Dua Lipa is one of the biggest pop stars of the past two years. WSJ Magazine contributor Alan Light – and Dua Lipa herself – explain how a pivotal decision in 2020 helped fuel her success, and why she’s decided to launch a newsletter and a podcast.
This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.
Ryan Knutson: At the beginning of 2020, the pop star Dua Lipa was preparing to release a new upbeat dance album. But before that date came, the pandemic hit and suddenly there were a lot of reasons why putting out an album at that particular moment was a bad idea.
Alan Light: The cons were enormous.
Ryan Knutson: That's Wall Street Journal magazine contributor and music journalist, Alan Light.
Alan Light: I mean, if you made a list, there was no logical reason that you should go forward with putting out an album weeks into a pandemic rather than trying to put the breaks on and wait and let things shake out and come up with a strategy when you have more information.
Ryan Knutson: A lot of other artists were delaying their albums. Movie studios were pushing back releases. The entire entertainment industry was scrambling.
Alan Light: Most musicians were really scrambling to push back their release and say, "Let's wait and see how this sorts itself out. Because if we can't promote, if we can't tour, how's anybody going to hear anything? What mood is anybody in? What kind of music will they want to listen to?"
Ryan Knutson: Recently, Alan met with Dua Lipa in a cafe on the west side of Manhattan where she told him about that moment.
Dua Lipa: So when the pandemic happened and everyone was worried about the album and whether we should release it, I was just like, "(beep) it. Maybe it's just what we need."
Alan Light: And Dua makes that decision of, "I think this is the record that the world needs to hear right now. I'm ready to go. So full speed ahead, let's put this thing out."
Dua Lipa: And it was scary I think for everyone. And it was scary for me too, because you have no idea what's going to happen or if anyone's going to listen to it, or how long we were going to be in this pandemic. Everything was like a big question mark. I remember at one …
Ryan Knutson: But that big question mark turned into a massive success story. Dua Lipa's album, Future Nostalgia, went on to become one of the biggest albums of the last two years. It spawned four hit songs and won a Grammy. Now Dua Lipa is following in the path of a lot of other big stars, attempting to use her success to move beyond music and launch a new business. Welcome to The Journal, our show about money, business, and power. I'm Ryan Knutson. It's Monday, February 7th. Coming up on the show, the business of being Dua Lipa. Dua Lipa, which by the way is her real name, grew up in London and Kosovo where her parents are from. She started performing when she was a teenager and had her first major hit in 2017 with a song called New Rules.
Alan Light: It's a great pop song with a great and sort of distinctive hook. It's got this kind of skittery sound to it. And this interesting structure where she lists off the one, two, three…
Dua Lipa: (singing).
Alan Light: Basically not taking a backseat in a relationship and sort of claiming independence and claiming strength and respect within a relationship. That really was the thing that established who this person was, what her personality and what her artistic presence was going to be like. That this was a different sort of a voice.
Ryan Knutson: New Rules eventually racked up billions of views on YouTube.
Alan Light: And then a best new artist at the Grammy's and that was really the thing that sort of kicked things into gear for her.
Ryan Knutson: But Dua Lipa wanted to prove that she was more than just a one hit wonder, so the stakes for her next album were really high.
Alan Light: This is a, not a make or break project for your career, but certainly those second albums are hard. We all know that.
Ryan Knutson: The album Alan is talking about is Future Nostalgia, the one she planned to release in early 2020. And as Dua Lipa told Alan, she and her team decided to release it despite the pandemic, in part because she thought it might cheer people up.
Dua Lipa: I hope this album will just like remind people of some light in the darkness or a moment of happiness. And that when people think back to it, they don't think about the fact that we were just locked up at home, but moments of fun and excitement and sharing that with their friends and their family. And I'd like to think overall that the songs such are so good that it-
Alan Light: They were going to-
Dua Lipa: … just worked.
Alan Light: They were going to find their way.
Dua Lipa: They were going to find their way, yeah. I think at the end of the day, I think good songs kind of do their thing. So I'm just hopeful…
Ryan Knutson: But Dua Lipa had to come up with creative ways to promote the album because going on tour and performing to live audiences wasn't an option.
