'Now That's What I Call Music!' Hits 60: The Secret Behind Its Survival in the Streaming Era

Patrick Crowley
      

The concept of a top-pop-hits compilation album may seem antiquated in the playlist era, but the continued success of the Now That’s What I Call Music! series, which will release its 60th volume on Nov. 4, flies in the face of convention. Far from a vestige of a bygone era, Now remains a chart force to be reckoned with: all 59 of the numbered volumes have charted in the top 10 of the Billboard 200, including 18 no. 1s. Inching toward 100 million units sold during its 18-year lifetime, according to Nielsen Music, UMe, a division of Universal Music Group, and Sony Commercial Music Group’s Now Music division (the series has been a joint release with Sony since Now 4) has the Now buyer figured out.

“The average American car is 10 or 11 years old, so it has a CD player,” says Now Music A&R consultant Jeff Moskow, adding that physical sales make up 80 to 85 percent of the series’ total tally through the years. The product is more or less the same as it was when the series launched in 1998, though now the advertising is less about 1-800 numbers (though there are still TV spots, just trimmed down to 15 seconds) and more about social media sweepstakes. In-store displays remain a huge factor: "We've been lucky because although the space has been shrinking for physical product, Now's place in stores has remained fairly strong," says Jerry Cohen, svp of Now Music at UMG -- and the market remains, more or less, wherever toilet paper is sold in bulk. "The releases are all timed to major holidays," he adds. "With the genre releases [Now That's What I Call Country, etc.], country is extremely strong with Walmart, and the Broadway or Disney records are extremely strong with Target, for example -- though they can all sell all of them."

Execs argue that the franchise, though made famous by TV spots offering free car visor CD holders with purchase, was actually ahead of its time -- an idea supported by Drake's just announced More Life "playlist project" [read: compilation]. "It’s almost like compilation is a dirty word,” says Cohen. “It's so much easier to use the word playlist -- so, we're kind of reinventing ourselves as the original playlist. Millennials grew up with the brand, so there’s a lot of latent interest we can tap into.” Adds Bruce Resnikoff, president and CEO of Universal Music Group's UMe division as well as one of the series's stateside originators, "For 18 years, Now’s U.S. series has consistently showcased the biggest hits of the day, successfully remaining current and in-step with evolving musical tastes and trends."

Indeed, the series, which is poised to make its 60th top 10 debut on the Billboard 200, is not ignoring streaming. Recently, the brand became an official curator on Spotify and Apple Music, and touts a rare digital-only release, Now That’s What I Call a Workout 2016 (which first topped Billboard’s Top Dance/Electronic Albums chart in January), among its success stories. Playlists Now! What’s Next and Now! First Listen also can be found on those streaming services, updated several times a week. "There are people looking for ways to get into streaming, and having the Now brand there is one way we can aid that transition," says Cohen. "At the end of the day, the brand is all about the quality of its curation, and streaming is the ultimate means for that." Richard Story, president of Sony Music Entertainment's Commercial Music Group adds, "Now holds a special place in the hearts of fans because it is a trusted, reliable and accurate reflection of music trends and hit songs."

Protecting the signature product, however, is a more painstaking process. In pursuit of what Moskow calls “a cultural mirror,” he spends months culling data from airplay and streaming charts as well as social buzz. Newcomer Jacob Whitesides, for example, appears on Now 60 alongside Coldplay and Katy Perry. "It's not that hard to get the biggest hits -- the hard part is getting the latest hits," adds Cohen. "Everybody has an idea of when they should be on a Now record."

Picking the songs — an extremely time sensitive process given that the goal is to capture each track at its peak — is just the beginning of the process: then comes licensing, and finally mastering, which can take up to two weeks even though all the songs are not only already released, but usually chart toppers. "There's a significant amount of debate over things like the spacing between songs, because that stuff matters," says Moskow, whose end result ideally marries the fluidity of radio DJing with the reliability of an album. "Ultimately, it's about the listening experience. People don't know why, but they know when they listen to a Now album, it feels different."

Looking back at Now compilations past can be an exercise in both nostalgia and amnesia, a side effect of the series's rigorous timeliness. "Our job is not to make judgments on the music — if you want a snapshot of what's been popular over the last couple of months, this is what it is," says Moskow, citing BBMak and Soul Decision as examples of artists that "maybe didn't have the staying power -- but were very popular at the moment, which is a perfect example of what Now should really be.

“I’m not suggesting we’re making Songs in the Key of Life,” he concludes, “but the goal is to make you say, ‘That was really enjoyable.’”

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 5 issue of Billboard.