30 years on, is it time to say goodbye to the 'Now That's What I Call Music!' compilations?

How do the long-running CD compilations fit into a music industry dominated by streaming music, downloads and digital platforms?

I have never been an avid listener of top 40 chart music, especially in 1983 when I was a young idealistic and politically motivated anarcho-punk. I had a British government to overthrow and the likes of Phil Collins, Paul Young, Madonna, Culture Club, and Michael Jackson were never going to be the ideal soundtrack to my revolution or inspire me politically to stand up and fight back against the system. So really, chart music in the 1980s pretty much slipped past me almost unnoticed apart from two particular events in 1983 that, it could be argued, changed the face of popular music for better and/or for worse.

The first was in March of 1983 and was the digital music ‘revolution’ of the early eighties; the Compact Disc, or better referred to as the CD, went on sale for the first time  in the UK. This was heralded as the ultimate in high fidelity digital reproduction and listening and, unlike the vinyl record, was scratch proof, tea, coffee and child proof and almost ‘indestructible’ – none of which, for those who foolishly believed the marketing spiel, turned out to be true.

The second event was in the December of that same year. With the retail run up to Christmas approaching and an opportunity to set cash registers ringing into meltdown, Richard Branson, owner and CEO of Virgin Records, entrepreneur and never one to miss an opportunity to make money, took it upon himself, along with backing from EMI, to ‘grace’ us with the first ever ‘Now That’s What I Call Music!’ compilation album. The idea of a chart music compilation album was not new, even by 1983 standards. Pickwick Records had successfully created and sold a series of records in the 1970s entitled ‘Top of the Pops’ which contained anonymous cover versions of recent and current chart hit singles of the time. Although they did not contain the original artists the recordings were intended to replicate the sound of the original hits as closely as possible. Other companies such as K-Tel, Music For Pleasure and Stereo Gold Award soon followed suit with their own versions of the pop chart compilation album format.

So when Branson and EMI executives released the first Now album, which did contain the original artists and recordings, many of who (unsurprisingly) were signed to Virgin Records and EMI, it was an immediate success amongst a particular section of the record buying public. Fast forward to May 2013 and the Now ‘brand’ released its 30th Anniversary compilation that featured some of the biggest hits that have featured over the previous 84 (yes! 84!) volumes of their compilation album format. Now 84 has become this year’s fastest selling album and the Now series has sold over 85 million copies in the UK alone. I say Now ‘brand’ because what began as a western popular music compilation album has become the biggest and best-selling popular music compilation series of all time. Even across the globe with regional variations on the theme of collecting all the big tunes in those particular regions. It has also branched out into merchandise, board games, synchronisation deals with Disney, Nintendo (Wii) and covering every possible permutation of music including Now Disco, Now Reggae, Now Classical, Now Xmas, Now Chill……  and my personal favourite Now Please Stop Releasing These Compilations! (not an actual Now release). The list is endless.

The brand has also taken the digital landscape head on and embraced the new realms of digital music platforms with a Now Spotify Channel, Now You Tube Channel and a Now iPhone app. In a new era where people have switched from CD to MP3 and digital downloads, where purchasing single tunes from albums is commonplace and economically sensible, you would think that there is no place for a compilation CD anymore? But no!  Just when you thought that this wounded animal was in its death throes it just plain refuses to die! It turns out that sales of compilation albums are on the increase as they’re cheaper than buying tracks individually. According to Jeff Moskow, Head of A&R for Now, only 15 per cent of Now’ssales are digital which means 85 per cent still come from traditional CD sales. Soundscan, which is one of the most widely used music sales tracking systems, show that digital sales in 2011 were larger than physical sales for the first time, however CDs still sell well in large chain stores and supermarkets – perhaps where Now’s target audiences regularly congregate. In its early days Now’s target audience was predominantly female until hip-hop started entering the compilations mix and now the gender split is pretty equal. What the Now brand has done is recognise the popularity of particular genres or trends in popular music (culture) amongst audiences and featured those songs and artists on their compilations. As Moskow says “electronic dance music is one of the biggest genres, and it’s growing, so that sound is reflected in our brand and songs.” “We’re not critiquing music, just curating it,” says Moskow, who has personally selected the songs on every album since Now 3. “We really don’t care what it sounds like.”

