The record at the top of the compilations chart got some unexpected love at the weekend. Official Charts presented Andrew Lloyd-Webber with a Specialist award after the cast recording of his upcoming Cinderella project flew to the top of the Various Artists listing.
It annoyed me slightly, as I’d omitted to make any mention of it in this week's Music Week column. I'd given the compilations listing a cursory glance and saw the album there, but then noted that I'd largely hit my word count for the week and to cram anything else in would mean having to make trims somewhere else. Given the record hadn't sold a huge amount I decided it wasn't newsworthy. But following the attention it had elsewhere perhaps that was the wrong choice.
But this does raise an interesting question. At what point does a compilation album become newsworthy these days?
The concept of Various Artists compilation albums is as old as the format itself although it wasn't until 1970 that the first one topped the charts in its own right, Motown Chartbusters Volume 3 having the honour of a week at the summit in February that year. By the mid-1980s such TV-advertised collections were a regular sight at or near the top of the albums charts. As well as the duelling volumes from the Now That’s What I Call Music and Hits series of albums, such long-forgotten collections as Raiders Of The Pop Charts, Nite Flite and Hot City Nights took their places in the pantheon of No.1 albums.
In 1988 the BPI who, to their increasing chagrin, were effectively running the operation of the British charts elected to take action and proposed that Various Artists compilations should be spun off into their own exclusive Top 20 chart and the main albums chart reduced accordingly to 75 positions. Like any proposed change to the status quo it attracted furious opposition from many quarters.
I note with amusement from the clipping that the arguments again are not dissimilar to those which are bandied around every time an adjustment to streaming calculations are proposed, that the charts should be logging everything without prejudice and whatever sells should go in with no filtering. However inconvenient that may be. Music Week themselves were merely concerned about how on earth they were going to cram everything in.
A month later the issue was settled and the decree handed down to much continued tantruming from some quarters. From January 1989 the albums chart was split forever and compilations were allowed to play in their own sandbox, leaving the main albums chart free to highlight the work of up and coming artists such as er, Phil Collins.
There they have remained ever since, despite these initial misgivings. But the venerable format is now facing something of an existential crisis. To the streaming generation they are an anachronism. For them the playlist is the only themed compilation of hits they require. Far from being the core of music collections Various Artists CDs are now little more than budget impulse purchases, these days largely purchased from supermarkets or filling stations. In many ways they represent better value for money than ever before, three- or even five-CD collections available for under a tenner are not uncommon. Supermarket chains are actually very fond of them. As one industry insider noted to me: "Most artist albums have the shelflife of a mayfly these days, and pre-ordering of the physical is now the norm. Whereas compilations (numbered NOWs aside, which behave like artist albums) are impulse buys, have a longer shelf life and a more gentle decline".
However aside from the thrice-yearly Now That's What I Call Music releases, precious few sell in any kind of noticeable quantity, at least not on a weekly basis. To put that in some kind of context, the No.20 compilation album this week (the bottom of what used to be the full list) 1-2-3 The 80s sold precisely 800 copies. These days Official Charts publish a full Top 100 which is itself an absurdity in truth. The No.100 album at the time of writing is The Workout Mix - Set For Summer with a sale in the low three figures for its triple CD pack. The chart is actually produced down to 200 places for internal industry purposes. I won't tell you how many copies the 200th biggest selling compilation (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood - OST) sold as it may make you cry.
The listing was brightened a little last year when the loophole which permitted Original Cast Recordings onto the main artists chart (and meant The Greatest Showman spent an extended period at No.1 when first released) was closed and such releases were transferred to the compilations countdown. But that still doesn't mean sales are boosted in any significant way. Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Cinderella debuted at No.1 this week with 5,438 sales.
Now those numbers might reduce still further, following the recent announcement that Sainsbury's is to cease stocking music CDs altogether, saving shelf space instead for specialist vinyl releases which have a profit margin that justifies the shelf space devoted to them. There are concerns (as yet unrealised) that other retailers will follow suit, although I'm told that Asda and Morrisons remain committed to the CD market for the moment.
I wondered if the salvation is to reverse that original 1988 split. Where once artist albums benefitted from the increased visibility granted by the removal of compilations, could it now be that compilations will benefit from the increased visibility of being a full part of the main albums mix. The release of the next Now album will no longer be a footnote in a column but potentially the most visibly big deal of the week. Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Cinderella would not have merited a special award for topping its own chart, but it would have been noted as one of the five biggest albums of the week, one which jostled side by side with Tom Odell and Doja Cat for chart position.
However one contact who still works within the compilations sector refutes that suggestion, telling me "what folding [compilations] into the main chart will do, TV advertised titles aside, will actually bury them still further. They amass no streaming or download numbers and thus will not be on a level playing field".
We both noted that this "level playing field" doesn't exist anyway, given that soundtrack and cast recording albums are the only "compilations" which have downloads and streams credited to them. The Greatest Showman is the No.2 compilation album of the week, based on physical sales alone it would be No.60.
The impact of Sainsbury's music pull-out will be fascinating to watch. Speaking as someone who saw the compilation album as a means of amassing the vast library of tracks he aspired to possess as a teenager, I still have a great affection for them. The only reason I don't buy so many these days is because it is rare they feature any tracks I don't already own in five different places already. And that's without taking the ready access to them all that DSP services provide. But as we've noted too, compilations are almost exclusive to the CD format. And in an era when fewer and fewer people even own a CD player outside of the car, their use continues to diminish. Something has to give, and it may be that a tradition started by Curtain Up, the first-ever Various Artists album to be listed on the Record Retailer album chart in May 1959, is destined to grind to a halt.
The curated compilation is dead. Long live the curated playlist.