There aren’t many people who follow current events, and even fewer Wu-Tang Clan fans, who don’t know the story of Martin Shkreli, the boyish-looking (and acting) former pharmaceutical CEO who purchased the only copy in existence of Wu-Tang Clan’s 2015 double-album CD, Once Upon A Time in Shaolin, for a cool $2M at a private auction.
The purchase instantly made the legendary rap group’s set the most valuable single LP in history (another dubious feather in hip-hop’s cap, btw), out-pricing historic albums by Elvis Presley and the Beatles, the latter when they were still known as the Quarrymen.
The one-of-a-kind Wu-Tang LP also made Shkreli the owner of one of the most mysterious and controversial albums in history – one which most members of the public will likely never get to hear, one that never charted (due to its noncommercial availability to the larger community), and one that is (or was) owned by one of the most scorned public figures in recent pop culture history.
You see, not only was Martin Shkreli convicted of securities fraud, for which the former hedge fund operator is now serving jail time pending his final sentencing in January 2018, but he is also associated with an outrageous price hike for an AIDS-treatment drug set forth by one of his former companies, Turing Pharmaceuticals. That and other controversial business moves (and resultant firings and lawsuits) earned him the nickname “Pharma-boy,” likely because of his flamboyant persona as well as his many allegedly unsavory business practices in the pharmaceutical industry.
That Wu-Tang album, Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, which has since been followed up by a more commercially available 2017 release from RZA, Method Man and the rest of the Wu (except U-God), has been the source of much controversy ever since RZA announced in 2014 that it would be produced as a single copy and auctioned to the highest bidder to enhance its artistic value. For starters, various artists who contributed to the project have claimed that they were not paid royalties for the sale.
But it recently made news again when it was revealed that Shkreli, now a convicted felon, might have to forfeit the album, along with $5M in other assets, to federal prosecutors in the wake of his fraud conviction.
The irony in all of this is that the U.S. government would assign so much value to a hip-hop album – a Wu-Tang Clan album at that – in trying to recoup assets it says Shkreli obtained with illegal money. Even more interesting is the fact that Shkreli reportedly auctioned away the album this past September for just over $1M, which would mean it may no longer be in his possession, and that the feds are possibly barking up the wrong tree, or just plain S.O.L. with little hope of recovering it.
The most astounding thing about all of this is that the album is not even the Wu’s best – or even close. It’s not even the best hip-hop album of 2015, which makes all of this even funnier.
But besides the hilarity of it all, the latest developments and recent attention given to Shkreli did cause me to ponder the following half-dozen questions:
1. Does the fact that Shkreli bought the album with “illegal” money, then sold it to another party for $1M, mean that the government could confiscate it from that second owner (and reimburse that owner his $1M of course)? Would the Feds then subtract the original value of the album – $2M – from Shkreli’s debt…and then add in the $1M it had to reimburse the second owner? I’m no lawyer, but my guess is that the Feds may have to forget about laying their hands on the platinum-plated Once Upon A Time in Shaolin.
2. When an album has nearly $2M worth of revenue in sales (or for a single sale in this case), would it have made sense for Billboard Magazine to consider the profits, not the number of copies sold, when determining the most successful albums for the year of its release? To elaborate further, with so few albums able to sell even a million copies these days, surely the Wu-Tang album would have only ranked behind a handful of other 2015 albums (including possibly those by Adele, Taylor Swift and Drake) as the most commercially profitable albums of that year.
3. Wouldn’t it have been nicer if Shkreli had instead paid the $2M for that unreleased Ol’ Dirty Bastard album – the one the former Wu-Tang member recorded before his death in 2004 and one that has never been made available to the public. The proceeds could have gone to Dirty’s estate and remaining family members (remember, he had seven children).
4. If someone had told you in 1993 when Wu-Tang’s first album, Enter the 36 Chambers, was released that nearly 25 years later we’d be discussing one of their later albums as the highest priced, most coveted album in history, what would you have thought? Certainly no one could have predicted then that a Wu-Tang album would be in this kind of conversation, or any hip-hop album for that matter.
5. Is the current owner prevented from being able to release the album to streaming services for the rest of us to hear (and for him or her to profit)? Recall that, under the terms of the original sale to Shkreli, reportedly no record label would be able to mass produce the album for public consumption for the next 88 years… or until 2103.
6. Assuming you were a big baller like Shkreli, how much would you be willing to pay for a single album if you knew it was the only copy out there (and it was not available on any streaming or download services)? And which artist would you do it for?
Just some Wu-Tang-related things to ponder on this Saturday evening. Feel free to comment below.
P.S. You can catch snippets of the album in the below YouTube video in which Shkreli partially fulfilled his post-2016 election promise to reveal the album to the public if Donald Trump won the presidency (which, as we all know by now, he did).
P.S.S. Wu-Tang Clan reportedly donated the proceeds from the $2M Shkreli sale to various cancer-related charities.