Dua Lipa: I was on Zoom nonstop and planning stuff and I still felt like I was working in some way or trying to bring something to everyone at home. I was just really focused on that. And if it wasn't that, it was thinking about the livestream and how we could do that. And the prospects of … I felt like I was cooking different bread, like I was cooking for everyone at home to have something to watch and listen to. And that was really exciting for me.
Alan Light: And she came up with these sort of seemingly endless creative ways to stay out in front of her audience, to do different remixes of the songs, to do different versions of the album, to find ways to go on TV that she was just doing herself from home. She guest hosted Jimmy Kimmel.
Dua Lipa: Jimmy and I actually just switched jobs for the night. Right now I'm here and he's performing for thousands of people at a dance hall in Berlin in a very tight tank top.
Alan Light: She did a livestream event. She did a very big scale, very high production, lots of guest stars, lots of sets, dancers, a very elaborate thing. There was a massive success for her that sold millions and millions … sold something like 5 million virtual tickets around the world and kept coming up with ways to keep engaging with her fans at a time when she couldn't tour. She couldn't actually be in front of people. That was what it required to be out there.
Ryan Knutson: It turned out that Dua Lipa was right. Her dance music was what people wanted. The album had one hit single after another. Don't Start Now, Break My Heart and the biggest hit, Levitating, which if you're like me, has been stuck in your head for like a year and a half.
Alan Light: It's kind of a bouncy song. It's a simple song. It's a simple hook.
Ryan Knutson: It's very catchy. It's stuck in my head all the time. I don't even know what the lyrics are. I'm just like…
Dua Lipa: (singing).
Alan Light: And a song with sugar boo as a word in the hook, I'm like, "What is that?"
Ryan Knutson: Dua told Alan that the song became the blueprint for the entire album, Future Nostalgia.
Dua Lipa: (inaudible).
Alan Light: Did you have any sense that this is a special … this at least has the possibility to be that or…?
Dua Lipa: Well, when we made Levitating, the day that we made levitating, we knew it was special and we knew it was special because it just gave us a really great feeling. And it was also the song where I was like, "Okay, now I have an idea of what Future Nostalgia actually is." It was the first song that really helped me dictate what the other songs were going to sound like and things started to take shape once I had levitating.
Ryan Knutson: Levitating was Billboard's number one song of 2021. It was bought, streamed and played on the radio more than any other song in the US. And Future Nostalgia with billions streams ended up being one of the biggest albums last year. But Dua Lipa feels like she's got a lot more work to do.
Dua Lipa: I just want to put on a good show. I always feel like I need to work hard. It's just something that's ingrained in me, I think. I don't know. I don't know. I don't know what it is, but I think at any point I feel like the rug could be pulled from under my feet if I don't want hard enough for it, but I think that's just my personality.
Ryan Knutson: After the break, how Dua Lipa plans to capitalize on her big new following. Beyond the success of her music in the last two years, Dua Lipa has amassed a huge online following. She has nearly 8 million followers on TikTok and 80 million followers on Instagram. So she started thinking about what else she could do with this audience and she's decided to do a lot. She's trying her hand at acting with a role in a big Hollywood movie this year. And she's launching a newsletter and podcast, both of which are out this month. Why are so many big artists doing that now where they're moving beyond their normal domain?
Alan Light: I think the first reason for why artists are expanding their empires, their vision in this way is because they can, because there are these sorts of platforms that are out there. You already have the social media presence and outreach that you have. What do you do with that? What are you interested in doing with that? How are you interested in extending or expanding your voice, your brand?
Ryan Knutson: I mean, I guess if you have 80 million subscribers on Instagram, it's like, well, maybe those are 80 million potential customers. You can sell them stuff.
Alan Light: If 1% of that audience signs up for something, you're as big as one of the biggest magazines in the world. If 1% of those people sign up, you have 800,000 subscribers.
Ryan Knutson: That's a business. Dua Lipa's newsletter, which launched last week has among other things, a series of lists about what to do in different cities around the world. And it already has several 100,000 subscribers according to her manager.
Alan Light: She's introducing a newsletter called Service95. And what she says is she is an inveterate lifelong list maker that her parents make fun of her, because at home she would make, here's five movies I want to watch or here's the books that I just bought or…
Ryan Knutson: I can relate to that actually.
Alan Light: You understand that.
