It all started in 1983 in Vernon Yard, a small mews off Portobello Road in London's Notting Hill and the home of Virgin Records in the U.K. That's when the label released an LP titled Now That's What I Call Music.
"Virgin Records was riding high in the charts with the likes of the Human League, Culture Club, UB40 and Phil Collins," Virgin founder Richard Branson tells Billboard. "We were looking for new ways to break more artists and were regularly being distracted by other labels trying to license our songs. So we decided we should make our own hit compilation. We knew we didn't have enough artists to succeed on our own, so we asked EMI to partner with us. They were the establishment, we were the upstarts, but they could see the logic in it and agreed. Back then, I carried out most of my work on my houseboat, Duende, so that's where the deal was done.
"As we all gathered on Oxford Street for the big launch in 1983, we had no idea it would go on to be so successful. But we knew we had a great idea, a strong brand and a brilliant team, so I was pretty confident. One hundred albums later, I'm delighted it has been able to brighten so many people's lives."
Asked how the compilation's distinctive name was chosen, Branson recalls, "I fell in love with a girl who worked in a bric-a-brac shop in Westbourne Grove, so I became a regular visitor. There was a Danish Bacon poster in the shop, which had the caption 'Now, That's What I Call Music' above a pig, while a chicken laid an egg. I thought [Virgin executive and Branson's cousin] Simon Draper would find it amusing, so I brought it back to the office for him. The poster was on the wall while we were brainstorming a name for the compilation album, and as the slogan was suggested we knew we had our name. It was catchy, funny, and we knew we could shorten it to that iconic Now."
On July 20, the Now series will issue its 100th CD (yes, the world's longest running compilation series still is released as a physical product, though it's also available for download and streaming). At the same time, the Universal/Sony joint venture will re-issue that first album, belatedly known as Now 1, on vinyl, cassette and CD.
When that first CD hit stores in the U.K., no one had any idea it would become an ongoing series. The first Now spent a month at No. 1 on the U.K. album chart at the end of 1983, selling 900,000 copies. In a 1995 interview with Billboard's sister publication Music Monitor, Box Music founder Ashley Abram, who compiled many of the early Now albums starting with Now 2, said, "No compilation had done numbers like that at that time. The first thing they thought was that they couldn't possibly repeat the success."
With best-sellers Now 2 and Now 3 also reaching No. 1, CBS and WEA decided to start their own series. Released during the Christmas season of 1984, Now 4 faced direct competition from The Hits Album, powered by No. 1 songs from George Michael and Chaka Khan. The Hits Album topped the U.K. chart, holding Now 4 at No. 2. "Everyone was upset and thought it was the end of the Now series," Abram recalled. But despite its No. 2 peak, Now 4 sold a million copies and the Hits series sputtered out after Hits 6.
The Now series has continued to release three compilations a year, one each during spring, summer and winter, so anyone who could do the math has known for years that Now 100 would become a reality in the summer of 2018. Barry McCann, an EMI executive in 1995, told Music Monitor at the time that the label was concerned about letting the Now CDs run into double digits, as no compilation series had run that long. Consideration was given to dropping the numbers from the titles or ending the run and starting something new.
"The market research to drop the number came up a lot in the early days," confirms Steve Pritchard, who has worked on the Now series with Pete Duckworth since 1991. Both hold the title Managing Director of Now That's What I Call Music. "Record execs worried about '21' seeming old and '40' being middle aged," says Pritchard. "In fact, the number became an asset and created an element of the brand which has reinforced the 'nowstalgia' – sorry! – for your first Now memories."
Explaining the evolution of Now over the years, and why the series has lasted while others did not, Pritchard tells Billboard, "The initial strong combination of U.K. repertoire of Virgin and EMI gave the series strength and momentum at a time when there was talk of a second 'British Invasion' of pop acts. The addition of Polygram (later Universal) to this mix, added U.S. and European repertoire in depth and gave the series consistency. Also, the marketing was consistent. Now achieved a reasonable profile, or share of voice throughout the subsequent decades and was strongly branded. Structurally, it tended to be run from a single point, so there was less disruption potentially from shifting between various partners. In the early days it switched between EMI and Virgin, then stuck with Virgin until EMI merged the two commercial areas in the late '90s. It always had consistent marketing and executive attention and support up to the highest level, which in turn led to the U.S. version being launched. There were key people over the years. Barry McCann at EMI in the early days, Ashley Abram at Box Music for many years and myself and Pete from 1991 onward. [There's] always someone carrying the baton and arguing the brand's corner."
