For American audiences unfamiliar with the BBC DJ and presenter Annie Mac, it’s hard to find an appropriate comparison here. There is no U.S. equivalent of Mac, the new heir to Britain’s long legacy of using public airwaves to champion rising and meaningful music. Imagine if Terry Gross were an underground techno DJ, but had the reach and influence of Ryan Seacrest’s morning show.
On Saturday night in an artist trailer behind the Yuma Tent, Mac, 36, relaxed for a few minutes, having just flown in from Toronto for her night-closing set in Coachella’s underground tent. This was her first Coachella performance, but she was here in 2006 when Daft Punk performed its landmark set atop a giant pyramid — a pivotal moment for U.S. dance music.
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“I was here with three friends,” Mac said, “and we all had to turn to each other to ask, ‘Was that the best thing you had ever seen in your life too?"
Mac — a skilled live DJ and talent curator who hosted her own festival in Malta over Easter weekend — may not be a stage star on the level of Coachella peers like a Kaskade or an Axwell /\ Ingrosso.
But in global dance music circles, she’s more important: She decides when acts like those become stars. So her presence at Coachella (like that of her former BBC colleague Pete Tong, who played the same stage on Friday) is a rare instance of a pop music tastemaker who can hold an easily-distracted Coachella crowd in her own right.
It’s perhaps partly for this reason that the Dublin-born Mac is also the future of the BBC’s music programming. After the longtime DJ Zane Lowe left to join Apple, Mac took on his marquee weeknight general-interest music show in addition to her club-music-focused Friday night slot.
“This fest is so forward-looking,” she said. “In the U.K., festival culture is a rite of passage and a way of life, and Coachella is known there for having such an awareness of U.K. artists.”
It’s easy to see why they’d want her as the face of their musical identity: She’s young, female and sports a range of talents that span from interviews with global pop’s top artists to live sets in Coachella’s most progressive club music venue.
She’ll need all of those talents to keep her network’s imprimatur relevant to contemporary audiences. The idea of a government-funded terrestrial radio signal deciding musical taste — especially in a youth-centric genre like dance music — is a contrarian premise in 2015.
“The world of radio is so fascinating to me because it’s changing so quickly,” Mac said. “You’re not going to give a 12-year-old a radio for a present. There are so many other choices now. But it’s all in the ways people use it. At the BBC, there’s a luxury of not being at the whims of the commercial world. It’s a public investment and a public trust.”
That’s a radical departure from American pop music culture, where music was among the first arts to be devalued by the Internet and where the government can’t seem to invest in things as basic as bridges, let alone club music. Even the idea of artists making a living wage from their recordings attracts a certain degree of stateside contempt.
Mac may front an old institution, but the outlook it espouses is a transformative one in modern music culture. Maybe that’s an especially attractive concept for global music fans today, as lines between tastemaking and marketing grow ever blurrier.
Mac’s success as a touring act (as well as that of her peers in their respective influence) proves the BBC’s ever-rising credibility in young American dance music, but it’s also a needed corrective to what has historically been a profoundly male hierarchy in club music. Even at a festival as (generally) progressive as Coachella, there are only 26 female-fronted acts among the 191 playing the festival this year.
“And that’s pretty good, actually,” Mac said. “Especially at dance music festivals, you’re lucky if there’s more than one hand’s worth of female artists.”
One solution, she said, is not necessarily to have quotas or to “pick women off the street to come play your festival," just to fix the ratios. Instead, hiring more female talent buyers and media executives could offer a change of perspective on how a fest comes together — and a voice that would be more attuned to the kinds of talent that even well-meaning men might miss.
“If you have more women talent bookers, you’re going to have more women playing festivals,” Mac said. “It’s about equality, and women are just going to notice these things, whereas men perhaps haven’t always.”