Dua Lipa has, without question, emerged as one of 2020’s biggest superstars. And Wendy Ong, US President at management company and label Tap Music, has been a key figure behind her success throughout the year.
In March, Lipa flipped the ‘tricky second album’ curse on its head with what’s since become a lockdown soundtrack, the Warner-released Future Nostalgia, hitting No.1 in the UK and No.4 in the US, going on to sell 2.6m albums worldwide and racking up 6bn streams.
In November, Lipa’s record-breaking Studio 2054 livestream extravaganza, which featured guest appearances from the likes of Elton John and Kylie Minogue, sold 280k+ tickets worldwide and reached over 5m viewers.
Lipa has five nominations for the 2021 Grammys for Album of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Album, and Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Pop Solo Performance for Future Nostalgia‘s lead single, Don’t Start Now.
Lipa’s success is down to her talent and music, of course, but also strong visuals and a robust marketing plan that Ong – who brings vast experience working with the likes of Jay-Z, P Diddy, Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey, Rihanna and OutKast – spearheaded.
Ong joined Tap in 2018, which was her second venture into management following a stint overseeing the management roster and label as CMO at Roc Nation, where her first project was Jay-Z’s 4:44 album in 2017.
Prior to that, Ong held senior marketing positions at a host of labels including Interscope, Capitol, EMI, RCA/Jive, Arista, and BMG, which is where she started her career, based in Hong Kong. During that time, Ong has also worked with Pink, The Strokes and Foo Fighters, and played a major role in breaking Sam Smith in the US.
In addition to her career in commercial music, Ong was previously Head of Classical at EMI and before that, worked in marketing for the Metropolitan Opera. Today at Tap, Ong also works with Ellie Goulding, Lana Del Rey, Hailee Steinfeld and Dermot Kennedy.
It was at Roc Nation that Ong realised management is where her heart lies. “When you’re working at a label, you have to stay in your lane. The lanes are very clear because people get really upset if you step on to their path. In management, there’s none of that bullshit,” she says.
“We’re all in this together and we’re a much smaller team so you get to do everything. I found that to be exhilarating.”
“[In record labels] the lanes are very clear… people get really upset if you step on to their path. In management, there’s none of that bullshit.”
At Tap, Ong says this all-encompassing approach to management has continued. “The way we work is to be able to do everything as much as possible and put it on a silver platter and hand it to the label and say, ‘Here you go, now you can pay for it,'” she explains.
This week, Ong was interviewed as a part of the EMMA Seminar Day 2020, organized by the European Music Managers Alliance.
Read on for the highlights, where Ong discusses experiencing imposter syndrome, dealing with failure, working with Lipa, and her top tips for successful music management…
How did you find your way into the music industry and why did you decide to pursue a career in music?
I grew up in Malaysia and Singapore and my parents are massive music fans. It was always a very loud and lively household but a tiny one — I shared a room with my brother and my two sisters.
So there was a major incentive for me to get school [finished] so that I could figure out how to have some sort of privacy, given that I had none at home.
Being really honest, I hated school. I ended up going to a polytechnic [for college], which is more of a technical school. That’s when the possibilities opened up — apart from me just loving music and wanting to work in music, I had no idea what that would look like, all I knew was I didn’t want to be on stage.
The polytechnic in Singapore had a student-run radio station, which was a really big deal at that time, and I worked on it. One of my jobs was to go and visit the record companies and get the week’s round-up of music. That’s how I began to build relationships in the business. Before I graduated, I was offered a job at the old BMG — I graduated on a Friday and on Monday, I started work as a marketing assistant.
What were you working on at BMG and what did you learn from your time there?
My role was to work on jazz, new age music and build soundtracks. It was a good thing that I started out my career working on genres that were not really pop because as I worked in different cities, different labels and different countries, I became much more flexible, whether or not I was working on music that I myself was passionate about or knew about. I think having that mental flexibility was very helpful to me being more of a chameleon.
When I look at my peers that I came up with in the music industry, a lot of them are still at the same companies and there’s nothing wrong with that — it’s about what’s safe and what feels secure, but I don’t think I had those feelings. In my experience, I always felt that I had to hustle, I had to always be on my toes and try to figure out what was next — I didn’t have that luxury of just sitting back and settling in. I never felt secure enough.
I experienced a lot of imposter syndrome, especially when I moved first from Singapore to Hong Kong, and then when I moved to America, and even when I got my foot in the door, it was still very intimidating. To this day, I still retain a lot of that insecurity, which could be a good or a bad thing because I don’t ever sit on my laurels. I’ll always be like, ‘Do I really know what I’m talking about?’ I feel less of an imposter now than I did before and that’s really down to experience and working with lots of different artists and companies.
Where do you think that imposter syndrome comes from?
