The Big Interview: BBC Radio 6 Music's Lauren Laverne

The Big Interview: BBC Radio 6 Music's Lauren Laverne

Lauren Laverne is one of the UK’s most influential tastemakers, thanks to her role as 6 Music DJ and presenter of Glastonbury Festival and the Mercury Prize’s TV coverage. In light of the news that Laverne will be moving to the Breakfast Show, revisit her Music Week Big Interview from 2017...

For some presenters, stepping into the seething bearpit of competition that is the Music Week Awards in association with Amazon Music can be a daunting prospect. But for this year’s host (with the most, obviously), Lauren Laverne, it holds few fears.

“The music industry has been part of my life since I was a teenager,” she smiles as we talk ahead of both the music industry’s biggest night out and her stint at the 6 Music Festival in Glasgow (“Who doesn’t want to spend Mothering Sunday interviewing Depeche Mode?” she quips). Laverne, of course, first encountered the biz while in Britpop-era punkas Kenickie.

“I arrived from Sunderland into the open, gaping maw of London and the music industry, which were synonymous to me at the time,” she continues. “I was very fresh-faced, wide-eyed and green.

I thought that, when you got a record deal, it was like the opening titles to The Jetsons; you were put on a conveyor belt and robots came down and gave you the appropriate outfit and a guitar and, by the time you left the belt, you’d be ready to take to the stage.

I had high hopes for the music industry and, even though my journey took me in unexpected directions, I’ve not become cynical.”

Of course, a night at the Music Week Awards could change all that, but somehow we don’t think so. Ironically, it was your correspondent that was there to meet Laverne off that train at Kings Cross, when – in a previous life – I conducted Kenickie’s first NME interview.

Even then, it was clear Laverne was destined for great things and today, 20 years on, not much has changed; her quotes still sparkle with northern wit and George Orwell references and her passion for music still abounds, even if these days she’s enthusing about someone else’s tunes, rather than her own.

That makes her the perfect choice to host this week’s MWAs at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel and help celebrate a momentous year for the biz. But then, these days, wherever you find good music, Laverne is unlikely to be far away.

As well as her 6 Music show, which cheerfully champions leftfield sounds in an accessible way every weekday morning, and now has a reach in excess of one million listeners, she’s involved in presenting the television coverage of both Glastonbury Festival and the Mercury Prize (not to mention being co-founder of female-focused website The Pool). And now she basically gets to be in charge of the music biz for a few hours on Wednesday night…

“At last!” she beams. “I can’t bloody wait. It’s going to be great. Did you know the Grosvenor House room is the second biggest interior space in Europe?”

Er, no. What’s the biggest?

“I don’t know, but I’ve done gigs there before and it’s always good to have some facts in your back pocket in case there are technical issues…”

Before she does some additional research, however, it’s time to sit down with Music Week to talk 6 Music, streaming services and why Kenickie won’t be reforming any time soon…

Are you a fan of the music business?

The bottom line is, I’ve worked in all different sides of the music industry. I started out as a musician and then got into TV presenting followed by DJ-ing. The music industry has had a tricky time over the past couple of decades, but it’s interesting to see how people in other media are looking at the music industry to see how to survive and prosper in the digital age. You know, publishing has Bookshop Day now with coffee machines and in-stores and limited run editions. It’s lovely to see how the music industry is a test case for how to be adaptable and still get people’s work out there. So I feel very pleased to be part of the awards this year.

You were in a band in the ‘90s, when the business was at its commercial peak…

Absolutely. In those days – not us because we just signed the one record deal – but there were bands on the scene who were signed and dropped three times and each time they’d get a massive advance. Videos would cost 100 grand, again not for me, but that certainly wasn’t uncommon, because it was the video age and MTV was everything. That’s unimaginable now. It’s weird to look back and think about how it was back then.

Do you miss those days?

It’s changed so much, but it’s always interesting when someone releases a very old-school studio album and you hark back to the days when many bands could afford that huge studio experience to make their record. I guess there’s always a certain tier where people are still living that life, but most of the industry has had to move on. There’s an upside to that as well: you look at where British music is actually pushing things forward and making inroads – and that, fundamentally, is grime.

The British grime scene has come out of people making music in a very DIY way with what I would think of as a punk rock mentality. It’s exciting to see that going global and the Mercury Prize win for Skepta. There’s as much good music at every point in history, the industry changes around it but the ratio of really good stuff out there always stays the same. But it does change form and it’s really interesting to see how the changes in the music industry have changed the sound of the music that we listen to. There’s a lack of studios, venues, rehearsal space, all those spaces are closing down and being turned into flats. All that stuff feeds into changing the actual sound of the music that’s out there. You can also find clues about where we’re going next as a culture. Music is always at the forefront of that. The vanguard of the music scene is way ahead of the cultural conversation. Boy George was in everybody’s living room years before people were having the conversations we’re having now about sexuality and gender.

And I suppose at 6 Music you only really have to engage with the good stuff…

It is a ridiculously lucky position to be in, to be able to play a nine-minute Miles Davis track followed by four minutes of King Gizzard & The Wizard Lizard followed by Deee-Lite. We’re all so proud of the way the station’s been embraced by people and the music we get to champion.

It’s also pretty popular with the music business. What do you put that down to?

When I took over from George Lamb [in 2009], I was thinking, How do I want to pitch this? Quite early on I thought, If we make a show that musicians enjoy listening to, then I felt sure we’d take everyone else along with us. That seemed really obvious to me. It had to be good enough to broadcast to people who really knew their shit. And with 6, it’s been a case of holding the line [until] the technology’s rising tide has allowed people to access that. It’s so wonderful to see it having gone from nearly being taken off-air [in 2010] to being this small, but perfectly formed jewel in the crown.

