Hello and welcome to the 11th edition of DiS Does Pop. The pop column for people who threw up a little bit when they heard Olly Murs was doing a single with Flo Rida. This week sees a potentially historic album released in Now That’s What I Call Music! 83 since it will quite possibly be the last such compilation to be released under EMI.
To celebrate an idea which was originally signed off on Richard Branson’s boat in Little Venice, we’ve gone NOW crazy. Read on for the following hits-packed content:
- How to make the perfect Now!
- We tried to listen to every NOW in a month. Here's what happened...
- DiS Does NOW: A Spotify playlist
- They think it's all over. Is it NOW?
- Interview: Jon Webster, co-founder of NOW
- Win a bundle of NOW albums!
How to make the perfect NOW
Cram in as many Number 1 singles as possible
The NOW brand was originally founded out of pure opportunism. Virgin Records acts like UB40, Culture Club and Phil Collins were dominating the Top 40, so demand for a compilation featuring these artists was at an all-time high. In total, 11 Number 1 singles featured on the very first NOW meaning for the first time ever you could buy ‘Total Eclipse Of The Heart’ and ‘Candy Girl’ on the same double LP. This is possibly the first and last time Bonnie Tyler has soundtracked a cultural revolution.
Ignore all notions of good taste
Every NOW compilation is a reflection of the Top 40 and, much to the detriment of Victoria Beckham’s solo career, the Top 40 is a democracy. It shows a complete disregard for the latest buzz bands and instead entwines itself in the warm embrace of Aqua and the like. Technically, each NOW album is compiled by a lady called Jenny Fisher but her job is largely done by the record buying public, she just arranges the tracklisting in a tolerable order. Speaking of which...
‘Argh! I’ve need to find 40-odd tracks. Someone get me some filler’
Listen to enough NOW compilations and you’ll quickly pick up a general tracklisting pattern. Pack in the big hits early, save a few for the beginning of Disc 2 and this will leave you in need of roughly 30 songs to make up the numbers. At this point, you’re entirely at the victim of the pop music era you inhabit.
In the age of Britpop, you can expect Ocean Colour Scene and Cast to make appearances. In the dance-obsessed early noughties, any old shit that was released on Positiva would make the cut. This approach is inherently flawed but at least it’s a characterful improvement on the hotchpotch eclecticism which mars many a NOW where a bit of everything is a surefire route to absolute tedium.
Big hitters get a free pass
No NOW compilation is complete without a contribution from the biggest pop act of the moment. Whether you’re talking about Lady Gaga or Liberty X, past success usually grants an act a free pass onto the next compilation. Only a handful of acts actually manage the longevity to clock up repeat appearances.
Who’s the most featured NOW artist ever? Well, in the space of just seven years Rihanna has penetrated NOW lore 25 times but that’s still not enough to top Robbie Williams’ 26 inclusions as a solo artist. This grand total elevates itself to a whopping 32 tracks if you include his Take That hits.
There’s no time for nostalgia
Although NOW albums rarely indulge in a nostalgia themselves, old singles are occasionally granted a new lease of life thanks to their connection to a grand occasion. This summer’s Olympics have provided Elbow’s ‘Day Like This’ a spot on NOW 83, while Freddie Mercury’s horrifically overblown ‘Barcelona’ re-emerged on NOW 23 after becoming the city’s unofficial anthem for its 1992 Games. In fairness to Freddie, ‘Barcelona’ isn’t the worst song on NOW 23. That honour belongs to Brian May’s ‘Too Much Love Will Kill You’.
Madonna and Michael Jackson are banned
When a new musical innovation comes along, some artists get on board with it and others decide to abstain. Will it cannibalise their album sales? Will they get paid a fair royalty fee for their tracks? Basically, will they make less money than they did before?
For these noble capitalist incentives, Madonna and Michael Jackson refused to commit themselves to NOW although they later donated their wares to Spotify. How very fickle!
