When Apple Music launched Beats 1 in June 2015 after acquiring Beats from cofounders Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine 10 months earlier, it wasn’t entirely clear what the service would offer beyond FM-radio-style music rotation. The original hosts — Zane Lowe, Ebro Darden, and Julie Adenuga — all come from radio. Beats 1 promised top-notch playlists with minimal interruption and no one playing a Chainsmokers single every 17 minutes.
The team has since grown to a 60-member staff spread across New York, Los Angeles, and London. Most significantly, Beats 1 has celebrity hosts such as Drake, Frank Ocean, Pharrell, and St. Vincent to anchor its own programming blocks during which they can do and play whatever they want. Drake hosts OVO Sound Radio, which achieved peak listenership when the channel premiered the rapper’s latest project, More Life. That episode is Beats 1’s most streamed to date, and the album eventually garnered 89.9 million streams on Apple Music within 24 hours of its release. Drake is the biggest rapper in the world, and he sells records regardless, but his command of OVO Sound Radio turned his release into a full weekend event.
Still, Apple Music is playing catch-up in the great race for subscribers among music streaming services. Spotify, with its 50 million paid subscribers, still owns the market share. Apple Music, which has the second-largest customer base, is up to 20 million paid subscribers, though at a slower growth rate than Spotify. (Tidal’s figures are widely disputed, but the company claims to be just above 3 million paid subscribers.)
Having refined the art of the playlist, the music-streaming giants are now betting large on original content, acquiring and developing their own TV series, documentaries, and podcasts. Last year, Apple Music bought the rights to an unscripted TV series based on Late Late Show host James Corden’s popular "Carpool Karaoke" interview series, and the company has turned the property into a full series, featuring 16 different celebrity hosts, due to premiere later this year.
Launching original TV series is one strategy that all the streaming services can agree on. But Apple Music’s investment in Beats 1 is unique not just because it’s the only major subscription-based music-streaming service that’s producing quasi-FM-radio programming, but also because it’s given more than 20 popular musicians (and counting) a voice in this brave, new marketplace. Where Spotify has resisted the exclusives trend, Apple Music has stressed a desire to work with artists directly, minimizing the influence of record labels over promotion and royalties. It’s a strategy that echoes Netflix’s success story as a company that began as a home-video distributor only to become a TV-and-film studio with a $6 billion content budget to develop properties of its own.
We’re still a ways off from the obsolescence of record labels. Universal Music Group has begun to fight back in earnest by prohibiting its artists from releasing their music exclusively (at least temporarily) to specific platforms, as Drake, Beyoncé, and Rihanna have done with recent releases. But Apple is the richest tech company on earth, and its recent successes with Chance the Rapper and Frank Ocean — who’ve both disavowed the major-label system in favor of content partnerships with Apple — suggest that exclusives might not be the only thing Universal has to worry about.
Zane Lowe, a former BBC Radio 1 host and festival DJ with a knack for dramatic presentation, has been with Beats 1 since Day 1. The 43-year-old New Zealand native is the company’s creative director as well as the host of his own self-titled interview program, which airs at noon ET from Monday through Thursday. On Friday, he will premiere a special episode with Kendrick Lamar.
We asked Lowe about the death of radio, the next phase of the streaming wars, and the trick to turning good musicians into good DJs.
You premiere records. You get exclusives. What’s the thinking behind that sort of content in an era when nothing is really, truly exclusive?
There’s not a focus on exclusives in the traditional sense. The idea of having bragging rights for a record that hit a streaming service, that’s not really a play.
When a record comes out on Beats 1, what we really try to do is create the most exciting context around it. I come from a place where you build excitement around stories, context, and artists wanting to talk about their music. That’s the value of broadcasting, which coincides with the playlist, the algorithm, and intelligent recommendation; it adds a layer.
Beats 1 says, "OK — you want to put your record out at this time, that’s great. We would love to offer you an opportunity to build some excitement around it." And it doesn’t have to be exclusive. It just has to be brilliant.
People listen to the radio in their cars, but not necessarily on their smartphones. How do you account for that basic difference in user experience?
Streaming is a model that’s built around [the idea] that the audience is insatiable, and the artist just wants the audience to hear records quickly. You flick a switch, it’s all available, and you listen to it as much as you want. Instead of moving at the pace of promotion, Beats 1 moves at that pace of saying, "It’s already out."
By comparison, [FM] radio moves on pretty quickly. Our impact [at FM radio] was in the pre-release, and so the album would come out, and we’d already be on to the next thing; the next month of releases. So that’s the difference, and it’s a very big difference.
And that’s why I say there really isn’t that exclusivity anymore. When an artist wants a record to come out, it comes out. That’s it. It’s out.
Yes — and then it immediately spreads to 100 other websites and platforms. What do you think about that diffusion of Beats 1’s discernible impact?
You have to come at it collaboratively. I don’t think any company is strong enough to start something as dramatic as a distribution-model change and own that. It takes time and teamwork across the industry, including the artists and the audience.
