In commemorating the first decade of the Now That’s What I Call Music! album series in the United States, Wednesday’s New York Times does a fine job running down the relevant stats: 29 volumes in the main series! 61 million in sales! 12 Britney Spears songs! But the piece fails to mention the core reason that the series—also celebrating a quarter-century in Britain, where it started—launched over here in the first place: the U.S. labels’ murder of the commercial single.
The first U.S. edition of Now! appeared on retail shelves on October 20, 1998, and included such classics as “MMMBop” and “Karma Police” (alongside such forgettables as “I Will Buy You a New Life” and wish-I-could-forgettables like “Barbie Girl”). At that point, the UK series was a 15-years-established success, with each volume topping the British charts and serving as a kind of curated collection of fleeting pop. Bringing the series to the States had long been discussed but, until the late ’90s, not taken seriously by US labels, who as the Times points out were loath to loan out their biggest hits:
When the American version of “Now” began, the major labels were reluctant to license songs to it because they feared it would cannibalize existing sales, said Tom Corson, general manager of the RCA Music Group.
This prompts the unanswered question: What made 1998 the year the labels changed their minds? I’ll take a flyer at it.
For starters, project Kill The Single was deep into Phase Four, successfully coercing consumers into paying for full-length, full-price CDs containing one hit song. The US labels, entering one of the most lucrative periods in their history, were focused on making sure all music purchases were album purchases.
Also consider that three of the Top 10 best-sellers of that year were soundtracks: Titanic ranked first (9.3 million sold during the year), City of Angels ranked fourth (4.1 million) and Armageddon ranked 10th (3.2 million). Especially in the latter two cases, the labels had reimagined the soundtrack album not as a movie tie-in so much as a glorified singles-delivery mechanism—hits like the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” or Alanis Morrisette’s “Uninvited” were withheld from single release, forcing a City of Angels purchase. In effect, “soundtracks” were radio-pop concept albums. In the days of Grease and Footloose, hit soundtracks could occasionally spawn multiple hits, but they were all songs actually featured in the movie, usually quite prominently. By the late ’90s, many “soundtrack” songs weren’t even in the movie, or were featured fleetingly. The phase “Songs from and Inspired By…” became common fine print on many a late ’90s CD cover; the official title of Armageddon: The Album says it all.
What does any of this have to do with Now? Simple: the consortium pitching the series caught the labels at a moment when they were finally receptive. According to several Billboard articles I read during the late ’90s, the logic went like this: if one-hit-wonder CDs like Chumbawamba’s, and soundtrack albums containing barely thematically related songs, could sell in the millions, a collection of recent, proven radio hits stood to do just as well. It was of a piece with the industry’s retraining of the consumer to think of hits as album-based purchases—they could buy the hit now, on a single-artist CD or a soundtrack; or they could wait six to 12 months for a Now compilation. The one thing they couldn’t do was buy them a la carte.
The real innovation of the Now series, as the Times article suggests, was the multi-label partnership. From its start in England, the series was shared by at least two labels, starting with EMI and Universal in 1983. For the States, the consortium was widened to include almost every major conglomerate: EMI and Universal, as well as the then-unmerged competitors Sony and BMG. (Only Warner Bros. held out, preferring to sell their own Totally Hits series in a team-up with the moonlighting BMG.) The label groups would even rotate which individual label would release each disc—from Virgin to Zomba to Epic to Capitol, among others. The upshot: Now allowed multiple labels to profit from their peers’ biggest hits. EMI could profit from BMG’s Backstreet Boys, even while BMG profited from EMI’s Janet Jackson.
To use a Wall Street term, think of it as a hedge—big firms pooling their assets to the mutual benefit of everyone in the club. Three times a year, a guaranteed platinum-plus album would send profits to whatever label had taken its turn releasing it.
Of course, like every other so-called hedge we’re learning about this year, this one couldn’t stay profitable forever. As the article notes, the last two Nows are the first to scan fewer than a million U.S. copies. Nowadays, hit singles can be acquired much more frugally (and hit soundtracks, when they do appear—Juno, Mamma Mia!—feature songs actually used in the movie).
In short, the overinflated assets known as hit singles have been repriced to reflect a new reality. Maybe the Now guys should call in Hank Paulson.