How Pop Ate Itself (And Went Back For More)

cd-Now music.jpg

This article originally appeared in Q387.

This month, the landmark album of the year was released: Now That’s What I Call Music! 100. It’s the latest instalment of the hits series that began in 1983 and has frequently outsold all-comers since. Peter Robinson investigates its genesis and our surprisingly enduring love affair with the compilation album.

Pop would be boring without chancers and opportunists. In the ’70s, a young employee at a Manchester record store funded an emergency repressing of the Buzzcocks’ debut EP, handing the band’s manager a cheque for £600 – partial profits from having laid on coach transportation to gigs by Status Quo and Pink Floyd. By the ’90s, the same man was frustrated that Phil Collins had fallen foul of block-voting at the Brits; he invented his own awards and the Mercury Music Prize was born. But it was during the decade in-between – in 1983, as Virgin Records’ general manager – that Jon Webster truly made pop history.

Back then the label was running out of a converted warehouse: a health and safety nightmare, Webster tells Q today: the carpets were rotting, the place was chaos. “One day I went to see the head of legal, Steve Navin,” Webster recalls. “He said, ‘God, look at all these telexes coming in with offers. What are we going to do?’” The offers were from Ronco and K-Tel, labels who licensed major labels’ songs for piled-high, sold-cheap compilations. They all wanted exclusives. They all offered different rates. “It was at that point,” Webster says, “that one of us, it’s a point of contention who, said, ‘Well, why can’t we do this ourselves?’”

They fished a scrap of paper out of the bin and scribbled some figures. By the time they took the project to their boss the compilation was still without a title; Hot Hits had been considered but rejected. But on the wall was a gift from Richard Branson: a framed 1920s ad for bacon, picked up in a local shop. It showed a pig leaning over a fence, listening to a warbling hen. Written across the top: “Now, that’s what I call music.”

That fished-out-of-the-bin piece of paper might as well have been a blank cheque. The first Now album sold a million copies in less than a month and over the last 35 years it’s become a sales behemoth – for example, Now 95 outsold Adele to become the biggest-selling album of 2015, while figures released near the end of 2017 showed Nows 95, 96 and 97 as that year’s best-selling compilations.

As for 2018: here comes the big one. “A hundred Nows is a very scary thing,” admits Mark Goodier, who’s voiced Now TV ads since 1992. “It’s also a very good thing, of course. But it’s mad, isn’t it? Absolutely mad…”

now_100_stadium300dp.jpg

For a format that’s unglamorously functional at both ends – extra cash for labels, less cash spent by record buyers – the compilation album occupies a passionate spot in most music fans’ musical psyche. However sophisticated our tastes eventually become, most of us find our musical journey involves a cherished hits collection, whether it’s the one specific Now album we’ll always insist is the very best of all time, or one of the ropey Top Of The Pops covers albums that spawned 92 editions between the late-’60s and the mid-’80s, or an album such as Trainspotting that seemed to soundtrack a generation just as effectively as it soundtracked an hour or two of celluloid.

In the UK, the king of the compilation is arguably Don Reedman, who joined K-Tel in the early-’70s: figures suggest he’s been behind 40 million compilation sales although, he tells Q today, “it’s probably nearer 50 million.” K-Tel made its fortune in TV-advertised gadgets such as the Veg-O-Matic food slicer but when the snappily-titled 25 Great Country Artists Singing Their Original Hits became a surprise success in the mid-’60s, the company started pumping out regular compilations. Labels reluctantly agreed to license their songs to K-Tel on the proviso that they’d get an upfront fee.

Reedman’s opening volley was 20 Dynamic Hits. “It sold more than a million,” Don reports – in fact, it was 1972’s biggest-selling album. “Suddenly, I was off to the races.” Squeezing 20 songs onto one disc meant editing songs down, “but we told the labels and they didn’t mind – I think they just wanted the money. Especially when they saw the cheques that were coming in.”

