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Beats 1 radio's Zane Lowe on superstar DJs, exclusive releases, and the age of curation

zane lowe interview beats 1 apple music anniversary
Apple Music

Before he was calling Jimmy Iovine boss, world-renowned radio DJ Zane Lowe spent 12 years as BBC Radio 1’s music guru from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. every Monday through Thursday.

He was playing Adele songs in 2007. He got god proclamations from Kanye West in one of his many interviews. When he said a song was the Hottest Record in the World — a segment in his shows — the temperature was usually right. And yet, as we chatted before his DJ set at the Governors Ball Music Festival in New York City, Lowe said his first two years as Apple Music’s Beats 1 Radio creative director “changed the way I think about everything in terms of media, broadcast, and radio.”

Lowe is constantly moving, even under grey New York City skies dreary enough to slow the most caffeinated mind. During our frenetic interview, he brushed off his knee and fidgeted with the string on his sweatshirt in the middle of his answers. Later on he’ll proceed to rip through dozens of songs in 40 minutes during his first live DJ set in years, eventually cueing up Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock to send the crowd of millennials into a frenzy.

And, it would seem, as the chief of Apple’s always-on internet radio station, Lowe can’t stop moving until the music does.

The two year anniversary of Beats 1 Radio is coming up on June 30. How do you see these past two years in the context of your long career in terrestrial radio? 

“More than ever now that the artist can reach the audience and the audience can reach the artist directly.”

When I first arrived at Apple I brought a lot of credible experiences I had at Radio 1 BBC, and some of those we applied successfully. A lot of them didn’t fit, because it’s a streaming service and it’s just not the same. That became really evident really quickly, especially when you’re broadcasting on a global platform on a device that is in someone’s hand at all times. You have to move at a different pace and you have to think about the world differently and focus on different things. … We had to realize we weren’t that local heartbeat that you get when you wake up in the morning and you find out what the traffic is saying, or what happened in your city at that time.

It was good, because it made us really realize we’re doing it for the good of music. It was a really distraction-free environment based around supporting artists and driving the best, exciting music to the audience and just adding value to that relationship. That relationship is all that ever mattered, and more than ever now that the artist can reach the audience and the audience can reach the artist directly. So, if you are going to get in between that and be a part of that conversation, you have to add value, and that’s what Beats 1 does.

Beats 1 has a lot of big artists who have their own radio shows. In just two years, those programs have resulted in huge moments from Drake, Travis Scott, DJ Khaled, Frank Ocean and so many others. How did that all come about?

That idea came from just sitting around and talking with a few people who work with me on Beats about how we can build something that feels very directly connected to the artist. I always thought a lot of times artists would come through to my radio shows and it would feel like a job. … Promotion, that’s where the job starts. I always wondered why couldn’t radio feel creative to the artist … Why can’t it be an extension of the creative process? Making an album, doing a music video, designing a set, making a setlist … those are all creative exercises. [We asked] “Can we make promotion creative?” I think that and the fact that we had very little time to build it, we didn’t want to run around the world reaching out to all our favorite radio DJ’s and getting in that whole traffic jam of trying to convince everyone to come over one way or another.

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We’ve been overwhelmed by A) how good it’s been and how great the artists are at doing it, and B) how much demand there was to want to do it. That’s what’s been really cool. You’ll see artists and they’ll say … “Can I lead up to the release of my record by doing this?” “Can I take some control of my message?” … probably the most fun part of the job is sitting around and working out what the radio station needs or getting a phone call and email from somebody like, “Hey man, can I ride with you guys for a few months, or for a while and try this out?”

Those radio shows bring back the feeling of music being a communal event. When Drake premiered his album More Life on his show, it felt like everyone was tuned into Beats 1. Which moment of the artists shows had the biggest impact? 

It’s hard to say because for me, personally, when I would listen to the Chilly Gonzalez show (Music’s Cool) once a month, I would get this huge thrill. This guy is talking through the similarities between Chopin and Drake and playing it on his piano, adding value to my life. This feels like a podcast with music. … But, then when Drake plays More Life out, you realize the whole world is listening and it’s exciting. Equally, when I hear Mike D come out with echo and delay all over his voice on his Echo Chamber show I’m just so blown away that Mike D is with us and put so much time and love into his show. So, all of them have their own moment and sometimes the impact is surprising.