In fact, Beats 1 was built on the model that we would collaborate openly. I came from a place which was really trying to control our premieres, exclusives, all that stuff. I think that what we learned — well, certainly what I learned in exiting that environment and starting at a new place — was that you have to let go a little bit in terms of where the record goes once we broadcast.
We love relevance. We love noise. A big part of our model is being able to tell an artist that if they come and hang with us, we will generate as much excitement for you as humanly possible. So we have a really good relationship with like-minded platforms that love music as much as we do. That’s a good thing.
Let’s talk about curation. There are playlists, which are congruous with how subscribers already use their streaming music services. And then there’s Beats 1, which provides its own sort of content that demands users’ attention in much different ways.
The differences are diminishing. We make shows that are very adaptable to playlists, and we’re very into dynamic playlists.
It’s a really modern model. Every time you make a decision on a feature — whether it’s a "World Record" or a Beats 1 playlist — it has an impact on the other playlists that are on Apple Music. For the artist as well as the fan, we want it to be a fully integrated experience.
We’re not a radio station. It’s funny — I’ve listened to a bit of L.A. radio lately because my car is being serviced, so I haven’t had access to my usual sound system. It’s only for a day and a half, so rather than reprogram it all, I thought I would listen to radio again, which I never do. It’s really all traffic and weather reports. It’s all so related to the local community, and what I don’t hear a lot of is music. For me, it was a nice breather, but after a while, I really wanted to hear music.
And so we’re doing this at a place [Apple Music] where music is everywhere. Beats 1 is a shop-front window to the whole store on Music Row that has an Apple logo on it. When you go in that store, you’ve got all these amazing new records. You’ve got original content, videos, and episodic TV. You’ve got back catalogs. You’ve got a studio in the corner where Mike D is hosting a radio show. And Beats 1 is announcing all of this stuff. This is what we’re building, and I think that having some kind of human guide through all that is an essential component.
There are 26 programs on the schedule, many of them hosted by famous active musicians such as Drake and Frank Ocean. How sustainable is that logistically and financially?
For one, we didn’t have time to reach out to 30 DJs. And we didn’t want to run around handing out long-term contracts to people with radio-station jobs because of the bureaucracy, the politics, and because it would send the wrong message to radio that we’d have been trying to roll up on all their DJs when that isn’t really what this was about. We just wanted to create a place where musicians are present and engaged.
We all know what promotion is, and why it’s valuable. But what if artists just talked about music, and the promotional aspect wasn’t even the point? What would Joshua Homme sound like if he was just pretending to be a radio DJ, even if he didn’t want to be? But he became one, and he really enjoyed it.
Now, Frank Ocean is doing a radio show. The thought of Frank Ocean doing one show would be a dream come true, but he’s done three. Mike D is on his 20th show. Travis Scott did six shows for us, maybe more. Elton John is coming up to his 100th show on Beats 1. Elton fucking John.
And hats off to Drake, man. Honestly. He is a genius. Him and Oliver [El-Khatib] worked it out, and they were like, "We know how to use this." He did it so dramatically, and so instinctively, and in such an exciting way. It’s been such a joy to watch Beats 1 create such an exciting link between Drake and his audience. I’m not playing favorites, I’m just saying they’ve had huge impact.
Other hosts have attacked it in different ways. Pharrell’s show is incredibly informative, so to me that’s story time. Ezra Koenig’s show is the funniest broadcast you could possibly hear. Corey Taylor fucking crushes it, and St. Vincent’s Mixtape Delivery Service was the most amazing format. The list is endless, and it’s going to carry on.
How do you pitch this sort of programming to artists?
It’s the easiest thing ever because these are incredibly creative people. You just have to get them thinking of this as a creative exercise instead of publicity. No one’s making them juggle rotten eggs for 10 minutes to get their song played.
Here, you can look at radio as an extension of your creative self. Why does radio and broadcasting have to be when the job starts? Why is that when you have to clock in? Why can’t it be an extension of the creative process? It may not mean as much to the musicians as making music, but it’s a creative exercise. It could be Josh deciding that he’s going to make his show spooky and weird. The Alligator Hour is a weird fucking show. But he said, "That’s my thing, that’s what’s going to keep me inspired," and so it’s entirely authentic to him. He’s created a world and brought us into it. Mike D’s Echo Chamber is a world. Dr. Dre mixes and masters The Pharmacy. Xzibit’s been hosting it while Dre’s off doing some other things, but for that first six months Dre was really at the helm, mixing and mastering every show as if it was an album.
What’s my strategy? Get out of the fucking way.
You have all of these dream inputs. What are the dream outputs? How do we judge whether Beats 1 is successful?
Happy artists; happy audience. We add value to beautiful music that artists put their hearts and souls into, and we reach a ton of people in really cool ways. We make great stuff, and make it really loud and really relevant. That’s success.
You can measure that success in all manner of ways, but the idea of it being around one particular metric is just fucking old and antiquated. There’s so many ways that you can wake up in the day and feel like you did a good job. The more we all think that way, the better off it’s gonna be.