How 1 record company managed to get rid of a million unsold CDs.

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 U.K. (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 2 million copies in Europe alone and probably around 5 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 U.K.'s most well-known singers.

Robbie Williams performing in New York City in 2003. Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images.

North Americans who can recall 1999 likely remember his only major success in this hemisphere, "Millennium," but if not, listen and watch here. The song topped the U.K. 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 U.K.-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 2 million copies in the U.K. 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 5 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 Williams' third album 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 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 their warehouses and found a company willing to haul them away.

Either way, in some areas of China, the streets aren't quite paved with gold, but they very well might be paved with an album that went platinum.

Dan Lewis runs the popular daily newsletter Now I Know ("Learn Something New Every Day, By Email"). To subscribe to his daily email, click here.

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A few years a go, American singer-songwriter Yebba Smith shared a solo a capella version of a part of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," in which she just casually sits and sings it on a bed. It's an impressive rendition on its own, highlighting Yebba's soulful, effortless voice.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

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