Five Questions: Zane Lowe

Radio's top tastemaker wants to bring community to streaming music
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In 2015, after a dozen years hosting BBC Radio 1—interviewing the likes of Paul McCartney, Adele, and Kanye, and enthusiastically championing emerging artists of every genre—DJ Zane Lowe was tapped by Apple to launch its Beats 1 digital radio station. The move marked a shift in strategy for Beats Music and iTunes Radio, bringing in a name-brand personality—arguably the world’s most influential radio DJ—to inject vitality into its 24/7 streaming service. I sat down with Lowe to learn how he’s working to bring a sense of musical community to the streaming world, and how that translates into opportunities for artists.

How has developing Beats 1 changed the way you think about broadcast radio?

When I first started at Beats 1, we all to some degree felt like we were making radio on a streaming service, and over time we realized that while we have similarities with radio, we are really a live stream. What we try and do is create an environment where streaming music can come to life. It’s about search and discovery. Beats 1 moves in real time—and so does the music, and so do the artists, and so do the fans. It’s the most exciting time ever to witness that conversation between artists and fans.

You’re working to create context for the music you share. Can you envision opportunities for producers and others involved in the process of creating a song?

Beats 1 launched with artists controlling their own context. We launched with OVO Sound Radio (Drake and his manager, Oliver El-Khatib), OTHERtone (Pharrell Williams and music supervisor Scott Vener), and The Pharmacy (Dr. Dre). That’s been a huge part of Beats 1 from the start, to put this experience in the hands of the artist and let them lead the narrative. We’re also collaborating closely with playlists on Apple Music and the curators who put them together, and we’re starting to create programming that directly relates to those playlists. We’re also doing deep-dive shows with some of the world’s biggest producers. We just did a “Behind the Boards” interview with Frank Dukes, and we recently had on Ryan Tedder, where he told us incredible stories about the songs that appear on his SongBook playlist on Apple Music and talked about who he is working with.

I read an interview where you wondered why radio “promotion” couldn’t be an extension of the creative process. Can you give me some examples of how that might work for an indie artist?

The conversation between an artist and their audience has become much more direct and we’ve realized that the concept of promotion is changing. It’s becoming so much more creative. If you’re an artist now, you don’t necessarily need to tread the same boards as your predecessors. You can find new and interesting ways to “promote” your music in ways that are personal and super creative. There really isn’t the same long lead-up time prior to a record’s release like there used to be. There’s really not a point in talking about a song unless it’s available on streaming services and everywhere for people to add to their libraries and share with their friends. The creative is always on and never ends, whether you’re making the record, making the video, making the track listing, working on your merch, figuring out the timing of the record, etc.

People know you’re a successful live DJ, but not everyone is aware of how much writing and producing you’ve done. What kind of music are you making yourself these days?

That’s a good question! Not a lot. But I was aware when I took this job and came to work at Apple that I was going to have to put my entire focus into streaming, where it’s going, and what it can become. I still feel that we’re at the early stages of this streaming era, and there’s still so much work to be done on every single level. And while that’s exciting and challenging, it doesn’t leave room for much else. I did load up and start making some beats the other day and have a few collaborations in mind going forward. A couple of things I worked on recently are just coming to light now, including a song by Jacob Banks, which I co-wrote with John Newman. But really, at the moment I’m entirely focused on trying to help build a really healthy streaming business at Apple and adding value to that conversation between the artist and the fan. If I ever think things are moving in a perpetual fashion and I have some time, I’ll be in the studio in a flash!