We just look at everybody who gets involved and wants to make radio with us, and do cool shit with us.

We love it when artists take over their own message and their own music, and own that moment. That’s a big part of why we built it. … Equally, just hearing Beats 1 go out on the playlist hour, and hearing what we’re doing with our Up Next [documentary series], and tying into what the playlist sounds like, then playing a bit of an interview we did with an artist … I’m just sitting there like, “Wow, this doesn’t stop.” The whole idea is this ADD experience. We don’t get into who did better on any level or any numbers, because we don’t look at it that way. We just look at everybody who gets involved and wants to make radio with us, and do cool shit with us. We look at it with respect.

Apple Music has had a lot of exclusive releases, but labels seem to be cutting back on streaming-service exclusives in general. Has that affected Beats 1’s listenership?

It hasn’t at all. Distribution is a choice. Artists can choose to put their music out however they want and there are enough platforms for them to do that. Arcade Fire just put their song out on vinyl at a festival before it went on streaming services. … Our job is to present [the music] in the best way possible. That’s why Beats 1 exists. To basically create excitement and context around records.

In this day of streaming content, music has become this: (rubs index finger and thumb together). It’s not tangible. You can’t really hold it anymore and you don’t know where it goes when you put it out. … What we try to do is say, “Hey, let’s try and bring that conversation, that community, that excitement around the releasing of music.” We need that moment when it is real and tangible to feel exciting, too.

You have an extensive history of discovering and putting the world on notice of new artists. Has the music discovery process changed moving from traditional Radio to an online streaming service like Beats 1?

Really good question. Undoubtedly, at the end of the day. When I first started in radio it felt more controlled and felt like things were being delivered to you: “If you like it, we’d love if you played it.” Now, I’m getting music coming at me left, right, and center. You have to listen a lot more, open your ears a lot more, and you trust the audience completely, which I already did, but a lot of that conversation is being led by you [the listener]. You have ways to distribute and share music with your friends.

Here’s the thing: Everyone talked about going into this curation age. What that means to me is everyone is a curator. It’s not just me, or 10 other people who have been given this responsibility of finding music. Everyone is doing it all the time. You can find a record right now, share that link to your friend, send a picture, take a shot of it at a concert, put it up on your social media. You’re curating your life and the lives of the people you know. You’re constantly curating, all the time.

Rather than try to put ourselves in front of all of that, what we’re saying is we want to build a place where you as a curator can listen and learn something too, so it’s not a singular experience for yourself. You can go to Beats 1 and go, “This speaks my language, as a curator.” … It’s kind of like a club house for that. It’s like a satellite broadcast for everyone who cares enough about music to curate and share it fast. That’s why we move so fast. The way I discover music, it’s like it’s the most exciting and wide open time ever. Ever!

Who is your favorite artist you have discovered since joining Beats 1?

Great question, man. I love 6Lack, I’m so glad we got to kick off the Up Next program with him. It was great to see that really take shape. I love A.CHAL. I’m waiting for that to connect and just fly. I think Jessie Reyez is amazing. I heard she had a great show [at the Governors Ball]. I think where she’s going is super special.

I’m just going to straight up say it: Halsey. That first week [of Beats 1] playing New Americana was — a moment. It was a really cool moment. It almost felt like her journey started when our journey started. We talk about this all the time whenever I see her.

You’ve been in the music industry during its transition from physical to digital to streaming. As a huge music lover, are there any features you wish existed or were more popular in the new streaming era?

I’m going to get in trouble for this, but I would like there to be a more obvious and more visible way for credit to be shared. Who wrote what, who produced what, who engineered it, who made the coffee, who contributed to this experience? Making music isn’t just an end result, it’s a process. Everybody that sits in a studio and lovingly works on something deserves to get their credit. By the way, that credit is important for the survival of people who are doing their jobs.

I only know who Jimmy Iovine is because he produced Tom Petty, U2, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, and all of these amazing artists. … Now I know him as my boss. Before that, I knew him as this incredible record producer. I knew that because I would turn the record over and look at the back of it.

I’m not trying to say we need to go backwards, I’m all about going forward. I just think some things should come along for the ride. I think there should be a way to see who wrote and produced what, without it being on a social media post.

Keith Nelson Jr.
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Keith Nelson Jr is a music/tech journalist making big pictures by connecting dots. Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY he…
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