Now that’s what I call an oral history of Now That’s What I Call Music!

Now that’s what I call an oral history of Now That’s What I Call Music!

Photo: Virgin / EMI
Photo: Virgin / EMI

Now That’s What I Call Music! feels like a distant memory, a present you got for Christmas when Juicy sweatsuits were a thing. Yet, the series continues to be successfully sold in CD form. It’s remarkable to think that anyone besides Adele might be able to move physical copies, never mind the irrelevance of professional curation in the age of streaming services. But this juggernaut of nostalgia has endured since the days of the teenaged music industry of the early ’80s.

Photo: Ronco

At the time, the U.K.-based record company Virgin was a smaller unknown on the precipice of its golden age. Virgin was using a share of its fledgling library to license tracks to companies like K-tel and Ronco to recoup royalties. The compilations that came out of those negotiations were so cheesy and phoned-in that one of them was actually titled Raiders Of The Pop Charts. As Culture Club launched and The Human League’s third album began taking off, Virgin’s repertoire began expanding. It occurred to the company’s legal representative Stephen Navin and head of marketing Jon Webster that the label might be able to make its own compilations.

Before Now! was introduced in 1983, compilations were seen as tacky. The compression was messy with tracks often being cut off mid-song. Sleeves were simple, if not simply cheap. For the most part, the business was helmed by companies who dealt in TV advertising, sloppily pulling together songs as just another product to be sold. From the start, Virgin—and eventually Virgin in partnership with EMI—understood that the company needed to replicate the visceral joy of purchasing an album using the medium of compilations. Virgin needed to create a brand.

The other challenge was convincing major artists to participate. Along with their managers, big acts were concerned about how being on Now! would affect their reputation or cannibalize sales. But the promise that this was a record company curating the best of the best with care convinced them to take the risk. Well, that and a few personal calls from Richard Branson. Eventually, Now! came to represent the gold standard in compilations, with more No. 1 hits than The Beatles. It became a snapshot of the musical moment, and, at one point, allegedly had Queen and Paul McCartney vying against one another for a track one, side one spot.

The A.V. Club spoke to Webster and Navin; original compiler Ashley Abram, who worked on Now! from 1983 to 2012; the current U.K. heads of the brand, Peter Duckworth and Steven Pritchard, who joined the company in 1991; and U.S. compiler Jeff Moskow, who has been with Now! since the fourth edition of the series was released in the states. Together, the six men told the story of Now!, from the inception of its title—derived from a picture of a pig talking to a rooster—to the establishment of the current family-friendly iteration of the brand, and the way it has defiantly survived in spite of the rise of digital music and streaming services.

Track one, side one: The making of Now! 1

Photo: Danish

Jon Webster: Stephen and I came up with the idea, though we still slightly argue about who it was.

Stephen Navin: It’s one of those classic music industry comments: A flop is just a bastard, but a hit has many fathers.

Webster: In those days, there were three TV merchandising companies doing these compilations. I worked at Virgin and they were constantly telexing us—it was even pre-fax back then. These compilation companies were making us offers for tracks and often competing with each other. Stephen Navin called me and said “Who are we going to license these to? Should we give all to one company or some of them?”

Navin: I was a business-affairs lawyer at the time at Virgin, and one of my tasks was to license all of our tracks to third-party TV advertising companies, names like K-tel and Ronco. It was a lot of bargaining and convincing them to take lesser tracks as well when we needed to recoup royalties.

Ashley Abram: Ronco was barely even a music company when I worked for them on compilations. They had put out products and gadgets with compilation records on the side.

Webster: These companies would write and say, “I want to license six tracks, I will pay you £2,000 and a royalty of 18 percent” or “I want eight tracks and I will give you £3,000 and royalty of 20 percent.” We’d say, “Okay, if you take these few tracks as well.” It just went round and round, until one of us said, “Well couldn’t we do this ourselves?”

