Beats 1’s Zane Lowe on building a global radio station for the streaming era…

On air and off, Zane Lowe is a whirlwind of enthusiasm.

Right as we’re about to be introduced, he manages to slip away from Beats 1’s press officer, magnetised by the studio, and has a pair of headphones on his head before anyone even notices he’s gone. Hijacking Matt Wilkinson’s show, he uses his impromptu appearance to tell the story of how a trip to Mark Ronson’s studio - previously located next door to Beats 1’s current London residence - resulted in him co-writing ‘Baby Blue’ for Action Bronson’s major label debut ‘Mr. Wonderful’. Leaving Matt almost speechless, he exits the booth as quickly as he entered, joining us in the green room.

The 45-year-old DJ, radio personality and creative director of Apple Music’s global radio station Beats 1, is enjoying a week in the capital after being tied to the US for recent months due to “green card stuff”. He’s happy to be back spending some face time with his UK team. “I’ve been fortunate that we’ve built Beats 1 out here from day ones, so I’ve got a great fast track into what’s happening,” he says, leaning back into the plush sofa. “But it’s not the same as coming out here and seeing the actual level of dedication or commitment in their eyes when they tell you how good something is, or meeting an artist personally and seeing them perform.”

Four years ago, Zane relocated across the Atlantic to Los Angeles, where he’d be faced with the challenge of creating a global radio station to coincide with the launch of streaming service Apple Music. He describes that initial phase to be an untangling process; stripping back what he’d learned across almost 20 years of broadcasting. “There was a pretty quick realisation that certain aspects of what I loved and what I’d done up to that point might not be good for a global streaming service,” he admits, admitting that he’d even had to question the relevance of radio itself. “My time at Radio 1 was amazing, and I’m super grateful for the opportunity, but I don’t need to make Radio 1 part two. I can go and try something new, and work out how to improve that experience.”

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The advancement of music streaming signalled the end of a promotional process that he’d become very comfortable with, excelling at it time and time again. “I was given the records and I was told to play them for six weeks upfront and then the record came out and if I did my job it would be a hit, or I would contribute to that fact,” he recalls. “[And then] I’d go back and find another one and start the process all over again.”

The streaming model means that there’s less motivation to promote tracks ahead of release. Pre- orders and first day sales are decreasing in relevance, as streaming figures become the focus. “There’s no point in promoting music that’s not on a streaming service,” says Zane. “[Otherwise] you’re not accumulating streams and building fans. First thing that has to happen is it gets released now. So how do you create a conversation around that? That was challenging and it was a different mindset for me. ‘What do you mean I can’t have a record exclusively?’ It worked for me. It worked for the record. It doesn’t work anymore.”

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Let’s commit to the idea of navigation, communicating what records are good, or not good...

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Ultimately Zane and his team decided to commit to a linear, nonstop live feed and figure out the differentiators during the process. “Let’s commit to the idea of navigation, communicating what records are good, or not good, giving people a deeper experience rather than just playing songs back to back,” he says, echoing his mindset at the beginning of the project. “Lets commit to DJs, lets commit to shows, lets commit to formats.”

Without its own dedicated studios, like the one we’re currently sat in near Kings Cross Station, Beats got off the ground by renting spaces from Swizz Beatz in New York, Paul Epworth in London and utilising Zane’s own studio in Los Angeles. Realising that a global radio station - broadcast in over 100 countries - wouldn’t be able to react to the immediate environment in the way that local stations can, Zane and his team had to make music their pure focus.

“It’s the thing that I feel is most often ignored - a dedicated approach to music,” he explains. “There are exceptions, but we’re a streaming service, we’re where the music lives. Our job is to reflect that experience and not worry about anything else. And that’s what we’ve been doing for three or four years: just trying to build the most dedicated music experience for people who want to be where the music is.”

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Beats 1 has grown in the ears of its audience. From week one its broadcasters were transparent about the process involved in creating a futuristic take on radio; embracing the future while retaining the human familiarities, and in some cases errors, that make radio so immersive on an emotional level. “I think it’s exciting for people to hear things being built in real time, because I think that’s an investment,” says Zane. “In the creative environment, the process is really the most important part. I’ve always felt that way. I think that a lot of placed upon the result, but I do what I do because I love the process.”

This became particularly evident, he says, before moving to Los Angeles, when he was spending a lot of time writing and recording with artists, including the aforementioned Bronson and Ronson, but also Sam Smith - for which he received a Grammy nomination - and Future. Through that time he learned to be comfortable with the fact that the results would rarely make it out of the studio session. “I just loved the experience of being in the room, and I think [with Beats 1] listeners and fans feel that way,” he says.

“Transparency is probably one of the most important aspects of life right now. Young people really want to know the meaning behind something. They want to learn from it. If it’s drama they want to go deep in it. If it’s educational or inspiring they don’t just want the top line, they want to understand what the motivation is, where the motivation truly comes from.”

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Young people really want to know the meaning behind something. They want to learn from it.

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Not wanting to pull DJs out of their established roles at stations around the globe, to join him in his experiment - and feeling like it wouldn’t be the correct statement to make out of the gate - Zane largely decided to focus Beats 1 around artist lead shows. “That can work if they’ll look at it as a creative extension of themselves, not a promotional opportunity,” he says. “So we can position this so that it’s actually an extension of what they do in the studio, on the stage, in their videos or with their fashion lines.”

