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Wu-Tang's re-imagining of music (and one disagreement)

Preliminary note: I'm not a professional musician. I'm an amateur singer with 15 years of experience in the choral world. Professionally speaking, I'm an engineer and have deep ignorance of the world of business in general and the music industry in particular. I write because I like to do so and because I've been told I don't suck at it. Therefore, these ideas come not from a passionate artist, an knowledgeable intellectual, a professional critic or any other kind of "expert". Take them with a grain of salt, the same reasonable distance one should take with all pieces of opinion.

The Idea

New York-based hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan revealed recently in an interview for Forbes a novel idea for the release of their album The Wu--Once Upon A Time in Shaolin: they will sell only one copy of it.

Once upon..., an album recorded over a period of six years, will be presented in a nickel-silver box designed by British Moroccan artist Yahya, who has also worked for royal families and several other high-profile clients in the business world. The album will tour the world in select galleries, museums and other venues so that it can be experienced by the "general public" before going on sale--most likely to a private collector, since the price tag will be quite high.

The reason

The group released the reasoning behind this project on scluzay.com (and I will refer to this Conceptus later on). The main idea is that music today no longer has the "weight" it once did as a commissioned piece that was enjoyed only by a select minority (see: the royalty). They wish to steer music (or at least, debate about music) back to the same path paintings and sculptures have been on for centuries: the existence of only one original piece and, hopefully, an increased perception of its value (and perhaps, its cost)

Some agreements

Is exclusivity versus mass replication really the 50 million dollar difference between a microphone and a paintbrush? Is contemporary art overvalued in an exclusive market, or are musicians undervalued in a profoundly saturated market?--Wu-Tang Clan

Wu-Tang Clan addresses up the relationship between visual artists and musicians in the last centuries and today. They argue (and I agree) that today's great musicians aren't valued as artists like Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst.

It's true that contemporary music isn't usually seen as refined as visual arts. For some reason, contemporary art is glorified in a scale that music simply doesn't have, and this reality is reflected on the price tags. I find strange how some pieces of contemporary art can rise to the thousands of dollars for what seems a trivial thing (to the untrained eye). For reference, see Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain" (that's the work's title, not a witty comment on it).

While we fully embrace the advancements in music technology, we feel it has contributed to the devaluation of music as an art form. By taking this step, we hope to re-enforce the weight that music once carried alongside a painting or a sculpture.--Wu-Tang Clan

I agree with the idea behind this statement: technology has deeply changed our relationship with music, both as individuals and as groups (clans, families, sub-cultures and society at large) for several reasons; although this is not an exhaustive list:

  1. Access to instruments to make music is empirically greater than ever in terms of availability and cost.
  2. Musical education is more prevalent than in the past 1
  3. There are several music formats, which necessarily broadens access 2
  4. The technologies to create, buy and transport music have advanced and driven costs down in the past years. 3
  5. The above have led us to have an unprecedented amount of music being created right now. 4
  6. Music has never been more integrated in our lives. There are music players for everyone, from the fan who builds the perfect setup on his living room to the guy with a Chinese MP3 player to listen on 1 USD headphones on the metro.

Maybe all of these make us take music for granted, as we often forget about the hardships of the past, and in turn makes us more complacent about the state of music as a whole. 5 This, sadly, is a problem that goes well beyond music into almost every facet of human life and it has its roots deeply seated in our short memory as a species.

A disagreement

I must say that I have a small, personal and probably insignificant issue about this whole thing.

For one, I don't think we have completely ceased to see music as art. Contemporary music is still being presented in theaters and opera houses all around the world.

It's true that not all music is seen as "art", although arguably all music is6; but this is not a problem of modern times. I doubt that our grandparents thought about swing and Charleston songs in the same light than Stravinsky's works.

My objection to this project is that it partly misses one critical characteristic of music, one that separates it from every other Fine Art.

Music does not have an inherent material support

Michelangelo's Pietá would be nothing if we take away the marble in which it is sculpted. The Mona Lisa is lost if (Eru forbid) the canvas is burned. But if we burn the conductor's score of Beethoven's Ninth, we haven't lost the music itself, we have lost the written representation of it.

Music's medium is sound and silence. It exists as it is being performed. The music sheet and recordings are meant for preservation, for study, for copying, for transportation purposes, but these aren't the music itself. Take, for instance, the oldest folk music and pieces like children's songs. They may not have any written record and may have never been committed to a physical medium for reproduction, but that doesn't mean these pieces of music don't exist.