After we came up with the idea, we drew up a plan for how we might do this and how much it would cost. Then we just sat there and went, “Wow, this could be fun. This could be really lucrative.”

Navin: The head of the company at the time was Simon Draper. I worked very closely with him in the context of whether we should license tracks or not and whether we should go back and get the artist’s consent or the manager’s consent or whatever, so I went to see him one day. I said, “We’ve just had an incredible run on licensing tracks, but it seems to me that there’s a real commercial opportunity here that we should be grasping, to do the licensing ourselves.”

Webster: We almost had enough tracks on our own to make that first record, because it was one of Virgin’s best-ever years.

Navin: We had such incredible talent on our roster at the time. You could put out a compilation album with just a mass of our tracks. But, of course, that’s not what the Now! series is about. The Now! series is about getting the very best, the actual cream of the cream of what was hot. So, we realized we needed partners.

Webster: EMI was our distributor and they were a big, old-fashioned record company in the U.K. So, we went to have a meeting with them and said, “Why don’t we do this together? You’ve got lots of hits, we’ve got lots of hits.” It’s like a show tune, you know, [Singing.] “Let’s fall in love!”

Navin: Simon said we ought to talk to EMI and perhaps we can talk to one of the other majors to make sure we get a fantastic combination of tracks. And I said we should get Jon in. Jon was the marketing director at the time and I knew he’d be great for it. Then the question became, “Oh, well, what should we call it?”

Webster: We just got an idea of the logo and did it on the back of a cigarette packet.

Navin: I’m afraid I’m a man given to punning, and looking around Simon’s room there was a little framed advertisement for Danish bacon, which is a lovely drawing of a cockerell on the wall and a pig with some musical notation coming out of his beak. And on the ground looking up at it in admiration is a pig and the shout line beneath the pig is saying, “Now that’s what I call music!” My eyes alighted upon the wording and it just seemed to me, “That’s it! Let’s call it that! It says exactly what we want to say.”

Abram: The series took its name from a picture of a pig saying, “Now that’s what I call music!” as he listened to a chicken singing. It’s ridiculous. There was a lot of worry that people wouldn’t know what it meant. I think there was a real concern of “What does that mean?” Or “What on earth is that?” But it’s like any name, once it takes a hold and people get used to it, it’s kind of a different story.

Peter Duckworth: I came on in 1991 and one of the ways I’ve been involved in marketing is with the visual element. The Now! logo has changed quite a bit over the years. There was a strange pig involved in the very early days. I’m not sure who came up with that.

Now that’s what I call branding!

Photo: Virgin / EMI

Jeff Moskow: Compilations have always been, to this day, significantly more popular in the U.K. than they have in the U.S. There’s a separate compilation chart in the U.K. Retail is different now, but in the late ’80s and ’90s, you would go into a record store in the U.K. and there would be a compilation wall. There would be a whole separate compilation section. So, it just became more a part of their culture. And, for some reason, here it just wasn’t.

Webster: Before Now!, these three companies had carved out a compilation market for themselves. If you look back in the U.K., we always had a tradition—and I don’t think happened in America—of people doing cover versions of big hits, of putting out cheap albums of cover versions of hits. They were called Top Of The Pops. An album in those days might have cost £2 and an album of cover versions of hits would cost, like, 75 pence.

Navin: Compilations were considered irrelevant by a lot of record companies. The original albums done before Now! were done badly, because the compression was a mess. They’d be cut off randomly in the middle of the song to make them fit, and they didn’t sound very good because the grooves were so tight.

Abram: They weren’t always the best quality and didn’t always have the best artists, but they were fairly popular in the U.K. They were successful and did well in terms of sales.

Webster: Overall, they were seen as tacky. So, lots of big artists decided they didn’t ever want to be on those records, and they did have the kind of controls in terms of having to give permission to stop them happening.

Navin: You would have some fantastic discussions with managers and artists about whether it was a good thing for their career or not deep down to the sales of a single. Did it help? Did it hinder the sales of the album? All of those sort of conversations were had with artists and managers on a regular basis, especially in the beginning.