‘No hip-hop please, we’re British’
By far the most maligned genre to be represented in NOW history is hip-hop. This can be put down to many factors but it’s mainly because us Brits didn’t really get the idea of people talking quickly over a sick beat until three years ago. Public Enemy were signed to Columbia who didn’t contribute to the NOW series, N.W.A. were a bit too controversial for a kiddie-friendly series and Jay-Z’s highest tracklisting entry so far has been as a guest on Beyoncé’s ‘Crazy In Love’. Perhaps most tellingly, Dizzee Rascal’s NOW debut was thanks to ‘Dance Wiv Me’ rather than ‘Fix Up Look Sharp’.
One-hit wonders ahoy!
‘Never Gonna Give You Up’, ‘Can’t Touch This’ and ‘Ice Ice Baby’... all never featured on NOW compilations. This is because the series was originally stacked towards established artists spelling ruinous effects for Rick Astley, MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice. Since these initial omissions, everyone from Jive Bunny to DJ Ötzi has made the series on the their first attempt. ‘Gangnam Style’ is even the first track on NOW 83. Best to get it out of the way early...
Finally, don’t forget the tacky album art
For a series that has shifted 100 million albums worldwide, the album artwork for a NOW record has remained entirely static since its 20th edition. There’s the big logo which looks like a remnant from Microsoft Word 97’s clipart gallery, a non-descript background usually built from two primary colours and that’s literally it. Early experimentation featured a cartoon pig mascot and stock images of swimming pools, so inspiration was hardly at an all-time high in the first place.
We tried to listen to every NOW in a month. Here's what happened...
DiS Does NOW: A Spotify playlist
We know what you're thinking, 'Listening to an insane amount of NOW compilations sounds like fun but I'd rather just listen to the best track from every NOW compilation.' Well guess what's contained in the Spotify playlist below? Bingo!
They think it's all over. Is it NOW?
Prior to the release of NOW 83, there was widespread speculation that the series would meet an untimely end thanks to EMI's £1.2 billion merger with Universal. As part of the deal, the European Commission mandated Universal to sell off EMI's 50% stake of the NOW brand. If no buyer can be found, NOW will cease to exist.
So is it really the end of NOW? We asked Jenny Fisher, Director of NOW Compilations & TV Licensing at EMI Music...
"Of course, NOW will be continuing. We've already started planning for NOW 84 which is due to be released around Easter 2013. At the moment, we don't know who will be taking over EMI's shares of the NOW series."
So there's the scoop! Technically as Brits we don't qualify for the Pulitzer Prize but surely they'll make an exception this year.
Interview: Jon Webster, co-founder of NOW
How did the idea for NOW come about?
It was 1983, Virgin were the hottest singles label in the country. We had hits coming out of our ears. It was Phil Collins, UB40, Culture Club, Heaven 17... you name it. It came to Christmas, at the time compilations were tacky pieces of crap, and Stephen Navin [Head of Licensing and Business Affairs at Virgin records] just called me one day and he said, 'Look, these offers are just coming in and they're going up and people want exclusive tracks and they're offering us more and more advances and they're offering us higher royalties. What should we do?'
And I said, 'Can't we do this ourselves?' Then we literally got an old envelope and went, 'This is how much it would cost to manufacture, quarter of a million on advertising...' and we did the all the math. We just sat there and said, 'Oh my god! If this works we could make so much money.'
Was it an easy idea to sell then?
So I went to my boss Simon Draper and said, 'Look, we could do this'. Virgin were still a company operating out of a couple of mews houses just off Portobello Road even though we were hot as hell. Then Richard [Branson] was brought in, Simon had the thing up on his wall which was the Danish bacon poster where the title came from which Richard had bought him.
Then we suddenly realised, although we had a load of hits, we were distributed by EMI at the time. So we went to EMI and said, 'Look we've got a lot of hits, you've got a lot of hits. Can we do this together?' Then we all got together in the room and thrashed it all out.
