Annie Mac certainly needs no introduction, but still… her enormous contribution to the music industry certainly bears repeating. For 15 years, she’s been bringing her impeccable taste to the airwaves with her legendary BBC Radio 1 show. During that time, not only has she been a tireless and vocal advocate of female and LGBTQ+ artists, she also runs two festivals – Lost & Found in Malta and AMP London – and can be seen playing at the biggest music festivals and hottest clubs around the world. Oh, and on top of that, in June she launched her very own podcast: Finding Annie.
Across many different platforms, Mac celebrates and promotes music that matters, but that is not the only reason why she’s been awarded the WIM Awards Music Champion honour. Mac has also long been a prominent voice calling for change in the music industry. Back in March, Mac graced our cover to discuss her hopes for AMP’s expansion, with this year notably seeing it branch out to include a business-focussed conference event.
“People are looking to me to speak on things more and more,” she told us at the time. “I don’t fully know how I feel about that.” Six months on, Music Week asks how she has come to terms with using her voice for much more than broadcasting…
“I feel a little bit more comfortable with it than I was,” says Mac. “I guess maybe I realised that it’s not about being qualified to talk about things... Being a woman working in this field is your qualification. So, I do feel more comfortable.”
So without further ado, here we dig deeper into Mac’s thoughts on breaking acts, podcasts, her own music champions, gender equality and much more…
So, how does it feel to be crowned a music champion?
“Winning this feels really lovely actually, it’s just nice in the context of what this award is. It feels really special and I’m delighted and happy to be there to accept it and be around all these very amazing women. That’s very powerful.”
Who were your inspirational music champions growing up?
“There was my sister, she was my first music champion. She used to listen to pirate radio in Ireland and she introduced me to techno and this exciting other world of club culture, which I had no idea about. Then, once I moved to the UK and started listening to BBC Radio, it was Mary Anne Hobbs who introduced me to the concept that a woman could do this job. She has a lot to answer for! The concept of her show having no boundaries, in terms of what she played, really appealed to me. It wasn’t just her as a broadcaster and a woman, but also how brilliant her show was as well.”
You’re celebrating 15 years on radio this year – is there any act you feel especially proud to have championed early on in their career?
“Disclosure, in terms of playing them first on the radio, watching them grow and doing a 360 support system where we booked them for a lot of our AMP events. We took them on tour when they were not old enough to get into clubs! Seeing them grow was pretty amazing. Again, on a dance tip, I was playing Justice from the very start and watched how they took over the world and changed the course of dance music forever. They were so hugely influential. More recently, a good example would be Sam Fender. It’s happened quickly, but just watching him growing, evolving and owning his success has been really gratifying. You feel like you’re in on a secret at the start, which you are... You’re privy to all the brilliant music that you just know the world is going to fall in love with. It’s so beautiful.”
In terms of what you champion, is it all just personal belief, or would you back something not to your taste?
“Personal belief is the beginning and end of it, definitely. And it’s not just me, it’s my team: me, my producer and my assistant producer. It is a very democratic process. If I hate something and the two of them love it, I will be overruled. It happens very rarely. I might have been overruled once in four years, put it that way. It’s important that it’s not all on one person at the end of the day. I have the best team and it’s nice to actually share the burden, to be honest. We always pretty much agree, our tastes are aligned now having spent so much time together, and there is definitely stuff that I play that I wouldn’t choose to listen to at home, but it’s important and culturally important and you have to remember that you are serving an audience. But then, equally, it’s about walking that line between doing that and understanding the BBC is invested in me as a human being and a professional. You have to have opinions. It’s about being very careful and taking it very seriously when we do say no to an act and having really, really valid reasons as to why. It’s also really important to watch what’s going on beyond the filter you get in terms of PRs, record label people and execs telling you how amazing an act is. You have to see it, you have to know it, especially if you don’t love the music. You have to see evidence of the band doing stuff, growing and having a buzz. There are so many factors behind choosing a record, but it has to be something that hits you personally, makes you feel something and moves you – be it just the simple spirit of a song, a lyric, an idea or how bloody mad they are… There can be a lot of reasons.”
Being a DJ is a very cool, celebratory job, but what are the tough sides of being a music champion?
