Moby's 'Play' at 20: why it became the best-selling electronica record of all time

In April 2000, about a year after its release, Play reached the top of the UK album charts, sold 150,000 copies a week at the time and would remain in the charts until 2002

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 21:  Moby performs at the Electronic Music Awards at Willow Studios on September 21, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic/Getty Images)
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It wasn't a strobe-lit superstar DJ who made electronic music the soundtrack of the 21st century. It was Moby, a little-known and critically unloved, vegan "techno monk", who made programmed beats and vintage samples the unthreatening soundtracks of dinner parties and car advertisements alike.

There is never a single moment when a formerly edgy, countercultural art form shaves down its more jagged contours to be accepted into the mainstream establishment. But if we were to claim such a moment existed for what at the time was called "dance music", it was surely the day you found Moby's Play in your mum's CD collection.

The album celebrates its 20th birthday on May 17 and is remembered as an unlikely accident, a sleeper hit which floundered upon its release, only to find an aural afterlife as the easy listening, ambient soundtrack to several hundred advertisements, TV spots and elevator journeys.

Play was the first album to have every one of its 18 tracks licensed for commercial use, creating a critical mass of subliminal recognition which would fuel sales of more than 12 million copies worldwide. Riding the final gold rush of the CD-buying age – physical sales would peak in 2000 – Play is the highest-selling electronica album, according to Rolling Stone, a title it will inevitably hold forever.

Electrical storm brewing

It's a strange legacy for a record as unrepresentative as it is unprecedented. Play did not come out of nowhere, and electronic musicians had been featuring in the charts increasingly in the latter half of the 1990s.

The genre was born three decades earlier in Chicago nightclubs, but if there was a moment producer-driven instrumental music finally broke into the mainstream, it may as well be remembered as May, 1999. As well as Play, platinum-selling breakthroughs from chart-troubling British house duos Basement Jaxx and Groove Armada were made that month, bringing out debut album Remedy and sophomore offering Vertigo, respectively.

A few weeks earlier, Fatboy Slim's You've Come a Long Way, Baby belatedly climbed to the top of the UK album charts, a record which featured No 1 hit Praise You, while in October, Leftfield secured the same position with their second platinum-­selling LP Rhythm and Stealth.

But however influential these artists were, Moby's success was greater. Play sold about six times more than even Daft Punk's era-defining 1997 debut Homework, and it was Moby's music that ended up in your mum's CD collection. In the words of Rolling Stone, "Play wasn't the first album to make a rock star out of an insular techno nerdnik, but it was the first to make one a pop sensation".

Looking back, stepping forward

Already a niche icon in New York's club scene, Moby eschewed his earlier techno-breakbeat stylings and picked up a guitar for 1996's punk-­influenced Animal Rights. Despite reportedly making fans of Axl Rose and Bono, it was a commercial failure and Moby was promptly dropped by his US record label.

With his mother dying a year later, the musician, whose real name is Richard Melville Hall, fell into a hedonistic spiral. Play was ­grandly conceived as his fifth and final record (Moby has since released 11 more studio albums).

It was made on the cheap.

While nowadays it's the norm for even the most successful producers to craft beats in bedrooms and on planes, Moby's last-gasp decision to home produce his album was an eccentric curveball brought about by necessity.

This compromise would prove to be the record's talisman because without access to the dominant commercial technology, Play quietly sidestepped the polished sheen and compressed attack of the pervading chart dance sound. Instead, a rugged pragmatism lent the recordings an endearingly earthy quality; Everloving was a demo recorded straight to cassette with audio hiss still evident; Find My Baby was built around the producer playing a slurring slide guitar; and The Sky Is Broken featured only three elements: drums, synth and vocals. Such stark sonic separation and simple contrasting textures proved an audio tonic, conjuring an everyday, organic ambience more instantly familiar than any Block Rockin' Beats, released by The Chemical Brothers in 1997.

This electro-campfire vibe was hardened by Moby's enforced use of scratchy vocal samples. Unable to afford the requisite session singers, he turned to Alan Lomax's storied field recordings of American blues and gospel singers. Their rustic, rousing incantations were mercilessly appropriated as the predominant musical hooks on many of Play's best-loved songs, including singles Honey, Run On and Natural Blues; timeless, earth-worn melodies, instinctively felt and ready-made to seep into listeners' synapses.

Viral marketing pre-Y2K

Perhaps the 20th century wasn't ready for Moby. Play's ear-friendly electro-spirituals were roundly ignored and in a widely reprinted section of his memoir Then It Fell Apart, which was published earlier this month, Moby describes playing to 40 people in a Manhattan record shop days after Play's release, before selling a pitiable 6,000 copies a week.

While journalists were generally receptive to the record, the true gatekeepers of 20th-century audience taste, radio programmers, passed. Moby's management duly went through the back door, reaching out to advertising agencies and TV studios. Soon, his ear-easy mood music was being used to sell everything from cars and credit cards to chocolate. The chorus-less Porcelain – Moby's single vocal on the album – bled into the public consciousness via Danny Boyle's movie The Beach, which was also Leonardo DiCaprio's first lead role after the Titanic juggernaut.

Play became an audio virus and having invaded the media covertly through advertising, when radio finally caught up, listeners already recognised Moby's music – even if they didn't remember where they knew it from. A snowball effect was created and with more exposure, came more recognition. People soon wanted more.

In April 2000, about a year after its release, Play reached the top of the UK album charts, before conquering France, Australia and Germany. Play sold 150,000 copies a week at the time and would remain in the charts until 2002, turning platinum in 17 countries.

It was the first electronic album many of those listeners ever owned and industry marketeers quickly recognised a vast new audience for "dance music" which had never once set foot in a club. In 2005, the Grammy Award for Best Dance/­Electronic Album was born.