Let’s say you were a musician. You work hard for a year writing and producing (and singing, of course) a new album, and, when you finally release it, buyers rush to the store with their money in hand. Over 50,000 copies sell on the day of the release, which is doubly impressive because you launched your album only in the UK (where, hypothetically, you’re from). Nearly another 100,000 copies sell over the course of the debut week and the album tops the national charts. Ultimately, the album goes “platinum” many times over, and you sell well over two million copies in Europe alone and probably around five million worldwide.
That sounds great, right? Right. But for record label EMI, it was, well, not.
The musician whose story is told above isn’t a hypothetical person. He’s Robbie Williams, one of the UK’s most well-known singers. (North Americans who can recall 1999 likely remember his only major success in this hemisphere, Millennium, but if not, listen/watch here. The song topped the UK charts and is the only Robbie Williams song to make the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States.) In October 2002, Williams signed a four-album contract with EMI Records which, according to the BBC, earned him an UK-record £80 million (or about $125 million), still a record for music contracts in the nation. The first two albums Williams delivered were unqualified successes; the first, Escapology, sold over two million copies in the UK and more than a million more in Germany alone; the second, Intensive Care, sold an estimated 6.2 million copies worldwide. But the third album, Rudebox, didn’t do as well. Rudebox came out in 2006 and, although it topped out at five million, that took nearly a decade — and besides, EMI was expecting to sell about a million more.
And they had already produced that extra million CDs.
For two years, millions of copies of Rudebox sat idle, unsold and undistributed to retailers. The CDs were seemingly destined for the landfill, but in 2008, EMI found a buyer — maybe — for the extra inventory: an unnamed Chinese company which wanted every single leftover copy.
But the buyers in China weren’t CD stores, or, for that matter, interested in Williams’ music at all. The buyers weren’t retailers or wholesalers or anything of the sort — they were road builders. Specifically, as reported by Contact Music, EMI crushed the CDs and shipped them off to China so that the pulverized discs could be “used in street lighting and road surfacing projects.” Apparently, crushed CDs make for good road safety.
Whether EMI made any money on the deal went unreported — its possible that they simply wanted the CDs out of its warehouses and found a company willing to haul them away. Either way, in some areas of China, the streets are paved aren’t quite paved with gold, but they are paved with an album that went platinum.
Take the Quiz: Artists from 25 different countries have topped the Billboard Hot 100. How many of those nations can you name?
From the Archives: Remember all those AOL CDs? There were more than you think.
Related: Rudebox by Robbie Williams. You can preview most of the songs at that link if you’d like.