Digital Media

Apple Beats 1 chief wants to rekindle the record-store romance

Zane Lowe, the head of Apple's radio channel, sees Beats 1 DJs filling a music culture void left by automated streaming libraries.

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Record stores mean a lot to Zane Lowe.

Best known for his 12 years as one of the BBC's top Radio 1 DJs, Lowe uncovered the earliest recordings of hip-hop by devotedly riffling through record store bins, and he found the way to Nirvana by awkwardly humming the guitar riff to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to his local record store clerk. Moving to London from New Zealand as a radio DJ in 1997, he worked at a record store himself before joining MTV2 and, later, Radio 1.

Now, as the the head of Apple's global streaming radio channel, he sees Beats 1 mimicking the expertise of that behind-the-counter guru in today's age of streaming libraries.

"I use playlists and I make them, but there should be a room for creativity, and for culture, and for romance as well," he said in an exclusive interview with CNET on the sidelines of SXSW 2017. "Otherwise it is just like" -- he shifts to a robotic monotone -- "'that is out, go and play it.'"

Zane Lowe discussed how streaming and the internet have busted up music's rulebook, in a keynote at the SXSW Conference and Festivals last week.

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A year and a half after Apple launched Beats 1, Lowe's radiolike channel remains one of the main features that sets Apple Music apart as streaming-service rivals such as Spotify and Tidal race to dominate the growing market for all-you-can-eat music subscriptions. Apple's hope is that the cultural cachet of Lowe's team of tastemakers, as well as high-profile album exclusives, can be enough to win you over.

While Apple is a household name, its music service still plays second fiddle to Spotify. Lowe wouldn't specify Apple Music's latest numbers nor the size of Beats 1's audience, but his boss, Eddy Cue, said in February that members were "well past" 20 million. Spotify boasts 50 million subscribers and more than 100 million people tuning in free for its music with advertising.

Apple Music also diverges from the company's core business of selling you gadgets. Even as the iTunes store came to dominate 99-cent song downloads, its existence was meant to propel sales of iPods and, later, iPhones. With the sales growth of those all-important iPhones starting to crest, CEO Tim Cook said in January he wants to double revenue from services like Apple Music in four years.

Lowe talked to CNET about Apple, Beats 1 and the balance of algorithms and human devotion in music today, after delivering a 45-minute keynote at SXSW. The following is an edited Q&A.

Design by Tristan Moaveniyan

What's your perspective on Beats 1 today versus when it launched?
Lowe: Well, when we started, we were coming in from a radio model, and now we're not.

What's the model now?
Streaming. We try to make as much noise and create as much context and tell stories for records and artists, within a place where the music is. Imagine Apple Music as a store. We're the front window. We're the thing you see by the counter. We try and put music into a frame that makes you more excited about it, more than just its existence.

You could put the record in a playlist, put it in a library, just let it exist and hopefully we find it. But culture is what the artist wants it to be. They want to create layers of thought, excitement and vision, and tell you how the record was made. They want to share that experience with you. That's what Beats 1 really is designed to do. It was to keep pace with the culture, so that it goes perfectly with the commodity.

In your keynote, twice you remarked that the internet and streaming have thrown out the old music rulebook and fostered direct relationships between artists and fans. How do exclusives fit into that?
It's been going on forever. When I was at radio, exclusives were the way to get the audience, because you would have the records before they were released. That doesn't happen anymore. Most records are out all at the same time, so everyone's been forced to brush up on their editorial charms. How are you actually presenting the music, rather than owning it?

In terms of albums and campaigns and whether they go with one [platform] or not, it really has to be in the hands of artist. Distribution is a choice, and artists should be entitled to decide how they want their record to go. Is it better or not for fans? I just think it's how it's always been. Distribution is a choice, but it's not a hook I hang anything on. What can I do with the record when I get it? How can I make noise for that artist and make as much noise as possible? That's all I care about.

You said a couple months after Beats 1 launched that you weren't sure why Apple needs it.
Yeah, it was terrible thing to say.

So you don't have that uncertainty anymore?
What I meant was: Nothing is certain in this world, and just go ahead and discover. Build it, see what it is. And you can't present anything in a box with a ribbon on it anymore. It's process. It's transparency. It's not about "Tada!" The process is what matters.

But putting a ribbon around a final product and unveiling it -- that's Apple. It creates beautiful things, and you don't get to hear anything about them until Apple presents them with a lot of fanfare.
There's an art to it. That's my language. I'll put my company hat on for a second and tell you that it is an artistic place.

What's next for Beats 1? There was talk about multiple Beats -- Beats 2, 3, 4, etc. Is that happening?
All those discussions are being had right now. Until we have something -- you've said it before, Apple will go and work on things, and they present it when they feel it's right. That's the answer. We're working on it.

Lowe rose to prominence as DJ at MTV2 and BBC's Radio 1 before launching Beats 1 with Apple in 2015.

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So less transparency on that part.
Less transparency on that part. That's where the old Apple comes into play.

Is there an old Apple versus new Apple?
I've been at Apple over two years, and I would never ever pretend to know the difference. When I started there, I was very aware of the legacy of the company and how much it's improved my life. The only question I asked is what does content feel like there?

We've never done that before. We make devices and we make laptops and we build an iTunes store, but what does it feel like when you start to work with DJs, and bring artists in, make content, do videos, live streams? What does that feel like at Apple, and can we do it so it maintains and accentuates the aesthetic of Apple? Because that's what we love. I don't want to go in there and ruin it.

You talked about how technology is pushing music to different places. Are you and Beats 1 pushing Apple to different places?
Undoubtedly, because we're going into places we've never been before. It's Apple's only streaming service. It has never made content, it has never made TV, it has never done radio shows. And, to be fair, what we've achieved in 18 months is unbelievable. They're all in.

"Discover Weekly" has been a big hit for Spotify, that's 100 percent machine, personalized for each person. The idea of robotic algorithms and playlists versus what you do with Beats 1, how do they fit together and how do they conflict?
The whole future, where we're going, is an integration between it all. It's not one or the other. I don't look at Beats on Apple as being a separate thing. We're part of streaming. And playlists are part of streaming, and personalized playlists are part of streaming, and new music and the way it's presented is part of streaming -- it's one big service, and we're all together. Integrated playlists on radio, why not? Radio as a playlist, why not? Like, why not just break it all down and stop looking at it as one or the other? I love playlists, but I love broadcasting, so I just want to do it all. I don't see why playlists shouldn't have voices and why voices shouldn't make playlists. To me, it's all just music.

How have you wrapped your head around the global nature of Beats 1?
It's a headache, it's tough.You're dealing with 100-plus countries and different time zones. We realized that we couldn't even begin to contextualize people's local experience. So we simplified it down to music. [On traditional radio,] music really is a needle and a thread that works its way through sports and news and gossip and all that other stuff. Music is the glue. And what if music was the actual art? Beats 1 has been straightforward in that way. We are focusing on only one thing, which is incredible music and all that revolves around it.

If there are similarities to radio, then great. But it's a streaming experience. The idea is that once you love something, dive into the service where we are. Like "Click, click, click -- oh shit."

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