“It was about wanting to get inside the conversation."
Beats 1, Apple Music’s answer to, well, music et all, did not come quietly. From the first time DJ Zane Lowe cleared his throat to say the lines “Beats 1. Always on!” dials were turned— er, apps were opened — and ears were tuned in. But Lowe seemed like a sure thing for Apple. He’d been hosting BBC Radio 1 for 12 years, a star in London in his own right, and had already introduced plenty artists to the world; he was one of the first to get behind Adele, Ed Sheeran, and Arctic Monkeys.
What was perhaps more risky was the service’s focus on artist-hosted stations, though Lowe didn’t see it that way. To him, the stations were solutions. “On a very practical level, we only had three months to build a radio station,” Lowe tells EW of the celebrity channels’ nexus. “And we didn’t want to just go around luring people away from the shows they’re really good at — playing music for the town, country, or city that they’re known for. So that left us with the problem of how do we fill the schedule?”
“[And] I’ve spent so much time trying to elicit information from musicians,” he continues. “Knocking on doors and hoping for 30 minutes or an hour. That’s hard! That’s really hard! So we thought, ‘What would happen if we convinced them, the artists, to invest in it and create their own platform? What road might that take us down?’ And now, 70-80% of what goes to air is made by people who make music.”
Early standouts were St. Vincent’s Mixtape and Josh Hommes’ The Alligator Hour, as well as the shows from Pharrell, Dr. Dre, and Elton John. But the problem with such high-profile hosts was realized early, before launch even. “We knew a lot of the people were only available for a short amount of time. So we were immediately thinking about how it was going to end, which got us to the idea of doing it all in seasons. Once we decided to do that, as challenging as that can be, it created a far more exciting prospect.”
Which leads to the first round of high-profile takeovers. Major Lazer, Haim, and Eric Prydz are all about to get behind the mics. (Two more will be announced in the next few weeks.)
Speaking of Major Lazer, the dancehall trio of Diplo, Walshyfire, and Jillionaire, who will begin airing Lazer Sound Friday, Oct. 2 at 6 p.m. EST, Lowe says, “We arranged that one before we even launched. When we approached them, things were just starting to kick off with ‘Lean On‘ so he knew they weren’t going to be in one place long enough to do radio the way that other people do and thought, ‘Why not just take it on the road?’ So their whole thing became creating content wherever they are.” When Lowe welcomed Diplo to his own show last week, Diplo hinted at stuff the trio had recorded at Burning Man last month, and insisted on his commitment to compelling interviews.
Eric Prydz’ show will alternate with Major Lazer’s: It will begin airing the following Friday and they will tag-team the season. If you’ve listened to Lowe, perhaps even just once in your life, you know how much he loves the electronic artist. “I take fanboy to another level,” Lowe laughs. “[But] I’ve played a lot of dance music over the course of my life, on the radio and in clubs and venues around the world and playing a record of his presents a very unique problem: What do you play before or after that song? They’re standalone pieces. He brings real emotion to them without losing any of their blockbuster sound. I put him up there with the greats.”
And as for Prydz’ show? “I don’t care if he doesn’t say a word,” Lowe deadpans. “I just put him on the air to hear his music.”
Speaking of the sister-trio out of southern Cal, Lowe’s excitement is palpable. “I had them on for a feature I used to do on Radio 1 called Versus and it was just the most fun hour of radio I had had in a long time,” he remembers. “Their energy and their love of music is — and I know people throw this word around but it really sticks with them — infectious. We found ourselves jumping around, playing air base — things I hadn’t done in forever. Maybe never!”
Speaking of what he expects from their hour he says, “I think they’re going to be incredibly honest and paint a really great picture of their very unique upbringing: Three sisters in Los Angeles, raised in a musical house, playing instruments very early on, and surrounded by pop culture, radio, and music the whole time. I think if you had filmed it, it could honestly be the next Modern Family.”
Apple Music’s commitment to hosts from a wide range or age, genre, and experience levels is what keeps it interesting. “You’re either going to get this really intimate, closed door experience (Homme, St. Vincent), or a very genuine depiction of the banality and craziness of being in different hotel rooms and bus stops (WRTJ),” Lowe says. “I love that. There doesn’t have to be a barrier between us and artists, it can be just as creative of a pursuit as designing your stage set or t-shirt design. Seeing how people have used that has been really, really cool. It’s like, let’s give people all the options, so they can choose. Let’s give them the best, easiest place to hear what they love and maybe find out a thing or two.”