There are few men more hated in the world than “Pharma Bro”, investor and recently convicted fraudster Martin Shkreli. His initial rise to infamy was projected by his company’s price hike on the antiparasitic drug Daraprim but he remained in the spotlight after his successful bid on the one-of-a-kind Wu-Tang Clan album “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.”
Conceived as an art piece exploring the commodification of music through channels like iTunes, “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” was recorded in secret over six years and produced as a single double CD, the work was to be auctioned off, with a legal contract saying that the work could not be exploited commercially but it could be redistributed for free or at listening parties. On August 26, 2015, the final sale was announced “in the millions” to “a private collector”, later revealed to be Shkreli by Blooomsburg Businessweek. Wu-Tang Clan leader RZA later explained the sale was agreed before the controversial drug price-hike and subsequently a “significant portion” of the proceeds had been donated to various charities.
Though the actual track listing remains a secret for Shkreli alone, the auction house who handled the album did provide the working titles of the tracks. For about a year, this was all the information we had and Shkreli showed no signs of letting others hear the album. This was until Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President of the United States, when Shkreli promised to release the album if Trump got into the White House. Ultimately, when Trump was announced President Elect, Shkreli streamed the intro and one track.
Intriguingly, along with Wu-Tang Clan, Shkreli promised he’d be releasing his entire unreleased music collection, including tracks from Nirvana and The Beatles. In a tweet after the election, Shkreli teased “Wu, Beatles, 2pac, nirvana, radiohead, Hendrix, brand new, smiths, Elliot smith, Ramones” releases from his vault.
On December 23, 2016, Shkreli claimed he had acquired a two-disc, fully mixed down version of “Tha Carter V”, the long-delayed and rumoured final solo album from Lil Wayne. Recorded during 2013 to 2014, “Tha Carter V” has been the subject of conflict between Lil Wayne and his mentor/label boss Birdman.
During a livestream, Shkreli released two tracks from the project; one track featuring Kendrick Lamar and the other with Justin Bieber. Lawyers from Wayne and Universal Music were quick to issues threats, with Lil Wayne’s camp eventually coming to terms with Shkreli that he would not release any more tracks by the artist.
Shkreli has remained tight-lipped about how he acquired the album, with many believing it to have been retrieved by a hacker who then sold the work on to Shkreli, seeking him out for his history of spending money on music.
It is an undeniable fact that Shkreli is the sole publicly known owner of two of the biggest albums of the last ten years but what of his other claims?
Nirvana is a band that has enjoyed much traffic in tape trading circles, where fans will exchange copies of live show recordings, rare b-sides, radio exclusives and unreleased music. For Shkreli to indicate he has music not found in this community is a bold claim. Despite their brief run from 1987 -1994, the band produced three albums, a b-side collection and a live acoustic album, along with dozens of recordings found in frontman Kurt Cobain’s archives after his death.
So far, Shkreli has streamed a number of songs including “If You Must” (released officially Novemeber 2004 as part of the “With the Lights Out” box set), this track has appeared in the “Outcesticide” bootleg series and the early Nirvana demo recorded in January 1988.
This gives us a hint that Shkreli’s collection is not 100% as impressive as he has made out. Further tracks include “Talk to Me”, “Pay to Play” (an early version of Stay Away), “Spank Thru” (from the pre-Nirvana Cobain project, Fecal Matter), “Born in a Junkyard” (a.k.a Token Eastern Song) and Beeswax (planned for the “Bleach” follow-up) have all seen official release through the “With the Lights Out” box set.
Another band who’ve always been present in the bootleg trading underground, and one of the most iconic musical acts of all time, The Beatles are also alleged to be in Shkreli’s collection. Shkreli has assembled the supposed contents of his secret stash on the website thotpatrol.com, in which he identifies the Beatles tracks he possesses as “The Esher Sessions”. Once again, this is a widely available compilation.
The tracks in question are the demos, recorded at George Harrison’s house (in Esher), before the recording of “The White Album”. Much of the bootleg, fifteen tracks in all, were properly recorded for “The White Album”, as well as seven tracks being included as part of “Anthology 3”, mastered at Abbey Road Studios. Two tracks, “Not Guilty” and “What’s the New Mary Jane” were eventually cut before release but “What’s the New Mary Jane” did make its way onto “Anthology 3” while “Not Guilty” eventually was re-recorded as a George Harrison solo track after he rediscovered his copy of the Esher tape. The final tracks that did not make their way into the studio, “(I’m Just a) Child of Nature” would be released as “Jealous Guy” by Lennon, “Circles” would become a Harrison solo track and “Sour Milk Sea” would be given to Jackie Lomax as one of the earliest Apple Record singles.
But what of the rest? The music Shkreli hasn’t released in any form yet? There’s a lot of speculation to be had. Many fans don’t believe Shrkeli has the music he’s promising, instead acquiring publicly available bootlegs and paying through the nose for them, for that special feeling that only he has heard them. But what if, Martin Shkreli has been playing us? The man is obviously fairly clever, smart enough to have a quick Google before paying for huge projects. Maybe he really does possess the music he says he does, or maybe he’s just enjoying us run around chasing ghosts and worrying that Pharma Bro might be deleting unheard Smashing Pumpkin tracks.
Shortly before “The Life of Pablo”, Kanye West’s latest album, at a time when he was talking about being £53 million in debt, Shkreli sent an open letter offering $10 million for the rights, so he could keep the album all to himself, later upping the bid to $15 million. In the following weeks, Shkreli claimed to have lost $15 million in Bitcoin to someone pretending to be from West’s camp, followed by an epic hunt for the culprit, culminating in his talks with none other than Satoshi Nakamoto, the shadowy creator of Bitcoin, in order to retrieve the money. The story is an easy one to bust, at no point was $15 million moved in the Bitcoin block chain. Shkreli relishes in his infamy and outrage, and his claims of holding your favourite band’s music hostage might be just another part of his act.