Longform

How Bob Marley Was Sold to the Suburbs

At the time of his death, in May 1981, Bob Marley was 36 years old and reggae’s biggest star. He was not, however, a big seller.

For Dave Robinson, this presented an opportunity. Two years after Marley’s passing, Chris Blackwell, founder of Marley’s label, Island Records, brought Robinson in to run his U.K. operation. Robinson’s first assignment was to put out a compilation of Bob Marley’s hits. He took one look at the artist’s sales figures and was shocked. Marley’s best-selling album, 1977’s Exodus, had moved only 650,000 units in the United States and fewer than 200,000 in the United Kingdom. They were not shabby numbers, but they weren’t in line with his profile. Robinson had seen the way Island had marketed Marley in the past and believed it was responsible for the mediocre numbers. Robinson believed he could sell a million copies of a compilation, but to do it, he would have to repackage not just a collection of songs, but Marley himself. “My vision of Bob from a marketing point of view,” Robinson says, “was to sell him to the white world.” Read the entire story of how Legend became one of the biggest sellers in the world.

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Chris Kornelis