It's a warm november morning at the Apple Music campus in Culver City, and Zane Lowe's show at Beats 1 Radio is in full swing. Lowe and his team -- all clad in black, all standing with their torsos bobbing to the beat in unison like synchronized dunking birds -- joke with one another as they huddle over Apple computers in the high-ceilinged, almost clinically clean studio. Screens overhead display two Twitter feeds, a thumbnail image of the song playing and, in foot-high numbers, the time. A young band, British quartet Spring King -- coincidentally, the first act ever to be played on Beats 1 -- is ushered in for an interview, which is a bit stiff until Lowe's affability and musical knowledge take hold and they're chatting away about the previous day's binge at Amoeba Records.
For 43-year-old Lowe -- a New Zealand native, married father of two and former tastemaker-in-chief for the BBC's Radio 1 -- this is an average day at the office. He is charged with programming the self-proclaimed global radio station, running its staff (which numbers "in the tens") and figuring out how and where its free service fits in the 20 million-subscriber-strong Apple Music universe, not to mention hosting his two-hour show each weekday (and delivering a keynote address at South by Southwest in March).
Since its launch on June 30, 2015, the station has had plenty of success: buzzed-about interviews with Drake and The Weeknd and specialty shows by celebrity DJs ranging from Elton John and Pharrell Williams to Slipknot's Corey Taylor (along with Lowe's fellow anchors Julie Adenuga in London and Ebro Darden in New York). But the streaming world is viciously competitive, and despite Apple's billions, Lowe is the first to admit that creating a radio station for a global audience is a daunting task.
Beats 1 is 18 months old. How are things going?
The short answer is, it's going great: We survived the first year, and now we want to thrive and build. One thing that hasn't really gone away is the hectic pace, but that's just a reflection of the environment -- stuff is coming at you all the time. It's quite ADD, Beats 1.
What have you tried to do that you haven't really cracked yet?
Heaps. I don't think Beats 1 has been able to explain that we are free [of charge], and that's tricky because we want people to subscribe to Apple Music. And when we started, in many ways we were still trying to function as a traditional radio station, but now we try to integrate with Apple Music -- like, you hear The Weeknd talking about his new album, so you go to Apple Music and listen to it and then get into his other albums. It's a far more comprehensive experience than just saying, "The new album is out." I think the first year showed we're good at that, and at investing in new talent, like Christine and the Queens and Anderson Paak and, more recently, artists like Skott and Jorja Smith.
For all the crusading for new artists, there's tons of Drake and Rihanna on the playlist every day. Why?
It's what's moving, and we want to reflect the times in a really sharp way. We all know that Drake has won 2016, not just in the records he has put out but the way he has put them out, using [his Beats 1 radio show] OVO Sound to premiere songs, dropping the mixtape with Future. Chance the Rapper is a completely independent artist headlining stadiums; Kanye West put out an album that kept changing. These are exciting times.
With all of your roles at Apple Music, how do you focus on your show?
That has taken some practice, and sometimes it's still not entirely possible. I've politely requested that unless something really needs my attention, the two hours I'm on the air need to be focused on the show -- because how can I ask everyone else to do that when I'm preoccupied? The reason I'm here is because I love making radio shows and screaming about records, not because I've got a track record of running a business.
For new artists like Christine & The Queens, what makes them not necessarily worthy, but exciting enough to champion in such a big way?
OK, since you used the word "worthy," I'm going to match you with a word that's almost as offensive in its way: "authenticity." There is something coming from that artist that feels like it could only come from them, right? It's an originality, but not in the sense that they're making a sound that has never been heard before; it's more in terms of that message, that song, that feeling, that performance. Does it fill a gap in my life that I didn't know existed? I didn't know I wanted to hear a French singer tell an honest story about her experiences in London being raised by drag queens, and now I want more of that.
Do you know what your South by Southwest keynote is going to be about?
No. I'm absolutely terrified. Obviously I do lots of talking on the air, but I never really saw myself as someone who goes up and talks in front of a group of people. But I have experienced a lot of changes over the years, so I think it's going to look at what it means to be a music fan today. With access to artists and music being so instant and easy, it's so different from when I was a little kid in New Zealand going to the record store, and the artists felt a million miles away.
If it's morning in Los Angeles, as a global radio station, who do you visualize as your audience?
It's really hard to get your head around it, to be honest. I imagine people in the car, kids in class with one earbud in, people in New Zealand and Australia who can't get to sleep. But rather than making sure that every pin in the map is taken care of, I'm trusting that we know who they are: music fans, like us.
Do you ever have to tell guest DJs things like, "Elton, you need to enunciate more clearly"?
(Laughs.) Sometimes artists want feedback, but it's rare, because they have their own vision. When we first started, Run the Jewels did one and I tried to make changes to it. They came back and said, "We really appreciate your opinion, but can we change this one thing back?" "Yeah, OK." "And then there's this other thing..." "Sure" -- and over the course of seven or eight minutes they pretty much took it all the way back to the way it was, in the nicest and most diplomatic way possible. Then the show came out and it was trending worldwide and I had to call [Run the Jewels'] El-P and eat a freshly made shit sandwich and say, "Look, you taught me a really valuable f--ing lesson: Stay out of the artist's way!"
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 14 issue of Billboard.