How ‘Now That’s What I Call Music!’ Won The Music Industry

Quick straw poll. What’s the best-selling album of 2013 so far? Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memories’? David Bowie’s ‘The Next Day’? The Les Mis soundtrack? Emeli Bloody Sandé..? Not even close. ‘Now That’s What I Call Music! 85’ is blowing everyone else’s album sales well out of the water. Sandé’s ‘Our Version Of Events’ is the best-selling artist album with 660,000 copies while ‘Now 85’ has sold a whopping 898,000. ‘Now That’s What I Call Music! 84’ is the second biggest selling album over-all, with over 720,000 sales under its belt.

Since the very first Now was released 30 years ago today (November 28), the compilations have spent 515 weeks at number one in the charts. That’s almost 10 years in a row. While trends and scenes come and go, this phenomenon is alive and healthier than ever.

The very first Now (1983) kicked off with Phil Collins’ ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ and wound down with Culture Club’s ‘Victims’. With original covers emblazoned with a funky pig and technicolour graphics, it threw its cards on the table with brio. “There was no filler on it, only hits, because all the other compilations had filler on them,” says Jon Webster, who came up with the idea with Virgin Records colleague Stephen Navin.

Though the choice of tracks was unashamedly simple – mega hits – the detailed curation involved more thought. “There was often a fight between certain acts that wanted to be track one, side one,” Webster remembers. “There was a stand-off one year between Paul McCartney and Queen. EMI had the difficult issue of sorting that out.” As time changed, you’d often find the esoteric tracks on the second half of the second side of Now. Underworld, Björk, DJ Quicksilver and BBE were slightly more challenging and adult to my 11 year-old ears than Spice Girls and Oasis. Novelty tracks would also be renegaded to the graveyard section.

“There are records that polarize people, and I’m gonna have to be very careful here, records that are maybe more like novelty records, they tended to be put away towards the end. Remember ‘The Chicken Song’? I’m not gonna say it was my proudest moment,” says Webster.

The team behind Now used a kind of Nielsen F-Shaped Pattern for programming the track list. “It had been found that when you read a track listing, on the back of an album, you start at track one, side one, at the top left and then your eye moves across the top, down the right-hand side and then up the other side so then you tend to hide unpopular tracks at the end of side one or side two something like that.”

As the world became digitalised, they assumed Now’s popularity would fade. Webster attributes part of Now’s success today to the demise of the CD single. “If you are a CD buyer and you’ve never embraced digital music and you want to buy loads of singles, the only way to buy them is on a ‘Now’ album. That’s why they’ve endured.”

Part of Now’s magic has been the ability to direct itself to young people while appealing to people over 30 years. “Only brands such as Radio 1 and NME have done this in music, and perhaps Star Wars in films,” says Peter Duckworth, current joint-MD of Now in 2013. “People remember their first Now album with reverence and deep fondness. It seems to fill them with early memories of music and how much that music meant to them. And they’ll often buy the latest Now album for their own kids to give them the same experience they so valued.”

Another potent reason why Now is so indestructible is its basic, by-numbers curation. For a music fan who doesn’t have the time or energy to scour streaming services, YouTube, social networks and blogs, faced with millions of tracks, the Now compilation is attractive.

But perhaps most of all, the power of Now is nostalgia. Music is one of places we first exercise choice and experiment with identity during formative years. While many of the 85 million Now compilations sold in the last 30 years may have been Christmas gifts from Granddad, chances are you probably found a track or two on there that would influence and direct your tastes. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding the track-listing to Nows 33, 34 or 35 a Proustian Madeleine. One glimpse of the weird naff gold cover and I can smell the £1 Spectacular nail varnish I bought each Saturday, feel the velvet of my favourite (awful) trousers and taste the adrenaline at discovering this crazy world of pop.

You can read about NME writers’ favourite Now compilations here and we’ve also mocked up (just for a bit of fun) an Ultimate Now compilation taking the best songs from decades. Now that’s what I really call music. Do you agree?