Crystal Lowe Makes Music Magic As Pandora’s Head Of Rock
Rocking out is a professional standard for the woman behind this Pandora channel.
In Elite Daily's I Have The Job You Want series, we tell the stories of people working in the most ridiculous, unbelievable, and totally envy-inducing fields you never thought possible. In this piece, we talk to the woman behind your favorite rock channels on Pandora Radio.
"Music has always been absolutely everything to me,” says Crystal Lowe. That’s never changed. But as a punk rock-loving teenager who regularly combed through Cleveland’s Coconuts Records store for angry Riot Grrrl mainstays like Bratmobile and Bikini Kill, Lowe had no idea that one day she'd be rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest names in rock and indie. Now 39, the head of rock music programming for Pandora sums up what she does for a living in three words: create music magic.
“There's something just so universal and special about music, and the power it has over human beings is indescribable. It's a mood booster, it's a therapist," she says. "Music is so much a part of who we are as humans, and to wake up every day and just immerse myself in music, create experiences for people to listen to is just..." She pauses, and laughs. "I feel like any day someone's going to wake me up and say it all has been a dream."
Not only does the Nashville, Tennessee-based music lover get paid to travel to festivals, hang out with artists, and go to shows, but Lowe also spends her days listening to music, discovering new artists, and curating a unique audio experience for listeners. “Honestly, there is no typical day,” she says. ”It's such a dynamic industry and things change constantly, so you have to always be ready to shift and change at any time.”
[Creating a playlist is] about creating an emotion for someone else.
Particularly in the past year, Lowe says, she’s learned that flexibility is a huge part of her job. Zoom meetings are the new norm as Lowe regularly interacts with record labels, plans weekly programming placements, and tries to think about her products from a "tech" point of view. That means considering the entire look of her product as a whole rather than just the sound.
"It's important to be tech savvy because Pandora is a tech company," she explains. "For every digital service provider, there is a significant amount of technology and theory that goes behind that. Everything that I put out there, I feel like I put my name behind it. So I want the look, the sound, and the feel to be exactly my vision."
While it might be her reality now, Lowe admits that as a college student, she thought working in the music industry wasn’t an achievable goal. “My parents were very, ‘Go to college. Get a real, respectable job. Be a lawyer, be a doctor.’” she says. Her first plan, she says, was to earn a degree in clinical psychology, but it wasn’t until she started doing peer counseling that she realized she’d been studying to do something she didn’t enjoy.
So, when the opportunity to intern at now-defunct punk rock publication AMP Magazine came up, she jumped at the chance.
"It was a dream come true, especially as someone who spent the majority of her time listening to music and going to record shops," she says. "From that moment on, I was hungry to be in the music industry." The publication let her “run with things,” as she puts it — Lowe interviewed bands, had articles published, and wrote album reviews during her time as an intern.
Lowe went on to take on a full time role at AMP, then a job as a global music curator at Rdio. When Rdio was acquired by Pandora in 2015, she began working at the music streaming giant.
There were some growing pains, as Lowe admits she originally felt like an "imposter" in her role when she started at Pandora almost five and a half years ago. "It was so hard for me,” she says. “All of these people that I work with are incredibly intelligent, incredibly forward thinking, and I felt like I had to work day and night to catch up."
Even now, Lowe says dealing with the constant pressure to level up is a given with her role and the competitive industry she works in. "I can never relax. I always have to be looking for the next music experience, the next artist, [thinking], How is this [visual imagery] going to look? How is this all going to sound?’" she says. "It's an incredibly competitive industry, and there's always someone who wants your job."
Getting innovative with discovering new music includes finding it in unlikely places (Lowe admits she's a fan of Shazam-ing songs at the grocery store) in addition to turning to social media channels like TikTok or YouTube for inspiration.
"Creating a station or playlist is more than just putting songs together," she explains. "It's more about creating an emotion for someone else, and making it sound good with each song leading sonically into the other."
To try to avoid burnout (although she admits it happens to the best of us), Lowe's daily routine involves taking it back to her roots as a music lover. She makes a point to wake up ahead of her family every morning to get some alone time with her headphones.
"I really find this helps me experience music like the typical listener would, and it really helps to inspire me so I can think and brainstorm about creating new listener experiences," she says.
While the 39-year-old admits she's an "introvert and pretty shy," she says the coolest thing she's done to this day is co-host Pandora's South by Southwest podcast with Phonte Coleman and provide commentary on some of the sets. "I was on live, live streaming with no notes, just talking off the cuff, and it was just exhilarating," she says. "I had never been able to do something like that before, and I never thought I would."
I want to reach out to artists I idolize and be able to talk to them.
That doesn't mean it's been all smooth sailing. Like many around the world, Lowe's reality at work changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. It struck just as she was due to come back from maternity leave. Suddenly stuck at home, the music curator says it was a rough transition going from traveling around the world and going to live shows to taking meetings with bands on Zoom.
"I was already missing my coworkers dearly and ready to get back in the office, traveling to festivals, talking to artists, and going to shows,” she says. “Something people don't talk about is that, while parenthood is extremely magical, in the beginning it's also very isolating. It was really hard to get back into the swing of things."
A year later, though, Lowe says she's rediscovered her groove and found some silver linings to the whole Zoom meeting culture. "I used to spend so much time traveling and going to festivals, and now I have Zoom meetings with artists where I get one-on-one time and a chance to hear their stories and experience music with them, which has been so cool," she says.
Going forward, Lowe hopes to continue working on Pandora's "guest DJ" style experience (some artists who've appeared include the Foo Fighters, Alice Cooper, and Kings of Leon) as well as getting back positive feedback from listeners.
"I want to reach out to artists I idolize and be able to talk to them, and create programs I'm proud of," she says. "Sometimes people reach out and are like, 'I love that station' or 'I love that playlist.' I just want that to keep happening."
Lowe's advice for others wanting to get into the music curation industry is clear: don't get discouraged, and network as much as you can.
"I really attribute so much of my career to making connections and busting my butt," she says. "You just can't get comfortable. You need to be leveling up because there's always someone who wants your job. And remember,” she adds, “that setbacks can sometimes lead you to where you need to be."