September 09, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

U2 just found what they were looking for: A $50 million deal with PolyGram to release three greatest hits albums. The first two discs will be released on November 2. One will contain their “best” songs from 1980 to 1990, while the second will feature B-sides. The third, which will chronicle their hits from the 1990’s, may be out by next Christmas.

This is an exorbitant payout for PolyGram, especially considering that U2 doesn’t need to produce any new music to cash in. But in light of the record company’s uncertain future — it will soon be bought by Seagram for $10.4 billion — keeping U2 happy may be PolyGram’s way to still appear viable, says EW music critic David Browne. “It’s like when Warner Brothers resigned R.E.M. in ’96 for $80 million,” says Browne. Warner was in flux, with top execs being shuffled and artists (like The Artist) fleeing the label. “They could not afford to lose big acts. R.E.M. was their last vestige of credibility.”

The problem in the current scenario is that U2 isn’t quite as credible as they used to be. Their last album, 1997’s “Pop,” was a commercial disappointment. To date, it has only certified platinum (one million copies), compared to 1987’s “The Joshua Tree,” which has sold more than 10 million copies. So while ingratiating itself to U2 might make for fine bragging rights, PolyGram’s huge payment might not be as impressive to its employees. “People there are worried they’re going to be laid off after the merger,” says Browne, “and here’s PolyGram shelling out all that money. I wonder how the assistants over there feel about this deal.”

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