The Wu-Tang Clan album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin holds a long and storied legend. It was produced over the last six years, and only one copy of the album exists. Selling of the physical album for two million dollars is the Clan’s statement on the value of physical art in a digital era.
However, the person who won the auction, Turing Pharmaceutical CEO, Martin Shkreli, brings up more problems than expected. It also creates necessary discussions like the regulation of the pharmaceutical industry, the wealth of the young entrepreneur, and a larger question of who deserves to own music.
Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
The legendary rap group, the Wu-Tang Clan, made artistic and business decisions for Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. They wanted an album transcending the ages, a product hanging on museum walls as a piece of art next to a Picasso or Pollack. To drive the comparison home, the group staged a listening party of the album in the Museum of Modern Art for potential buyers.
The reason? The group worked too hard to see the album lost in the digital world. The main producer of the album Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh told Forbes:
“It took a long time,” Cilvaringz said, “After five years, I’m sitting here and I’m like, Am I really going to release this record and see it die after a week?'”
Their last album, 2014’s A Better Tomorrow fared poorly in album sales, selling a mere 60,000 copies in total. For their next album, the Wu-Tang Clan wanted to make something memorable; a physical original of value “like somebody having the scepter of an Egyptian king” said Robert “RZA” Diggs.
The album sounds as epic as its exclusivity warrants. It has 31 tracks, engraved in a silver and nickel wooden case, and features one-off collaborations with artists like Cher. To bypass the streaming systems that cannibalize album sales, they decided to auction it off to an eccentric millionaire. Enter Martin Shkreli.
Martin is a former hedge fund manager who made his name on Wall Street as an aggressive entrepreneur. He founded two hedge funds and a pharmaceutical company but left due to an internal investigation. He then founded Turing Pharmaceuticals and is the current CEO.
In September, Shkreli’s Turing Pharmaceuticals raised the price of lifesaving AIDS drug Daraprim 5,500%, making the cost of single pill go from $13.50 to $750. The media vilified him as a hyper-opportunistic and a questionable businessman, further characterized by his remorseless attitude after raising the drug price.
Shkreli’s spendthrift purchase of Once Upon A Time In Shaolin brings up the important discussion of regulating drug prices in the pharmaceutical industry. The narrative is an easy one to follow – CEO who takes advantage of life-saving AIDS drugs, gouges prices, and then hoards a one of a kind album.
The Wu-Tang Clan, criticized for selling the album to Shkreli, said in a statement the album was sold in May “well before Martin Shkreli’s [sic] business practices came to light. We decided to give a significant portion of the proceeds to charity”.
Shkreli says he hasn’t listened to the album, and teases viewers on his YouTube channel.
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