On creativity, c*nts, and the Clan: Once Upon a Time in Shaolin by Cyrus Bozorgmehr — Thom Cuell

‘The democratisation of the digital had, like so many revolutions before it, morphed into a new tyranny. Recorded music was increasingly viewed as worthless, and getting heard was more difficult than ever as the ease of production and digital distribution created a new enemy – saturation. Independents were buckling, development budgets were a distant memory, and perhaps most worrying of all, the perception of music had shifted into something between voracious consumerism and a God-given right’

Cyrus Bozorgmehr, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin

Your Honor, totally he is guilty and in no way can I let him slide out of anything… and he disrespected the Wu-Tang Clan’

Juror 59, Trial of Martin Shkreli

In August 2017, the notorious ‘Pharma-bro’ Martin Shkreli was found guilty of fraud in a Manhattan federal court. Transcripts of his trial revealed that over 200 prospective jurors were excused from the case, because they felt they could not judge Shkreli impartially; one of the most eye-catching reasons given came from Juror 59, who could not give a fair trial to a man who had ‘disrespected the Wu-Tang Clan’. The story of how the venture capitalist Shkreli and the hip-hop dynasty came to be entangled is laid out in Cyrus Bozorgmehr’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.

Bozorgmehr’s story begins in 2007, at a time when musicians were reeling from the impact of digital streaming services on the established business models of the record industry. Although the business had ridden out the threat posed by Napster and illegal peer-to-peer sharing of music, new digital platforms for streaming music were having an impact on the bottom line for performers – for example, on 2017 figures, an American artist would need to be played 380,000 times on Spotify, or 2.4 million times on YouTube, in order to make minimum wage for their work. Ease of access had also damaged the perceived value of recorded music. It no longer took much emotional, financial or physical effort to acquire new music, and so, it was argued, fans would not value albums in the same way they had in pre-digital times.

Whilst for less established artists, the ease of producing and distributing their work digitally was a huge benefit, those at the top end of the market underwent something of an existential crisis. In October 2007, Radiohead released the album In Rainbows with a ‘pay what you like’ model for the digital format (a deluxe cd edition was priced at £40). The scheme was a qualified success: the album reached number 1, and made the band more money than their previous release, Hail to the Thief, but was still pirated on a massive scale with over 2 million illegal downloads in the first month. Other artists were unimpressed, with Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers stating bluntly that the experiment ‘demeans’ music.

Radiohead were not alone in attempting to come up with new solutions to the challenge facing the industry. As Thom Yorke and crew were handing around the tip jar for In Rainbows, novice rapper and Wu-Tang Clan affiliate Cilvaringz was working on a concept to revitalize the idea of the album as a work of art, whilst also, in Bozorgmehr’s words, fighting back against ‘the insidious idea… that music should be free and public’. His idea was to create an album which would be limited to a single physical copy, to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The buyer would be barred from commercialising the album for a period of 88 years.

The scheme was at once an artistic statement and a provocation. By strictly controlling the album’s availability, they were denying their fans an opportunity to hear ‘a last hurrah for a seminal sound’, but they were also asserting ownership of their material – the aim was to imbue music with the sort of cultural capital enjoyed by modern art, rather than allowing it to be cheapened by mass production. Unfortunately, there were a number of flaws in this logic. First, without record company involvement, they would need investment to get the project off the ground. Secondly, the art world was suspicious of this novelty, wary of being taken for a ride simply to provide advance publicity for a commercial project. Thirdly, there was no real way of ensuring that the finished project wouldn’t be purchased by an absolute toerag.

Thirdly, there was no real way of ensuring that the finished project wouldn’t be purchased by an absolute toerag.

Bozorgmehr justifies this final gamble by arguing that the possibility was a philosophical statement in itself – ‘if you don’t value music, it will end up being owned by bad men’ – but, not for the first or last time in the project, this smacks of the author having his cake and eating it.

It also raised questions about Cilvaringz as an artist. After all, who makes an album and doesn’t want it to be heard? Bozorgmehr, with his mouth full of cake once again, argues ‘it could well be said that the most profound statement an artist can make today is to put a price on his music and achieve it. It speaks to sustainability for the artist and their ability to make a living through their art’.

It was the first of these problems, the need for seed capital, which brought Bozorgmehr into the project. As the fixer for a ‘Mr S’, he was the Clan’s liaison with the world of finance. At this stage, we begin to see Bozorgmehr’s tendency to romanticise his subjects (this will become a serious problem later on). Mr S is depicted as ‘a businessman through and through, but also something of a romantic’, whilst Bozorgmehr sees himself as ‘a Mr Wolf for the non-homicidal’, although I doubt that Mr Wolf as played by Harvey Keitel would have done something as crass as rupture his knee ligaments drunkenly showing off in a Shaolin temple. He probably wouldn’t have written a sentence like ‘we downed a few nervous drops of H2O’ either.

He is also keen to stress the more mystical aspects of the project, describing Cilvaringz and his mentor RZA sitting atop a pyramid at dusk, discussing how they are going to revolutionise the music world (echoes here of the literary forger Clifford Irving, claiming to have met Howard Hughes atop a Mexican pyramid at midnight to sign the deal for his autobiography). He makes much of synchroncities occurring in the creation of the album, and also the importance of the number 8 to the endeavour.