I definitely felt it a lot when I first moved to America because there were so many reasons why I shouldn’t be successful — not being American, not being a man, and then being a minority.
My first job in New York was to do international marketing for hip-hop and I was tasked with working with Puff Daddy, as he was known then, and the Bad Boy Records catalog. Growing up in Singapore, a lot of hip hop and rap was actually banned so I didn’t grow up with that culture.
“there were so many reasons why I shouldn’t be successful — not being American, not being a man, and then being a minority.”
But I think it’s important to really immerse yourself in it and that’s what I did. I had to pretend that I knew what I was doing. I’d never been to Europe before or the UK, and within two weeks of starting the job, I found myself in Paris with Puff and his whole entourage with no clue what was going on. But if I let on that I was completely flummoxed as to what was happening, I don’t think they would have had confidence in me.
What advice would you give to someone who is experiencing imposter syndrome?
My advice is not to feel like you have to take the lead and be seen as somebody who is successful all the time. I don’t think it’s always important to be a leader, sometimes it’s important to be a follower.
During your time working in marketing at record labels, what were your biggest lessons learned, both about developing and working with artists, as well as how you personally operate in the music business?
I learned to be patient. Throughout that time, the one constant in me, and I think for a lot of us that are in the music business, is passion. Everyone is overflowing with passion because that’s why we’re in this game, right?
So it was about balancing passion with patience because it is so rare that things happen overnight; especially when you’re younger, you get so tired of the pace at which things seem to crawl along, you just want to get to the end of the line already.
“people are not accustomed to hearing negative feedback and I think that is a problem. Without regular feedback, and without learning how to receive feedback, it’s hard to grow and learn.”
I also had to learn the hard way was that I’m quite an opinionated person. When I was listening to someone in meetings, I’d know that what they were proposing was just going to fail so I would go, ‘Well, I think that’s wrong and here’s why.’
But a lot of people are not accustomed to hearing negative feedback, and that is a problem, by the way. There should be more constant feedback, whether or not we’re in the music industry. Without regular feedback, and without learning how to receive feedback so that you’re not being defensive all the time… it’s hard to grow and learn.
Do you have a really memorable failure that you can tell us about and what you learnt from it?
Yes! When Universal acquired EMI, I had to figure out what I wanted to do and, at that point, my profile was high enough [within EMI] that I was asked if I wanted to move into pop, and do US marketing, which I had never really done before. So I got to go to Capitol.
I watched a music video clip of Sam Smith doing Lay Me Down and I became obsessed with wanting him on Capitol. At that point, he was about to sign to Island in the US. I worked my way into his first ever show in America, which was at the Mercury Lounge in New York City, and met with his management, met with Sam, and that part of the story ends happily in the sense that he signed to Capitol and I got to work with him. That was an important moment for me, because even though I wasn’t his A&R or his manager, I was so passionate and I saw the potential, I felt myself seeing into the future and I knew that he was going to be this huge superstar.
The setback that I had was that there was a company culture that I just didn’t take to at that label. I was a very opinionated person and I really believed in having my seat at a table. And perhaps at that point, I hadn’t truly learned or honed my skill of how to get what I needed done without making people feel like they were being forced. I was maybe more combative and more argumentative, which I still am a little bit today, and especially because I really believed in everything that I was doing.
“I’m very thankful that I’m on the management side of things right now. The reason that I was never maybe a great fit for the record companies is because I always fought on behalf of the artists, that was my passion and the reason I wanted to be in music.”
Right before the Grammys, [Capitol] decided to do a restructuring of the company, and even though Sam was the biggest artist on the label at that time, and I was instrumental in developing his career in America, I was let go. I felt my world crashing around me. I wasn’t really sure how to move forward; that’s the danger when you become so passionate about one particular artist or when you put all your eggs in one basket. That moment I felt everything that I had done was for nothing.
I could not comprehend why I was let go at that crucial point when I didn’t think I had done anything wrong. It was hard to transition into another job because all that negativity was hanging over me and I felt that I was being attacked and it’s a terrible, terrible way to feel. I absorbed everything so personally.
But you know, you get over it – to wallow in self pity is actually a very unattractive trait. I ended up at Interscope doing marketing and around that time, realized that I was maybe not a great fit for the label system.
I’m very thankful that I’m on the management side of things right now — I realized the reason that I was never maybe a great fit for the record companies is because I always fought on behalf of the artists, that was my passion and the reason I wanted to be in music.
I’ve come to realize that I’m in this for the artists, not so much for the business side of it, although that’s very important as well. I live and die by my artists; that’s what I wake up for every day for and I fight with as much passion as I can
Speaking of your artists, Dua Lipa has had an amazing year with her Future Nostalgia album and the record-breaking Studio 2054 livestream. What went into making both of those things so successful from a management point of view?