In Wu-Tang Clan's case, they want to treat the music as other physical pieces of art, making it available to those able to travel to experience it and then selling it to an individual, just like many paintings and sculptures now part of private collections.

While I understand and applaud their commitment towards a re-evaluation of music, I feel that the project puts more effort on the actual physical storage of music than on the recreation of the old custom of commissioning and enjoying music as a rare experience (and its subsequent consequence of assigning high value to music and its performances which is part of the whole purpose of this project).

Back in the (quite) old days, only the rich had access to either musical education, educated musicians and composers or both. Musical performances were tinted with political implications many times (displays of power, wealth, dominance or independence, to name a few). Even the guest list was involved with it: only those in the "inner circle" were invited, whether they might be political allies, the powers that be or even a single foe to be ridiculed.

Granted, this complicated language surrounding a single musical piece is hard to translate, even if we were living in Mozart's times. Translating it to the XXI century is impossible without heavy alterations in form, purpose and context and it cannot possibly be judged as a success or a failure without long philosophical lectures or badly written blog posts.

I feel this is not the best way to make their point, but my ignorance prevents me from suggesting a better way (and even if I knew, it's not my project and I can't and shouldn't suggest its course).

A small question on openness

There is also the idea that cultural manifestations are--or should be--ultimately for the whole society. This idea--preserving culture for future generations--isn't new at all and is one of the main forces driving movements of open culture, software and government. Granted, many agree that such idea is not valuable, true, useful or even relevant today. That remains an open question in this piece.

But if we assume that idea to be true, does it follow that more accessibility to art is necessarily better? It seems so to me. Given the choices of a particular piece of art to be locked or open, I choose open. Maybe 25 years after the artist's death or under other regulations like copyright laws7. I think art should, at least in principle, be property of the whole humanity.

If this idea is true, isn't this project against it? Purposefully announcing the creation of a piece that is meant to be locked? Even more so, to create something to be locked when technology allows for almost free replication and distribution? Granted, these are questions deeply embedded in the project's purpose and to simplify them with a yes/no answer would defeat the whole purpose. These too remain open questions.

Final thoughts

Don't take me wrong. I understand Wu-Tang Clan's idea and motivation. I must say that, before this project, I never gave this much thought to music as a commodity. I think I agree with them when they say we may be overrating some art while underrating other, especially music.

I respect those who expend time and effort to try to make a change, those who think and don't just accept things as they are. I admire those who take matters in their hands instead of letting others do the work. Those who aspire to teach, those who make questions and are comfortable in not knowing all the answers, they amaze me.

Will they be successful? I want to quote again from their Conceptus (emphasis mine):

(...) a new approach is introduced, one where the pride and joy of sharing music with the masses is sacrificed for the benefit of reviving music as a valuable art and inspiring debate about its future among musicians, fans and the industry that drives it.

They have moved me to debate about music. Wu-Tang Clan, a group I've never heard, whose chosen genre I generally dislike, has moved me from thousands of miles away to think about music for a few hours and to write about it. They made me think of a new problem, a complex problem that may or may not have a definite answer. If you judge the project by that criteria, I'd say they are already successful.

I want to thank you, Wu-Tang Clan. I may have different views on your project (and yes, I'm vastly ignorant, so there's a good chance that I'm wrong about all this), but you have made at least one small change in the world. I wish you success. May this project of yours make you wiser and (why not?) richer, and may we all learn from it.


Footnotes

1: Although education tendencies are shifted towards STEM and away from the arts, but that's a topic to be discussed another time

2: The most popular formats now are CDs, vinyls, multiple digital formats and combinations of these

3: Professional music recording is now available to anyone who has even a few hundred dollars; the internet has essentially made music available to any internet-enabled device and the copying and shipping costs of digital downloads are practically zero

4: New genres are created continually, distribution is no longer stuck to a physical space...

5: Perhaps the same can be said about many other things in the post-industrial era. Mass production makes costs and perceived value go down. An exercise in causality.

6: Music is, after all, one of the classical Fine Arts. Whether all music is equally valuable or not, I leave as an exercise for those who actually know about the subject.

7: These need heavy updating, but that's another topic, for another time.

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