When it comes to music discovery, Zane Lowe has been an important force in the industry since the late ’90s. He started as a DJ and producer in New Zealand before moving on to XFM and MTV Europe, eventually landing his own show on BBC Radio 1 in 2003. Through it all, he built his reputation as an authoritative voice on new music. He now hosts his own show on Apple Music’s Beats 1, doing what he’s always done, even though everything around him is changing.
In an age dominated by automated processes and technological evolution, Lowe has maintained a passion for music discovery that you can hear every time he talks about a new song he loves. This passion—along with a great ear—is what makes Zane Lowe such a vital presence in music, and it’s why technology hasn’t made him obsolete.
We talked to Lowe for a feature on music discovery and how it’s changing. We published that feature here, but you can read the entire conversation below.
Where do you discover music? Do you feel like automated suggestions—like the algorithms that suggest music to people based on what they already like—are slowly replacing the human element of suggesting new music?
It’s a mix. In many respects, the process of personal recommendation is much easier with file delivery services being so easy and social networks playing a role. That said, I am a fan of dynamic playlists and ground zero sites that allow early artists to share their music. Automated suggestions work too. To me it’s not a case of one or the other.
What do you do that an algorithm can’t?
An algorithm does not share music with any emotion or experience attached. It can not tell a story or set a scene. It can not empathize with the listener or search for a deeper meaning in the music. It can only recommend in the most basic sense of the word. And to this day, I have not used an algorithm that can decide that if I like John Coltrane, I’m bound to like Quicksand. Which I do, back to back.
My main concern with letting computers decide what music we listen to is that we’ll never get that truly unpredictable moment of discovery. Algorithms work because they’re based on data, but by basing suggestions off of things you already like, you’re never going to find something totally left-field. What are your thoughts on that?
As people who love to share music with others, the very existence of an algorithm can be unsettling. That said, I see the algorithm as a factory setting. An act of convenience. This has its place for sure. Personally, if I hear something that has been selected for me by a program, and I like it, I will take it and add my own context to the record. It’s source material, but it will not satisfy the desire of one-to-one recommendation.
Do you think there will always need to be a human element in music discovery?
Short answer, yes. Because playing music to one another is rewarding and fun. Therefore, even if someone waves a finger and decides I’m obsolete in a professional sense, I will still do it. It’s my choice and I am free to make it.
I read an interview after the Beats 1 launch where you said you were kind of figuring out why it’s needed, and what its place is. Now that you’re deeper into it, how do you feel about that?
What was probably a little misconstrued from my answer—it was a kind of muddled answer—was that it was early days, and we were still in the process of working out what we were ultimately good at. But the objective was always very clear: to break records, to find new music, and to put exciting new artists in front of an audience that wants to hear it. When people talked about moving the needle, this is what it represents to me: to find exciting new music and to give it a platform, to give it a place and to give it personal recommendation.
Myself, Julie, and Ebro, or Pharrell and Scott Vener, Drake, St. Vincent… all of us share this thing in common, which is why we’re only going to play records that we like. So in that sense, there’s always going to be a real passion about what we play, in varying degrees. Some records I’ll believe in immediately, others I’ll grow to love, and I’ll recognize something really, really great, but we’re always going to look for stuff to personally share, because—getting back to your original question—that’s the one thing that I think Beats 1 can bring.
One of the other things that Beats 1 can bring is a personality. Whether you agree with it or disagree with it. It might make people go, “Oh I like that record” or, “That person’s taste in music doesn’t necessarily reflect my own.” But it might start a conversation. I don’t think you can have that when you’re having that experience on your own with a playlist on a device, or in your bedroom or whatever. It’s difficult, and I don’t think social media really satisfies that in a sense.
There are enough distractions out there in between the records, and sometimes it feels like the records are the lifeblood that keeps the other stories moving. In this case, we want the records to be everything.
Do you think listeners in general are becoming more lazy? You said that part of your job is to add context. Do you think that listeners will always need that? Or do you think that there’s so much out there now that they just want to consume as much as they can, as quickly as they can, without really putting in any thought?
I think listeners, or at least from what we can tell from the Beats 1 audience, which we know are real music fans, are hungrier. I think that they’re more active, and I think that artists have worked out that as you build your audience, the big part—beyond just writing great music and releasing it—is to create some kind of real thoughtful process.
Like, how do I want the audience to hear about my music? How do I want to present it? What is going to be the graphic accompaniment? Or how is it going to be visualized? How am I going to announce a tour date?
So I think any kind of laziness, which I think was probably more prominent when people were doing those jobs for you, has been replaced by real proactive approach from artists to fans, and I think that that’s being reciprocated. If you are thoughtful as an artist in the way you present your music and what you’re passionate about, then the audience will be proactive around you, and I think in terms of searching for music and finding music, the act of making a playlist itself requires thought and requires taste and requires a real kind of consideration.
In many respects, people are now compiling large bodies of music and listening to it in an hour, two-hour period, or longer if you want to combine your playlists. Whereas before, they would just press play on a record. Now, they’re starting to put things into different contexts, and that’s something that really inspires us at Beats 1.
Context is a really important word for us, because we’re playing a DIIV record next to a Mura Masa record, next to an Isaac Gracie record, next to a Missy Elliott record. Certainly, in some respects, people are like, “How are you gonna make that make sense?” Well, it’s about the context. Missy will sound different today when she’s played next to Isaac Gracie compared to yesterday, when I played her next to Destructo.
