Is it vinyl, CD, or wax cylinder in there?

We are not living in a golden age of music right now. Sure, there is good music being made; always has been, always will be. But there’s nothing like the depth and breadth of the 60s and 70s, or even the 80s and 90s. You could come up with a thousand reasons why, from the decline of Western civilization to the rise of downloading and the vegetative state of the music business, but it hardly matters at this point. We all have access to so much music, no one now living will ever run out of new things to explore. So in a sense, who cares if not much great stuff is being recorded these days? We don’t really need much more.

But one place where the boundaries are still being pushed, and new summits still being reached, is in the area of hype. Last week, for instance, the Wu-Tang Clan held a public event at a museum in Queens, New York to preview their new album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. Why would people crowd into an auditorium and consent to have their phones confiscated to hear 13 minutes of music by a group whose previous release – A Better Tomorrow, still just a few months old – did not exactly set the world on fire?

Because according to

The sole existing master of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, of which all backups and digital files have been destroyed, is available through the New York auction house, Paddle 8. It is presented in a hand carved nickel-silver casing designed by the British Moroccan artist Yahya and accompanied by a 174 page volume containing lyrics, credits and anecdotes on the production and recordings of each song.

The aspect of this that has been getting the most press is that the buyer is forbidden from commercially releasing the album for a period of 88 years. That person can choose either to give the music away or to keep it entirely to themselves, but they can’t make money off of it. (Unless they, for instance, set up a secure listening room and charge admission; I don’t know if the legalese would prevent something like that.)

Supposedly the bidding has already passed the $5 million mark; and whether that’s true or not, as marketing goes, this is some Einstein-level shit. What human with a beating heart would not be at least a little curious what this mysterious piece of music sounds like? Whereas, with A Better Tomorrow, they did not exactly have to forcibly copy it onto everyone’s devices like U2, but there was a collective shrug from the world at large.

For the record, I thought A Better Tomorrow was just fine; not amazing, not terrible, but certainly not a fitting last statement from one of the most influential pop culture phenomena of the last 20 years. And it does appear entirely possible that this will be the Wu’s swan song. They have become increasingly fragmented in recent years, and only RZA’s stubbornness has held them together enough to make new music. Shaolin may be the last straw. Quoth Method Man:

Fuck that album. I’m tired of this shit and I know everybody else is tired of it, too.

But Meth appears mostly to be pissed off by the idea that no one will get to hear the album for 88 years. I find this highly unlikely. The buyer may spend some weeks or months locked in their private glass listening vault, bobbing their head with Beats on and giving the finger to anyone who passes by, but eventually that would have to get old. I’m guessing that sooner or later they’ll share it with us, though it might be better if they didn’t. That way we could all go on believing that there’s some great lost Wu-Tang album out there. In practice Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is bound to disappoint. There’s no way it couldn’t, with hype like this:

“We’re about to sell an album like nobody else sold it before,” says Robert “RZA” Diggs. “We’re about to put out a piece of art like nobody else has done in the history of [modern] music. We’re making a single-sale collector’s item. This is like somebody having the scepter of an Egyptian king.”

Ah, RZA…his skills as a producer are surpassed only by his gifts for self-promotion and grandiosity. Not that I’m holding it against him; I find this whole thing hugely entertaining. Who’s going to step up with the long green for Once Upon a Time in Shaolin? What are they going to do with it once they have it? The suspense is killing me.