There’s a moment during one of Nicki Minaj’s nine Beats 1 “Queen Radio” shows so far where she demands a fellatio sound effect, delivered as an aside in the studio to Jean Nelson, of her management team, rather than directly to the listener. She’s handing out that episode’s “cocksucker of the day award” to two women who covertly photographed ex- Cosby Show actor Geoffrey Owens working the till in a supermarket, job-shaming him in the process. “I don’t understand… What is the fascination, in our culture – this new Instagram era, this new instant gratification era – to continually humiliate people… for no fucking reason?” A pause. “What the fuck did you get, by” – and now she punctuates every word with what sounds like a flat palm hit against the table, slightly off-mic – “taking a picture of that MAN at the grocery store?” Then she pauses for about eight seconds.
Eight seconds of silence, on live radio, feels like an unfathomably long amount of time. It isn’t, obviously, but just feels that way. You may look up from what you’re doing, wondering if it’s a problem with your connection, or if your battery’s died. In this case, what followed was a “What did you get outta that?” from your host. By the time she offers Owens $25,000, her show’s #QueenRadio hashtag is pinging across Twitter, in several countries, like an extremely social media version of fireflies glowing, then fading, in the night.That episode goes live hours after I meet Zane Lowe, one of Beats’ four flagship DJs, in the slightly swish restaurant of a central London hotel. He’s returned to England, where he lived for 18 years, for a few bits – to present a gong at the GRM Daily Rated Awards, and to hold the sort of back-to-back, find-me-in-the-hotel meetings that leave him running slightly late for our chat. Right now, though, he’s sitting in an extended pause of his own, turning over a question I’ve asked about how to measure success on a station that can feel as ephemeral as Beats 1.“I think initially there was a lot of emphasis on that, since we were the new radio kid on the block,” he begins, leaning back on the corner booth while hoisting and crossing his right leg up over his left thigh. “But our qualification is: ‘how loud are we? How much are we moving the needle?’ You wanna know how loud we are, go look at Queen Radio trending number 1 worldwide on Twitter for five hours, every time Nicki Minaj goes on.” He won’t get into the detail of the stats, of stark figures about the station’s reach. “We do get data, we know we reach people. But I’m not going to sit there and micro-analyse that.”
Just over three years into Beats’ existence, the world of “internet radio” has already been through a few shifts. At first, it felt like traditional radio, but online. You know, opening a tab on your laptop or phone, and letting a station run, expecting a DJ to talk you through some tunes and maybe have on the odd guest. Community-driven stations cropped up, like Reprezent in south London (RIP Radar, I guess), and more niche ones, from WorldwideFM to London Fields Radio. Through it all, though, Beats emerged as a behemoth, bolstered by the monopoly that Apple hardware has (once you have a device, Beats 1 is yours, for free, at any time during its 24-hour stream). And what I really want to hear about from Zane, a few years in, is how to make sense of being a platform that bridges a gap between the artist and the fan, how to quantify success and what place internet radio holds today.“The artist and the audience will tell you how they want their music; they’ve been telling us since the year 2000,” he says, before launching into one of his moments where he half-holds a conversation with himself, switching between narrator and character. A large chunk of Zane’s job revolves around talking, and filling the sort of dead air that Nicki can leave empty. As an interview subject, that means that he poses questions to himself before answering them, speaks with the smoothness of someone delivering a TED Talk but also opens himself up to honest conversation in between slickly bigging up his employer.
