Zane Lowe looks very at home in Manhattan’s 57th Street subway station. The New Zealand native has adjusted to life in the U.S. since jumping to Apple Music’s Beats 1 Radio from his London-based job at BBC Radio 1, and relishes the time he now spends in New York courtesy of the job.
“I always used to feel, when I’d come to New York, like that was the gateway to any American adventure,” he says, out of the subway and seated in a much quieter environment at the Park Hyatt hotel. “But what’s been quite nice is living in Los Angeles and making [trips to New York] more of, sort of, a regular experience. Eyes wide open.”
The 45-year-old radio DJ is one of the most known and respected on-air radio personalities in the industry. Now creative director and a daily on-air host at Beats 1 Radio (which is Apple’s first live radio station dedicated to music culture, broadcasting to more than 100 different countries) he spent 13 years at BBC Radio 1 where he hosted the New Music show, before the Apple gig uprooted him to Los Angeles.
One thing that never changes is his artist-first approach. Wherever they are, he goes.
“Not just for their convenience, but also because if we’re filming it, we find them in an environment which is more natural to them, rather than making them come to our studios all the time, and that feels more like promo to some degree,” he says, noting a recent trip to New York to interview Justin Timberlake. “And I don’t really know what promotion means to the fan anymore. I think they’re just looking for access and quality. You’ve got to be thinking ‘what’s unique about this?’ That, to me, feels like it’s a really big part of what drives people into consuming stuff, watching stuff and seeing stuff.”
Lowe — who began his career at MTV U.K. — turns reflective when on the topic of how streaming has changed the industry and how the globalization of music has impacted him. He cites the rise in the U.S. of artists like J Balvin, Skepta and Wizkid — and the popularity of “Despacito” — as examples of such.
“There’s always been a real strong sense of identity for a record, no matter where it’s from. If it’s a hit, it’s a hit,” he says. “But I’ve never lived in a time where there’ve been so many parts of the world staying true to themselves, developing their own sound, and reaching more people on a worldwide level. That, to me, as a music fan, irrespective of where I work and doing what I do, as a music fan, I’ve never had a better time connecting the dots of music. Being taken somewhere I didn’t know I was necessarily going to go.”
Lowe’s career has spanned the dominance of many genres, but he singles out pop music as being the most influential.
“Pop is the most malleable; it’s the most evergreen, malleable art form in music. It consistently changes in shape all the time, according to whatever is happening in these other areas. That’s why pop is always at the top of the sphere; it’s smart. It’s always listening and moving and changing with what’s happening in the subcultures or in other genres,” he says. “That’s why like when The Weeknd came out and released ‘The Hills,’ that changed the sound of pop music. It was an unstoppable radio record, and yet it was an incredibly claustrophobic, distorted, hot record with some really challenging subject matter in some regards. After that record came out, pop stars got confidence that ‘we can be dark. We can be different.’ And that changed the nature of what pop became.”
The flexibility of the pop genre, coupled with the rise of global streaming, has allowed him to be interacting with pop stars for the first time in his career.
“I started to talk to pop stars, and I started to think ‘well, OK: Camila Cabello writes her own music; she’s super smart. Everyone’s raving about her. Charli XCX is telling me she’s the future of pop music. Why wouldn’t I speak to her?’” he says. “So I open the door, she walks through, we have a conversation. ‘Wow, she really is smart. That was a really engaging, compelling conversation. She has something to say. Where does that lead me?’ That leads me over here to Lady Gaga, which leads me to Miley, which leads me to Shawn Mendes, which leads me to people that I would’ve never had an opportunity to talk to before because either they were sent through a different door into the daytime radio shows, where the pop stars go, or I would’ve been like ‘I don’t know how to relate to that music.’ I was willing to take risks and not be afraid; I want to be a great place for music no matter what genre it is because it’s all got to stream. And it’s kind of weirdly, at this point in my life, opened me up to pop stars. To be in my early 40s and be talking to pop stars for the first time seems kind of like the most reverse approach to get there.”
The pop that succeeds in this day and age, he feels, has something to say.
“I just think people are like, ‘you know what, there’s enough out there; there’s enough things to get my attention right now, I don’t need distractions. I need something to grab my attention.’ We’re coming out of this phase of distraction, and ‘what’s going to take my mind off things.’ I feel like people want to put their mind on things. Whereas before it was like just mindlessly scrolling through things and hope that you come across something that might distract you, I don’t think we can be distracted anymore.”
He translates this to how musicians are now approaching partnerships with fashion brands. The artist has become the one with all the power, eclipsing the brand.
“Oh my God, it’s changed completely. In the Nineties, we saw hip-hop really kick-start the whole thing to some degree, the way that fashion houses and labels would start to work with artists like Aaliyah. And that was a groundbreaking moment for me when I saw Aaliyah in that [Tommy Hilfiger] campaign,” he says. “It used to always be ‘that’s huge for the artist.’ No, that’s huge for the label. Huge for the label to get Aaliyah to do that. And suddenly you saw the sense of ownership become as much about the artist and what they were bringing as it was about the label.”
The biggest catalyst of this, he says, is the influence Kanye West has had with Yeezy — a shift he calls the move from “pre-Yeezy and post-Yeezy.”
“If you’re coming out and you’re trying to make some kind of statement about who you are, and your music is great and your visuals are great — you’re without a doubt working out who you can collaborate with in different ways, and fashion is number one on that list,” he says. “I don’t think there’s any artist out there who isn’t thinking, ‘Who is my crew? Who is going to help me get my vision across over here?’ Now when I drive down Fifth Avenue and my kids want to go into Bathing Ape or they want to go into FourTwoFour and I want to go into ADBD and you go into these stores and you see queues and you think, ‘this is the perfect moment for this collaborative space.’ Everyone in this line outside Supreme loves music. Every single one of them. It’s a key that opens the door to the room, you know? So I think that fashion and music are now in the best collaborative place ever…if music opens the door to a room, and it’s the key that does so, what are you putting in your room?”
Artists from A$AP Rocky to Pharrell to Jaden Smith are perfect examples of those who hold all the power over fashion at the moment, he says.
“I trust and I know that Pharrell believes in every decision that he makes. Whereas I think that sometimes it just used to be like ‘that’s a cool thing to do,’ or ‘that’s a good chick.’ Again, if it’s not saying something, I’m not sure people buy into it,” he says. “They can buy it, but there’s a difference between buying it and buying into it. You buy it? You can fall out of love with it. You buy into it? You’re in it for a while. I think we’re coming out of the ‘buy it’ and getting into the ‘buying into it.’”