'It's not harder, it's easier': Apple Music's Zane Lowe on breaking new artists in the streaming age

Zane Lowe

If there’s one truism that everybody in the modern music business agrees with, it’s that breaking artists has become much harder in the streaming age.

While this week’s Music Week Big Story highlights the significant 2019 UK success from the likes of Sam Fender, Lewis Capaldi and Mabel, the last few years have been tough for genuine, album-level breakthroughs. And many in the biz lay the blame for that squarely at streaming’s door, thanks to its emphasis on single tracks and playlists.

One man isn’t having any of it, however. As Radio 1’s former leading tastemaker and now Apple Music’s global creative director and Beats 1 presenter, Zane Lowe knows a thing or two about what it takes to break an artist. And, speaking in this week’s Music & Technology special edition of Music Week, he’s adamant that those saying it’s tougher than it used to be are barking up the wrong (Apple) tree.

“It’s not harder, it’s easier,” said Lowe, who will keynote on the subject ‘Keeping the humanity in music’ at the Music Week Tech Summit Together With O2 in London on October 8. “It’s happening faster and more than ever before. The difference is that we’re not controlling that conversation the way we used to, so we sense that it’s not happening, but it is happening.”

Lowe cites examples such as Yung Gravy, Billie Eilish, Juice Wrld and Lil Nas X. And he says he was first alerted to the latter artist by his kids.

“They said, ‘Dad, there’s this song that everybody, from kindergarten all the way up to eighth grade, is listening to or rapping along to at lunchtime’,” Lowe explained. “I was like, ‘That sounds like [the] Smells Like Teen Spirit [phenomenon] to me, what is it?’ And it was Old Town Road…"

Lowe found the song had started to spike on Apple Music and, “Within a week,” he added, “We’d rallied together and started to support this record in a meaningful way. And within two weeks, it started this unprecedented run. That was the shortest amount of time where something felt it had gone from the street to a real explosion…”

We’re not controlling that conversation the way we used to

Lowe, however, said that his role in breaking such records at Apple and Beats was very different to his time at Radio 1.

“[At Radio 1], we were the primary lane through which music was pre-promoted,” he said. “But there’s no pre-promotion anymore. There is zero value in giving a song to someone on a radio station for six weeks and not letting everybody out there access it on streaming services.

“What you’ve got to do is work in the context business,” he added. “We’re in the business of streams, so we’re trying to get more streams and do a good job for the subscriber. If a new project comes out by Post Malone I just want to amplify the shit out of it. I want to eventise it as much as possible so as many Post Malone fans as possible come in and stream Post Malone at Apple Music, because we’re the best streaming service. We get more streams, Post gets more streams, the label gets more streams, and the fans get more out of it. And that’s the four pillars of victory.”

* For the full interview with Zane Lowe – and top execs from Facebook, UTA, Amazon, Ingrooves, O2 and more – see this week’s Music & Technology special edition of Music Week, available now. To read our Zane Lowe cover story, click here. And to secure your place at the Music Week Tech Summit, click here.

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