Zane Lowe Talks Beats 1's First Weeks, Working With Trent Reznor and Dr. Dre, And 'Gorging On Pearl Jam Radio'
Perhaps the greatest surprise of Apple Music's first weeks has been the near-universal praise that its Beats 1 radio station has received, not just for its impressive battery of exclusives — interviews, premieres or regular shows from Dr. Dre, Drake, Pharrell, Disclosure, St. Vincent, Eminem, Elton John and many more — but also for its adventurous and ambitious programming. The station is a fusion of old-school and futurism that reminds some of college radio, some of the BBC and some of the halcyon early days of FM. At its helm stands Zane Lowe, 41, the effusive, hyper-verbal, New Zealand-born former tastemaker-in-chief for the BBC's Radio 1, who, as Beats 1's "special creative and lead anchor," is charged with programming the station, which so far has been exciting, chaotic, attention-grabbing and unpredictable… apparently just the way his bosses (low-key, retiring people with surnames like Iovine, Reznor and Cue) want it — and so far, so do listeners. In just his second interview since the station's launch, Lowe found an hour to talk with Billboard about the highlights and missteps of setting the tone for the venture.
What’s your core philosophy when it comes to programming?
I have two quotes up on my wall: One is mine, “Quality and consistency creates the addiction.” We want people to come back to Beats 1 because it has awakened something in them and they want to hear more. The other quote came from Jimmy [Iovine] and is the station’s mantra: “Don’t be boring.”
Beats 1 is supposed to be formatless, but there do seem to be parameters to what’s played. How would you define the Beats 1 sound?
The personality of the station is developing over time. We started with a selection of records. That came down to four or five of us going, “What’s popping?” Then you ask around about the artist, do a bit of due diligence. After the first week, it was really exciting to hear how it all fit together, but also at times it was jarring. For instance, we would come out of big shows by Q-Tip or Disclosure, and the first song was really slow -- you’re immediately losing the impact you’ve gained from the previous song. So we made some changes. We also noticed in the first week people listened for really long amounts of time, which meant songs got tired quickly, so we revised our rotations. And we’re working on a replay service and we want to get full on-demand ready.
There’s a lot of electronic music, edgy rock and hip-hop on Beats 1. Are there set genres you’re pursuing?
No, not really. We’ve played country music, Mexican house music, South American EDM, German hip-hop. I’ve never been a fan of, “We’ve got to get 22 percent of rock, 17 percent of R&B; where’s our 16 percent of hip-hop and our 9 percent of country?” If you do it that way, you’re not basing it on the merit of the music. You’re basing it on some kind of obligation.
How about pop?
The other day I heard the new 5 Seconds of Summer record, and I was like, “Could I play that on my show?” It was really strange. My whole perception shifted, because I had never played 5 Seconds of Summer before; they went straight to [BBC's mainstream] Radio 1 daytime and never really crossed my path. Then I heard this song, and it just sounds like SoCal pop-punk. Cool!
What have been some of the highlights of the first weeks of Beats 1?
Oh, so many. There’s huge excitement in the building around Dr. Dre and Compton. I grew up listening to his work -- he has been a huge influence on me. And when Drake dropped three brand new tracks on his show. What was amazing, apart from hearing new music from him that people hadn't heard before -- including us -- and one of them being a part of the whole Drake/Meek Mill scenario, was that he really used the radio to say what he wanted to say and share the music in a way that he wanted to do it.
Did you have much interaction with Dr. Dre before the interview around the Compton premier?
I’d never met him until I started having conversations with Jimmy and Trent [Reznor] about coming to Los Angeles. I was out here on Grammy weekend, and there was a meeting at Jimmy’s house. That was the moment where we laid out, initially at least, what we were hoping to achieve with Beats 1. It was a double whammy, because I was in the same room as Jimmy and [Apple senior vp Internet software and services] Eddy Cue and [vp iTunes content] Robert Kondrk, who I was meeting for the first time, and Trent. I'm trying to concentrate on saying the right things to get my point across and not stumble too hard, and at the same time I'm having these out-of-body experiences here and there, like "Dr. Dre, f---!" Which I'm sure he's used to seeing, but I was just trying to keep my game face on.