Anyway, back to the way radio – and the DJ’s access to music before everyone else – used to work. “Fans have been saying, and I include myself in this, ‘I want my music when I want it. I’m happy to pay for it, but I don’t want to have to pay a premium to wait. If you want me to pay, let me get it. You, DJ guy: you can’t hold the records anymore. I’m happy to listen to you, but not cos you’re the only one who’s got it.’ And that was a hard transition for me at first, cos I liked that,” and he scoffs, thinking back to his time as a long-running Radio 1 DJ. “But I look back on it now like, ‘wow, how did we get away with that for so long?’ Music should be everywhere.”He’s right, really. The model has shifted – even since Beats launched, in 2015. In the few years that Zane’s been hosting at the station, artists have grabbed onto the frame of convention and shaken it. Your Brockhamptons, Juice WRLDs, Charli XCXs – new young acts, basically – don’t follow the template. As he puts it, “it’s creative distribution now. If you’re Tyler, the Creator, you’re not thinking about putting a record out. You’re thinking about adding your record to a neverending, existing timeline of creativity. People aren’t buying Camp Flog Gnaw tickets cos Tyler’s album’s out; they’re buying them cos they’re buying into Tyler.” And you can see that. You can see it when you look at the prevalence of loosie releases; at “projects” that aren’t explicitly labelled as albums, mixtapes or EP; at a press release email announcing an artist’s song “exclusively premiering on A$AP Rocky’s Twitter,” with a screenshot embedded.
So the tectonic plates of what makes a tastemaker, and a radio DJ, feel like they’re shifting. We wouldn’t be able to call relatively unknown people “influencers” if our gatekeepers still took on the same form as 20 years ago. “First of all, you’ve got to accept that the term ‘tastemaker’ has expanded into anyone’s realm,” Zane says. “So anyone with the ability to share something with their friends, be it an Instagram post or a link to a song or anything, is curating their own life, and tastemaking to some degree. If you take away that sense of ownership over the idea of tastemaking or curation, and accept that your job is to listen, well – then that’s what you do. You get through a lot more, you listen to a lot more.”Months before I meet Zane, I’m on a north London industrial estate in Beats’ new studios, hearing about how his ‘let me listen more’ approach works, in practical terms. Fellow show hosts Matt Wilkinson, an ex- NME writer, and Mike D, well, a Beastie Boy, are recalling how they ended up co-hosting for a while. “I either called up Zane or ran into him in LA,” sometime in summer 2017, Mike D reckons, squinting a little. “I was listening to Matt’s old show, and I was really pleasantly surprised.” Matt laughs, but jumps in.He remembers having lunch with Zane, on another of his London trips last autumn, and “really matter-of-factly, when he wasn’t even looking up at me from his food, he was like, ‘oh, by the way, Mike D’s a massive fan of your show,’ and I said ‘whaaat?’ In the typical Zane way, he just said, ‘yeah; he’s gonna come over; we’re gonna do a week of the show with you two.’”
That ‘OK, here’s an idea – let’s run with it,’ mentality (a tech company approach, rather than a traditional radio station’s) has fed into how Zane even makes sense of what space Beats occupies. As he and I talk, I mention that Beats now feels like more of a livestream than a radio station. He smiles, properly leans his head back again as though breathing a sigh of relief (it’s not relief – he’s just chuffed). “That’s been our mentality for about a year, 18 months. ‘It’s a constantly moving feed of music and information relating to the service and the device you’re listening to it on.’ The idea is that if it’s in your pocket or on the table or with you at all times, it’s always moving; it’s constantly on.”That idea, I say, only really works for Beats though, doesn’t it? Not every other stream or station enjoys the luxury of coming as part of a package deal with some of the most popular mobile phone hardware in this part of the world. “I mean… you’d have to ask them,” he begins, referring to Beats’ closest competitors. “Y’know… streaming is such a utility experience – ’we have x amount of songs.’ And it’s… OK, great. That’s the model. That’s what streaming is. So what are you offering that’s different?” On the one hand, that you can feel as though you’re talking into the abyss. “You’ve got to accept that, to some degree, you’re moving through an ambiguous space in terms of the actual visibility of what you’re doing. It’s not, ‘text 81199, I know you’re out there.’ We don’t have that access.”But, as we saw with the world premiere of Nicki Minaj’s Queen singles, Beats can access Lil Wayne and have him surprise Nicki Minaj with a call live on-air. Ultimately Zane looks as content as he does because he seems ready to embrace the changes the industry, and internet radio in particular, is going through. The conventions are morphing, the norms recalibrating. Look, soon enough, eight seconds of silence might just be a regular part of an evening broadcast. We can’t rule anything out.You can find Tshepo on Twitter.Zane Lowe's show runs on Beats 1 from 5PM to 7PM, Mondays to Thursdays (and on-demand for Apple Music subscribers).