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.

Rethink Media is organised by Birmingham City University – a national leader in media education – and aims to support emerging media by showcasing new business models and the tools to improve content creation, maximise distribution and support audience engagement.

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.