It must have been a rush to get the record out?
There was a great thing with the head of production where we asked, 'We need to make a quarter of a million record in a week.' He looked at us like were nuts and said, 'Well, it takes a week to make sleeves. You can't do that.'
Richard just said, 'Why?' The answer was, 'It just does.'
So Richard says, 'Who makes them for us? Get him on the phone.' So we get the guy on the phone and Richard says, 'Hi. We're putting out this compilation series and we need some gatefold sleeves. We're doing artwork over the weekend, we'll have finished films on Monday. Can we get the sleeves on Tuesday?'
He says, 'Of course.'
We later said to him, 'Why did you always say you needed seven days to make these things when you can makes them overnight?'
He replied, 'Because we didn't want to make them overnight!'
When did you realise it had become a massive success?
We got it out and then we made a 60 second TV ad, which was almost unheard of at the time and it just took off like a bloody rocket. Tracey Ullman did the voiceover but you if you go back and look at the ad now it makes you want to cringe. Between us, we invested half a million quid which was a lot of money.
Did you have to convince the bands to put their tracks on the compilation?
The acts were like, 'We don't like compilations and it's half-rate royalty' and all this stuff. The biggest problem were Simple Minds because they had 'Waterfront' on it and it had only just come out.
I remember talking to Belinda Carlisle's manager, 'We don't compilations, we want to sell the album.' So we persuaded him to put one track on, then he okayed another couple and 18 months later he rang and said, 'I've just got the royalty cheque. My god these things sell don't they!'
What was the target audience for NOW compilations?
We didn't do things like that. We just put it out and we knew there was a market for compilations. I think the thing was was trying to do it with a bit of classiness. We weren't thinking ahead and never used the word 'brand' at the start. So we put one out and then thought, 'Well, we better put another one out.'
Were the arguments over tracklisting?
As soon as it was successful you soon got a polarisation between managers and artists who wanted to be on the TV ad or first on side one. You had McCartney and Queen going, 'Yeah, we'll be on there. We want to be track one side one.' It was like, 'You can't both be track one side one so we'll put you on track one side one of the second disc which is just the same of course!'
I'm sure you've heard that Universal have taken over EMI and they've got to sell off their share in NOW. Do you think the series will continue?'
I think it would be stupid if it didn't but the record industry is not known for its intelligence. Someone should buy it at some price, I met the guys who run it these days and said, 'I'll buy it for a £1.'
The people who are obviously in that area already are Ministry of Sound. You'd have thought that even a venture capital company would want to buy it. Although, how do you define profit? If you put it on royalties, you give higher royalties and you're recouping most of the royalties then if you're not paying it out to anyone.
Because the labels own the tracks...
Yeah exactly, if you're paying 30%-35% royalties then you're not paying it out to anyone.
What do think is the appeal of the NOW compilations?
I think it's one of those things where you go through phases. When you're 11 you have them and then suddenly they're the uncoolest thing in the world and you drop them and look down on them with disdain. Then you grow up to have kids of your own and don't have any music, so you go out any buy a NOW album.
I used to get them for my kids and they were like, 'You can get us a NOW for nothing! Oh my god, fantastic.' But... I listened to one the other day and the repetitiveness of pop R&B was almost unlistenable.
Win a bundle of NOW albums!
Congratulations, you made it to the end of the column! To celebrate, we have four NOW bundles to give away. What's a NOW bundle? Basically, a copy of the brand new NOW 83 and either NOW No.1s or NOW 90s Dance!
We're sure you'll agree this is a lot of NOW to be getting on with and the perfect opportunity to listen to Robbie Williams' 'Candy', Taylor Swift's 'We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together' and Little Mix's 'Wings' if you have not done so yet. If you have already heard these astounding pop songs, why not listen to them again using an actual CD?
To enter the giveaway, just name your favourite song you discovered through a NOW compilation.