Zane Lowe on 2019 and what’s next for music: “We’re living in anxious times”

The DJ legend talks to NME about the year that was, the decade to come, the problem with influencers, and how a new generation are taking charge.

How was 2019 for you, Zane

“It’s been another action-packed year, man. I realised a couple of years ago that now that we’re in this streaming business where artists can just move at will. Every day is filled with excitement, music, creativity and people wanting to get our attention. People want to put their best work out there and we have this insatiable appetite for it because no one is controlling the distribution anymore. There’s no one saying, ‘OK, we’ll put it out in this one small window’. Now the window is always open. It’s been hectic and I think it will remain hectic.”

How would you sum up the mood of music in 2019?

“I think it’s been really deep. If you look at the album of the year, and I agree with you guys that it’s Billie Eilish – it’s a very deep album. The songs are beautifully-crafted, honest and transparent, but there’s also a lot of ideas going on and some interesting subject matter. It’s beautiful and full of love but also heartbreaking, desolate and anxious. It’s an honest reflection of the times we’re in.”

On Billie Eilish’s debut: “It’s beautiful and full of love but also heartbreaking, desolate and anxious. It’s an honest reflection of the times we’re in”

And you’ve heard a lot of anxiety across the board?

“If you take a look at a lot of the other records from this year that really moved the needle, whether that’s ‘IGOR’ by Tyler, The Creator, Lana Del Rey’s ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’, ‘Magdalene’ by FKA Twigs, Solange’s ‘When I Get Home’, records by Slowthai or Dave – it’s an agitated time and that’s led to a lot agitated and anxious music.”

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Zane Lowe.
Zane Lowe speaks to NME. Credit: Press

What’s been the most surprising trend in sound this year?

“I would say that 2019 has been the most ‘80s year for music that I can remember in a long time. I mean that in the sense that the ‘80s were a weird decade and an anxious time, and that really reflected in the pop music. There was new wave, along with some strange keyboards and discordant hooks and leads over strange rhythm sections. Synths were leading but nobody knew how to make it shine so it was really weird. You can hear that same kind of angsty experimentation now.”

So you’d argue with anyone who claims that there’s less politics in music these days?

“That’s simply not true. Sturgill Simpson, Thom Yorke, Dave, Slowthai, Bruce Springsteen, Lana Del Rey. Many artists have stepped up. There’s always this desire for someone to come out there and be overt with it, like ‘Ah, give me the first two Bob Dylan albums’ or ‘Where’s the new Rage Against The Machine?’ But it should be more subtle than that. It should be something that you have to root around in and discover through the lens of the artist so that it informs our own opinion and isn’t theirs. I don’t want it to be so obvious that I might as well be buying a poster and putting it on the wall. I want to come to my own conclusion, and that’s what great art does – it influences but it doesn’t paint the full picture for you. We’re searching for meaning because of chaos.”

That’s true of a lot of young, Generation Z artists like Billie Eilish, King Princess, Clairo, Soccer Mommy and Girl In Red too. Why do you think that they’ve made such a profound connection this year?

“I think that every one of them is growing up in a new information age. They speak to their peer group of kids their own age and younger because everyone’s got the same information and access to it. When we were younger, we couldn’t reach the same experience that our favourite artists could reach so that’s we tended to gravitate towards older artists. They had five, 10 or 20 years on us and could tell us experiences that we couldn’t know and stories that we hadn’t lived through. We were living vicariously through them. Now we’re living in a time of a zero point where if you have a phone in your hand then you have access to the same information and experience that people 30 or 40 years older than you have.”

“We’re experiencing art from people much younger – because they’re being exposed to so much more.”

So technology has created a level playing field? 

“It means that we’re experiencing art from people much younger – because they’re being exposed to so much more. They don’t have to live through the music of their peers, because they can make the music for their peers. That’s a really important distinction. There’s no keeping anything back from kids these days. You can’t protect kids like you used to, for better or for worse. Now we’re living through what they’re living through and we’re all in the same boat.When you’re a young artist like Billie, she can only write about what she knows. Back then, kids wrote about kid stuff. Now they write about what they’re exposed to.”

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People should really stop using terms like ‘wise beyond their years’ now then. 

“It’s so patronising, and I’m sure it’s a term that I’ve used in the past before I got wise. It’s not something you should throw about, but I’m sure we all did back in the day because it’s a way to contextualise a precocious artist. At the end of the day, man, that era is done. Billie is not an anomaly. Her success has been an anomaly and that’s why she’s the artist of the year, but as far as other artists of her age who are making waves go, I could easily rattle off about a dozen as if it was nothing. You can’t be wise beyond your years if you’re surrounded by your peers. It doesn’t mathematically make sense.”