Steven Pritchard: I think for one of the first Now!s, Richard Branson actually phoned up Mick Jagger and got the Rolling Stones to participate. That was a few years before I came along, but that sort of attitude helped with U.K. artists.

Abram: Richard would say things like, “Oh, should we get The Rolling Stones for Now! 2.” And a lot of people would say, “Oh, no, they’re the past, they’re not really the cutting edge of 1984 pop music.” But I thought, if we could get them, we might be able to get someone else, which is what happened. Then, bit by bit, you walk away with a lot of acts.

Webster: We did have to work quite hard to convince people. Partly what we did was give better royalty rates than the third-party companies were offering. Then, of course, it got so successful, people began to see the cash flow that was coming in and going, “Oh, we like this.”

Navin: When the damn thing took off it just was so successful. It was a phenomenon.

Pritchard: Today, Now! confirms status. People expect to see artists of a certain stature on Now! Artists will share that they are included or tweet about it. It’s become a mark of having arrived.

Webster: Eventually, it got to the point of artists quibbling over being side one, track one. There was one particular battle, I think between Queen and Paul McCartney. They said, “Yeah, we’ll be on the album, but we want to be track one, side one.” Luckily, that was an EMI problem, not a Virgin problem. I think what they did is they put one on track one on disc one and the other on track one, side one on disc two or something like that. I can’t remember; it was some ridiculous compromise.

Abram: The first album I officially compiled was Now! 2. I managed to get superstar acts like Queen, David Bowie, Paul McCartney on the first Now! that I compiled. I think what convinced them is the fact that it was being done by the record companies. So, I managed to get some of these bigger artists on and eventually we got to a stage where a lot of the acts were coming on the album.

Webster: From the start, we separated ourselves from the previous compilations with packaging. They were all basic black-and-white or black-and-red sleeves; there was no class to it. So from the first one, we made sure we put sleeve notes on there; we made sure we put pictures of the albums that they came from.

Abram: One thing that I helped in convincing artists is that Now! was sort of souped-up. It had beautiful packaging, liner notes and all that. It made for a luxurious product that was much more exciting than the original third-party compilations.

Webster: There were also the ad campaigns, which made it so easy to sell to retail. I said, “Look, we’ve got this album coming out. It is full of quality hits and we’re going to spend a quarter of a million pounds TV advertising it.” It was as simple as that. We went out and opened with a 60-second ad, which was unheard of at the time, and it just went mad.

Navin: You also have to remember, that first vinyl was gorgeous. It wasn’t the logo you see today.

Pritchard: But by the time I came one for Now! 19, they were really struggling with an identity. I was concerned that the sleeve was changing on every release. I felt the brand should have a logo and stick with it. So, Now! 20 was the first one where we developed the 3-D logo, that is still used today. It was an attempt at something that looked monumental, almost like 20th Century Fox. It was harder to do that than I realized. It would be easy to do that on a computer, but going back 25 years it was actually stretching the capabilities of 3-D graphic engineering. That first 3-D logo I think it took about a week to render and it was fairly expensive.

The art of compiling

Photo: Sony

Navin: There are two components of sequencing. One is making something that’s listenable. And as important is making something that’s marketable. So, we know that when people look down a track list, they’ll often just scan the first and last tracks to see if there’s consistency. We have to make sure that the tracks toward the top and bottom of the CD are the most successful or the most popular in order to keep the consumer’s attention.

Webster: There is an art to compiling a record. It’s not just all by numbers. You’ve got to get a flow right; you’ve got to get ups and downs. It’s the same way a DJ would do it if you’re out clubbing or whatever. There are also certain tracks that, even though they were massive, they often polarized people. You’ve got to think about that.

Abram: In January 1983, about 10 months before Now! started, I was a young fellow compiling compilation records. The second one I did for Ronco was called Raiders Of The Pop Charts and it managed to get to No. 3 in our combined charts of everything. That got me a bit of attention. Eventually, I got phone call from the man himself, Jon Webster. He said, “If you phone this number, you might learn something to your advantage.”