Weighing in on the long-term success of Now, Pete Duckworth says, "First, across the decades, the compilers have always ensured the album content is the priority and [they] have not bowed to record company demands for track inclusions. Second, we have always spent on marketing the brand for each release. The heavy weight of TV and outdoor media has insured that the awareness of the brand has remained high over the years. Third, once the brand had been around for 15-plus years, it became cross-generational in its appeal. So mums and dads who had received Now as a kid and felt nostalgic for it could then buy the album for their own kids and give their children the gift that they had loved when they were young. Not many entertainment brands, let alone music ones, manage to cross the generational divide in this way. It's a bit like Star Wars. When I, II and III came out in the late '90s, their success was partly a result of dads and mums taking their kids to see a film they had loved as a child. Now is the same."
In the U.K., the Now albums have long been double-CDs, most recently with over 40 current hits on each set. Now 100 will vary the format slightly to celebrate the centennial edition. The first disc will be current but the second disc will feature some of the best-selling artists and songs from the first 99 albums. Then, in the autumn, a 5-CD set will feature 100 tracks, one from each volume of Now.
The highest-selling numbered Now album to date is Now 44, released on Nov. 22, 1999. Among the featured tracks on the CD that sold 2.3 million copies in the U.K.: Britney Spears' "…Baby One More Time," Robbie Williams' "She's the One" and Steps' cover of the Bee Gees' "Tragedy." The Now albums released in November of each year "typically sell 50 per cent more than the ones released at Easter and summer," says Duckworth. But Now 44 got an extra boost, and Pritchard explains why: "everyone bought one for their millennium party and there was light competition [from other releases] as people seemed to think the world – or at least the internet – might grind to a halt."
In a digital age, Now 100 may not top Now 44 in physical sales, but there will be "massive retail support and events at key retailers," says Pritchard. With the second disc of classic hits, the Now co-MD hopes to "boost sales by bringing back some of the older people who may find the current chart too mysterious."
Aside from the numbered Now albums that stretch from 1-100, the brand has "branched out into genre albums," says Duckworth. These include titles like Now That's What I Call Running, Now That's What I Call Old Skool and Now That's What I Call Disney. "The biggest is Now Christmas, which in its various iterations has become the seventh best-selling album of all time in the U.K., recently overtaking Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd with 4.3 million copies sold," says Duckworth.
"We do well with a broad range of genres," Pritchard adds. "But music for events, gifts and social gatherings are always favorites. Now Party in all its guises is a perennial seller, through repeat versions. Rock, in all its sub genres, has also proven surprisingly robust and over Christmas 2017, our biggest seller was for a much older market – Now Country."
Now had been running for 15 years in the U.K. when the U.S. finally released its first compilation under the brand in the autumn of 1998. The latest stateside edition is Now 66. Again, doing the math, it could be another decade before Now's American cousin reaches the 100 mark. Billboard asked Pritchard and Duckworth if they work closely with their U.S. counterparts. "We have meetings, usually on the phone, to discuss the market, the successes and other issues," says Duckworth. "We have regular chats with Jerry Cohen, who runs the U.S. joint venture," adds Pritchard.
After 35 years how long can Now run? "Forever," predicts Duckworth. "In the U.K. we did 500 million streams from Now products and playlists last year on Spotify and Apple Music. That gives us a market share not hugely dissimilar to our share in the overall market," says Duckworth.
"We look at how the charts are evolving and how we keep the CD running strongly, alongside the efforts with the app and the playlists. They seem to be comfortable companions at the moment," says Pritchard, who concludes, "I would dearly like to see Now 1001 appearing in a shop window, or more likely, screen, or visor projection on a distant planet in the future in an edition of the Star Wars series. How about a future Now advertising campaign where the Now 1001 logo is projected onto the side of the inert Death Star?"
And what became of the pig on that Danish Bacon poster? After appearing on the covers of Now 3, 4 and 5 in the U.K., the porker makes a long-awaited return to grace the cover of Now 100.