After a lightning-fast rise to superstardom that began in January with her “Drivers License” single, Olivia Rodrigo’s status as the breakthrough artist of 2021 seems all but assured.
Whenever an artist becomes a household name so quickly, in retrospect it seems like it was inevitable. But every such success story needs a strategy, infrastructure, more than a little luck — and most of all, a team. Rodrigo’s rise — read more about that in Variety‘s cover story — began long before her debut single dropped.
The 18-year-old “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” star first began gaining outsized attention with the show’s breakthrough hit “All I Want.” She caught the eye of Geffen Records before the pandemic, and officially signed with the Universal-distributed label later in 2020. However, Geffen waited until January 2021 to announce her signing, just days before “Drivers License” was released.
The success of the song exceeded her and the label’s wildest dreams. “Drivers License” reached No. 1 on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music streaming charts and broke the Spotify record for the most single-day streams for a non-holiday song with over 15 million globally. “Drivers License” also debuted atop the Billboard Hot 100, making Rodrigo the youngest solo artist to do so at just 17 years old. It stayed there for eight consecutive weeks.
But Rodrigo soon proved she is no one-hit wonder. A few months later, her debut album, “Sour,” marked the biggest opening week album sales of the year so far with 295,000 units. It debuted atop the Billboard albums chart and broke Spotify’s record for the biggest streaming debut by a female artist.
So who is the powerhouse team that has helped to bring her so far? It takes a village, but key players include manager Kristen Smith of Camp Far West, Interscope Geffen A&M EVP and co-head of A&R Sam Riback, Geffen Records EVP Nicole Bilzerian, IGA senior director of digital marketing Kirsten Stubbs, IGA EVP and head of visual creative Michelle An, video producer Christiana Divona and senior director of creative content Marissa Ramirez. But across the board, one sentiment is is unanimous: As Smith says, “Olivia’s the boss.”
Smith, who founded Camp Far West in July 2019 and signed Rodrigo soon after, wanted the singer to have as much autonomy over her career as possible — especially when choosing a label.
“Ultimately it was Olivia’s decision,” Smith says of signing with Geffen. “But it was apparent that they recognized Olivia as a songwriter, and saw the full capacity of what she was capable of, beyond just what she is on paper. You can take the things on paper at face value or you can really look at the individual in front of you, and I think Geffen did a really good job of that.”
Riback says Rodrigo’s songwriting was what drew him in. “What impressed me was the storytelling and the economy of words that she used in her songwriting, where it was giving you such a vivid picture of what she was trying to portray in each song,” Riback says. “I was really impressed with how she was able to get across those things so you could not only hear them, but visualize the whole picture she was trying to paint.”
Visuals themselves were also a huge part of the rollout for “Drivers License” and “Sour.” Despite the album’s title, the color palette of its accompanying art had a sweet nature, with a bright purple backdrop and featuring Rodrigo with her face (and tongue) decorated with a rainbow of stickers.
“Olivia knew exactly what she wanted to do for the cover art and ‘Sour’ photoshoot,” says An, IGA’s EVP and head of visual creative. “Olivia provided direction on the set-ups she wanted, which included a bedroom and party gone wrong. It was important to her we got the mood of ‘Sour’ right, including a color palette we stuck with. For the album packaging, Olivia was going for a ‘zine’ feel. Olivia wrote out all the song lyrics, picked each of the stickers and photos, and each element was individually ripped, cut, laid out and finally scanned for a true DIY feel.”
A key factor that Rodrigo’s team recognized early on was her relatability to other teenage girls. Luckily, with the singer’s heavy involvement in the planning process surrounding the campaign, they were able to communicate that in not just her songs, but music videos, social media posts and events.
“She was the mastermind behind the final output,” IGA’s Stubbs, senior director of digital marketing, says. “She personally approved every aspect of the campaign. Everything was planned with the utmost precision and collaboration, but because Olivia’s ideas were so unique and authentic to her, I think the campaign came off as incredibly genuine and relatable.”
That same philosophy also trickled into Rodrigo’s social media engagement with her fans, which included quite a few Easter eggs along the way. For example, Rodrigo gave a hint to the release date for her third single, “Good 4 U,” in an Instagram photo that featured a locker combination twisted to “5/14.” Stubbs believes that that type of social media interaction was integral to Rodrigo’s growing fanbase, especially amid a pandemic.
“Gen Z is jaded by advertising and marketing: they’re looking for connection. There is nothing better as a music fan than feeling like you have a unique connection with your favorite artist,” Stubbs says. “We brainstormed ways to make all her fans feel like they were insiders by sending them secret messages from Olivia that the general public might miss. The ‘Sour’ earrings in the ‘Drivers License’ video, the ‘Good 4 U’ ice cream truck in the ‘Deja Vu’ video and the ‘Good 4 U’ release date in the locker combination in Olivia’s Instagram photo are the best known examples, but there are many others.”
Rodrigo did get to have real-life interaction with her fans, however, in the lead-up to her “Sour Prom” virtual concert that took place on June 29. Though the event was livestreamed, Rodrigo made sure that a few of her biggest fans got to attend the small in-person celebration dressed to the nines.
“Big moments like Olivia surprising fans in-person to invite them to Prom with handmade signs and flowers and partnering with Sherri Hill to provide them with dresses, down to small details like Strawberry flavored popcorn at the event — a nod to her ‘Deja Vu’ lyrics — made it stand out from the rest,” Bilzerian says.
For manager Smith, Rodrigo — who is her only client — “sets the bar very high with the music she makes,” and it’s up to her team to match that energy in their strategy.
“I am very adamant with the team across label and everything, [that] we have to not meet — but exceed — that bar,” Smith says. “She sets it with the music she makes, and we need to set it up to succeed and support it.”
But the most important thing for Smith has been that Rodrigo is surrounded by those who actually care about her as a person, as well as her songwriting and vision — and she feels they have found that at Geffen and IGA.
“I’m really proud of the team that we’ve built and the people that make up that team really keep things grounded. I think that’s really important, is who is around her and who she’s spending time with in that professional setting,” Smith says. “We’re really fortunate to be working with some incredible people, where we all care about each other on a human level.”
After all, in the age of social media — and therefore 24/7 access to artists — it’s authenticity that sells.
“Olivia is a force,” An says. “The rollout of ‘Sour’ moved so quickly and Olivia tackled each shoot, performance, promo event with so much purpose. She took the time to understand what was being asked of her and then ensured creatively it made sense for her vision. She would thoughtfully mold everything she did so it was obvious Olivia — and only Olivia — just did that. She has a long future ahead of her.”