Pay $1 to hear Wu-Tang Clan’s secret album (eventually)

The Wu-Tang Clan perform in 2019 at Rolling Loud at Citi Field in New York. (Andrew White/The New York Times)

Ten years ago, the most mysterious and expensive album of all time was announced by the Wu-Tang Clan as a protest against the devaluation of creativity in the age of the internet. “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin,” limited to one hyperdeluxe physical copy, was bought for a reported $2 million by the “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli and later acquired by an online art collective for $4 million.

Now it can be yours for a dollar. Sort of.

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Pleasr, the online collective, began selling access to “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” on Thursday, charging fans $1 (plus fees) to be part of what it called an experiment to test a simple question: “Do people still value music in a digital era?” As befitting an album that has been wrapped in legal and public controversy for a decade, however, the transaction is anything but simple.

For $1, fans will gain access to an encrypted digital version of “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.” But only a five-minute sampler of the album will be available now, Pleasr says.

The Wu-Tang Clan’s original sale contract with Shkreli in 2015 said that “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” could not be released to the public for 88 years — until Oct. 8, 2103 — although the agreement allowed for private viewings and listening sessions.

For each $1 that Pleasr takes in, the group says it will reduce the waiting period for the full album’s release by 88 seconds. By a rough calculation, it would take about 28 million contributions of $1 apiece to eliminate that delay entirely.

In an announcement, Pleasr said that it had been “secretly working with the original artists and producer” to release the album, and that proceeds from these sales would be shared with the Wu-Tang Clan and the album’s producers: RZA, the group’s mastermind, and Cilvaringz, who worked with RZA on the project.

A spokesperson for RZA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” was created as a unique physical object, deliberately cloaked in the grandeur of an artistic relic. The album’s two CDs were ensconced in an engraved nickel-silver box and accompanied by a leather-bound book with 174 parchment pages. The project stirred strong reactions: that it was a principled stance against the race-to-the-bottom economics of digital music; that it was crass capitalism; that its only true legacy was to deprive the Wu-Tang Clan’s fans of music. The condemnations only intensified when Shkreli — who once raised the price of a drug by 5,000% overnight — was revealed as the winner of an auction.

Pleasr, also known as PleasrDAO, has also portrayed “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” as a kind of precursor of NFTs, recapturing the value of artistic scarcity in a digital age. The group, a “decentralized autonomous organization,” has been on the frontier of digital art, acquiring items like an NFT related to the image of a dog that inspired the “doge” meme of the 2010s.

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