It’s another day, and yet another Now That’s What I Call Music! compilation album is available for consumption. Not to make anyone feel old or anything, but we’re at volume #41! (In the UK, where the series began in 1983, they’re at #80). Artists featured this time around include LMFAO, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and, for those who prefer to rock, Nickelback.
If the past is any indicator of the future, this album is bound to be a hit. In a recent press release, the Now! team states that “every album in the numeric US series has reached Billboard’s Top 10, and 15 Now! releases have reached #1, second only to The Beatles in chart history.” Indeed, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, every Now! album has achieved either Gold or Platinum status, with only a few exceptions. In 2006, Slate music critic, Jody Rosen, wondered if Now! could save the music business, calling the franchise “one of the great success stories in the record business over the last decade.”
So, in our age of digital downloading and cloud computing, of Pandora and Sirius and Spotify and even YouTube, how are these records comprised of jams found everywhere still so successful?
Sure, the formula of packaging the top radio tunes of the day behind outright gaudy cover art made more sense 15 years ago when Now! made its US debut in 1998. MP3 players were in their infancy, and Napster was just out of sight around the corner. The first Now! had Hanson, Backstreet Boys, K-Ci & JoJo, Aqua, Fastball, Spice Girls and Marcy Playground, among others.
It’s true that at the time you could create your own playlist with cassette tapes, but you’d either have to know someone who had a physical version of the song you were looking for or keep your anxious finger on the record button of your boombox while listening to the radio. If you were into the stuff of Top 40, purchasing a Now! CD was one-stop shopping done right.
But now it’s 2012. The digital era, as we’ve all heard several times before, has not been kind to compact discs and record stores. The compilation giant, K-Tel, is still around, but fading. Today, music can be acquired, stored, and listened to basically anywhere you’d like — anywhere but MTV, that is. Anyone with a little time and effort can create their own playlist that includes as many overplayed chart-topping songs as desired. And for free!
So what makes the Now! #41 playlist — which, in its digital form, is available on iTunes for album-only download at $9.99 — that much more appealing than the personal playlist of any 12-year-old amateur? Besides nostalgic customers who enjoy the occasional retro night, and the ill-prepared uncle suddenly responsible for music at his niece’s wedding reception because the DJ had a last-minute scheduling conflict, why are people still buying these albums?
To Jeff Moskow, head of A&R at Now! since volume #4, released in 2000 (Now! is a partnership of EMI, Sony and Universal), above and beyond all the research involved in selecting the right songs at the right time, he claims it’s about how to make a playlist flow.
“The general consumer doesn’t necessarily know how to make all those songs work together, and that’s my job,” said Moskow, a former club DJ who worked in Philadelphia for around 10 years. “When you’re a DJ — and this has never changed — you take listeners on a journey. There’s an unbelievable amount of thought that goes into how each record sounds, the space between tracks and the sequence. What this does is add to the feel of the brand.”
And this isn’t far-fetched. A few Now! Facebook fans who responded to interview requests all said they bought the physical album and listened to the record from start to finish. Although this is hardly an exhaustive study, it does support Moskow’s point.
Some music critics, however, take a different angle. As our own Judy Berman once pointed out, trends on the Internet have a tendency of overshadowing which cultural artifacts people are actually consuming across the country. After all, America is a large, fractured place, not only geographically, but also in terms of politics, culture, and listening habits.
In an email, Carl Wilson, author of Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, argues that Now! is mostly for “people whom music isn’t a big priority, as well as for tween-aged kids who are just getting into music. Dealing with downloads, clouds and streaming still takes some investment of time in either searches or just the learning curve of using the tech. Not everyone bothers with that, and there’s no real reason they should be obliged, if buying a Now! disc once or twice a year reliably gets them the best of the radio hits they like.”
Of course, having the time to learn new things is somewhat of a privilege, especially in the economically unstable times we’ve been enduring lately as a nation.
Music critic Chris Weingarten of 1000TimesYes Twitter fame, wrote that despite the prevalence of digital media “there’s still tons of people who listen to big radio and shop at Wal-Mart and watch television — a place that actively advertises this series. Not everyone has the luxury of being hip to Spotify and RapidFire .rar files.”
He added: “Also, you have to remember that the Now! series is dealing with what is categorically the most popular music in America. This is stuff that transcends age/race/class demographics on all counts, and needs to reach people any way it can. It’s aimed directly for the casual music fan, not the people who have the patience and passion to sit around learning how to torrent Loren Mazzacane Connors records. Its the pop equivalent of an impulse buy, and there will always be a market for that.”
Reasons the aforementioned Facebook fans gave for buying physical Now! albums as opposed to creating their own playlists by downloading individual tracks of their choosing ranged from “I like to own the originals albums” to “I like having the picture with the artist’s name and genre” to “Nah, I love buying them.”
“The Now! consumer is a sampling consumer, they’re not a hardcore consumer for the most part,” added Moskow, who ultimately decides which songs make it onto the album. “They’re buying Now! to get a snapshot of the moment. But when they buy Now! and hear an artist that they like, 87% of them will go back and buy more music from the artists that are featured.”
If Now! consumers are sampling customers, there must be a whole lot of them.
Like all things, the Now! empire is not invulnerable. The music industry, obviously, is changing, and the Now! franchise is taking its share of licks in the form of lowered sales.
“It’s not the same as it was, like, nine years ago, but I think that’s true for the music business in general,” said Laura Rutherford, Vice President of Marketing and Operations at Now!. “We actually sold more last year than we did the year before, so that’s really good news. There are very few properties in music these days that can sell between 500,000-700,000 albums, and we’re doing that four times a year.”
In an email, Ben Sisario of The New York Times, who previously wrote about Now!, mentioned that “Daniel Ek of Spotify is fond of saying that CDs were the last truly interoperable music format: wherever you go, you can easily plop in a disc and be sure that it will play — something you can’t count on when it comes to the various competing digital services and devices. So even though CD sales have dropped precipitously, they still account for about two-thirds of all albums sold, and the parental demographic is one of the strongholds of the format. If you have a 10-year-old to drive to soccer, it’s a lot easier to play a CD with their favorite songs in the car radio than to hope it turns up on Pandora or fish around for an iPhone cable.”
According to a Nielsen and Billboard report, in 2011, for the first time ever, digital music surpassed their physical counterparts with 50.3% of music sales. Although the latest report from the RIAA states that CDs still make the majority of the profits, what this means for Now!’s future is not entirely clear. Still, the brand’s resilience is remarkable.
In Sisario’s 2008 New York Times article celebrating Now That’s What I Call Music!’s 10th US anniversary, the late Bob Mercer, then chief executive of the Now! franchise, said of the brand, “There’s a type of consumer that still buys physical, and they’re primed for this.” He added that the series “will last to the extent that the physical market exists.”
Judging by Now!’s continued sales record nearly four years later, he’s probably right.
Now! #42 is scheduled for release sometime in May.