All this puts the reader in mind of those other great subverters of music and money, The KLF, who, in biographer John Higgs’ words, were often seemingly ‘driven by Bill Drummond’s symbolic interpretation of events’.

There was also a strong rational element to the project, however; for example, Cilvaringz conducted a series of experiments to test his premise that the exclusivity and high cost of owning the album would disincentivise illegal sharing. He produced a series of digital ‘bundles’ of new Wu-Tang Clan material, released as limited editions priced at $50, $100, $150 and $200. As predicted, the lower priced bundles were leaked online, and the higher ones were not.

There was also a strong rational element to the project, however; for example, Cilvaringz conducted a series of experiments to test his premise that the exclusivity and high cost of owning the album would disincentivise illegal sharing. He produced a series of digital ‘bundles’ of new Wu-Tang Clan material, released as limited editions priced at $50, $100, $150 and $200. As predicted, the lower priced bundles were leaked online, and the higher ones were not. The concept was tested to everyone’s satisfaction, and Cilvaringz also successfully negotiated the complex internal politics of the Wu-Tang Clan to produce an album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, which captured the group’s original sound effectively. However, the problems began when they attempted to take the project to the market. Initially, the band intended to auction the record through a prestigious firm such as Christie’s; however, the grand houses demurred, or at best offered the album alongside collections of music memorabilia, and they were eventually forced into a partnership with online auctioneers Paddle8 – a far cry from the wood-panelled gravitas of the fine art world.

Secondly, there was the question of how to place a value on the record. Prospective buyers would have to be assured that the album was legitimate, before they would be willing to spend a million dollars plus on it, but there was no question of anyone being allowed to hear the record in full. And who judges the value of an album anyway?

Market forces had apparently reduced the value of recorded music to zero, but critics could add cultural capital to the project, whilst fan reaction could drive up demand. Ultimately, though, it would be the investors who set the price.

Market forces had apparently reduced the value of recorded music to zero, but critics could add cultural capital to the project, whilst fan reaction could drive up demand. Ultimately, though, it would be the investors who set the price. It was determined that potential buyers would be allowed to hear ten seconds from the beginning, middle and end of each track, while listening parties would be arranged in art galleries, in line with Cilvaringz’s ambitions for the project. That way, buyers would be reassured that they were not seen to be paying millions of dollars for potentially substandard material.

Unfortunately, once again the art world was unreceptive. The Tate was only interested in music if it was produced in collaboration with an established visual artist; other galleries were wary of being used for marketing purposes. Tie-ins with corporations were rejected as being out of keeping with the project’s ethos. Eventually, a space was found for a listening party, where select fans and critics would have the opportunity to hear a carefully selected edit of the record.

Meanwhile, other artists were beginning to struggle with the thorny problem of making music feel special in the digital age. David Bowie released Where Are We Now, his first new music for a decade, unannounced in the middle of the night, causing a media sensation. U2, showing a remarkable lack of self-awareness, foisted their album Songs of Innocence on an unwilling public through an automatic iTunes download (in a humiliating climbdown, they were then forced to create an app allowing users to remove the unwanted gift). Jay-Z launched the artist-owned streaming service Tidal, generating mass cynicism by unwisely portraying himself as a struggling artist during the launch. Smaller artists used platforms such as the PledgeMusic website to crowdfund new releases, attracting fans by offering special merchandise, exclusive updates and other rewards for taking part, occasionally with great success: Ginger Wildheart, for example, raised 555% of his initial funding target, by creating a sense of intimacy with fans and creating a sense of event around his record.

Although there was no grand auction process for Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, the record attracted a small number of serious bidders. Their preferred bidder, a young hedge fund manager named Martin Shkreli, was described by Bozorgmehr as having ‘an unassuming innocence about him, and said he genuinely wanted the album for inspiration‘. There began a series of complex negotiations, with both sides looking to legally protect themselves against a potential leak of the album, or any breach of the rules on commercial exploitation.

With positive responses to the playback session, negotiations proceeding well, and a price of around $2 million agreed, it looked like Cilvaringz’s project would succeed; however, shortly before the deal was made official, news broke about a company CEO who had acquired the rights to a drug commonly used in the treatment of AIDS, and increased the price from $13.50 to $750 per pill. The press and public reacted furiously, and the CEO, one Martin Shkreli, was branded ‘the most hated man in America’. The Wu-Tang Clan were horrified to see the name of their buyer attracting this sort of hostility, but felt that they couldn’t back out of the process at this late stage.

Fortunately, the agreement stated that the purchase would be anonymous, but the Clan were worried that the increasingly erratic Shkreli would make himself known as the owner. Cilvaringz, possibly having second thoughts about his album going unheard by the world, created an elaborate plot involving a staged Twitter feud between the band and Shkreli which would lead to the album being made commercially available. Tentative steps were made towards this end, aided by a Twitter user who posted a spoof contact clause which read:

The buying party also agrees that at any time during the stipulated 88 year period, the seller may legally plan and attempt to execute one (1) heist or caper to steal back Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, which, if successful, would return all ownership rights to the seller. Said heist or caper can only be undertaken by currently active members of the Wu-Tang Clan and/or actor Bill Murray, with no legal repercussions.”

