The Significance of the Wu-Tang Clan for Modern Cinema Distribution

When I read recently about the Wu-Tang Clan’s decision to release their new album in a single pressed issue of hard media, I was deeply skeptical.

On the face of it, it seemed absurd.  How could anyone expect to see a profit on the sale of a single piece of media?  It only takes a few minutes to see the genius of the approach however.

Such a scarce object would have new value in an age of musical post-scarcity.  It would be an art-artifact.  It could tour the world.

The implications of this innovative approach are hard to determine in terms of scope.  It is pretty likely that this sort of venture is not so much a new business model as it is an ingenious marketing scheme derived from novelty.

The more important fact revealed in this episode, however, is that the music industry is continuing to demonstrate superior innovation and conversation in terms of how essentially non-scarce goods can be monetized in the digital age.

The question facing creatives in both industries is essentially the same.  Digitized forms of entertainment are instantaneously replicable, increasingly easy to locate, and easy to give away to others at no cost to the person replicating the content.  Despite the costs of producing the goods, as soon as they are distributed in a digital capacity they become quite easy to distribute in competition with the original content creator or as is more often the case – contracted distributor with licensed monopoly privilege – at essentially no cost.

So, faced with the increasing sophistication of free digital distribution how do content creators monetize their content in a practical way?  This is a question the music industry has had to confront with a far greater immediacy than other creative industries.

It shouldn’t be surprising.  The music industry has been at least ten years ahead of the film industry on the technical curve in terms of having to deal with the ramifications of a post-copyright digital world, just by the nature of download speeds and web infrastructure.

The problem is that this convenient reality is changing, and quickly.

This is a conversation that the film industry simply isn’t having.  While the legacy model remains relevant for those who have the financial power to exercise guaranteed legal protections over intellectual property claims, the market actors who are harmed the most at this juncture are independent filmmakers and small film companies who cannot afford to build their business model on top of such an expensive legacy structure.

The technological landscape is rapidly evolving.  Gigabit internet is an increasing inevitability, not only in my much adored Austin, Texas but as broader first world fact.

With distributed downloading platforms and gigabit internet there will soon be no technical reason for differentiation in terms of pirating content between the music industry and film industry.

Meanwhile, several other legacy industries are experiencing subversive, paradigm shifting, revolutions – right now.

Manufacturing is being reinvented by 3D printing.  Finance is being reinvented by cryptocurrency.  The cinema is ripe for innovations in distribution and finance that may provoke a revolution on scale with what we’ve seen in those industries.  I believe we need to be willing to radically re-examine our business model and push forward innovative new ideas.

I am not suggesting the industry adopt a Wu-Tang Clan strategy for monetizing the cinema, but I do think there needs to be a real conversation of how to explore radical and exciting alternatives to legacy models for monetizing and financing content.  It is a conversation that is overdue, and one that will define the future of this medium if it is to survive in the digital era.