Now that’s what I call unstoppable! How a compilation CD survived the digital age

From the Guardian

Now 95 is sweeping all before it in the Christmas sales rush. How has the no-frills anthology series managed to prosper in the era of streaming?

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Now … Hit after hit, over 95 albums Composite: pr

 

Until the 95th edition of the long-running pop hits compilation Now That’s What I Call Music! came out last week, I’d forgotten that the series existed. Lurid album covers and explosive TV advertising aside, Now doesn’t make a spectacle of itself. It just gets on with the job, quietly releasing three albums a year of the biggest chart hits, with tracklists that reflect the cheerful disorder of the UK singles chart. Now 95 includes Christine and the Queens’ languidly hip Tilted alongside Chainsmokers’ dimbo teen-raver Closer; Emeli Sandé’s icy comeback Hurts sits cheek-by-jowl with Nevada’s witless adaptation of Return of the Mack. Drake’s One Dance is belatedly there, too: after refusing to license it for Now 94, the rapper evidently had a change of heart.

Now has been churning away since 1983, when it was introduced as a modern rejoinder to an album series called Top of the Pops. Though the latter consisted of cover versions recorded by an anonymous house band with a rotating team of vocalists, it lasted for a remarkable 92 releases. Now, featuring original hits, was an immediate success – so much so that in 1989, a compilation chart was launched to stop Now and its imitators from crowding single-artist albums out of the top of the regular album chart.

But who buys Now now? If you want to hear a selection of 2016’s biggest singles, that’s what Spotify is for. Yet Now 95 sold 230,000 copies last week, making it one of the biggest sellers of 2016, across both compilation and single-artist albums. And it’s not just being bought to fill Christmas stockings; Now 93, released in March, sold 770,000. If Adele’s 25 didn’t exist, it would be 2016’s top-selling album by some distance. The parent outfit, Now Music, is so confident of Now’s continued success that major London gigs are being planned for the release of Now 100 in July 2018.

Still, why buy an actual CD when there are scores of streaming and music-discovery services? A CD has none of the interactive features that some acts build into their online releases; its fate is to sit on a shelf, a rapidly depreciating memory of early autumn (or “Q3”, as music executives call the July-September period). So: why?

What Now offers is simplicity – the known quantity. Those who want a permanent aural record of 2016 don’t need the endless choices offered by streaming services. This remix or that demo version are unnecessary, and when it comes to playlists, not everyone is cut out for scything their way through the streaming services’ undergrowth in search of something that suits. The fact that playlists have been “curated” by experts means only that the expert is imposing his or her taste. Sometimes life really is as simple as wanting to hear 45 original hit songs in a row (skipping Nevada, obviously).

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