“The amount of disgruntled people out there who are pissed off when you don’t play their records, and it’s not just the band, it’s their managers, agents, PRs… I have eight hours a week to play with – we’re not Spotify, we don’t have unlimited space to play things, so you’re always going to end up fucking people off. But the way I do it is to always say: we’re not saying no to a band or to an artist, we’re saying no to a track. It’s about giving people space to grow. A lot of the time I feel there’s a real rush to get people on the radio early, and sometimes people aren’t ready for the exposure that a play on our show will give. It’s about letting a band evolve, grow, find their sound and find out who they are and how they want to present themselves without having managers, labels ramming them down your throat. For me, it’s a constant decision making process. I’m really lucky in that I’ve got a really good team who are front-facing when it comes to the industry and who meet with everyone and see them regularly. It involves a shitload of communication, constant emailing back and forth on our opinions and strategies. Away from just playing music on a radio show, just dealing with the relationships with bands is a huge, huge, huge part of what we do.”
What needs championing the most in music right now?
“Women in general, it’s pretty obvious but it’s still very ongoing that we don’t have enough female headliners, we don’t have enough female-fronted bands, or female bands, we don’t have enough female headline DJs. We need to keep on pushing females forward in terms of representation in music, and it’s something I do naturally because I relate to female lyrics and art, and my producer’s the same. It’s about getting to the point where it’s totally normalised that we could play eight women in a row.”
Earlier in the year, you told us you wanted AMP to be a destination for the industry. How important has engaging with the business side of things become to you with regard to helping promote change from the inside?
“It was never a priority for me until I got this new slot on Radio 1, specifically in terms of the industry side. That’s when I really was dealing with the industry in a big way, because the show is part of the industry in how seriously we approach breaking acts. When I got the job I went to all the label heads and heard their music, and we try and do that every now and again. But it was probably in the last four years that I’ve become more aware of the industry and more exposed to how it works. It definitely is a big part of what I do. It’s more important to affect change behind the scenes, because that will then reflect on the decisions that are made across who’s booked, who’s pushed forward, who’s invested in across the industry. I’ve realised that is the most important destination for change.”
What’s the one thing someone who’s just getting into the music business should be aware of?
“Change is coming, but it’s not arrived yet [Laughs]. It’s not just gender equality, I think the music industry has a lot to change with regard to the gatekeepers all being a certain demographic and class of people – in terms of true diversity that has a long way to go. It’s happening, but it’s happening a bit slower than anyone would like. But it’s a direct reflection of everywhere else in the world. I recently read an article about two female astronauts who, for the first time ever, had gone out to space and fixed the side of a space rocket. They were being asked if it was a massive deal that two women in their early 40s had done it for the first time and one was like, ‘I’m really looking forward to the time when the fact that two women are totally capable of this job is not a deal’. It’s the same everywhere, it’s the world as we know it, and the music industry is catching up. I feel like it could catch up quicker, and I think it will: it will take a couple of women at the top – at the top-top – to show everyone else that it’s possible. I’m just waiting for those people. There already are a few women running labels, which is bloody brilliant.”
How far into planning 2020’s AMP events are you?
“We’ve been really busy with planning and booking and now we’re in the final stages of that and November will see us launch two festivals: a Malta festival and an AMP London festival and conference. So that’s been a real great challenge with AMP London branching out into the conference side of stuff. We want to shake the tree a bit and make sure people are challenged and really get questions answered, rather than just discussing them. We think really hard about what we want to talk about and who we want to come in and talk. And then I’m just busy booking shows, it’s going to be between 20 and 24 shows around London.”
You’re officially our Music Champion, but who would you have voted for?
“Clara Amfo [who won the WIM Awards Music Champion honour in 2017]. She’s very underrated, actually, in terms of her massive knowledge of music and pop culture. She’s so immersed in the culture and she’s whipsmart and could present my show in a second, she’s very good at all types of music. So she’s a brilliant music champion, and I’m so happy that she’s in that slot at Radio 1. It’s so deserved, and she’s really owned it and made it her own. She’s such a fucking huge, huge, huge inspiration to women everywhere, but especially to young women of colour. We don’t see strong, beautiful British-Ghanian women doing those kind of jobs. Fucking brilliant.”
And what’s the future looking like for you? Earlier in the year, you said you couldn’t see yourself leaving the BBC...
“Well, I’m doing my podcast at the moment and I’m really enjoying talking to people about themes beyond music. Not that I don’t still love talking about music, but I love life chats. It’s been really refreshing to do that. So I’m going to keep that going, it’s picking up momentum and I’m really enjoying the freedom of it. I love being able to swear… I definitely don’t want that to go anywhere, I’m really enjoying that. It’s really just scratching an itch for me creatively in terms of stuff that I’ve wanted to break out into in broadcasting. So that’s been going really well, and the show is just flying and I’m enjoying it. So hopefully, if Radio 1 will have me, I don’t want to go anywhere…”