Attempts were made to contact the notoriously hard-to-find actor, but Shkreli was far too volatile for such a plan to work; he went wildly off-script, denouncing RZA, announcing that he had only bought the album so that ‘celebrities and rappers’ would want to hang out with him, and that he ‘hadn’t listened to the album and might well never bother’, and even posing with replica AK-47s to threaten the Clan in the event of any ‘heist’ being performed. The plot thickened, with Shkreli being raided by the FBI, raising the possibility of the album being seized, and even auctioned off (the bureau felt compelled to announce via social media that the album had not in fact been impounded). To mitigate the damage, RZA announced that the majority of the money from the sale had been donated to charity.

So, Cilvaringz’s bold experiment had ended with the money given away, the album unlistened-to, and a ton of bad press for the Wu-Tang Clan. Once Upon a Time in Shaolin had become a sort of millennial Hope Diamond, with 100% of the people who had bought it subsequently being arrested.

So, Cilvaringz’s bold experiment had ended with the money given away, the album unlistened-to, and a ton of bad press for the Wu-Tang Clan. Once Upon a Time in Shaolin had become a sort of millennial Hope Diamond, with 100% of the people who had bought it subsequently being arrested. The album continues to be an albatross around the band’s neck, with Shkreli first announcing that he would make it available in the event of Donald Trump’s election victory (he didn’t), and subsequently listing it on eBay (with the caveat that ‘At any time I may cancel this sale and I may even break this album in frustration’), ensuring that his name remains linked to the group.

The project’s ultimate failure could maybe have been predicted from the start. As Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty of The KLF noted in The Manual, their great de-mystification of the music industry, ‘with each new generation in pop music there comes along some sort of revolution where supposedly the kids are able to get up and do it for themselves: skiffle bands, protest singers, beat groups, punk rockers, U2 and Casio kids. Of course, the kids do very little for themselves. They might believe they are. Their public are encouraged to believe they are. All that is happening is that the new young, waving fields of corn are allowed to grow full and ripe before a very strange combine harvester will come along and pick the few lucky ears of corn while the rest of the field cheer, wither and die’. The digital revolution is merely the millennial iteration of this harvesting. Record companies continue to earn money by charging streaming services for access to their back catalogues, whilst driving down royalty rates for artists. The lucky few continue to make it big, the remainder will wither, and no iconoclastic art project will change that.

The debate over the value of artistic work, which Cilvaringz was contributing to with Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, is a live one throughout the art world. As Bozogmehr states, there is an expectation that online content will be provided at low cost, if not free, and it is generally artists and writers who are forced to take the subsequent financial hit. In the literary world, this has led to a sharp division between paying and non-paying websites, with a perception that equates payment with quality.

In their recent Kickstarter campaign, for example, literary journal The White Review decried a perceived lack of ‘serious’ criticism in the UK, making reference to the ‘damaging trend that frequently sees writers publish online without pay’, brushing over the opportunities offered by non-commercial spaces, and the investment of time, expertise and effort in the development of new work. In this view, the ‘worth’ of a piece of work is determined by its exchange value; a judgement reinforced by Bozorgmehr throughout Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. If his book proves anything, however, it is that the link between art and commerce is a complex one, and that financial investment is not a guarantee against exploitation.

In their recent Kickstarter campaign, for example, literary journal The White Review decried a perceived lack of ‘serious’ criticism in the UK, making reference to the ‘damaging trend that frequently sees writers publish online without pay’, brushing over the opportunities offered by non-commercial spaces, and the investment of time, expertise and effort in the development of new work. In this view, the ‘worth’ of a piece of work is determined by its exchange value; a judgement reinforced by Bozorgmehr throughout Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. If his book proves anything, however, it is that the link between art and commerce is a complex one, and that financial investment is not a guarantee against exploitation.

The Once Upon a Time… album project was littered with mistakes, including the group’s initial lack of clarity regarding their goals and the rules around ownership and commercialisation in their press releases, the lack of commercial interest which followed the initial announcement, their failure to see through Shkreli when other potential buyers existed, and their inability to maintain the buyer’s anonymity. Maybe the only thing that went well was the creation of the music itself, but even that victory was pyrrhic, as the wider issues surrounding the album probably trashed the possibility of Cilvaringz having any lasting career in music.  After the KLF burned a million pounds on the Isle of Jura, friends said that ‘Jimmy and Bill looked so harrowed & haunted. And to be honest, they’ve never been the same since’. Things might not have been quite so bad for the Wu-Tang Clan, but clearly, pop provocations can carry a high psychic cost.


Cyrus Bozorgmehr was the senior adviser on the Once Upon a Time in Shaolin project and worked alongside Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA and producer Cilvaringz. He lives in Marrakech, Morocco.

Thom Cuell is your problematic fave.

Image: Ebay screenshot by Tomoé Hill

Author bio courtesy of Flatiron Books.