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As the com­pi­la­tion al­bum to end all oth­ers gets set to cel­e­brate its 100th out­ing, we in­ves­ti­gate our still-en­dur­ing re­la­tion­ship with the chart-blaz­ing pop comp.

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…”

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, mul­ti­plat­inum 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

“100 Nows is a very scary thing.” Mark Good­ier

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 biggestever 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

“The charts have slowed down but we al­ways have more tracks than we can fit onto the CDs.” Jenny Fisher, di­rec­tor, Now That’s What I Call Mu­sic!

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.”

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.

Pop­tas­tic, mate! (clock­wise from be­low) Du­ran, Frankie, Wham!... just some of the ’ 80s icons grac­ing July 1984’ s Now 3 al­bum; the 1920s poster that in­spired the Now brand; the Now se­ries’ co-cre­ator Jon Web­ster (right) with Phil Collins in 1989.

Call the comps: Happy Mon­days’ mara­cas man Bez pitches in with a Mad­ch­ester An­thems set in 2006; (left) mu­sic con­sul­tant Denise Beighton, who says: “A com­pi­la­tion al­bum doesn’t call you from a club at 4am be­cause it’s about to go on­stage and has lost its lip­stick.”

Tracey Ull­man, who did the first Now TV spot in 1983.

Now that’s what I call a voiceover artist! DJ Mark Good­ier has been Now’s ad mouth­piece since 1992.

“We’re a fam­i­lyfriendly brand,” says Jenny Fisher, NTWICM di­rec­tor.

Bob’s yer un­cle: Mar­ley’s es­tate agreed to clear an orig­i­nal song for 2018’ s Is­land Reg­gae com­pi­la­tion al­bum.

Shut up and play the hits: (from left) the very first Now That’s What I Call Mu­sic al­bum, which was re­leased in Novem­ber 1983 (note, ’ 80s pop roy­alty Phil Collins ap­pear­ing not once but twice on the cover); the mile­stone Now 100, in all its glory, which is due out this July.

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