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Robbie Williams Leaves EMI for Universal: Inside the Deal

Robbie Williams publicity 2010
Julian Broad

After 14 years and a history-making $100 million contract, the pop superstar signs with market share leader UMG for territories outside the U.S. What will it mean for EMI's impending sale? THR investigates.

Robbie Williams has long been one of EMI’s marquee artists, having sold over 60 million albums worldwide (some 15 million in the UK alone), but 14 years after being signed as a solo singer, in what was then one of the biggest payouts to an artist on record -- an estimated $100 million for six albums upon renegotiating in 2002 -- the 37-year-old pop star is leaving for Universal.

According to a source familiar with the deal, which covers international territories, Williams has joined the Universal Music Group roster for one album, which he has basically completed. The label designated to handle his future solo release -- be it Polydor, Mercury or Island -- has yet to be determined, but what is known is that David Joseph, Chairman and CEO of Universal Music UK, will personally oversee the effort.

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"Having had the chance to listen to the music, I've no doubt that Robbie is currently at his most creatively inspired," Joseph tells British newspaper The Guardian, where Williams’ longtime manager Tim Clark also comments: "This great new deal puts Robbie Williams firmly in control of his own destiny, but with the most muscular of partners.”

“The deal is customized around Robbie and what best fits him,” says an insider who points to Williams’ recent success with his original boy band Take That as proof of his continued relevance. Another reason for his exit? “He was fed up with EMI,” adds the source. “He wasn’t feeling the love and with the company’s sale and constantly rotating management structure, there’s something to be said for stability.”

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No doubt it also helped that Williams and UMG chairman and CEO Lucian Grainge go back and that Take That’s reunion album, Progress, released by Polydor in 2010, has been certified eight-times platinum in the UK, moving more than 2.4 million copies (he left the group for a second time, mate and X Factor UK judge Gary Barlow revealed last month).

In fact, Williams is the best-selling British artist ever, but in the U.S., he’s struggled to find his footing in a fickle pop landscape. Although it's worth noting: in recent years, the American market has come around to the sort of dance-heavy pop that emanates from Europe. 

Still, his move certainly doesn’t help EMI’s current auction by corporate holders Citigroup, believed to be considerably short of the $4 billion price they hoped to bring in after the first round of bidding. According to Billboard.biz, the company has been "cleaning up" the second-round bids, but its owners are still considering whether to split up the label and publishing divisions or postpone the sale altogether

Among the reported bidders? Universal, which is in the running to acquire EMI’s recorded music operation, home to Coldplay and The Beatles. A source tells THR that Citigroup is planning to announce its choice for preferred bidders in seven days. 

Williams' Universal debut is slated for release in fall of 2012.

Update: A spokesman for EMI says Williams is no longer signed to Capitol in the U.S., as this report previously stated.  

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin