A Very Nerdy Chat With Music’s Most Powerful Tastemaker, Zane Lowe

The inside skinny from the skinny guy on the inside.

Zane Lowe and Miley Cyrus

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You’d have a hard time finding a more influential person in music broadcasting than Zane Lowe.

The Auckland-born, LA-based radio host has been in the thick of the music industry for nearly 20 years — first as a presenter for MTV, than as the 13-year host of BBC Radio 1’s evening show (where he introduced the Hottest Record In The World segment), and now as the Creative Director of Apple Music’s Beats 1 Radio.

His own show on Beats 1 is widely regarded by industry execs as the holy grail of radio — a Lowe endorsement can be integral in breaking an artist internationally (look no further than the careers of Aussie acts like Ruel, Amy Shark, Dean Lewis, or Tash Sultana, whose music Lowe regularly champions.)

Speaking to Lowe over the phone from LA, it’s clear his passion for music — and the industry that powers it — is all consuming. He talks quickly, often throwing in anecdotes about artists or songs that he’s interviewed or heard, and often reflexively throws questions back at you (‘What do you think? Which artists do you think will break?’) like the expert interviewer that he is.

Naturally, any chat with Lowe turns into an intense rumination on the prevailing trends of the music industry — in particular, the impact of streaming on how we consume, and how artists create, music. So, ahead of his return to Sydney for the 2018 ARIA Awards, we got him on the phone for a very nerdy chat.

You’ve watched countless trends rise and fall over the last twenty years. For instance, a few years ago we had that massive EDM explosion in pop, and now we sort of seem to be coming out of the other side of that. What are the trends you’re noticing are on the rise now?

First off, you are right. Pop is the most adaptable and malleable genre or art form in music, because pop is always searching for new ways to reinvent itself and stay relevant. So, to some degree it has always got its eyes and ears on whatever its cooking underground or cooking to the hard left or the hard right or the centre.

It can just pull these really cool sounds and reapply it in its own way and that’s a really interesting dance. Ultimately, you end up with pop changing shape, but it also changes the shape of whatever its borrowed or whatever it’s drawing from.

“Pop changes shape, but it also changes the shape of whatever it’s borrowed or whatever it’s drawing from.”

In regard to streaming — since the turn of the millennium, artists have been making a lot more music and finding ways to get their music in front of people without permission. That’s the stuff that’s really moving the needle, because streaming is direct distribution and creative distribution of artists now.

There’s also not a lot of space between the artist and the fan in the conversation now. So, what you are seeing is music is just moving so fast, the quality is genuinely really strong, and there is a insatiable appetite for it because we don’t have to wait around for it anymore, we can just listen to it.

Hip-Hop is dominating right now because it’s so exciting, it’s so real. It’s the soundtrack to a very loud conversation and it’s being made all the time and released all the time, because in many respects it knows how to use the streaming era. It knows how to move at that pace. So pop music to me is drawing very directly from hip-hop right now in a very big way.

Zane Lowe and Kendrick Lamar

I interviewed Charlie XCX last week and we were discussing how her release strategy has changed so much. She is looking at hip-hop and they are dropping singles and mixtapes all the time. Whereas most other genres are still stuck in that traditional release format. Do you think that’s one of biggest changes we’ve seen since streaming has taken over?

Yeah definitely. If you create platforms where you can just put your music up and gauge how it’s reaching people…if you use that and make music that applies to that environment and you see direct reaction like rap artists do, innovative pop artists do — and to some degree SoundCloud was built on the backs of dance music — anyone who can directly get their music to people are built for the streaming era because they already understand that being creative is 24/7.

It’s not the older idea of making an album, touring it, taking a year off, finding the strength to make another album and tour. There are some artists that are capable of doing that. They have a fan base that will remain loyal to that process — but if you are a new artist coming through, more often than not, you are moving at a far quicker, and more visceral, pace.

You’re in the studio making music, you’re not putting it on some kind of slate to be put out in six months! If you’ve got something great you put it out now and you have the means to do it and the audience are ready to hear it.

Do you think major labels are equipped to deal with this at the moment because artists can now upload directly to platforms they can circumvent that process at all. Do you think labels are equipped to deal with streaming? 

I think so, and I think I’ve seen a lot of real changes in the way they’re moving and the pace that they’re moving at, and also the manner to which they are moving with their own artists too.

“We are in an era where the artist is very much in control of their own narrative.”

I think anybody, whether it’s a label, a manager, a lawyer, an agent, a radio station, a TV station, it doesn’t matter: anybody who is trying to control the pace and the manner of which music is being released, in contrast to the artist’s wishes, is not built for this time.

You’ve got to be able to collaborate and move with the artist, move with the audience. You can’t control the music, or control the environment or the delivery until you’re ready. You gotta be ready to move. I am seeing a lot of labels and managers, a lot of people who are very quick to pivot now and move according to what the artist wants.

We are in an era where the artist is very much in control of their own narrative. Social media gives them the voice, streaming gives them a distribution model, and the audience gives them the reason.

