Zane Lowe believes in Billie Eilish.
The influential Apple Music exec first became aware of the 17-year-old pop prodigy a few months after he joined Apple in mid-2015, following his 12 years as a tastemaker at BBC Radio 1.
Eilish signed to UK-based A&R company Platoon in early 2016, before going on to ink a deal with Interscope later that year. Lowe has proven to be a key champion of Eilish – and her brother/co-writer, Finneas O’Connell – ever since, backing the artist’s Lovely as his ‘World Record’ back in April 2018, and playing a central role in her significant presence on Beats 1.
Lowe says that Eilish’s debut album, When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, released next week, could mark a watershed moment for Apple Music’s determination to encourage its audiences to care about artist propositions, rather than just tracks. (The LP could also tell us much about the album itself in the streaming age.)
Here, MBW catches up with Lowe to ask him what he believes makes Apple Music different to its rivals – and why he’s such a fan of an artist who many are already tipping as the alt-pop voice of her generation…
When did Billie Eilish first come into your world?
Early days, back when we were trying to work out where the exciting new artists were because it felt disingenuous to just start [Beats 1] off the back of big established relationships.
Chris [Hovsepian] and J.J. [Corsini] who still work with me at Apple Music, said, ‘You have to hear this artist.’ We were all blown away. I didn’t know anything abut her, or about Finneas. Then Denzyl [Feigelson] from Platoon brought her into Apple and was like, ‘This is Billie – this is who you’ve been playing.’
“We were all blown away.”
You’re immediately struck by, yes, of course, the fact she’s so young, but also that she has this amazing natural charisma. It didn’t feel like she was kind of being pushed into any room or being painted a certain way. She is entirely authentic.
This [album launch] is what it’s all been working towards; it’s incredible to watch an artist like Billie Eilish enter this zeitgeist moment.
One thing that’s often levelled at the streaming services is the difficulty of making music fans care beyond a track – to make audiences invest in an artist’s personality, their character. How has Apple helped create an environment for Billie Eilish where that’s possible?
Well the artist, first and foremost, has to create an environment which offers a 360 degree creative experience for fans before we even think about how to collaborate with that [and] help them build their story.
An artist like Billie Eilish thinks in sounds, she thinks in colors, she thinks in visuals, she thinks in collaborations, she thinks in all kinds of different forms of creativity. When you’re dealing with an artist like that, it opens all these other areas that you can help build things around.
“I don’t ever want to look back on my time in the streaming era and think, ‘Yeah man, great job at just building a utility.’”
With Billie, there’s color everywhere, this attitude and it’s like, ‘Wow, this is really interesting.’ At Apple, because of where we’ve all come from, we understand streaming, but [we’re thinking], ‘How can we make a streaming service that is deeper and more layered and speaks to the aspects of music we grew up loving?’
I don’t ever want to look back on my time in the streaming era and think, ‘Yeah man, great job at just building a utility.’
Functionality is so important; [a service] needs to work and it needs to be intuitive. But there should 100% be room for creative discovery and it should be 100% driven by the artists, or at least in collaboration with artists.
Tim Cook said it last year that Apple Music is now the biggest subscription streaming service in North America. Do you feel you’re at a point of scale where your ‘media’, like Beats 1, can cut through and make a real difference in artist careers?
Yes, I do. Importantly, it’s making a difference for the fans in terms of feeling like this is a deeper and more valuable experience, but we’re also just getting started. From my point of view, this has all been about connecting the artist to the fan or vice versa, and trying to be a trusted conduit for that. You have to gain that trust for it to work.
One of the best things we’ve done at Apple Music is dedicate ourselves to the artists, and given them space. We say: ‘We’re not going to tell you what to do. We’re not going to put you in a time slot. We’re not going to ask you to jump through hoops for your record to be played. We’re not going to ask you to play these events otherwise we’re not going to support you. We’re not going to do anything that feel like a trade.’
Part of the reason why we’re reaching so many people – and we are the largest growing service right now – is because fans are recognizing that the artists trust us. So [fans] are like, ‘Okay, I’ll go where the artists go.’ Because isn’t that what’s always happened? The artist is the north star for it all.
You say music fans are learning what differentiates Apple Music and Beats 1 from other services. Can you extrapolate on that?