During the ’80s Reedman developed the Hits series as a direct rival to Now and found an early champion in George Michael. “He was very supportive when he was 22,” Reedman recalls. “He told me he loved compilations because he’d used them himself to discover new artists.” (Hits 1 outselling Now 4 prompted changes for Now. “We still had the pig,” Jon Webster remembers, “and that pig polarised people.” By Now 6, the pig was gone.) For any compilation the tracklisting is vital, Reedman adds. “It’s an art. It’s a feeling. It’s an emotion. I’ll stay up for hours tweaking until I’ve got it right. Eventually it feels like a great album, and I know when I’ve got a winner.”

In the wake of Now, and with consumers reacquiring old music on the apparently future-proof format of CD, compilations exploded. Jon Webster reckons an ’80s Now placement could generate more than £50K for an act, and one music manager tells Q that the figure holds true in 2018, but not everyone played ball. Webster recalls Madonna and U2 being a problem; Don Reedman remembers that in the 1970s Elton John was a notorious hold-out (the solution, he discovered, was simply to throw more cash at the problem).

Music consultant Denise Beighton, who’s worked on more recent, multi-platinum titles such as Chick Flicks, School Reunion and the Heartbeat TV show series, remembers one very famous pop star objecting so strongly to her inclusion on an album called WAGs that the CDs were destroyed before they even left the pressing plant. When it came to Tearjerkers, originally conceived as a funeral album, Roberta Flack flatly refused to license The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face: “We ended up re-recording it with Easther Bennett from Eternal. That version ended up getting licensed to about 20 other compilations.”

Beighton admits it’s often necessary to base an entire album’s flow around the approval of one artist, a factor that’s particularly true of one of 2018’s biggest summer releases: Island Reggae marks the first time that Bob Marley’s estate have, according to the label, cleared an original song for a compilation.

“They probably had no intention of ever clearing,” suggests Universal Music On Demand’s MD Simon Barnabas, who came up with the album concept. “They’re approached each summer by every label. It’s always ‘no thank you’, on a global level. But last year I wondered if maybe there was a way. The president of Island Records suggested that if we had the right tracklisting and the right creative direction it might work. We needed to prove to the Bob Marley estate that it wasn’t just a terrible album full of naff reggae artists. They were forensic in the way they looked over it.”

Alternatively, there are comps such as 1999’s Keith Chegwin-fronted Chegger’s Choice: The Worst Album On The Planet, which has aged badly in more ways than one: the tracklist includes Rolf Harris, Jonathan King and Gary Glitter. Another classic is 2006’s Bez’s Madchester Anthems: Sorted Tunes From Back In The Day!, which took a cavalier approach to any reasonable definition of Madchester but was curiously well-curated. How did Bez get the idea, and how did he pick the tracks? Let’s ask the man himself.

“I’ve got to confess, I didn’t actually pick any of the songs on it,” he blares down the phone from Manchester. He sounds genuinely remorseful. “I just stood there for the photographs with maracas in me hand. They said they were doing a compilation album and asked if I’d put my name on it. So that’s what I did!” Ultimately, Bez’s reward was more tangible than a Reedman-esque warm glow of artistic satisfaction. “They paid me eight thousand pounds,” he reports. “Eight grand! I wasn’t complaining.”

In November 1999, Now 44 sold more than 2.3m copies, went seven times platinum and became the brand’s biggest-ever release. The bad news: six months earlier, Napster had arrived.

Napster’s zero-pence price point represented a major attack on compilation albums’ promise of value for money – particularly at a time when computers now came equipped with CD burners. By 2001, fans felt challenged to fill their iPods with songs, and in 2004 the iTunes Music Store provided a mainstream, legal way of doing just that. These five years changed the entire music industry, but the sudden accessibility of pop’s entire back catalogue seemed like particularly bad news for the compilations market. Indeed, the launch of iTunes Music Store looked like the straw that broke the camel’s back: in 2004 compilation sales were down, and they carried on falling for a decade. “As consultants pitching ideas to labels, doors were being closed more and more,” recalls Denise Beighton. “People were frightened.”