Webster: After the first Now!, we hired a guy named Ashley Abram to compile the records and also to make sure that no fillers got on. The purpose was for him to be independent. He talked EMI and Virgin into what else they could do with those filler tracks and ensure Now! was the best it could be.

Abram: I phoned the number Webster gave me and didn’t know who I was speaking to. The soft-spoken man on the other end said, “Oh, we’re thinking about getting into this compilation business and I’m told you’re the person to talk to.” And at the end of the conversation he said, “Oh, I run a record company, you probably know me, my name’s Richard, and I work on a houseboat, so come see me and have chat.” Of course, that was Richard Branson.

They were talking to me about getting involved with compiling, but because they had so many of their own tracks, they weren’t licensing tracks from the outside. They needed a third party to look at the thing. And that was hard, because they were just looking to get this album into the marketplace for Christmas in 1983. The album actually came out in November, so it was quite late, but it did make it.

Moskow: I came on in the U.S. for Now! 4. In the beginning, I was involved in creating and compiling the record. That meant identifying what the songs would be, licensing the songs, negotiating for the licensing of those songs and then you compile them. So, there’s the aspect of actually deciding what’s going to be on it, getting the rights to put it on and then the ability to create a compelling story with the repertoire. This part usually makes people’s eyes glaze over, when I tell it, but there’s an art to the sequencing.

Abram: It was just kind of a feel for it that you sort of build up, really. You sometimes try to link the songs in some way.

Moskow: We don’t sequence by power, we sequence by story. I was a club DJ for a number of years in my hometown of Philadelphia. It was very similar really to being a club DJ, because, again, every club DJ will tell you that their job is to take listeners on a journey. You’re playing this and that and you’re playing it in a flow that makes sense. That’s the art. It’s like painting with these beautiful colors that these artists have created, which are the songs, and putting them together in a way that makes sense. I take it very, very, very seriously.

Abram: It’s also easy to look back now and say certain songs are missing from some albums, but you can’t really do that. At the time, not everybody wanted to be on the records.

Moskow: I can give you one example. With Now! 56, we opened with “See You Again” [by Wiz Khalifa feat. Charlie Puth] very specifically. We did that because what we’re saying to our fans is, “We’re seeing you again.” It had to be a huge song, but I didn’t have to open with it. But we’re saying, even though the song doesn’t mean that, it lets someone subliminally think “I’m comfortable with this brand again, they’re seeing me again.” It’s a little cheesy, but that’s the example I can think of right now. I can tell you that every song is thought about for hours, if not days.

Abram: A big challenge was keeping things current. We needed to make the album live longer, and that was hard since it took a while to get things to marketplace. I also liked to include upcoming hits. We put Culture Club on one album and had a little blurb on the cover that famously said, “Almost certain to be No. 1 by the time you have this LP.” I think it went to No. 3 or No. 4 or whatever it was. So, that kind of set the precedent.

Moskow: It would really easy to say, “Oh, these are the songs, let’s just put them in random order, it doesn’t really matter. But then, if you do that, you’re not really building the essence of what your brand is, and that is so key to us.

Who’s buying Now! now?

Photo: Universal

Navin: Now! reached the parts of the record-buying market place that, in some cases, no matter how much marketing money you would spend, it just couldn’t deliver those people from those recesses. We managed to get to those outlying areas of Britain who would never have gone into a record store, or may have, at most, bought one album a year.

Duckworth: From the start, we were selling to our version of middle America. The “middle England” market, as we might describe it, are the people who don’t have their finger on the pulse. They don’t measure their own sense of identity by music, but they are very much into music. So, buying a Now! album was fine for them. It didn’t have any meaning. They didn’t define their personality through music, so they could buy a Now! album and it wasn’t a guilty pleasure like some music can be considered. It was just a way of accessing the charts.