I can only speak to our ambitions, but we are very much in the storytelling business. We’re in the streaming business and the storytelling business, and the magic place is when those two things come together.
When I go onto Apple Music I’m searching for more. I want us to be a place where music has so many other different elements surrounding it, to give it that creative context. I just don’t want to be in a place where it’s just shifting one song around to left, right, up, down everything else. You know what I mean?
There has to be room in streaming for the romance of music to come along for the ride. That’s why we all got into this business in the first place.
At Radio 1 you won a reputation for gaining a trusted early relationship with artists – so when they became big, they would bring you exclusives because of that personal connection. Is that still happening now?
Yes, and I hope it continues. If you’re an artist today, you have so many options to [choose] to generate excitement around what you do. I’m for all of them; go and be as successful as you can be.
I just want to listen to artists; I’m really into those relationships. Someone sends me a song, I listen to it, I’m blown away by it. Where does this person live? They’re in LA for a couple of weeks. Can we meet? Absolutely. We go have a bite to eat or a coffee. We get to know each other.
And then it’s like, I’m thinking about putting out some new music. They send it to us, not because we’re trading, just because you’ve started a relationship and there’s a trust building. So when we do play the record, we’re more invested, and they trust us more.
“Along comes Billie Eilish, and you’re going, wow, enjoy this moment because these things don’t happen like this with this level of intensity that often.”
When we first met Billie Eilish, we were fans. I didn’t meet her and go, ‘Great, let’s go down to the studio and you could record a whole bunch of [Apple Music promo lines].’ It was like, ‘Wow, your music’s amazing. Oh, is this your brother? He makes it with you. Wow. You’re both incredible.’
I just want artists to win; I love watching them grow and become successful. And I’m not sitting there going, I did that, or we did that. I’m just sitting there going, they did that – and I’m really grateful to be a part of that process.
And just when you think you’ve seen it all, along comes Billie Eilish, and you’re going, wow, enjoy this moment because these things don’t happen like this with this level of intensity that often.
What happened after Billie left Platoon and signed with Interscope in late 2016?
Nothing really changed and that’s the best compliment I can give to Interscope from our point of view. They completely respected the fact that we were there too. It wasn’t like, ‘We’ve got this now, we’ll take it from here.’ It was like, ‘We know you guys have an existing relationship with this music. We know that it’s coming from a really trusted place. Let’s build.’
We do what we do because we all love being a part of the process, right? You want to be in the conversation; you want to go deeper than just getting the records. It’s exactly the same for the label. If John Janick (pictured inset) wasn’t in music, he would still be a huge fan of it, but the fact is, he’s deep in it – he’s involved in making records because he loves the process so much.
Interscope and a lot of our label [friends] recognize that streaming is a true partnership. Their streams are our streams and our streams are their streams.
So it’s like, ‘Okay, let’s work together.’ Whereas before [in radio], sometimes it felt like, ‘Here’s the record, go for it.’ Now it’s like, ‘A record is coming – what can we do together?’
Last question: What’s making Billie Eilish stand out to this degree amongst this many people? Why does a teenage audience care about her so much?
She has an ability to speak to her vulnerability in a way that [represents it] at its most creative. She has a way of painting pictures that is universal – I can see them, but I’m blown away by how she paints them.
And it’s just the authenticity. Think about all the artists that have had these moments, right? Like Nirvana, entirely authentic to themselves. Eminem, entirely truthful and authentic to his story. Beyonce, 100%, Jay Z, same thing. Arctic Monkeys, ‘You’re not from New York City. You’re from Rotherham.’ Same again.
“‘My boy’s an ugly crier, but he’s such a pretty liar.’ That’s a knock-you-down lyric!”
You take that authenticity, mix it up with truth, be unafraid, and then you’ve got to have that magic to make it even more compelling. Like, ‘My boy’s an ugly crier, but he’s such a pretty liar.’ That’s a knock-you-down lyric!
I also really think Billie Eilish has tapped into some of that isolation, that social anxiety, that global anxiety, going on right now, and the way that it affects your outlook in life. Her lyrics and the ideas are so dialled in and so creative and so brilliant, but she’s also still a teenager and she’s not trying to be anything she’s not.
That’s the answer to your question: she’s 100% not trying to be anything that she’s not.Music Business Worldwide