Besides Beats 1, what radio have you listened to since you arrived in the United States?
I listened to nothing but American radio when I came here, man — from terrestrial to SiriusXM. I'd never had Sirius so listened to tons of their stations, just to get my head around the pacing and the feel of American radio. And I spent two weeks gorging on Pearl Jam Radio.
Yeah! In New Zealand, Pearl Jam is kind of a rite of passage. After about a week I realized if I don’t switch now, I’m going to end up destroying my love of this band. But Sirius is a really impressive collection of genres and stations. I definitely kicked up Real 92.3 [KRRL-FM]; I wanted to hear what hip-hop sounded like in Los Angeles. I listened to KIIS-FM, and I listened to Power 106 [KPWR]. I went across the board, man. It has taught me what I love about American radio, and it also taught me what we need to avoid, as a global radio station.
How do you like living in Los Angeles?
I spent a long time living in London, and I love the energy and the subliminal anxiety that London provided me. L.A. is very vehicle-driven. But I’m starting to enjoy that. I’m turning West Coast, slowly but surely.
How will Apple Music work if you get all of the components to click?
What we’re working toward is this one place where people can go to [the] “For You” [feature] and be fed these wonderful handmade playlists according to their tastes, go to Beats 1 and have a shared listening experience and then go to “Connect” and get close to the artists. The whole thing should work symbiotically. Also, we’re a broadcasting platform on a music service, so when people hear something they like, the idea is they’ll go deep: go into the music service, learn more, listen to the albums. That’s really important.
Do you find that planning and running the station distracts you from DJ-ing?
It's certainly put my attention in places I haven't been before: Looking at the station as a whole and how the flow is going to happen, and how do we incorporate more countries and different time zones? All those questions absolutely took me away from focusing on radio and suddenly I found myself like, "I'm on the air in three days!"
So how do you program a global radio station?
It just had to be about music. Most radio is entirely driven around formats that are built around time and time zones. But with a global station there’s no “breakfast” or “drive” or any of that, so we could only program around music. It’s complicated: You're thinking, "This works well in this Sydney but what about Europe?” That’s why we have repeats - so that while you’re asleep someone else is hearing something for the first time. It was important that it was a communal listening experience. We decided to place shows in positions that gave different parts of the world a fair chance to listen to them.
Beats 1 was basically Trent Reznor's idea?
Yeah. I'm not sure if you've had a chance to sit with Trent, but he's one of the most intelligent, eloquent, passionate people I've ever met, not just for art, but also the way people can use it. He's really committed to the user experience, so his whole thing was like, "People have been splintered off into individual experiences -- let's see if we can bring them back together and if so, what would that feel like for the user? What if they're using it on a device in a music service, and not in the traditional places where radio is experienced?" It was incredibly useful for me to hear him say that because it really [solidified] some of the ideas that I'd been kicking around but wasn't sure if I was on the right path. What is really valuable and exciting about radio is the connection to a community. Trent has been incredibly supportive every step of the way.
One thing that is different from a lot of other stations is that your level of enthusiasm seems to have carried over to the other DJs. You are known for being somewhat enthusiastic on the air.
[Laughs and laughs] That's such a nice way to put it, man, I appreciate that! That'll replace some of the [negative] descriptions that've been hanging over my head. Anyway, we approached people that loved music. Hopefully it doesn't sound tacky, but I really try to sell records because I love them and I want to share the music in a way that other people might like. We went looking for people who felt the same way, and [fellow anchors] Julie [Adenuga] and Ebro [Darden] are that through and through. And from there, it was like, OK, where is the different dynamic? And having someone like St. Vincent or even Drake come in -- you can go to any number of [services] and find something that's new or [recommendations based on other music you like]. But, how is that going to change your opinion? I like to think of us as working in a record store and someone comes up and says, "Hey, what's good?" And if you can gain that trust, then we're doing our job.
