Zane Lowe Explains Why 2016 Was The Best Year Ever For Music
The world-famous tastemaker on who shows him new tunes and what he really thinks of Chance the Rapper's early Kanye beats.
BY | Oct 28, 2016 | Music
By the time Zane Lowe is awake at 6:00AM every morning, he's already thinking about music. While most people are hitting snooze, he's hitting the gym, the gears working in his head to figure out the blueprint to a program that will introduce people around the world to that day's most important releases—big and small. By 9:00AM PT, when everyone else is dragging themselves to work, he's already there kicking off his Beats 1 program, spinning a global soundtrack—a platform used by the likes of Drake, Lady Gaga, and today's biggest artists to debut tracks to a worldwide audience.
But the work isn't done before he sits behind his microphone, because Lowe's show is a living beast, one that shifts (or pivots, as he likes to say) with the moment. Take Wednesday's show for example, when he worked the new Shins song into his playlist moments after it dropped.
It's not a podcast, it's not a radio show, it's not an XM satellite show, it's not even a streaming service—it's a platform adapted for the malleable modern music industry. And it's an evolving media platform that only someone with Lowe's energy could successfully make happen.
Lowe talks fast. It's not too fast that you can't understand what the hell he's saying—it's more breathless than anything, like his mouth is hardly keeping up with his mind. He's never stumbling over himself—rather, he's getting on to the next thing before he loses your attention. And he talks like this because he's excited, because his show doesn't slow down, because in our exclusively digital world, music never stops, and we need someone to filter it for the moment. He talks like this because he's having fun, he knows a hell of a lot about music and he wants to share it with you, because he knows how to make you understand the sounds your hearing. He puts music into context, but he also narrows his focus down to specific details of specific songs, explaining how and why a producer treats drums. It's as much for the music elite as it is for the casual listener—that's no easy accomplishment in an art form that values inclusivity as much as it values exclusivity.
Again, there are few people who can make this happen other than Lowe, who started making music and DJing in New Zealand in the late-'90s then became a global tastemaker with BBC Radio 1 until he landed his gig at Apple Music. He can get into casual discussions with Elton John about Bruno Mars, but also hang in the studio with a young Chicago rapper named Chance like they both grew up on the South Side. From 2003 to 2015, Lowe became a powerful voice in the music industry, championing young artists on his award-winning BBC program. In 2015 he relocated to Los Angeles and launched a new programme on Apple Music's Beats 1, which airs at 9:00AM PST Monday-Thursday.
"The thing that really sort of took us all by surprise was how fast it moved right from the start and how there was, and there still is, and I dare say probably, hopefully never will be any kind of rest, any kind of down time," Lowe told me in a conversation over the phone. We spoke the day after South By Southwest announced that he'd be the 2017 keynote speaker.
As a host and creative director at Apple Music, Lowe has been expanding the breadth of the programming, most recently launching the new Best of the Week and provide an "opportunity for artists to be able to speak about their records and for an audience to be able to listen to that, to listen to the artist and listen to the music in context."
Musicians want to know him, listeners want to be him or at least be friends with him, and publicists and managers and record execs want his ear. Days before he interviewed Lady Gaga as she released one of the most anticipated pop albums in the world, we talked to Lowe about the state of the industry, how Kanye West messed with Chance's beats, and why 2016 has been the best year for music ever.
Esquire: Your show has become such a great single curated source for new music. So how many people do you have working behind the scenes to find that? And what's your personal criteria for what you'll play and what you won't play on the show?
Zane: Well, first of all, in terms of what gets played and doesn't get played, it's kind of always been a bit indefinable. That's a sort of alchemy that you don't want to overthink. I don't exist in a genre-based environment, I don't exist in an ear-based environment, I don't just play pop records. So what I'm looking for is greatness, I'm looking for something that we all agree has that real aura of greatness to it. It's been made with this authenticity, this passion that is real and believable. And if it's not there but you see it coming on the horizon, you can see it and at least, if it's not achieved, that the ambition is there, then absolutely we're drawn into that world. A lot of the time artists are ambitious. They run before they can walk, you know? And you have to be able to see that they're going to get to that point. So in terms of who provides that for us, again, you know, it's a combination of all of us digging around, bringing things to the table, relying on our friends who work at record labels. Like, absolutely trust your instincts and play the music that you love but open your ears because every single kid with a phone is a curator, and everybody that's sharing a picture or sharing a song or recommending something is a key curator in their's and somebody else's lives. So if the curating age is all of us, then perhaps we should listen a little more and stop talking.