So the truth will come from the young? 

“If you ask yourself, ‘How is society going to change?’ How are we going to get new answers to the same questions?’ ‘How are going to adapt to the changing times?’ Well, it’s happening. It’s when the youth speaks to the youth and they inspire one another.”

“Ask yourself, ‘How is society going to change?’ It’s when the youth speaks to the youth and they inspire one another.”

Who are the other young artists you’re excited about going into 2020?

“We’ve been so blessed with amazing young voices this year. I think you can probably hang a hook on Kenny Beats and come back in six months. He’s like a tree; you just plant him and pretty soon there’s all these amazing creatures just surrounding him. He’s cooking right now. He’s an inspiring producer who’s working on the foundation that Rick Rubin has built – to work in the most varied way. The fact that he can go from working with Guido to Dominic Fike to Doja Cat to IDLES is something to behold. He’s one of my favourite people.”

 

What else is going to blow up next year?

“I love Dominic Fike. I love Bakar. I love that whole scene of young soul rebels. I miss Drake. I really need that Drake album. I miss Kendrick Lamar. I think The 1975 are going to return with their best record yet, which is saying something because I think their last record was their best record yet by a long stretch. They’re finally going to establish themselves from ‘that band that could’ to ‘that band that do’. They’re interesting to some people, they’re a pop band to some people, they’re Matty’s thing to some people, they’re activists to some people – but I think it’s all about to converge and get really exciting. Girl In Red is really cool too, man. She’s a proper unique artist.”

“The 1975 are finally going to establish themselves from ‘that band that could’ to ‘that band that do’”

We’ve got two big reunions next year with Rage Against The Machine and My Chemical Romance. What significance do you see in that?

“I’m over the moon. With My Chemical Romance, the timing couldn’t be better. A lot of people underestimated how crafty and smart that band are. Every time they did something, it was so dialled in. Even when they broke up, they went out on a bang. Their comeback feels authentic rather than painted on and for the money. Thematically, music is going in that direction right now and it feels like they’re needed again. Also, they still have all their hair which is a really important thing.”

My Chemical Romance's comeback reunion show. Credit: Pooneh Ganah
My Chemical Romance’s comeback reunion show. Credit: Pooneh Ganah

There’s a generation of music fans that look to MCR like the previous one looked to Nirvana too. 

“It’s true. They’re not alone. I spoke to Lil Uzi Vert and asked him who his melodic inspirations were, and he said [Paramore‘s] Hayley Williams. Juice WRLD too, rest his soul, he’d spoken about artists like Fall Out Boy. There was a really adventurous approach that came out of these artists. Stick around for long enough and you’re going to prove yourself to be an inspiration for generations to come. That’s what’s happening now with My Chemical Romance. For a long time they were a relevant band kicking up dust like everyone else and trying to make a name for themselves. Now they’re coming back and they’re a proper cornerstone band.”

Politically, what impact do you feel that Rage Against The Machine might have?

“The most frustrating thing about Rage Against The Machine, and I’ve said this to Tom [Morello, guitarist] before is that when we needed them the most was when they weren’t around. Politically, we needed them to kick up dust and get both sides talking again. They can be that band who galvanise and amplify the conversation. I’m over the whole frustration with the reunion thing. Just get together and play the songs. I might even go see The Doobie Brothers next year.”

Zane Lowe

What do you think the last decade of music has been defined by?

“This is the streaming era. The artist and the fan fought at the beginning of the century to create a direct link of communication. The music can reach the fan with little interruption or interference. The first decade of the century was a test for everybody who existed in music before that to work out how they could remain a part of that conversation. The last decade has been building a business around that. From my perspective, that’s given us the best music and the best careers. Before that, the fans had to wait around for six to 18 months for an album. Yes, that created anticipation and gave us space to discover other things, but the way that we consume things has changed. Our attention span has changed from 15 seconds to eight seconds.”

“I think influencers should influence and musicians should make music.”

And finally, are there any shit musical trends that you think we should leave in this decade?

“I think influencers should influence and musicians should make music. If you can influence and make music then God Speed, go for your life. But if you’re an influencer and there’s an assumption that this means that you should be allowed to make music, then you should take a long look in the mirror at whether it’s really your place to make art. That goes for labels as well: don’t get greedy. You’re making enough success from real music. Don’t bring the words ‘market share’ back into it. Don’t go compromising your product by signing someone just because they’re popular on TikTok or Instagram. Show some fucking restraint, man. Don’t forget what got you into your job in the first place: taste and thoughtfulness.”

Zane Lowe is Global Creative Director of Apple Music and host on Beats 1. Listen Monday-Friday from 5pm live for free at apple.co/zane or on-demand.

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