‘You need ultimate commitment’: Zane Lowe on the music landscape facing artists in 2019

The DJ also discusses Billie Eilish, The 1975, Arctic Monkeys and the dominance of hip-hop

As a new year begins, Zane Lowe has spoken out about the musical landscape and opportunities presented to artists in 2019.

While he rose to fame on XFM, MTV2 and BBC Radio One, Lowe has spent the last four years as DJ, host and creative director of Apple Music’s Beats 1 station. In the move from radio to a streaming platform, Lowe told NME that he’s learned to take an ‘artist first’ approach – claiming that fans and listeners appreciate a more collaborative essence when it comes to sharing music.

“That method of controlling or influencing a narrative in the way that we used to and how you’d put records in front of people has changed,” Lowe told NME. “[Back then], you would be a destination where they would come to hear it when it wasn’t available for them to own themselves. Now, that’s long-gone. About a year into working at Beats it really dawned on me. The new method was ‘straight to fan’. If you wanted to feel like you were still part of the conversation then you’ve got to let go.

“It became far more important to be in the only room that ever really mattered – and that was the room where the artist and the fan are. For a while, we’d knock on the door of the room, get the record and get out. Just get in the room. That’s where the excitement is and that’s the music is being talked about and shared.”

He continued: “Now there’s this ability to hear what I say or what Matt [Wilkinson] says or what Julie [Adenuga] says and be able to say ‘You know what, I’m going to add that to my playlist or share that’ and we curate together. It’s just a much broader and deeper experience than it was when I was just talking on one microphone to an audience. I didn’t know what they were doing with the music after that or even if they could get the music after that. Now it’s like ‘Take that music, share it to a playlist, stream the shit out of it’.”

Zane Lowe - SXSW 2017

Zane Lowe at SXSW, by Jenn Five/NME

The best new artists

Asked about the rising acts that he’s most excited about in 2019, Lowe replied “Tierra Whack, Dominic Fike, DYSN, Conan Gray and Melii. But you can’t talk about 2019 without mentioning Billie Eilish. The new music is incredible. It’s hers for the taking. She’s very much an artist of now.”

With streaming completely changing the way in which new artists are heard and broken, Lowe said that all he believes a new artist needs to survive in the current climate is “ultimate commitment” – and that the internet has given rising acts much more ‘freedom’ to be heard.

“If you’re an athlete and you want to be the best in the world, you’re out there every day practicing,” said Lowe. “You give everything you’ve got to the game. If you want to be a surgeon then you put years and years of dedication into that. If you’re a musician or a creative and you have that in your blood as part of your DNA, then there’s a commitment. At some point you’ve got to stop playing around. No one’s going to tell me when I want and I don’t want to put records out anymore…

“People would say ‘I don’t have the resources to focus on you all year so you get one month now, then it’s up to you to promote it, tour it, and convince us to invest in you more’. Now that’s not the case because artists can record all the time. If you’ve got a commitment and an engaged audience and you know how to communicate with your fans in a way that keeps them engaged, then it’s just work.”

Lowe went on: “Think about all of the barriers that have been broken down. If you were Gang Of Youths in Sydney, and you wanted to put your record out internationally, how much work would you have had to put in over two-three years to convince your label to put a record out in the UK or America or Europe? You’d have had to have toured for two to three years and met everybody multiple times just to get them to give a shit. Now when you put your album out, it’s out everywhere, globally and immediately via streaming. Not only can you listen to it, but you can share it. The lanes of distribution are wide open.”

As for the chances of new talent being heard on Beats 1 Radio, Lowe said that there is hope for anyone with talent, ambition, a work ethic and a message.

“Every single week myself, or people we work with, are bringing in exciting new talent, listening to them, attempting to make contact and find out where their ambitions are at, get a look at the overall picture and see where we can start to contribute and help,” said Lowe. “But it’s very much a collaborative experience from our point of view. We never expect results that we’re not to some degree invested in, but I think that’s streaming as a whole. When an artist has a really great experience, reaches a lot of people and the numbers are big, that’s not only good for the artist and the fan, that’s good for Apple Music.

“But the short answer is, make the best music you can, get it on streaming services, and get as much attention as you can. The good news is it’s our job to recognise that music as quickly as possible, so trust the process, and we’ll be here to help you find your audience.”

Working with talent

Part of the ‘collaborative’ realm that Lowe enjoys involves inviting artists to curate and host their own shows on Beats 1 – with his personal favourites including the likes of Nicki Minaj and The Weeknd, while St Vincent, Jehnny Beth and Josh Homme have also shared successful shows.

He told us that his dream hosts would be Nick Cave, Rick Rubin, Lana Del Rey and Billie Eilish, and that what a successful show needs is for the artist to take it as serious as their music.

“They just need to understand that it’s an extension of their creative world,” said Lowe. “It’s not a matter of where the creation ends and the promotion starts; it’s just another step on that ladder. If you’re in a band and you write songs, that’s creative. If you mix them, that’s creative. You do the artwork and make a video, that’s creative. You design the merch, that’s creative. You sit down with you stage designer, that’s creative. Why does it stop when it comes to sitting down and talking about music? It shouldn’t. Why can’t promotion be creative, and why does it have to be promotion at all? Treat it like it’s yours. It’s just another layer of your creative being. Want to do it, care about it, love it.

“That’s why Josh [Homme] has done four seasons of The Alligator Hour now. I spoke to him the other week and he was like ‘I love it, and I kinda miss doing it’. He’s got this wonderful character to who he is on the show, along with the music he chooses, the way he does his interviews, the themes he chooses. He knows it’s creative. Do what you want with it, just commit.”

The 1975, Arctic Monkeys, and the current generation

In other Beats news, Matty Healy recently made headlines when he said that ‘Arctic Monkeys were the band of the 2000s, while The 1975 were the band of now‘. Responding to Healy’s claims, Lowe spoke up for the relevance of Alex Turner and co, but added that he understood The 1975’s ‘universe’ within the digital age.

“I don’t think you can discount [2013 album] ‘AM’,” replied Lowe. “You can’t say that ‘AM’ didn’t connect with an audience. That was the album that broke them in America. No, I don’t think he’s right. I think he’s making a bold statement, which I love it when he does, but he probably realised that it was a bit cheeky once he’d said it. I can genuinely say this; Matt’s a friend of mine, we talk off-cycle, he’s a real cool guy. But that whole comparison game? That’s the oldest trick in the book.”

The 1975’s Matty Healy and Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner

He went on: “There’s a whole generation now that’s all about rap and hip-hop. With the fast pace of social media, it’s all just galvanising and being shared all the time. If you want to talk about rock n’ roll, then Twenty One Pilots are that band in America right now. Internationally they’re ready to go and next year they’ll be absolutely key. Arctics are still making incredible music and have a really passionate fanbase, 1975 have done an amazing job of creating a really interesting universe.

“I do see where Matty’s coming from when he says ‘We’re more of a millennial band’, but I just don’t think you could say that Alex Turner’s not thinking about the modern landscape. I just don’t think he’s thinking about it all the time.”

“On a rock n’ roll level? I don’t think we can think about it like that any more. We’re looking at so much exciting music, conversation and stuff that’s going on. It’s more than music now. It’s more like a playbook than an album.”

Listen to Zane Lowe on Apple Music’s Beats 1 from Monday-Thursday 5-7pm here