Last week you made a point on the show that you're not a radio station, you're a filter for streaming. Tell me a little bit more about this and what might be the best way to explain this to someone who's a casual listener who might not understand that distinction?
Well, it's a good question. I think that radio stations for the most part have always been this sort of beacon for local community. I mean, they provide necessary information, entertainment. So, new music for its audience really inhabits that time zone or that city or that town and, if you're really lucky and you're in the UK, that country. For the most part, those have become really just about driving audience into that environment to sell advertising. Let's just be really clear. If you're talking about commercial radio, we're not talking about the BBC or other stations of that matter that have the luxury of people supporting them and funding them. If you're in the commercial sector, you're really about making money. And that's fine. I work for Apple, of course. You know, I get it. We're a company, but at the end of the day Apple has realised that this is an important thing to do for music and that it plays an important role for Apple Music. They're just saying to us, go and invest in new music, go and find the records that matter, and go and be of service to the audience that uses Apple Music. We're the shop front window for Apple Music on industry row. And if you're walking down that road, you're trying to work out what you're going to spend your money on in terms of building your entertainment lifestyle block that surrounds you. And our job is that, when they go past looking for music, that we're in the shop front window telling them how fucking great music is, and how amazing the artists that make it are, and how magic it is.
And you know, in an industry that's currently in flux, it seems like you're taking some of the best points of streaming platforms, of radio, of all of these different types of ways of discovering music and kind of putting it into one place. And it's an interesting goal. I mean, has it been successful so far? And what changes can you still make to it?
I mean, it has been successful. It's been more successful than I could have ever hoped. Definitely. And I think in that year, we were told to just move that needle just on a Beats level and I really believe that we've done that and continue to do that. But we're only just over a year old. And, yeah, there's a ton to get better at, to improve on. There's a ton to get right. And there's a ton that we can build on and make better. I mean, when you think about how long Apple Music has been going and the fact that within a year we've taken a look at what it feels like to use us and how intuitive the service is and made changes and made improvements. And I think those improvements will continue forever.
So do you not currently try to say, "Oh, well what am I going to be doing in ten years from now?" Because I'm sure when you were starting out, you never imagined you'd be working on this type of platform in this specific type of space?
No, never. Never, never. No. I'm sort of like anybody. You know, you have those moments where you project on a quiet moment, you project like what will life be like in ten years? Or twenty years? But, you know, being a family man and having a wife and two children who I love more than anything in the entire world, as long as we're healthy and happy and we're all in a sort of place where we're learning from each other, then the rest of it is just a fun way to get home. You know? Not to sound like I'm not built for this industry, because I absolutely am, but I also know where my priorities are and, at the end of the day, you know there are good days and bad but as long as I get home safe at the end of the day and everyone is present and accounted for and happy to see me, then I'm fucking stoked. You know? And the rest of the time spent, really, is just about going out there and doing the best job I can for the company that believes in me. And does that mean it's going to be a good time all the time? No. There are challenges and there are days when it's tough, really tough, because you're trying to build something in the public eye in an industry which is transforming. Music is always the first through the wall in the entertainment industry, when it comes to change. It's a bloodied and bruised industry because it's always the thing that people piss shit out on.
What a hell of a year to launch something new like this with Kanye and Drake and Rihanna and Chance and Beyonce.
It's been the craziest year for music ever. I mean, if you just look at the albums that have come out—like, we really needed these artists to come through this year. Like, they didn't even realise. But when you look at the list of artists, like everyone's come through. Radiohead, Red Hot Chilli Peppers—the are just some of my favourites—Beyonce, Rihanna, Drake, James Blake—these are artists who normally put albums like once every three, four, five, sometime six years. And they've all decided to come this year. It's like you couldn't have fucking written it. It's unbelievable.
Is this just coincidence? Was there something leading up to it that made 2016 such a phenomenal year for big group releases?
