The last of pop’s superstars?

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Over the past week, pop star Olivia Rodrigo has played four sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden, where about 20,000 people, mostly young women, transformed New York’s storied arena into a haze of glitter and Doc Martens each evening. 

It is more than three years since Rodrigo catapulted to fame with the smash hit “Drivers License”, a bellowing break-up ballad that topped the Billboard chart for eight consecutive weeks from January to the end of March in 2021. At only 17, she was the youngest solo artist in history to debut at number one. 

Critics lavished praise on Rodrigo’s Swiftian songwriting, while “Drivers License” quickly racked up billions of views on TikTok and other platforms, soundtracking much of 2021. She scrambled to write more, and released another three top-10 Billboard hits that year. Spotify executives said they had “never seen anything like this”. 

Three years on, there has not been another new music star to break out quite like Rodrigo has. For music executives, the dry stretch is a source of anxiety. “Olivia Rodrigo might be the last pop superstar,” a longtime music executive told the Financial Times recently.  

This is hyperbole. But it does appear that Rodrigo slipped into pop’s upper echelons just in the nick of time, before a wave of audience fragmentation reached its tipping point.

Industry executives say that today’s rising stars, who came of age in the streaming era, will probably never achieve the same levels of fame and success as the previous generation, when it was easier to hold people’s attention. Most of today’s big pop stars are ageing millennials. Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, the biggest forces in music, have both been at this for about 20 years.  

With modern technology, it’s easier than ever to make music from your bedroom. But it’s harder than ever to score a hit, and even harder to sustain that into a career, as music competes for attention with games, influencers and just about anything on the internet.

“There’s no doubt that superstars are getting smaller and will continue to get smaller,” said Midia analyst Mark Mulligan, who expected “some recalibration” among record labels as a result. This does not mean that there aren’t new, young musicians who are gaining followings. But it’s often on a smaller scale, with more niche fandoms finding their place online.

Consider Spotify’s global chart, which ranks the most listened-to tracks on the platform. In the top 20 this week there were a few well-known US stalwarts such as Ariana Grande and Beyoncé. But the list was also filled with musicians from across the globe: Chilean reggaeton acts FloyyMenor and Cris MJ, K-pop girl group Illit, Colombian singer Feid, and Mexican rapper Natanael Cano. 

This is not a bad thing. As listeners, by paying about $11 a month we’re able to choose whatever we want from about 100mn songs with a few taps on our phones. There are more collaborations and crossovers across traditional lines of genre and geography. 

But it is a problem if you’re in the business of star-making. The major record labels — Universal, Sony and Warner — earn money by taking a cut of revenue from streams and album sales from a stable of thousands of musicians. Having big stars gives labels better leverage in negotiating financial deals with the streaming platforms.

Universal Music, the industry leader that is valued at more than $50bn on the stock market, is home to Rodrigo, who signed with Universal’s Interscope Records in 2020. John Janick, the Interscope chief executive who also signed Billie Eilish, was recently given a big promotion by Universal chief Lucian Grainge, and now runs all Universal’s west coast labels. 

Executives cite the decline of radio as one of the biggest reasons for their recent dearth of star-making. In the US, streaming has all but decimated radio, which was one of the key levers used by record labels to influence which songs became popular. Without this gatekeeper, it’s harder for them to predict the next hit. 

There is one massive exception to all this: K-pop and J-Pop. In the world of Korean pop, superstardom is very much still in business. It is little surprise, then, that Universal recently struck a deal to distribute music from HYBE, the agency behind K-pop sensation BTS, for the next decade. Universal has been signing similar deals with pop labels from China and Nigeria in recent months. In doing so, the world’s largest music company is making an implicit bet: the next superstar could emerge far away from its California headquarters.

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