scheme of his career.
  • 2013: Jay-Z sells ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ to Samsung for $20 million, who give away copies with to Galaxy phone owners – An intriguing intersection of creativity and technology, to be sure, and both parties scored plenty of headlines for the move. Even with the move being relatively recent, however, there’s been no great rush to replicate the tactic.
  • 2013: Beyonce drops a digital-only album with no notice or marketing – Capitalizing on pre-holiday sales and a lull in other releases, Beyonce’s move was beautifully timed and ensured her top spot on the download charts. Surprise albums are perhaps seen more often that the other tactics listed here, but few can pull off an international buzz without the star power of the widely adored singer.

In each case, except perhaps for Mos Def, publicity was the big winner. It’s hard to break through the sheer volume of releases these days, even if you’re a name as big as Beyonce or Radiohead, so getting attention for your individual release can be as important as the way it gets to the end listener.. Dodging pirates is another factor, but again the options open to bigger acts are far greater than an independent artist on a limited release budget.

The Wu-Tang Clan will definitely get the discussion that they’re looking for, but it seems the search will go on for a release strategy that balances publicity with anti-piracy, and is scalable to artists of all sizes. Even so, we applaud creativity in all its guises and wish the group well on their ambitious release!


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