In LA, we went into lockdown in late March and it was a disaster in the sense that we’d been planning the rollout for Dua’s album some six months before that — Don’t Start Now came out in November  so by the end of March, we were about to put out the album. I give Dua all the credit because it’s all about her ultimately and she wanted to push forward, even though it was very difficult, so we all rallied and pivoted. Warner was a great partner and they were on board.
We settled on very strong creative visuals, which I think differentiated her from everybody else, and we still continue to prioritize that. For the remote performances that we put her on — whether it was for Kimmel, Colbert or Fallon — [we] very much focused on her stealing the show.
“I know some artists who don’t enjoy social media but that’s Dua that you see on her Instagram — we’re not stepping in and posting on her behalf.”
We’re very lucky that before all this happened, Dua had laid down the groundwork to be able to suddenly pivot and move this forward — we had a lot of radio programmers in particular in America, who were completely sold on her and her music and have been extremely supportive every time we put out a single, as have the DSPs like Spotify and Apple Music and all that.
At the end of the day, it’s great music, but it’s also having really, really strong visuals. She works very hard in fan engagement and she’s very genuine and sincere about it. I know some artists who don’t enjoy social media but that’s Dua that you see on her Instagram — we’re not stepping in and posting on her behalf.
It’s getting harder to cut through with new music, given the amount of noise that’s out there. How do you do that for new artists and come up with innovative ideas?
It’s important to listen to them, to really listen. I will say it’s rare to meet an artist that has no idea who they are or who they want to be but it still happens, which is why innovative and creative strategies can only come about from spending a lot of time with the artist and understanding where they can really shine.
“innovative and creative [marketing] strategies can only come about from spending a lot of time with the artist and understanding where they can really shine.”
Also, it sucks these days. Yes, you have to have great music and you have to be a great artist, but a lot of it is contingent on fan engagement on social media platforms, which is a bit depressing. And putting out as much music as possible, which is great for the streaming services and for labels but is it so great for the artists? It’s really about finding a happy balance there, but it’s a hard line to walk.
Working in the music business and management especially is often a 24/7 job that comes with lots of pressure and deadlines. What steps do you take to prioritise your own health and wellbeing to ensure that you don’t get burned out?
I did get burned out within the first three months of the lockdown and I could have easily let it carry on. I was actually surprised by the amount of anxiety that I was experiencing. And I was guilty of COVID drinking, it became a daily habit which I really did not enjoy. I like to be in control so if I can’t even be in control of myself, that was a major problem.
Because of the unique circumstances, I decided to take a break from drinking, which turned out to be easier for me personally than I thought it was going to be. Since July, I haven’t had a drink. I’m not saying that I’m never going to drink again but for as long as I’m going to be at home – and I don’t have a family here, I live by myself – taking a break from drinking has been great.
I went back to my meditation practice, which actually started when I was at Capitol, and I do transcendental meditation with the David Lynch Foundation. The reason that I started doing that back when I was at Capitol was because I was feeling really stressed out by the job and it really helps settle me down.
And obviously exercise, I get up at 5am and I go to my gym, where we have outdoor workouts. I do that six days a week, and I meditate before I go. So I put together a routine because without one I could basically get up and just smoke a joint if I want to; I didn’t want my life to suddenly degenerate into being able to do exactly what I wanted, and make sure that what I want to do is actually beneficial to me.
What advice would you offer to a young manager starting out in music today? Is there anything that you wish you’d known before starting your career?
I don’t think that it is possible to become a manager without being a hustler – and with hustling comes building relationships. All these things are the basic blocks. Being a manager is a 24/7 job, you can’t just say ‘I’m off the clock’ because our product is not a can of soup, it’s a human being with hopes and dreams.
With that in mind, my advice pertains to our culture today. And I spoke about it a little earlier: to be successful, you have to decide when you want to be a leader and when you want to be a follower, because I don’t think it’s possible to always just be a leader or always just be a follower, depending on the circumstance.
“If you’re not listening, learning and observing, then I don’t think it’s possible to really be successful.”
Pay attention to what’s happening around you, even with people, is a lesson that is more important than ever because everybody seems to act like they already know how to do everything and that’s quite dangerous. It’s wonderful to have this incredible self-confidence and passion for your artists and for yourself but listening is a skill that seems to be disappearing.
I look at the state of politics in the [US] and people don’t listen to each other, there is no open communication, there is no feedback. And if things continue along that path, how do you become autonomous? How do you make decisions with a moral objectivity that is not influenced by what you want to do?
If you’re not listening, learning, and observing, then I don’t think it’s possible to really be successful. Because you know what? You can’t always be an asshole.
As a manager, you can’t always be the nice guy – you’ve got to wear different hats all the time. But if you’re always an asshole, you just get shut out from so many conversations. That’s important to understand.
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