Building from the ground up meant a reliance on new artists, that were willing to risk offering their time and music to a new venture. “When you have a clean slate you can’t necessarily bank on all the work you did before. You’ve really got to start fresh, with new artists,” explains Zane, listing names like Spring King, Gallant, Bryson Tiller, Halsey and Kiiara amongst those who’ve grown with the station. “And so our commitment to new artists was in our DNA. We are the new artists programme.”

Three years on, supporting rising stars remains at the heart of Beats 1, with recent additions to the schedule including shows from Billie Eilish and BROCKHAMPTON. These decisions are driven by the want to stay at the forefront of a rapidly changing landscape. “We know that they move the needle, we know that’s where the most engaged fans are,” explains Zane. “So putting Billie Eilish on Beats 1, even though she may not have the numbers yet that the bigger artists have, take a look at the percentage of people that are responding to every message, piece of music or art that she puts up, it’s high! Our measuring stick has never been about biggest numbers, it’s about engagement. It’s about who is listening, not how many.”

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Artists suited to having their own show with Beats 1 are those that think beyond music, those who will use the opportunity to expand upon their story and offer more context to their work. And how new to the game they are isn’t particularly relevant, as long as there are people out there who want to hear what they have to share. Zane believes that true music fans - those that he hopes to capture with Beats 1 - don’t differentiate between new and established artists the way that the industry might.

“We’re interested in the idea of artists going, ‘I want to build something that’s going to become a real experience for people’, and if that’s The Weeknd great, if that’s Billie great. You and I both know they share fans, and those fans don’t really look at The Weeknd as anything more than Billie Eilish, they’re on the same playlist.”

Over the past four years, we’ve watched an increasing number of new artists forcing their way into the spotlight, and that only seems to be accelerating: “Khalid can go from ‘Who’s Khalid?’ to second to top on festival bills within a year. Post Malone can do what he’s done in 18 months. Juice WRLD can do it in two months. Did you look at the Apple Music albums chart after his project came out? It’s been the most crazy year for hip-hop ever and Juice WRLD is the only artist that’s held his position in the top five through all of it.”

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OVO Sound felt like a mood board of influences, new music and ideas...

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Allowing the artists to take the reigns has allowed innovative new show formats to surface, including most notably the audio collages constructed by Drake and his October’s Very Own crew. “Drake was really the first musical Pinterest show, where OVO Sound felt like a mood board of influences, new music and ideas,” explains Zane. “That whole thing has been really interesting to us, watching Frank Ocean really nail that. Coming in and doing ‘blonded' where they do an introduction but a lot of times it would just be voice notes from Frank, or little musical bits, clips of ideas and sound effects, it was very much like going into a world.”

“And now we have The Weeknd who does an amazing show called ‘Memento Mori’ which is a similar thing, or Virgil Abloh with a similar thing broadcasting from the Louis Vuitton headquarters. And then you’ve got Nicki who’s come through and gone, ‘I want ‘Queen Radio’ to be this really open mic transparent experience’. Very much keeping in with what’s going on right now, which is a very loud conversation.”

All of these formats existing on one station allows each artist to be more transparent with their fans, without destroying the mystique around their art. “That was what was such a magic act from Drake’s point of view,” declares Zane. “OVO Sound became a place for him and Oliver to control their message, and even though the access felt really valuable, it didn’t feel like it was spoiling anything for us [as fans].”

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For the artists, Beats 1 provides a space to share music that’s more visceral than just posting a link on a social media platform and waiting for followers to click through. They can take their fans on a journey: sharing their influences, putting on new discoveries and premiering unreleased music. It allows more control of the environment in which their fans experience the music that they’re sharing. Zane has created the station that he still wants to listen to when he’s off duty. It might seem counter-intuitive, but he believes in keeping artists happy, even above his listeners.

“I have one role in my professional and creative life, which is [to put] artists first, to stay close to the artists at all times,” he admits. “I’ve worked in companies that like to put the audience first: ‘Don’t play that music, the audience don’t like it.’ ‘Don’t do that, the audience won’t want it.’ It’s the wrong way around, because eventually you’ll lose touch with the audience. They’ll go somewhere else, you can’t control them. That’s like trying to catch the wind in a cup, it won’t work. What will, what is super solid, is the artist. So artists first and then let them go please the audience. We’re artist orientated and have been from day one.”

In the past few weeks, Nicki Minaj’s outrageous ‘Queen Radio’ has become appointment listening, continuing to prove the power of the platform Zane has built, as the megastar’s candid conversations, interviews and rants spill out across media platforms and even other radio stations. Beats 1 has embedded its platform firmly within music culture, the goal now is to remain there and continue growing.

“Apple Music has had the most incredible year. We’re at 50 million subscribers now. We’re the number one music service in America now, and we’re the fastest growing music service in the world. We’re the number one hip-hop service worldwide. So we don’t want Beats 1 to not reflect that growth,” says Zane, as we wrap up, eager to get back into the booth.

“We have to grow with that growth and we have to continue to provide a service for those people who are coming on board. The idea is bigger than just radio or artist shows, the idea is to create the content and stories around music and artists, for fans, in a place where everyone is going.”

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Listen to Zane Lowe on Apple Music’s Beats 1 Monday-Thursday 5-7pm, apple.co/B1_Zane

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