This week, the Wu-Tang Clan announced that they had a completed a 31-track double album, The Wu – Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. But instead of releasing it through conventional means, they plan to make a single copy and tour it around the world at museums and galleries before selling it (in a custom-made silver-and-nickel box) for a price "in the millions."
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While it's a novel approach to modern music distribution – will it end up in the hands of Samsung, who could use it to help sell more phones? Or will Bill Gates keep the only copy to listen to when driving around Redmond? – it's not the first time musicians have made records that were intended to have extremely limited pressings. Sometimes, they've stayed that way; other times, they end up blaring from every car radio. Below, five examples of records that were meant to have three or fewer copies.
Elvis Presley, "My Happiness" (1953)
The first time Elvis Presley stepped into a studio, he was cutting a single copy of an acetate record (allegedly as a belated birthday gift for his mother, although he may have just been trying to get the attention of Sun Records chief Sam Phillips). He paid four dollars to make a single, recording "My Happiness," backed with "That's When Your Heartaches Begin." About six months later, in 1954, he returned to the studio and caught the eye of Phillips. The original acetate ended up in the hands of a high-school friend of Presley and has an estimated value of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Van Morrison, "Want a Danish" (1967)
Van Morrison, wanting to get out of his contract with Bang Records, went into the studio and improvised 31 songs to submit to the label. They were deliberately unreleasable ditties – "Ring Worm," "Want a Danish," "Here Comes Dumb George," "You Say France and I Say Whistle" – about a minute long each, and intended to be heard by nobody ever. (But embarrassingly, in the 1990s, they started appearing on official Bang-licensed albums.)
Bachman-Turner Overdrive, "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet" (1974)
When Randy Bachman wrote "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet," it had an intended audience of one: He wanted to press a single copy of the song and give it to his brother, Gary, who had a speech impediment. (Bachman memorably stutters his way through the song.) But his prank was foiled when his record company insisted on releasing it as a BTO single and it hit Number One around the world. Bachman told Rolling Stone, "Then Gary stopped stuttering."
John Otway, "Frightened and Scared" (1979)
John Otway, a British eccentric who sometimes bills himself as "rock & roll's greatest failure," had an up-and-down career that included being signed and produced by Pete Townshend. His 1979 single, "Frightened and Scared," was distributed with three unusual copies deliberately omitting Otway's vocals. If you bought one of the instrumental copies, Otway was willing to come to your home and sing the missing vocal live in your living room. Otway's website notes, "Unfortunately, most people had seen Otway's shows, had witnessed the carnage he created and didn't want him anywhere near their homes."
Sufjan Stevens, "The Lonely Man of Winter" (2007)
This might be the closest analogue to the Wu-Tang Clan's scheme, except that Stevens gave "The Lonely Man of Winter" away as a prize in a contest rather than auctioning it off. (The contest promised, "You can hoard it for yourself, sell it to a major soft drink corporation, use it in your daughter's first Christmas video or share it for free on your Web site.") When Alec Duffy won, many people assumed he would just upload the song to the net. Instead, cherishing the notion of musical scarcity, he made it available only at private listening parties, charging no fee and serving tea and cookies to strangers who made the pilgrimage to his Brooklyn apartment. Let's hope something just as surprising happens with The Wu – Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.