Did The U.S. Government Botch The Sale Of Wu-Tang’s Secret Album?
Uncle Sam recently sold "Once Upon A Time In Shaolin" for as little as $2.2 million. A successful NFT launch could have netted ten times that sum.
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The Wu-Tang Clan’s “secret album” Once Upon A Time In Shaolin is on the move again. I broke the news of the one-of-a-kind record’s existence for Forbes in 2014, the year before pharma villain Martin Shkreli purchased it for $2 million. The U.S. government seized it in 2018, and last week, they announced the album’s sale, apparently wiping out Shkreli’s remaining $2.2 million in fraud conviction debt.
That may seem like a fantastic sum, but if the price tag is indeed $2.2 million, it’s paltry in the context of what the album has come to represent. As I argued in a recent post, Shaolin is actually the first-ever Non-Fungible Token, or NFT: an infinitely replicable digital asset that has, with painstaking effort and extensive fanfare, become provably unique. The album just came out before we had the vocabulary.
“It’s been really cathartic seeing the statement Shaolin was making come full circle,” the album’s producer Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh recently told me. “NFTs answer so many of the questions we were asking with the album.”
As such, the record could have been packaged as a highly-desirable NFT in the present day. Sure, there’s the physical element of the album’s handcrafted silver-and-nickel box, created in a Marrakesh workshop by an affable artisan named Yahya. There’s the 174-page leather-bound book packed with lyrics and flavor text. And there’s the physical CD containing the album itself.
But releasing Shaolin as an actual NFT could serve as a bulletproof certificate of authenticity, a guarantee that the owner controlled the genuine article rather than a rip-off. That’s not insignificant for an album whose identity is exceedingly difficult to verify because so few people have actually heard it from start to finish.
How much could the Wu-Tang record fetch under non-fungible circumstances? For context, consider other artists’ NFT forays—from EDM star 3LAU, who turned a recent album into 33 NFTs and generated $11 million, to digital artist Beeple, who auctioned off a virtual work for a staggering $69 million earlier this year.
“If Once Upon A Time In Shaolin were sold as a one-of-one NFT today, it could garner 5-10x the $2 million it sold for as a physical asset,” says one NFT platform operator. “The ephemeral nature of a deteriorating, one-of-a-kind object heightens the sense of scarcity. But the possibilities for leveraging smart contract technology to create interactive experiential art, provide artists royalties when NFTs are resold in perpetuity, and an accurate and detailed history of ownership on the blockchain creates unprecedented value.”
It’s worth noting the government may have actually sold the album for more than $2.2 million. The New York Times recently reported that the buyer, which was a group or company, paid enough to wipe out Shkreli’s outstanding debts of roughly $2.2 million.
But it’s hard to imagine the Department of Justice wanting to get involved with something as complicated—and outside its core area of expertise—as selling an NFT of a secret hip-hop album, even if it meant securing a higher price. Auctioning off Shaolin also comes with a bevy of restrictions delineated when the group first sold it to Shkreli, which could complicate a potential NFT launch.
For now, the identity of the secret album’s buyer remains fittingly shrouded in mystery. Neither RZA nor Cilvaringz responded to my inquires on the matter; representatives for the Department of Justice didn’t reply to a request for comment, either. The only shred of information available seems to be that the buyer was not an individual.
Of course, that leaves the door open for some very fascinating possibilities. Perhaps an NFT platform did purchase the album and will auction it off soon. Maybe the Wu-Tang Clan itself bought the album back. Or possibly it was some combination of the two. In any case, the only thing that’s clear can be summed up by the title of another, less secret Wu-Tang album: The Saga Continues…