When the coronavirus hit, Now That’s What I Call Music was ready to distract music fans with pop quizzes, uplifting compilations and free access to its entire back catalogue via an ad-supported app. But the response didn’t happen overnight: it was built from years of digital planning that turned Now Music from a CD product into an always-on music service.
For a brand that’s often chucked in the same nostalgia bucket as Virgin Megastores and Sony Walkmans, Now That’s What I Call Music (or Now Music) knows more about digital transformation than most. The compilation album label has been at the forefront of the biggest media changes in the past 37 years, evolving its product from a vinyl LP to a cassette tape to a CD.
Now 43 – a late 90s mix of S Club 7, Supergrass and Shanks & Bigfoot – represented the company’s first foray into MiniDisc production. By Now 48 in 2001 (Steps, Sonique, Samantha Mumba) it had abandoned the format along with much of the music industry. Then came digital downloads and the revenue-slicing mess that followed.
But for all of the damage the 00s wreaked on the music industry’s business model, Now Music remained immune. Now 70 (Sugababes, Scooter, Scouting for Girls) recorded the highest ever sale for a compilation album ever in 2008 – right in the middle of the illegal download period. Meanwhile Now 95 was the biggest-selling album of 2016, and Now 100 was the fastest-selling album of 2018.
“When iTunes launched there was a lot of worry that it would kill the Now brand,” says Alex McCloy, the company’s senior digital director. “If you can cherry-pick the singles you want yourself, why would you need a product to compile it for you?
“But I think the brand love, the value, and the curation has really, really been strong. People do get choice fatigue – there's so much music out there and Now gives a really good signpost.”
McCloy joined the brand from EMI after Universal acquired the label in 2012 (the brand is jointly owned by Universal and Sony Music). While Now Music had survived shifts in user consumption, its digital presence was still underdeveloped in the early 10s; McCloy’s job was to build out its digital strategy and expand the breadth of its channels beyond the now-defunct iTunes Store.
The marketer set about building a social media presence (“back when Facebook was starting to become an important platform for the music industry”) but the bigger job at hand was to turn Now Music from a product into a service. Rather than serving up a CD then disappearing for four months, the brand wanted to maintain a constant buzz of conversation with consumers through its expertise and archive.
It launched a TV channel to “consistently refresh viewers’ music consumption” and began producing sharable social content anchored in nostalgia, humour and positivity. The always-on strategy has come into its own this month as the coronavirus continues to delay the physical release of Now 105 and the public seeks out new ways to keep entertained.
“We’re looking at how we can offer more things across more platforms, including YouTube and TikTok, and establish more conversations with our fans,” says McCloy. “This period’s given us a great opportunity to accelerate, and test and learn. So, on social, where historically we would post quite product-led messaging, we're ... giving away free music quizzes, chart rundowns, original content built around our forte.”
The biggest addition to the Now Music portfolio, however, is the brand’s own app. The platform features every single compilation released under the brand at a cost of £4.99 a month. A free version, which is supported by ads supplied by Global Radio’s Digital Ad Exchange, launched onto the market earlier this month.
The product might neatly package up the history of Now Music, but does the market need it? The British brand may be strong, but it is small in the face of global tech giants such as Amazon, YouTube and Apple, as well as Spotify and Tidal.
McCloy believes Now Music’s core audience requires something different.
“They’re what we call ‘lean back listeners’,” he says. “It’s the mass market that may have bought one or two albums a year historically – that's sort of £20-22 of music per year – and consume music via radio and YouTube's free desktop product.
“Going from £20-22 to £120 [the annual cost of Spotify Premium] is a massive jump. And we can offer a product that gives users a really nice, clean user interface, a simple way to stay up to date with chart music and a better experience than radio.”
This middle ground between commercial radio and a £9.99 monthly subscription has seen “good growth” since it launched in beta in 2016. Now, McCloy says, it’s one of the fastest-growing apps in the UK, having picked up a new user base since lockdown began. He believes the £4.99 hits the spot nicely – a fair price for new, enjoyable content that won’t repel those concerned about their private finances and the economy.
Now Music is hoping for another boost in growth as it takes advantage of this month’s cut-price TV advertising rates in its media plan. Unlike brands such as Coca-Cola and Airbnb, the music company is falling firmly into the category of pandemic ad spenders – those who believe it’s their duty to invest in their brand despite the circumstances.
“If you pull all of your media, you're going to start from a harder place when we come out of [lockdown],” says McCloy. “I think we've got to invest through this.
"We've got to get back to the fans that have invested loads of money in our albums over the years.”