When 6 Music was saved because of the listener protests, we literally owed them our existence

Lauren Laverne

When the station was potentially going to be closed it really galvanised everybody [into thinking]: What does this mean, why does this matter? And then, when we were saved because of the listener protests, we literally owed them our existence. Of course, every station owes their audience its existence, but we did in a very direct way. We’d met them! We had a very direct connection and it made everybody work very, very hard and think about why we’re doing what we’re doing. We’ve all got different music tastes and backgrounds, but it definitely changed the way that we approach what we did as a station and since then it’s just flown.

How different would your life have turned out if the campaign had failed?

Well, I was pregnant. Pregnant and losing your job is never good! It would have been such a shame, obviously for me personally, but also for the listeners and for the music industry as well. We’re an important link in that chain. As the industry has changed because of the digital revolution, each link has become very important. Everything’s evened out, we’re all supporting each other and you could argue that wasn’t the case in the past, things were more top down.

How conscious is the station of that influence?

In radio terms, the rule is an audience of one, so it’s always about the one person you’re speaking to. So you can’t sit there and think, I’m so massively influential, whose career shall I boost today? It should never be about that…

I suspect it might be for some radio DJs…

I’ve met a few of them! But that’s not how I do things, personally. You start with your ‘user’, as we’d say these days, and work back. That was good enough for George Orwell, who coined the phrase ‘audience of one’ in his essay Poetry And The Microphone, which is a must-read for all radio DJs. That’s always steered me right. I’ve learned more at 6 than anywhere else. It’s where I really found my feet and and understood what I was doing and why it matters to me. It’s wonderful to have people say 6 Music is influential and can help people’s careers, I’m very proud of that and grateful, but the thing that makes my job meaningful to me is that I’ve got a listener who’s maybe having a shit Tuesday morning, or a great Tuesday morning, and I’m there with them and part of their ordinary life and their routine. That’s the magical thing.

Is 6 Music as worried about competition from streaming services as some radio stations?

Well, listening hours are up, so there are more people listening and they’re also listening for longer. That’s good but we don’t take that for granted. What I feel is happening is the move from broadcasting to narrowcasting.

In the past, radio was like a blunderbuss; We’ll put a little bit of this and a little bit of that and that roughly keeps everyone happy. That’s fine if it’s a 1970s breakfast show. But now you’re looking at an audience that’s increasingly segmented.

People are looking for specificity and curation and in-depth knowledge and when it comes to 6, we do those things quite well. The deeper we go, the better the response is. People absolutely love it when we nerd out, dig into the crates and play something unusual and unexpected. It is esoteric and niche but I’d never want to present that in a way that wasn’t inclusive. Everybody’s welcome to listen, you don’t have to be an expert in Japanese disco to enjoy last week’s compilation of the week – and that’s what it was, Japanese disco – we’ll discover it together. As long as we keep doing that, we’ll be alright.

People are looking for specificity and curation and in-depth knowledge

Lauren Laverne

Streaming services would say they do that too...

Well, if you just want to generally check stuff out, a streaming service is a good place to do that. Whereas, when people want something more niche, they know they’re going to get that from us. We had a few of those moments over the past couple of years, with so many important and influential musicians dying. When Prince died, nobody could get Prince on Spotify. We were desperately trying to get all these records together and making it up as we went along. There’s a community thing to it, which is different. When you’re sitting listening to a streaming service – and I don’t have a problem with streaming services, they’re really useful and brilliant – but you don’t feel like you’re joining together with other people.

You present Glastonbury and the Mercury Prize – but why is there still not enough music on TV?

It’d be great if there was more. But I’ve been badgering people about that for about two decades now and nobody listens to me. It’s one of my hobbyhorses, it’s such a missed opportunity. The thing that I think is a shame is, we’re going to run out of archive. You look at the stuff on BBC4 and all of these fantastic shows using the archive of Top Of The Pops and whatever and I think, What happens when we get to 1999? Is everything going to be iPhone footage after that? The good thing is that all the distinctions between media are melting now. So at 6 we’re visualising/filming a lot of the sessions on my show now and that is all added to the archive. Some of the Maida Vale sessions we’ve done have been unbelievably popular. There’s an extraordinary appetite for that stuff so maybe it will fall to radio to plug that gap.

Do you make any money from Kenickie nowadays on streaming?

I don’t think so! The 20th anniversary has not been particularly good to me, inexplicably. I am still PRS registered and would make probably a very small amount, but it’s not a significant part of my income.

Have you been offered a fortune to reform?

No! I think we’re all happy not to reform, everybody’s doing very well. We’ve all had pretty good lives. Marie [Du Santiago] is working in arts and culture in the North East and Emma’s way over-qualified to do anything. She’s Dr Emmy-Kate Montrose these days.

Does it worry you that it’s much harder for bands to break through than when you were in a band?

It worries me that it’s so hard for musicians to make a living. You don’t have that demagogic music industry any more, that’s not how things work. It’s much more lateral, so it can be difficult for people to get a head of steam up. It’s a different looking pattern now and success looks different too. In the ‘80s, if you had a song on an album that did well, you probably got a little nest egg that would set you up for life. And that’s just unimaginable now. It’s so hard for musicians to make a living and get a mortgage now, all the boring things that actually allow you to make your music. That’s difficult but it’s also easier to get your music out there and the fact that people are very hands on with everything means a lot of stuff is fucking great, because it doesn’t have A&R men mucking about with it. I look at the weird, adventurous exciting music that’s being released, and people being increasingly inter-disciplinary and experimental, and that wouldn’t have happened with the old model either. You’ve got to be careful about being nostalgic and wishing things were the same as they used to be. There’s good and bad in it. It’s complicated. All the best things are.

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