I am no longer that eighteen year old idealistic and politically motivated ‘anarcho-punk’, however I am still a fan of punk music, and always will be, and I still like to stick two fingers up to the ‘man’ and the ‘system’ in some sort of faux defiance whenever and wherever possible. Fortunately for me my favourite music form has not been tarnished with the Now brush-there is no ‘Now! That’s What I Call Anarcho-Punk …’ and let’s hope there never will be. As I said at the beginning of this blog post, two particular events happened in 1983 that, it could be argued, changed the face of popular music for better and/or for worse. You can decide for yourselves which one was for better or worse….. I know which one my money is on.

Matt Grimes is the Degree Leader for Music Industries at Birmingham City University.

Rethink Media Conference returns to Birmingham on 25 March 2014 and will provide inspiring insights, informed debate and potential solutions to the many challenges facing the fast evolving digital media sector.

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I'd only given a literary talk, but someone still told me to leave the country

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

So here I am at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square. Eventually. After a misunderstanding that finds me first, forlorn and bemused, at Olympia, with the London Book Fair closing down for the evening, watching my fee grow wings and fly away into the night air. I am called up and told where I could more profitably go instead – that is to say, the venue I should be at. On reassurance that my expenses will be met, I hop into a cab as soon as I find one (which, on Kensington High Street at 7pm, takes far longer than you would think. I will not use Uber).

I am going there in order to be on a panel that is talking about Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944), the Romanian intellectual, poet, essayist, philosopher and all-round dude. I know nothing about the guy beyond what I learned from reviewing a selection of his writings last July but this makes me, apparently, one of this country’s leading experts on him. Such is the level of intellectual curiosity in this part of the world. Fondane was treated much better in Paris, where he moved after finding studying law in Bucharest too boring; treated very much worse in 1944, when he was sent to Auschwitz.

A little corner of me is panicking a bit before the gig starts: I know next to nothing about the man, especially compared to my co-panellists, and I might betray this to the audience of around 80 (I refer to their number, not their age), sitting in their little gilt chairs, in a nice gilt drawing room, which is par for the course for European cultural institutes in this neck of the woods.

Another part of me says: “Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine,” and it turns out I am. I even manage to throw in a few jokes. During the course of one of my answers I say that the UK is a cultural desert and that there was a reason Fondane stopped moving when he got to Paris. The idea of coming to London to breathe the pure air of artistic freedom and inspiration was, and remains, laughable. It gets a chuckle or two out of the (mostly Mittel-European) audience, who like a bit of British self-deprecation as much as we do.

Or do we? Downstairs, and clutching my first glass of the evening (a perfectly drinkable Romanian Merlot), I chat to various people who come up and say they like my reviews etc, etc. All very pleasant. And then a man comes up to me, about my age, maybe a year or three younger, smartly tweeded.

“I was very offended by what you said about this country being a cultural desert,” he says. He is not joking.

“Oh?” I say. “Well, it is.”

He has the look of someone about to come up with a devastating argument.

“What about Shakespeare?” he asks me. “What about Oscar Wilde?”

“They’re dead,” I say, leaving aside the fact that Wilde was Irish, and that anywhere was better than Ireland in the 19th century for gay playwrights.

“So’s Fondane,” he says.

I think at this point I might have raised my glasses and massaged the bridge of my nose with finger and thumb, a sign for those who know me of extreme exasperation, and a precursor to verbal violence.

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

“Do not presume to tell me, sir, whether I should leave the country.”

He tells me he has a Polish wife, as if that has any bearing on the matter. He says something else, which for the life of me I can’t remember, but I do know that when I replied to it, I used only one word, and that the word was “bollocks”.

“Well, if you’re going to use bad language . . .”

“I’ve got more,” I say, and proceed to launch a volley of it at him. Things have escalated quickly, I know, but there is no jest in his tone and what I am detecting is, I realise, his strong awareness of the Z in my name, my nose, and my flawless olive complexion. One develops antennae for this kind of thing, after almost half a century. And there’s a lot more of it about these days.

In the end, I become pretty much incoherent. On stage I’d caught myself thinking: “Golly, talking is even easier than writing;” but now my fluency deserts me. But God, it’s fun getting into a fight like this.

I’ve left my tobacco at home but the Romanian government gives me a whole pack of Marlboro Gold, and more wine. Vata-n libertate ori moarte! As they say. You can work it out. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution