Now that's what I call a licence to print money

Fifty editions on, the Now That's What I Call Music! brand is set to romp up the Christmas pop charts again with EMI's largest ever production run. Cahal Milmo assesses the formula that just won't say die
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The Independent Culture

To the music cognoscenti, it is a bastion of corporate pop mediocrity. But to 70 million customers over 18 years it is, as its marketing chiefs might say, the Best Pop Compilation Series in the World... Ever!

After bombarding teenagers with a pot pourri of current hits roughly three times a year, every year since 1983, the Now That's What I Call Music! brand this week reached a venerable half century.

Now 50 was launched on Monday in time for the Yuletide rush which, like gaudy ties and eccentric socks, has turned the series into a hardy annual under the nation's Christmas trees. Like the rest of its musical pick'n'mix predecessors from Now one to 49, it follows the format of offering the latest hits of the most bankable stars of the moment, from Kylie Minogue to Britney Spears.

Add to the 44-song play list a few of the more eclectic names of contemporary music, such as Kate Winslet and Bob the Builder, and the Now formula of the trendy rubbing shoulders with the infernally catchy or obscure is complete.

But while aficionados of the purist indie and dance scenes may pooh-pooh the shameless populism of the compilation market and accuse it of stifling new talent, one vital fact remains – it sells massively.

EMI, the record company behind the series, has produced one million copies of Now 50 for distribution to stores in Britain, making it the company's biggest ever advance production run of a record.

The manufacturing run is larger than that for any release featuring a single artist and 400,000 copies more than that for EMI's previous largest stockpile, for Madonna's last greatest hits album.

Since the original Now That's What I Call Music! album was released, featuring such luminaries of the 80s pop music scene as Phil Collins, Culture Club, Duran Duran and UB40, the series has sold 70 million copies worldwide.

Each edition sells between 500,000 and two million copies – far beyond what would be considered a runaway hit for an individual artist.

As one A&R executive with one of EMI's rivals, which itself produces "chart toppers" compilations, put it: "Now and other compilations are basically a cash cow. And labels love milking them. It allows the labels and artists to recycle their recent chart hits and get the royalties for the song a second time round in a format that offers something for everyone – it's musical Quality Street.

"There's no doubt that it's a money-spinner," the A&R executive continues, "The customer gets a sort of four-month summary of the latest hits for the price of a CD and we can rely on a windfall from the recent back catalogue."

The first Now That's What I Call Music! compilation was dreamt up and produced in the space of a week in December 1983 by executives at EMI and Virgin – then still an independent label owned by Richard Branson. Previously, the major record labels had refused to release their hit singles onto a market still dominated by tacky Telstar compilations for fear of diverting sales of individual artists' competing albums. But when the debut Now racked up sales of 900,000 within just a few weeks in Britain alone, the record company moguls realised they were onto a commercial winner.

Ashley Abram, the man who dreamt up the original idea and has produced every Now compilation since, says: "The first album showed that if you had the best acts and chart records, you could get sales. The idea is to get a cross section of what has been in the charts and what is in the charts or will be within the next few weeks in a package that appeals across the board. The way the Now series has continued to succeed is through offering quality songs but also by the fact it reflects the charts – it naturally changes with the times."

Such was the success of the brand – Now 3 dominated the UK album charts for nine weeks – and a plethora of copycat formats, such as The Best (insert musical genre) Album in the World... Ever!, that it led to a separate compilations chart being formed in 1989 to prevent the main album listing from being dominated by compilations.

According to British Phonographic Industry figures, compilations accounted for 24.1 per cent of all albums sales last year – with Now's 47, 46 and 45 taking the top three positions respectively.

As the sector has grown, so has its breadth. Dance, jazz and classical music compilations now regularly feature among the more than 400 compilations released in Britain every year.

The top records in the UK compilations chart this week included Annual 2002 by the Ministry of Sound, Capital Gold Legends 2 and The Best Air Guitar Album in the World... Ever! And rather than fading into phonographic obscurity, the once uniquely British genre is expanding into the world's biggest music market.

The launch of the Now brand in the United States last year, after overcoming the industry's traditional concerns about undermining album sales and co-operation between labels, saw the first four albums sell six million copies between them. Now 8, which launched yesterday, is expected to be America's top-selling Christmas record.

On the other side of the Atlantic, there is also evidence that Now 50, the ageing rocker of the compilations world, will reach its centenary without any slump in demand.

Abram said: "When we first launched the Nows, we thought it might reach Now 5 or 6, and that would be it. Well, we have reached 50 and there is no reason why it cannot carry on for much longer."