If you want to be in business with artists, and be in a relationship with them and in collaboration with them, then all of us — not just the labels — have to find ways to help and to support and to add value to that experience rather than try to slow it down.

Zane Lowe and Lady Gaga

Zane Lowe and Lady Gaga

One of the interesting arguments that has crept up in the last few years is that streaming is negatively impacting the length of albums — as in, artists are adding more tracks simply to game the system, as more streams will give you a number one album almost immediately, like we saw with Scorpion and Drake. What do you think? 

I think that albums will always be made as long as artists want to make them. I was just in the room with an artist before who said that they were part of conversations with people saying ‘Do you think you even need to make an album this time, why don’t you do something different?’

They said ‘Look at the end of the day, that’s really valid and at some point in our journey we may come to that conclusion, but right now we want to make an album.’ It was very clear that they wanted to make an album.

I don’t think any artist goes through the studio like, ‘How’s the format going to impact my legacy? How am I going to keep peoples attention? What songs are going to be shared on playlists?’

If you are going to make a body of work, more often than not you are going in to make something that you want to see through from start to finish — and that could be three songs, seven songs, ten songs, or double album.

Zane Lowe and Drake

Drake and Zane Lowe

Drake is a great example of someone who really doesn’t fall into any typical situation. He doesn’t fall into a rigid structure.

But that’s for everyone else, that’s for all of us to think about. He just goes in and says “I’ve got this song put it out. I have this project put it out. I’ve just done a remix put it out. I’m gonna go OVO Sound radio and play that remix of BlocBoy JB cause it’s great and I want to get it out. But then when I put an album out, it’s going to be an album. If Scorpion is going to be an album it’s going to be a thing. And then I’m going to put a playlist out.”

I think that Drake just moves according to what he feels at any given time. I think that speaks real truth about how a lot of artists feel now. Without so many different parts of the business in between them and the ultimate process of releasing music to fans, there is a sense of being able to be free, creatively free of anybody getting in your way.

You could put people in the process and allow them to give you the right advice — that’s what trusted teams are for — but ultimately you can sort of do what you want now. You get to decide how and when to put music out. So, when you have that freedom and no one is telling you when you’re on the clock or off the clock, well then creativity is kinda your full time job.

When you are putting music out, you should be thinking about what are you going to be doing to support that music, not just in the traditional way. ‘How am I going to remain exciting? How am I going to reach my audience? How am I going to reinvigorate them? How am I going to get their attention, keep their attention? How am I going to excite them?’

That’s a huge part of this nice. Making music is the key that opens the door but there is a whole lot of stuff you can put in that room at any time. And albums are part of that. Albums remain a part of that but so do mixtapes and projects…it’s all great, or it’s not.

I’d like to change tack. What do you think it takes for an Australian act to break in America? Some acts like Tash Sultana and Amy Shark are currently massive in the US and the UK, while other Australian artists are still trying to break. What do you think it is about those couple of acts that has clicked with the American audience?

I think you summed it up before when you asked whether a label’s built to be able to move in the streaming era. I think having the right teams around you in different parts of the world that can really nurture your music — as long as they are thinking modern, as long as they are thinking about how people are listening to music now and going forward. It’s all about having the right people around you that feel and are able to put your music in front of the right people to create opportunity.

Amy is somebody who has had people come about here championing her cause, in one way or another, in a really creative way. Its not just ‘Oh, put the record out and hope for the best.’ No, it’s  like ‘Let’s find ways for people to think about who Amy is.’

Amy Shark and Zane Lowe

Then there is the work, the grass, the love of the process. I mean the band like Gang of Youths to me will eventually continue to build on their audience, especially in America, because they love the process. And if you love the process you just keep going.

You keep making music, you keep playing it, you keep finding new ways to connect with people, and winning over the hearts and minds of your audience. That’s it. It’s just that there are so many more ways of doing that now — whether you are from Australia, New Zealand, or parts of Africa or Europe or America. It doesn’t really matter.

It comes down to whether or not you are thinking about your music as an overall experience, and whether you’re constantly looking to put it in front of your audience in an interesting and exciting way.

You can’t stop. You can’t just go, ‘I’ve done my bit, what’s everyone else going to do?’ It’s like ‘Okay you’ve made this beautiful piece of music, how are you going to keep it alive? How are you going to keep breathing life into it?’

An incredible chef doesn’t just write a menu and say ‘I’m done.’ You know, you got to go and cook the food, present the food, master the food, change the food, listen to what people in your restaurant are saying about the food. You have to alter the menu in order to suit the needs of the people in your restaurant, but also not necessarily compromise your own vision.

Its constantly changing all the time, even if you keep the menu the same. Strange analogy, but you get it right?

Zane Lowe is the Creative Director and DJ behind Apple Music’s Beats 1. He’ll be coming to Sydney for ARIA Awards week in late November. The ARIA Awards take place at Sydney’s The Star on Wednesday, November 28. 

Jules LeFevre is Junkee’s Music Editor. Follow her on Twitter