Dua Lipa: Since I was really young and especially when I started touring and stuff, I've always kept lists. Like my parents would be like, "Oh, you're super weird." Around the house you'd just find these lists of like, I got to do this, I got to read this, I got to find this. And they would just find these little notes around the house. And my parents always found it really funny, but it's something that I've done religiously.
Ryan Knutson: Lipa says she's also hired journalists and writers from around the world to help the newsletter get off the ground.
Dua Lipa: (inaudible) over the world, so it's not just going to be US and UK. I've got journalists from Russia, from Hong Kong, from Nigeria and these are all in the first newsletter and they'll just continue to do…
Ryan Knutson: And then there's the podcast.
Dua Lipa: Yes. Well, it's called At Your Service.
Alan Light: Yeah.
Dua Lipa: And it goes in conjunction with the newsletter of speaking to people, all kinds of different people from activists to artists, to musicians, to authors and kind of understanding their journey in a way that when people listen to it, it feels like it's of service, like the whole conversation, whether it's how a certain author got to where they are, how it all happened, relationship advice, growing up in the industry, understanding what that's like, what it takes to really get to where you want to be. And I think they're very fun, light, but inspiring conversations that also end in lists as well and understanding from the people that I interview.
Alan Light: Is this all you? What's the…
Dua Lipa: Yeah. So I'm going to be doing the interviewing, which I'm-
Alan Light: Welcome aboard.
Dua Lipa: … really excited. Thank you so much. I might need some tips.
Ryan Knutson: Her guests will include Elton John, comedian Russell Brand, and K-pop star CL. And on top of all these projects, Dua Lipa is finally getting to go on the headline tour that she's postponed for almost two years and it's shaping up to be the biggest tour she's ever done.
Dua Lipa: Now I'm just in full rehearsals prepping for tour. What's quite amazing is how much the tour has changed from what it was originally meant to be to what it is now.
Alan Light: Feel good, feel rusty, feel weird?
Dua Lipa: Not rusty. I feel good. I've been doing so much dancing, so much prep and I'm dying to get on the road. I'm dying to perform these songs. I've got a year ahead of me of just performing and it should be fun.
Ryan Knutson: And with all these things on her plate, she isn't rushing to get back in the studio. Although, she says a new album is in the works.
Dua Lipa: Yeah. I don't know. It's still in baby form, fetus form. So we'll see as it progresses. Probably not what my fans want to hear, but I'm in no rush. I want to make sure this tour is amazing and also I want to make sure that the next album is amazing too.
Alan Light: Certainly what's interesting to watch now with Dua is she has those visions. She has the sort of Madonna-like visions of being a multimedia star, of being a real voice and presence in the culture.She has ambitions beyond just making records and selling tickets. And that's what is required, that sense of ambition, that sense of competition and that sense of absolute pure focus to reach that sort of altitude. She's got that. And her manager said … there was a great quote. He was like, "The thing that I learned early on was I would never bet against this girl. I would never bet against Dua in an arm wrestling match or against the biggest pop stars in the world. She's got the drive and she's got the ambition that she's going to win."
Ryan Knutson: That's all for today, Monday, February 7th. The Journal is a co-production of Gimlet and The Wall Street Journal. If you like the show, follow us on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. We're out every weekday afternoon. Thanks for listening. See you tomorrow.
Kate Linebaugh is the co-host of The Journal. She has worked at The Wall Street Journal for 15 years, most recently as the deputy U.S. news coverage chief. Kate started at the Journal in Hong Kong, stopping in Detroit and coming to New York in 2011. As a reporter, she covered everything from post-9/11 Afghanistan to the 2004 Asian tsunami, from Toyota’s sudden acceleration recall to General Electric. She holds a bachelor degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and went back to campus in 2007 for a Knight-Wallace fellowship.
Ryan Knutson is the co-host of The Journal. Previously, he spent more than four years in the newsroom covering the wireless industry, and was responsible for a string of scoops including Verizon’s $130 billion buyout of Vodafone’s stake in their joint venture, Sprint and T-Mobile’s never ending courtship and a hack of the 911 emergency system that spread virally on Twitter. He was also a regular author of A-heds, including one about millennials discovering TV antennas. Previously, he reported for ProPublica, PBS Frontline and OPB, the NPR affiliate station in Portland, Ore. He grew up in Beaverton, Ore. and graduated from the University of Oregon.

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