At Universal, Simon Barnabas adds that the compilations sector responded by bucking up its ideas. “People were talking about the end of compilations, but we said, ‘Clearly we can’t get away with just doing 20 tracks, we can’t get away with fillers, we need to make them more premium.’” At the moment Barnabas is working on releases for this Christmas. “We’re certainly not in ‘batten down the hatches!’ mode – it’s about finding things that cut through.”

Denise Beighton says the trick is to look at trends and thinks there’s mileage, for instance, in an album for 30-something women who want to put their feet up. It’s based on a hashtag that populates Twitter every Friday afternoon: #wineoclock. She hasn’t found a label yet, but has a Spotify playlist on the go just in case. And creating compilations has unexpected benefits compared with managing artists. There’s still job satisfaction when something works, she explains, “but a compilation album doesn’t call you from a club at 4am because it’s about to go onstage and has lost its lipstick.”

 Jenny Fisher, Now That's What I Call Music director. Credit: Simon Sarin

Jenny Fisher, Now That's What I Call Music director. Credit: Simon Sarin

Over at Now HQ, plans are underway for the 100th edition. As soon as Now 99 closed, director Jenny Fisher started compiling its successor. She bats away a suggestion that streaming’s impact on the charts – slower progress for new releases, fewer hits – leaves Now struggling to fill three double albums each year. “The charts have slowed down but we always have more tracks than we can fit onto the CDs.”

In any case, not all hits are equal. Fisher points to Kylie Minogue’s presence on Now 99 – Kylie’s right for the Now brand, even if single Dancing was her worst-performing comeback ever and spent just one week inside the lower reaches of the Top 40. There’s one hard and fast rule, one unswervable condition, though: no swearing. “We’re a family-friendly brand,” Fisher states. “There has to be a clean version.” What if someone refuses to comply? “They know the rules.”

Mark Goodier’s already got his Now 100 voiceover in the diary; he’ll likely be 91 when Now 200 needs some shouting. “It’s impossible to conceive how the music business will be configured in 10 years, let alone 30,” he laughs. “But I’m trying to get my daughter Grace to do a voice-reel on the off-chance.”

Now’s position as a family brand partly explains its longevity: in 2016, 62 per cent of Now 95 sales were gifts. But the biggest recipient group was teenagers, many of whom will have wondered where to stick the plastic discs and returned to YouTube. And the gift window won’t always be open. A decade from now, aunts and uncles looking for a last-minute Christmas present will belong to a demographic that simply didn’t grow up paying for music.

“Now has never been restricted by format,” is the optimistic view of Now’s director of digital, Alex McCloy. He refers to the Now archive and formats such as cassette, MiniDisc, VCD and memory card, says streaming and download figures are strong, and points to the recent success of the Now Music app: “We follow where the music goes. People will always need guidance and Now has been a signpost over the last 35 years.”

Whether it will prove a more useful signpost than major label-owned playlist brands such as Topsify remains to be seen, but with compilation sales having stabilised there’s a strong chance that Now 100 will be the biggest compilation in recent memory. Jenny Fisher’s deadline for Now 100 is 2 July, when the compilation will be mastered at London’s Abbey Road studio. That leaves around two and a half weeks for the entire thing to be manufactured and sent to shops, but it also means that in theory there’s time for anyone reading this to record, release and license a song for inclusion on Now 100. Still time, then, for another chancing opportunist to claim their own place in pop history. 

FACTS, FIGURES AND TRIVIA ABOUT NOW THAT'S WHAT I CALL MUSIC!...

- Robbie Williams is the reigning Now king with 30 appearances, but Rihanna and Calvin Harris are each on 27 and Harris had three on Now 80 alone.
- Global title variations include Now! Hits Référence (France), Now These Are The Hits Today! (Greece) and Now This Is Music (Spain).
- The original Mark Goodier was Tracey Ullman, bellowing Kes sportsmaster Brian Glover later voiced “the pig”, and David “Kid” Jensen filled in until Goodier took the reins.
- Recent spin-offs include Now That’s What I Call Jazz, …Dad Rock and …Footie Anthems. Most egregious: Now That’s What I Call A Song.
- The US edition, which releases four LPs a year to the UK’s three, is currently at Now 66 and will hit Now 100 in 2026.