R.E.M. Signs the Biggest Record Deal in History

In August 1996, R.E.M signed what was billed at the time as the largest recording contract ever. The five album deal with Warner Brothers Records was worth an estimated $80 million dollars.

At the time R.E.M. was the biggest rock band on the planet having sold 30 million albums since forming in Athens, Georgia in 1980. They started off as a beloved college indie band on IRS Records and then gained massive commercial and critical success with Automatic for the People, Out of Time, Monster and Green after switching over to Warner.

So when their six album contract with Warner expired in 1996 there was an insane two week long bidding war between companies such as Dream Works, SKG, Capitol Record and Sony Music.

In the end R.E.M renewed their deal with Warner with a $10m signing bonus, a $20m advance, 24% royalties and a $10m advance for each of their next six albums.

The following month R.E.M. released New Adventures in Hi-Fi, which Michael Stipe has said is his personal favorite. He told the New York Times in 2016 that New Adventures in Hifi represents the band at its very peak.

Adventures in Hi-Fi was a watershed moment for the band for a couple of other reasons; it was the last album with drummer Bill Berry who retired in October 1997 and became a farmer, and it was the last platinum album for the band. R.E.M. never reached the commercial highs of the early 90s again and after the last in their five-album deal – 2011’s Collapse Into Now – they collapsed into retirement.

The $80 million dollar R.E.M. contract came on the heels of another huge record deal signed by Janet Jackson at the beginning of 1996, worth $70 million dollars.

Other performers inking big record deals in the 90s also included, Metallica, Madonna and Michael Jackson who each signed contracts worth $60 million dollars. 

The 90s were just a warm up for the 21st century when behemoth recording contracts would become the norm. For example when Taylor Swift moved from Big Machine Records to Universal Records recently the deal was said to be worth between $100 and $200 million dollars.   Jay-z signed a $150 million deal in 2008 while Adele nailed down a contract worth $130 million in 2016. 

For more stories from the 1990s, make sure to check out my podcast “History of the 90s” on ApplePodcasts, Spotify, Google Play and anywhere else you stream audio. You can also listen at Curiouscast.ca.

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