Webster: I’ve always thought that music buyers fall into two groups. There are people who are really into music, who buy a lot of stuff and pride themselves on what they like. And then there are the one-album-a-year buyers. Maybe they buy two or three, but it’s harder to get them into the record store.

I think you go through a sort of life cycle with Now! You grow up with them. Until you’re a young teenager, you’ve got the latest Now! album. Then, suddenly when you become 16 or 17, you think you’re the coolest person on the block and suddenly you wouldn’t be caught dead with a Now! album. Eventually, you might get married and have your first child. You might have a party and you need music, so you go out and buy a Now! album. I think there’s very much a sort of flow that happens in terms of the people who are predisposed to buy these records. I think there’s an age gap where they’re distinctly uncool, which is probably 18 to 30, but then after that they are very welcome and liked and people still buy them.

Pritchard: There are at least two generations of moms and dads, even grandparents now, who are using Now! to keep up with their kids’ music and to share music. But I think it probably took about 10 years for it to really develop into a family brand with a bit of nostalgia and trust. It’s been a fixture. If you look at the consumers of Now!, the end-user profile is strongly preteen and early teen. Then it starts coming back with peaks up in mid ’30s, who are people buying for young families.

Navin: I think the thing about Now! is that it cuts across generations. It’s like Adele, who has obviously has struck an enormous chord. People buy the album partly as a knee-jerk reaction either for their auntie or their daughter. It’s that must-have piece of music across the board.

Pritchard: Children never understand if you try to be nostalgic about a band. They’ll say, “You listened to this? It’s rubbish!” Whereas you can be nostalgic about a Now! album and buy it today and children will love it because it’s still current. To you, it’s a Now! album and to them it’s all the current hits. It does work far better than trying to be nostalgic with your children because not many artists try and transcend.

Moskow: We make statements like, “No one listens to CDs anymore” or we say, “No one has CDs in their car anymore.” And the truth of the matter is that there’s been something like 90 million CDs sold in the U.S. in 2015. I mean, besides what Adele did, which is a whole different story. Are sales down? Of course they’re down. No one is arguing that point. But it’s still a huge business.

Webster: We thought that digital music would be the death of CDs, but it’s not for two reasons. One is that they are a much better deals than buying individual tracks. And two is that when in the U.K. we killed off the CD single, which was just about when digital came in. There are still huge amounts of people in the U.K. who buy CDs. The only way you can buy a track, on a CD, if you don’t want to by the album, is on a Now! album. They just don’t exist anywhere else.

Moskow: There are still lots of people who have CD players in their cars in the U.S. Most do. So, imagine your family is going on a road trip and you have a choice. Your choice is, “I’m going to fumble around, connect my phone and play a playlist that may or may not be clean, where I have to fumble around and skip songs” or, “I can just get a brand that I’ve grown up with, pop it in the CD player and know that it’s clean and that it reflects reasonably recent pop culture.”

Abram: The CD format still lives on and it’s very successful. In the U.K., the CD sales now are largely through supermarket chains. So, in Tesco and Sainsbury’s, especially this time of year, they carry huge volumes of CDs. Digitally, it’s available and it sells, but 10 to 20 percent of the sales are digital, which is still fairly minor. CD is still a massive format.

Pritchard: We do have digital sales, but at the moment we’re about 90 percent CD. Of course, the next struggle is streaming services. When Spotify came along, we were very quickly into Now! in experimental ways, trying to draw more attention to the tracks. Obviously, going forward, we’re trying to devise ways of actually monetizing Now! itself instead of just the individual tracks. The digital download thing was quite easy to spot. We’re trying to look at that behavior within streaming products.

Moskow: CD physical sales are declining, yes, more people are consuming music by streaming or downloading, but there are still a substantial amount of people who buy physical CD or who buy the album via digital download and enjoy it because someone has done the curation for them. We’ve made the playlist for them. They come to us for the Now! brand, and I think they’ll keep coming to us for the Now! brand.