This month sees the 100th edition of the famed (and still bestselling) album. How do you capture musical moments one Bieber track at a time?
Peter Duckworth, one of the directors of the Now Thats What I Call Music brand, is a bespectacled man in his 50s who has helped put together the famed pop compilations for about half his life. Thats since 1990, if you measure things by the regular calendar, or since 18, if you go by what Duckworth and his collaborators Steve Pritchard and Jenny Fisher call Now-time, in which recent history is marked out entirely by the release of the numbered, three-a-year disc sets. The trio, who work out of the Sony Music offices in London, are about to celebrate the release of Now Thats What I Call Music 100, and in the buildup to this landmark, I shadowed them in their work. I wanted to learn how Nows are made and try to understand why the anthologies, on the shelves since 1983 and still selling well, have had such staying power.
It is February when we first meet. Months to go until the July release of their 100th edition, and in fact the team still have the Easter-time Now 99 to compile and master. In a corner of the Sony office thats busy with coffee cups, branded mouse mats and a Guinness World Record naming Now the longest-running music album series, they set to work.
Any new Now starts with Fisher the hoodied, soft-spoken fortysomething director of the brand and her clutchbag full of loose, clacking memory sticks. For weeks, Fisher has been collecting songs for possible inclusion, which are sent to her by email. It all used to be more glamorous, she admits, back in the analogue era, when labels sent over individual songs on massive DAT tapes by courier. But what can you do?
Across the office from Fisher, Pritchard, a 58-year-old motorcyclist who occasionally shows up for work in leathers, crunches commercial data, scowling at his iPad as it notes chart positions and streaming counts. At a facing desk, Duckworth, who is the savant to Pritchards metrics guy, immerses himself in pop culture in a more general way, trying to work out what tracks will be popular by the time their next Now comes out. Duckworth has a party trick that he demonstrates to me. What was the first Now you owned? he asks.
Now 23, I say. (A Christmas present in 1992, double-tape edition. Even the name of this record still gives me a little tickle of pleasure.)
So youre… 35 years old.
I blink. How did you do that?
Duckworth shrugs. Everyone gets their first Now between nine and 10. I only hesitated because I couldnt remember if that one came out in 92 or 93. Meanwhile, Pritchard has found the old tracklist for Now 23 and asks if I can name the first song.
But its a silly question. Cant we all? Nows tend to land at a particular moment in your young listening life. Some time after the realisation that the pop playing on the radio and out of Chinese restaurant speakers isnt all indistinguishable mulch, but some time before you learn what albums really are and turn obsessive about track arrangement and liner notes, bearing choices of favourites like a coat of arms and self-defining by your dislikes as much as your likes. The Nows scooped up whatever was charting at the time so that Now 23 could run deliriously from Erasure to Abba to Billy Ray Cyrus to the song from the video game Tetris. I must have played it a thousand times. Of course I can remember track one, I tell Pritchard. Tasmin Archer, Sleeping Satellite.
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