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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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours - but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.

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