I mean take a look around at 2016 period. It's been a year of extremes, right. On every level. For the most part, really tough to watch and really tough to deal with. It's been an incredibly challenging year for the world. I'm just stating the obvious here. I mean, it's been an incredibly disruptive and crazy year on every level—from what seems to be the smallest thing right through to the largest thing you could imagine. It's been a year of real turmoil and real change. Well, it's not even a coincidence. I don't believe that. I believe that there's some subconscious behaviour going on, subconscious trend that is ultimately—art moves with the times, and musicians and artists, filmmakers, whoever's trying to capture that moment and share their vision of it or their feeling of it with the world, you are motivated by what's going on around you. And so if everything is going on around you at the same time, if anything, perhaps that's what's subliminally motivating musicians to make music. But I'm glad they did because you know someone sent a message to me on social media that music has been one of the only things that's come out this year that has kind of been a beautiful distraction from everything that's going on. It was from someone that I don't know that just put this on social media and I read it and it meant something to me because I agree. If you read the papers or look outside the window or listen to your friends from the closest friends and family right to the people you don't know in countries you've never been to, you know, it's been a tough, tough year.
Yeah. And given a lot of those artists that you mentioned, especially Kanye and Chance and Beyonce and Radiohead, and Frank Ocean, I mean, they all released in their own specific way. And they've kind of proven that they can navigate the industry in their own way. I mean, is there anything specifically tell about the ways that these albums were released this year?
All of them. All of them. And everything you just said. The layers of thoughtful creativity that can go into the presentation of music now that comes from the head of the artist is continually inspiring. Artists are taking the opportunity now more than ever to be part of every aspect of their career. Chance the Rapper is independent on every level, and yet he's heading very quickly towards headlining the world's biggest festivals next year and being the artist that matters. In terms of new artists. I mean, I remember when I was coming up and it was record stores and major record labels. You would ask an artist when their single was coming out and they couldn't tell you. They couldn't tell you the date around when it was coming out. They would look at the label like "When's the album coming out?" I mean, is it any wonder that we got to a point where the babysitting just got crazy. And now artists are in a situation if you ask you when their album's coming out, they'll give you the various release dates, they'll tell you how it's going to come out, when it's going to come out, when the pop-up store is going to start, how you can get the artwork, how they're going to deliver this, deliver that, how they're going to use their socials, how they're going to present it live, who they're going to tour with... I mean, it's continually inspiring and I one-hundred percent support every aspect of it.
Yeah, and Chance has done that better than anyone this year. And, especially speaking of Chance I thought it was so cool when you were sitting with him earlier this year and he showed you the early versions of the Kanye songs.
Yeah! Just let it go. It's just music, no one's going to die. You know?
I think, in my opinion, I kind of liked those versions better. They were pretty phenomenal.
Yeah, but we all kind of secretly thought that, but then what are you going to do? Who's going to tell that to Kanye? It's like, "Hey bro, I think the version of 'Famous' is better." [laughs] I'm not going to be the guy to say that, yet.
Yeah, I don't think anybody could do that. There's been so much. I mean, can you narrow it down to five favourites from the year?
Aw, man! Dude! Fuck you, man! Do you know that you're the first person to ask me to do that this year. How am I possibly going to do that. Oh my god, holy shit!
I know, it's impossible.
Alright, alright, lemme have a crack at it. Kaytranada, who's got to be on the list. Chance has got to be on the list. Um. Bon Iver's got to be on the list. Frank, to me, is my album of the year. I mean, I'll say that now straight up. Drake's got to be on the five. I love Views. I think Views is fucking phenomenal! I mean, he said in an interview, he's like, "I'm going to make music that you're not going to get immediately. You'll come back to it." I come back to songs on that that I just didn't get at first and now I love. I mean, I think if it'd have to be a ten, a starter for ten. I don't think you could do five. You'll literally put yourself in a world of pain if you try and narrow this year down to five. It's unrealistic. But, Frank is number one for me, that I will say.
Yeah, oh yeah, definitely.
It's a record a I've listened to more than any other albums.
It's got so much depth, it's insane.
Just lyrically and melodically. Even just things like in "Seigfried" when he sings that refrain "I'm not brave," and then you wait and then he has this little chant in the background that goes "Praise!" Just things like that, little moments that make you want to try harder or think deeper or reminisce longer or fucking move faster. Just music that makes me do things like that. And Frank makes me stop. It's one of those albums where I don't really listen to it on the background and I don't put it on lightly. I choose when to put that album on and normally it's because I need it rather than it's just there.
From: Esquire US.