Can video help this radio star revive Britain’s struggling music industry?
On Radio 1 and MTV, Zane Lowe is music’s key rainmaker. You can’t curb this Kiwi’s enthusiasm, says Ian Burrell
Monday 13 July 2009
Zane Lowe is on the toes of his chequered Vans skater shoes, bouncing between a hanging microphone, an Apple Mac laptop loaded with new music, his Pioneer CDJ decks and a “cart wall” screen, which offers sound effects from emergency sirens to bawling babies.
In a studio deep in the basement of Radio 1, Lowe’s every move is being filmed by no less than six television cameras, three of which stand robotically in corners of the room, looking like black bowling balls on poles.
This could be the future of radio, a visual medium. “Its radio with pictures, see us in the studio at bbc.co.uk forward slash radio…” shouts the hyper-energetic Lowe to his listeners. In a cupboard of a space nearby, James Cullen, a BBC cameraman more used to working on EastEnders and Blue Peter, is selecting shots, switching from camera to camera on a device called a Sony Anycast. “I can press camera three and zoom in on the microphone,” he says. “That’s my close-up shot.” In the adjoining room, two BBC “sound content producers” are uploading a stream of texted and emailed comments, and posting pictures and biographical information on the artists whose music Lowe is playing.
There is an atmosphere of high anticipation. “Big night for us tonight,” the presenter tells his audience. “At 7.30 on the dot…the hottest record in the world…it’s the return of the Arctic Monkeys. Shout out to all the Arctic Monkeys message boards, all the forums, all the fans listening…”
For days, the BBC publicity machine has been busy online, feeding the excitement around Lowe’s exclusive debut airing of the Sheffield band’s new single “Crying Lightning”. Such is the response – a torrent of electronic enthusiasm begins almost before the track has started – that Lowe reloads and plays the tune twice in its entirety (surely a sackable offence in the old days of Radio 1).
The New Zealand-born presenter occupies a position of key importance in the music industry, which is why he has been chosen to launch the Monkeys’ comeback record, as well as, later the same week, new releases from Biffy Clyro, The Cribs and Jet. The previous week he was hanging out with Muse in Italy, swimming in Lake Como, going into the recording studio and being allowed to listen to the band’s unreleased album The Resistance.
He is pivotal to Radio 1, the bridge in the schedule between the daytime and specialist output, somehow incorporating a spectrum of music ranging from pulsating rock to electronica and grime, and liberally deploying reverb to blend this smorgasbord of genres into something resembling a seamless mixtape.
This is why Lowe, 35, was chosen, along with breakfast show presenter Chris Moyles, to pilot the Radio 1 visual adventure (also being conducted on Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live). He was far from convinced by the idea. And that’s in spite of his considerable television experience, a presenter of the MTV show Gonzo for the past seven years.
“I like the idea of mystery in radio, and I took a bit of convincing on this TV thing,” he says. “I’m trying to not be too conscious of the cameras. Every now and then you might throw a shape or do something to acknowledge that it’s there, but I try not to.”
But he can see the potential. There will be ways, he believes, of representing on-screen the frantic pace of The Zane Lowe Show, perhaps by introducing “a foot pedal strobe I hit at a point that makes it look cool; different camera grains; adjusting the light; using a fisheye lens; doing things more graphically,” he suggests. “I just want to do things a little more different.”
Lowe was on BBC television as a presenter of the Glastonbury festival coverage. The following Wednesday he flew to Italy to be with Muse before, the next evening, heading to Ibiza to DJ at the super club Eden where, on weekends during the summer, he tailors his music for a dance-orientated audience.
To cynics, especially those with a determinedly narrow musical outlook, Lowe is infuriatingly diverse, bestowing universal praise across diametrically opposed genres. “Some people can’t understand that I’m excited about all music we play,” he says, drinking a beer at a roadside picnic table outside a London pub after the show. “They think I’m following some sort of party line. It’s not that at all, it’s just that we choose the records we play on the show and I wouldn’t play a record that I can’t find some excitement in.”
He decided to play the Arctic Monkeys a second time when it was midway through the first play. He is unashamed of such enthusiasm. “I love to shout about music, which is pretty evident when you listen to the show, and I love to give records a platform to excite people because I believe music is a massive priority in people’s lives.”
A thinker who later switches the subject of conversation to politics and economics, Lowe understands how the fracturing of the music industry has driven many people towards alternative leisure pursuits.
“Whether it’s through age, maturity or what’s been happening with the internet, music has lost its magic for some people; that magic time when you are at a certain age, hanging out with your friends and getting your independence,” says Lowe, a devoted father to two young sons. “People retain an enthusiasm for sport, for cooking and other things. I’m trying to reach those people.” His remit is to hit the Radio 1, 16-24 demographic, and he does that too, remaining current with the help of a daily feature “Fresh Meat”, where listeners rate up-and-coming bands.
His sense of vocation was evident from the moment he abandoned his communications degree to join Max TV, a pioneering music television project in New Zealand, emulating his father, who once launched an Antipodean pirate radio ship.
Later this year he will take his own DJ show on a tour of major British clubs. “That’s the performer in me,” says Lowe, a member of a hip hop act that has made two albums. When I spoke to him six years ago, just after he began at Radio 1, Lowe was championing Dizzee Rascal and he listened with pride as the east London rapper won over Glastonbury last month. “He’s almost become the UK’s most beloved new pop star, loved by different generations who just love his music,” he says.
Such loyalty has won him the trust of artists such as Arctic Monkeys singer Alex Turner, an interviewee on that night’s show, and Brandon Flowers, frontman for The Killers, who features the next evening. This is where Lowe sees his future, as a trusted authority – “a valid and authentic recommender” – in a world increasingly devoid of record shops and record labels.
A star in Britain, he hopes the internet will spread his insight internationally. Twitter, on which 18,000 follow him, may help, as might his newly televised online radio show. The music business could do with the support. “People say they don’t make records like they used to,” he says. “I’m trying to say, ‘Well, actually they do’.”
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