Have you worked in record stores?
Yeah, I did. I worked at the Music & Video Exchange, which used to be called the Record & Tape Exchange, a very famous chain of second-hand record stores in London [the supremely snobby store that was the basis for Championship Vinyl in Nick Hornby's novel and film High Fidelity].
I hated those guys! They have the greatest selection but they were the meanest record snobs of all time.
[Laughs] It's funny, I was the soft heart at the beginning and they had to take me aside and be like, "You just bought a vinyl copy of Nevermind by Nirvana for ten pounds. Why did you do that?" And I'd be like, "I've never seen it on vinyl before!" And they'd say, "That's because you grew up in New Zealand! They sold 10 million copies of this on vinyl — it's a 10 [pence] record, sort your shit out!" So I learned the hard way, but I loved the experience there. What it really taught me was the other side of music in the UK -- the people that work behind the counter in those record stores, they are deep, deep in the catalog. And they'd say to me, "You think you're open-minded but you're not. You need to take things off the shelf and just try them. You've really got to stop sticking to your lane." That really set me up for working in the UK because it's a really deep and culturally exciting place for music and art.
It's hard to think of better training for your BBC gig.
That's so true. I remember the three bits of advice I got when working at Music and Video Exchange -- this is probably irrelevant for your story but I'll tell you anyway because it always makes me laugh. They were like, "Alright man, you've got the job, just by the skin of your teeth, so here's the thing: Don't do anything we don't ask you to do because you'll f--- it up. Two: Don't put so much milk in the tea, we like it strong out here. And three: I know in New Zealand everyone's really happy all the time but for God's sake stop being so f---ing enthusiastic!" It was epic, man. I learned how to do two of those things, but the enthusiasm has been a harder one to shake, unfortunately.
How was the Beastie Boys interview you did at the Capitol Records summit in L.A.?
Amazing. They're my favorite group of all time, and ever since the passing of MCA, I was hoping one day I'd be able to talk to them in the context of the Beastie Boys again. It happened on the anniversary of [the late] Adam Yauch's birthday, so the whole thing was wonderful [but] it was nervewracking to me because I'd never interviewed those guys in front of an audience before. They're at their best when they're being funny, when their humor comes across and they're able to subvert your questions in a humorous way, but at the same time, when you're on the stage having to moderate the conversation, how do you give them the freedom to do that without looking like you're trying to insert yourself into their jokes? But it was cool, I just felt like I was part of the audience.
Do you have any input into the guest shows, like St. Vincent or Elton John, or do they just come in and do whatever they want?
They can do whatever they want, but if they ask direct questions I'll always give them as honest and direct feedback as possible. But the formatting and idea of the shows and the music come entirely from the artists. Nobody ever tells them what to play.
At Beats 1, do you get a lot of radio promotion people promoting records to you?
It's funny, I don't really know at this point because I've been just focusing on my show. We talk amongst ourselves and we search for things that move us and we search for the stories. I try not to get promoted to because I'm looking for things that either come from my team or comes from my own search. Like, who is Gallant? Where does Halsey come from? What are they saying? It's this wonderful freedom that nobody really knows what to expect from us.
So you don't get somebody from Astralwerks Records saying, "Here's the new Halsey single?"
Yeah, we do. The industry is important. These people are investing in art and artists and musicians and they want them to succeed just like we do. Some of my best friends work for labels and they really care about the artists that they work with. That trusted source is what helps us get music out to an audience.
How does it feel to be the runaway success of Apple Music? Are the other departments throwing shade at you?
[Laughter] No. The whole thing is being built with [the other units of Apple Music] in mind, and every day, we're always communicating with them. We're just there to play our part.
This article first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of Billboard.