That’s one of the really great things about keeping it really fresh for us. You know, for my show, how are we going to create a different context for these records in relation to the songs they are keeping pace with or sharing time with? And I think that’s what playlists effectively do. That’s the beauty of it, from making mixtapes back in the day, all the way to making playlists now. And you’re in charge—the listener is in charge of that context. So I think it’s a more proactive time.
Throughout your career, and with all the technology that’s changed in the past years, how has your role on radio changed? What has been constant?
Well, I mean the role itself has developed into more of a combined creative role at Beats 1. I suppose, in many respects, along with the team, the job is to try and build an ideology or an aesthetic across the station as a whole. Whereas before, I would really only be charged with the responsibility of looking after my own radio show. And at times, obviously, there would be interaction or engagement with other shows or across the station, or other bigger events—but now it’s like we’re trying to do something where we’re one show.
We’re trying not to get too distracted by the other things, which can come along for the ride on broadcast platforms. We’re just very focused on music, and every time we stray from that, we learn that we need to get back to music. That’s what people want. That’s what people need. There are enough distractions out there in between the records, and sometimes it feels like the records are the lifeblood that keeps the other stories moving. In this case, we want the records to be everything.
What stayed the same? I’m just trying to find the music that moves me the most. I’m trying to find records that give me a sign of what’s to come. Artists that I believe in, even if I don’t think the record is there yet. Just personally, I know there’s something special going on. I want to go on that journey with them. I really do stay true to the concept of trying to select the best records I can. And try and present them in a way that is personal and has some enthusiasm to it, but also some honesty, which sometimes gets buried underneath the enthusiasm. But it’s always there.
Really, I try to keep that part of it really simple. I like hitching a ride with artists and seeing where they go. And that’s the same as being in the studio and making records, whether it’s collaborating or songwriting, or whatever. I like collaboration, I like seeing things develop. I don’t actually like the idea of having answers all the time. I think a lot of the time when you’re in a position to share records, or you’re a DJ or whatever, you’re supposed to have all the answers.
It undermines the concept of exploration and experimentation, and I think a lot of times—almost every time—the best stories are the shit you don’t see coming. Every time you get hyped on something, and you haven’t heard it yet, but the hype is huge, I mean very rarely does it ever manifest into something that’s long term. Most of the time, the stories that go on to have greatness, they grow themselves and you just have to be aware of them, and keep your eyes and your ears open, so I really try to stay in the moment, stay in the process. I try not to control it too much.
It always starts with how I feel. I can’t listen to a song and think, ‘That’s going to hit that market, and a 63% chance of fucking success,’ you know? I really try to avoid that.
So when you’re looking for a new record, is there any one thing that you really look for in the artist or in the song, or is it always different?
It’s impossible to describe, and why would I want to? You don’t want to know. I don’t want to know. If I knew, I’d probably run a record label or something, or I’d be out there trying to kind of manufacture that equation into some sort of consistent success.
But for me, it is so dependent on the mood, and that’s what I was saying before about algorithms. I could play a record by Ibeyi, and someone could be driving their car, hearing “Stranger Lover,” and someone could hear that and it could feel euphoric to them. And then it could be like, “This song makes me feel alive, I love it. What an amazing way to describe the end of a relationship, what a fucking triumph.” Or someone could be sitting at a bus stop, and it could just strike a chord that’s heartbreaking, right?
And so, all you can do is just look for that—I try to look for that when I’m hearing records, like, “What’s it tapping into? What is it making me feel?” If I feel something strongly, I know that there’s a real intention in it, an authenticity of the person who’s making the music. It’s coming from somewhere honest. And if it doesn’t do that, but it’s a fun record, well it makes me happy, it gives me joy.
We’re all armed with the same set of potential emotions and feelings. If something can connect to my moods or my emotions or my feelings, then someone else is going to have some kind of reaction to that. It’s going to have some universal appeal. But it always starts with personal feeling. It always starts with how I feel. I can’t listen to a song and think, “That’s going to hit that market, and a 63% chance of fucking success,” you know? I really try to avoid that.
Every now and then, when you hear a big band or a big artist come back, you find yourself flipping into that way of thinking, like, “That’s a big fucking record.” But is it any good? Is it going to hit you where it fucking counts?
And that’s really what I’m searching for. You don’t get it every time. There are times where you play records, and you take a chance on them because they’re not hitting you yet. But sometimes they come around. Sometimes you get the emotion later, because you needed that record in that moment in your life.
Anything else you’d like to add about the current state of music and music discovery?
The main thing for me is that I hope I wasn’t being too critical towards the algorithmic state. I understand the importance of it. And it’s a big part of evolution and progression. I really appreciate that side of things in the sense that yes, convenience is important, and it may actually bring you something that you didn’t expect. Where I draw the line is when people tell me it’s the beginning of something and the death of something else, because I don’t believe in the beginning and ends of things. People said vinyl was dead, and I mean, hello?
Vinyl is always going to be collectable, especially now when everything is in the ether and fucking exists without even seeing it. Jesus Christ, how good is it to go record shopping and bring back five LPs and put them in your collection, and you go over to someone’s house and take a look at what they got. That shit is collectable! People need that in their life. I think that’s why you need a system; you need to develop your own system of between convenience and collectability, between algorithms and real rhythms, human rhythms, heartbeats and shit.
And if you can find a combination between those that suits you? Then that’s the code for the future. But you can’t divorce one and experience the other. I think to do that is to ignore what makes music special, which is it’s fucking real, and it breathes, and it moves. It doesn’t sit in a fucking list waiting to be handpicked by a computer. It’s fucking constantly moving! It’s changing shape right now!