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RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan try 'to bring value to a devalued art'

May 16, 2014|By Ernest Wilkins, @ernestwilkins | RedEye Sound Board

The Wu-Tang Clan is busy this year. They’re tackling “A Better Tomorrow” (the group’s 20th anniversary album, coming in July), various concert appearances (including Riot Fest, Sept. 12-14 in Humboldt Park) and a secretive double album called “Once Upon A Time in Shaolin” that fans will be able to hear only via traveling listening sessions in places like museums and festivals.
RZA, the 44-year-old leader and founder of the classic New York rap collective, recently stopped into the RedEye offices to talk about the music business.

Let’s talk about “Once Upon A Time in Shaolin.” To say this concept is unprecedented would be an understatement. You’re only making one copy of the record, which you’ll be selling for millions of dollars.

The intent is to be artistic. Treat the music like a piece of art.

Why wouldn’t you want to share that art with the fans and as many people as possible? Why make them jump through those hoops?

See, but it IS for the fans. I’ll use the Mona Lisa as an example. If you want to see the Mona Lisa, you gotta go to the Louvre in France. That’s a mission for you. You have to now make the expedition. So, that’s actually a true fan to me. To say, “I can’t download it, and now I’m mad” is crazy. People have been downloading for years. Fans have hurt the music business. They need to be aware that they’ve hurt the industry.

Hold on. I’ll challenge that the industry as it stands still expects results from antiquated ideas. I can now go directly fund a record from an artist I like. The model the industry uses isn’t working anymore, which is why streaming services are popping right now. If you say, “Hey, Ernest, buy my CD. It’s $12,” I’m going to do that because I like your music and want you to eat. The issue comes in when you have a middleman trying to get me to pay ticket fees that have nothing to do with the show itself, paying $12 for a full record that may only have four good tracks on it because the label feels obligated to use the whole budget, bloated prices for stuff like apparel …

You know what? Let’s sit and talk about the music business for a second. (Turns to publicist) We got time for this?

Publicist: Yeah.

OK, good. You know what a 360 deal is?

Yeah. [A 360 deal refers to a newer form of recording contract where the label can recoup the budget they spend by taking from all aspects of an artist’s career, including tour money, T-shirt sales and more.]

The whole reason the labels have those is because of the Wu-Tang Clan and the deal we made. [Editor’s note: The group signed a landmark deal in 1994 that said although one label owns the rights to the group’s work, each individual member could sign a separate deal with whoever they wanted.] Everybody had their own thing, and the crew got to a point where we were doing clothes, comic books and everything. Labels saw that and wanted to get that money. So you’re expecting a corporation to have empathy. No. And as for the fan that has issues paying $12 for a record, you’re buying that record to keep forever. You maintain it; you can have it for the rest of your life. Now, to MAKE that music? It costs a lot of money! Let’s say it costs an artist $100,000 to make an album, which is cheap--

But why does it cost that much to make an album? That money often goes toward stuff like radio promo and marketing, right? If I know my stuff isn’t tailored for radio or that my first single isn’t going to pop via that medium, why am I spending that money when I could be using it to tour?

How much does studio time cost?

Why do you need a studio in the first place?

Honestly? Compare music that hasn’t been made in a studio to the other stuff. Compare these laptop producers to the real thing. Why aren’t they breaking into the top 10? Very few artists you hear on the radio made their music with a cheap setup.

That might be the case in rap or pop music, but you got guys like Washed Out composing amazing stuff in their houses. I don’t think it’s feasible in rap.

OK, I don’t care what kind of music you listen to. You listen to a Beyonce; you listen to a Dr. Dre. That’s quality. Listen to Kid Cudi. The point I’m making is that quality music costs money. For big acts, it’ll cost more. For a fan to say that he doesn’t want to pay that $12 and that he’d rather download it for 99 cents, he is devaluing the music. How much did you pay for that phone?

$200.

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