Olivia Rodrigo and her manager Kristen Smith reportedly split earlier this month. And while it's not the only high profile management change in recent history, it's certainly surprising given how quickly Rodrigo rose to the top over the past two years.
In fact, one year ago this week, Smith (who founded the management company Camp Far West) earned "Executive of the Week" honors from Billboard thanks to her work with Olivia Rodrigo. And that was before she released potentially the biggest album of the year.
While we don't know why the two split, we can talk about what they accomplished in such a short amount of time and what lessons other artists and managers might be able to take from it.
Olivia Rodrigo's Astronomical Growth
Simply put, Rodrigo had one of the best debuts of any artist in the modern era. Her album SOUR broke streaming records, was the longest-running No. 1 album by a female in 2021, and spawned several singles that entered the zeitgeist. Her debut single "Drivers License" broke Spotify's record for the most single-day streams by a non-holiday song and made Rodrigo the youngest artist to debut atop the Billboard Hot 100.
She made all of the major television appearances any artist could hope for. She garnered critical acclaim. She earned seven GRAMMY nominations for the upcoming awards, including a nomination in all four major categories. Oh, and she did all this at only 18 years old, making her one of the youngest artists to amass such success in such a short amount of time.
And while Rodrigo certainly had a coveted platform as an actress on Disney before going solo, her success far outpaces the average "springboard effect" we've seen with other Disney stars. Rodrigo's growth is like watching a team win the league championship in their first year of existence.
The Artist Is The Boss
In an August 2021 Yahoo article, Kristen Smith said she wanted Rodrigo to have as much autonomy over her career as possible. Smith signed Rodrigo to her roster in July 2019, and the pair inked a joint deal with Interscope Records and Geffen Records in 2020.
"Ultimately it was Olivia’s decision," Smith says of Rodrigo's label deal. "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."
Rodrigo credits Taylor Swift as a key inspiration, so it makes sense that people who work with the star say she has a very hands-on approach to not just her music, but also her style, aesthetic, fan interaction, and core business team. When an artist is this in touch with the direction of their own brand, they effectively serve as the CEO of their own company, whereas a manager may serve more like a COO — somebody in charge of making sure the pieces are all in place and moving in the direction the CEO dictates.
Music Management Is Eternally Fluid
Again, while we don't know the impetus for the split, it's safe to say few people saw it coming. On the outside looking in, it's a baffling decision considering the momentum the two generated together. But there's a lot nobody knows about the decision, too.
On the one hand, it may just be another example of how incredible volatile the entertainment industry is when it comes to "job security." On the other, it could be an amicable example of how easy it is to adjust your circumstances for the moment.
Either way, it's proof positive that you always need to be ready to pivot, whether you're just trying to get to your first $10,000 in revenue or you're making $10,000 a minute. In the case of an artist like Olivia Rodrigo, it's hard to say if Smith, or really anybody, predicted such success so quickly. In most cases, it's smart to be prepared for rapid growth and success — but to not expect it.
In these cases, it's important to also have clear documentation around the financial relationship. While Rodrigo and Smith almost certainly have attorneys around to dig through all of the questions around "what is owed to whom," even artists just starting out should consider the implications of their professional relationships and get the terms down on paper.
But don't take our word for it — just look at the frustrations and headaches around "handshake deals." It's always better safe than sorry, because a past music industry relationship is never guaranteed for the future.