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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.