Olivia Rodrigo performs during the BRIT Awards 2021 in London on May 11.
Olivia Rodrigo performs during the BRIT Awards 2021 in London on May 11. JMEnternational for BRIT Awards/Getty Images

Olivia Rodrigo Has Rewritten the Playbook for Pop Stardom

Olivia Rodrigo wasn’t supposed to release an album this year.

The 18-year-old singer, songwriter and actress had planned to start her recording career with an extended-play release, a short selection of songs that would sample her talents. It’s a tried-and-true strategy for young musicians, who often don’t have a full album of material ready to go.

Then she released her first single. “Driver’s License,” a bildungsroman of heartbreak and teen angst, set a one-day record on Spotify with more than 15 million streams on Jan. 11. It reached 17 million the next day and became the fastest song to surpass 100 million streams.

On the next call with her manager and record label, Rodrigo said she wanted to record a full album, following in the footsteps of idols such as Taylor Swift. Rodrigo would have to record seven more songs in just a couple months, all while shooting a TV show in Salt Lake City and finishing her senior year of high school. She was undeterred.

“Sour” scored the biggest debut of any album this year, and Rodrigo is now the biggest musician in the world, according to Bloomberg’s Pop Star Power Rankings. She was the top act on Spotify last month, as well as one of the 20 most-popular acts on both Instagram and YouTube.

“It’s one of the biggest records out of the gate ever,” said John Janick, the head of her label, Universal Music Group’s Interscope Geffen A&M Records. “Sometimes you sign artists and you think they are great, but it takes time. There is every so often someone who comes and sits, and you know this person is special.”

Janick signed Rodrigo about a year ago after a months-long courtship and bidding war. Executives at Interscope first met her in person before the pandemic and were immediately drawn to her songwriting.

Actresses have a poor track record trying to make it as singers, but Janick could tell Rodrigo was special. She had already recorded a few songs for Disney’s “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” and just needed some people to help realize her vision for her own work.

After signing Rodrigo, Interscope’s artist and repertoire team introduced her to potential collaborators. She found a kindred creative spirit in Dan Nigro, who has written and produced songs for Kyle Minogue, Carly Rae Jepsen and Caroline Polachek. Nigro and Rodrigo collaborated on all 11 songs on “Sour.”

Janick first heard “Driver’s License” in late 2020 and knew it was a hit. He thought the song would build over time, laying the groundwork for a slow ramp-up in Rodrigo’s popularity. Even musicians who seemed to explode out of nowhere, like Billie Eilish or Dua Lipa, had in fact toiled for years. Both Eilish and Lipa released an EP and toured twice before their breakout records. Ariana Grande’s first No. 1 song was her 25th single.

“Usually it’s years,” Janick said. But the internet has accelerated things. All three of Rodrigo’s debut singles, “Driver’s License,” “good 4 u” and “déjà vu,” reached the top 10. She appeared on “Saturday Night Live” in May before even releasing a full album. Janick, 43, can’t remember the last act to break through at such a high level so quickly.

Also abnormal: her music is popular all around the world. Her top markets on YouTube include the standard quartet of U.S, U.K., Canada and Australia, but also Mexico and the Philippines. She has songs in the top 10 in more than a dozen countries on Spotify.

Rodrigo’s team has begun to outline plans for her next 24 months, including additional music videos, a tour and a video performance for the internet. “The lifecycle of this album and her career will be even more impressive,” Janick said.