This is the ninth installment of Rolling Stone’s series At Work, in which we explore the fast-changing music business from the perspective of a different industry leader each week. Read earlier pieces in the series here.
Wendy Ong is an anomaly in the U.S. music business: She grew up in Singapore, didn’t go to college, and had few connections to the industry before working for everyone from Arista Records to Interscope to Roc Nation.
It makes sense that her current job isn’t typical either. Ong joined TaP Music in 2018 and became president of TaP Management and TaP Records last October, taking on the unique role of managing major pop stars Lana Del Rey, Hailee Steinfeld, Ellie Goulding, and Dua Lipa — while at the same time running a record label for rising musicians like Annika Rose and Moby Rich. TaP upstreams many of its label artists, like Rich, to Universal labels Republic and Interscope. She and the TaP team work out of a scenic but discreet compound in the Hollywood Hills that doubles as TaP’s Los Angeles headquarters, with platinum records on the walls, celebrities coming in and out many days, and a pool often used in music videos. “We like the house; we’re always around each other and like each other’s company,” Ong explains, while chatting with Rolling Stone about her trials of managing pop careers, sleepless nights on airplanes, and how international marketing shaped her career in the music industry. “It’s a lot easier to get that vibe than if we were just at an office by sunset.”
What’s the first thing you do every day?
I don’t have an alarm clock. I have a cat who wakes me up without fail every morning at 5:30. It’s great because I’m a morning person and I work for a British company, so it actually helps that I like starting my day really early.
And in between lots of emails, I’ll go on Facebook and watch the Dodo videos and animal rescue. It’s just so heartwarming and makes me feel so good. So in between work emails, I’ll watch like one or two of those videos and I’m like “alright, I feel good about my day.”
Walk us through what the workday looks like.
Because I work across the roster, there’s a lot of different conversations taking place. We’re talking directly with our artists, whether it’s marketing, or getting a video done, or talking with the label about promotional campaigns, what’s happening at radio. It’s hard to define the scope of it because it’s so wide. We’re also getting approached by a lot of artists or their managers wanting to collaborate on TaP, so we’re constantly feeling those inquiries as well. Seeing what makes sense and what doesn’t.
“We take on artists where we think we can add value to their career and help them shape their version of who they want to be. I want to know how I can really 10x their dreams, really.”
What makes sense? What defines an artist you see as a fit on your end?
I know a lot of labels have moved toward very much a research model where they’re looking at what’s streaming really well or who’s got really massive numbers on TikTok, Instagram or YouTube. That part obviously matters, but I think for us, we’re still a little old school. We just have to love it. We take on artists where we think we can add value to their career and help them shape their version of who they want to be. I want to know how I can really 10x their dreams. Driving this morning, I was listening to Annika Rose, one of the artists we’ve got signed who we haven’t upstreamed to Universal yet. She’s 18, and she’s been writing songs since she was 13. It’s exciting being a part of those journeys at such an early stage.
Is there a difference between how you work with younger acts and established artists?
I know you ask [in the At Work series] about “the best advice you’d ever been given,” and I’m interpreting that question here too: Just because she’s young doesn’t mean she doesn’t have an opinion. And she is an equal. Whether it’s Dua or Annika or Hailee. They are creative people [and] artists in their own right. And they are our equals, so there’s no talking down. We treat everybody that we have with the utmost respect.
What does a crazy day look like for you?
The last couple of weeks have been really insane for me because of the amount of traveling that’s been going on. I just got back from London last week, had two days in L.A. then jumped on a plane Saturday to New York. And we had Hailee Steinfeld on Colbert. Tuesday morning, I took the first flight back to L.A. because we had Ellie Goulding in town and we were going to play the album for our labelmates at Interscope. I woke up at 2 a.m. before any of this had happened and couldn’t really sleep on the plane because I was working. So it was no sleep, going from one artist to another artist.
It has to be so seamless, and you have to be able to switch gears immediately. I’m trying to just give the best of myself in that situation with a severe lack of sleep. But it’s not a crazy day if you talk to anybody in this company because Ben [Mawson] and Ed [Millett] are the same way; we’re constantly running on empty. I don’t think I have a very good work/life balance whatsoever. And maybe it’s because I really do enjoy my job.
Is there a difference between managing Lana Del Rey and Dua Lipa and Hailee Steinfeld?
Coming from Singapore to New York, I got started doing a lot of hip-hop when I was at Arista. And from there, I started doing alternative, and then pop. I worked at the Met Opera [and] became head of classical music of EMI. It’s being able not just to shift gears in terms of genres, but also the different artists in those categories. I don’t think there’s a magic formula. That’s why it’s good to have a team of people with varied experiences and everyone has a love of music.
“When I came to the U.S., I knocked on every door, and miraculously got a job working for Clive Davis, ultimately. I had no idea what was going on but it’s like what they say, right? If you act like you know what’s going on, sooner or later it all starts to make sense and sink in.”
How has your background affected the way you perceive breaking into the music business?
I think the important lesson here is what we talked about before — to not underestimate somebody, and not underestimate ourselves. When I came to the U.S., I knocked on every door, and miraculously got a job working for Clive Davis, ultimately. And then two weeks after that, I was in Paris with Diddy. I had no idea what was going on but it’s like what they say, right? If you act like you know what’s going on, sooner or later it all starts to make sense and sink in.
So I just went for it. I’m not one of the most confident people in the world, but I am really good with just looking around, assessing the environment and who I’m with, and really tapping into what is the right way to go. I started my career in Singapore and did a lot of international marketing for somebody who had not traveled outside of Asia, which is kind of insane. I moved across the world and did international marketing and learned every country has different rules and regulations. Adapting to it; that’s what’s been important to me. To blend into the background and just observe, then choose your moments capitally when you’re going to say or do something.
What’s the next big challenge for the industry’s long-term future?
It’s not a new challenge per se, but then with all this new technology, there are new platforms we have to think about when we roll out an album campaign. Social media is proving to be more and more challenging. We’re big advocates for mental health in particular, and with the amount of trolling and bullying online, it’s really becoming even more difficult as an artist to be able to share your life with your fans. Artists are bombarded by it constantly, so I feel like the challenge for us as a management company and a label is to really help our artists and guide them through this landscape.
Beyond even the quantity of apps, there are things you just can’t control. Right after the Grammys, there was that “Dua Lipa is canceled” thing.
Oh my god. Yes, that was insane. Like what was that even about? She was having a good time. But most of these people, fortunately, aren’t crazy assholes. But it’s so easy to hide behind social media because you’re so anonymous and you can say all these vicious things and just hate for no reason. Luckily most people aren’t like that. [And when Dua won last year’s Grammy] I lost my voice. I actually screamed so much that I lost my voice.
When their life becomes your life…
It becomes very personal.
So when your day is done and you finally have a free minute, what are you doing?
I can’t talk about my dog or my cat too much because then I’ll sound like a crazy person. But they’re both rescues, Patches and Levon. I don’t have kids, so the very little of my personal life revolves around them. I really love my home. I go to bed at 9:30, 10 when I can.
When I was younger, I would be fantasizing about the trips I was going to take and where I was going to go in the world. It was easy for me to sort of dream away and find my own escape. I came from such a small place. I love exploring the world and I’ve been around the world a lot. And now I find myself really enjoying being at home.
There’s a certain irony, living in one house and working in another.
Yeah, but I love that. It’s why there’s sort of a happy balance in that sense. Pretty much I’m on my emails until I fall asleep and the moment I wake up. I don’t think I unwind very well — I like working.