Released last week, Houdini was at No.2 in Music Week’s latest sales flash, marginally behind Jack Harlow’s Lovin On Me. Dua Lipa has 10 UK Airplay No.1s and could extend that record tally to 11 with Houdini this week.
Houdini has 18,867,879 streams on Spotify and 27m views on YouTube. The star wrote the track with core third album collaborators Caroline Ailin, Danny L Harle, Tobias Jesso Jr, and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker. The song, which has drawn attention for incorporating elements of disco, psychedelia and a prominent synth solo, was produced by Parker and Harle.
Of its 21,653 sales so far this week, 19,068 derive from streams, with 1,485 sales from downloads and 1,100 from CD and cassette editions.
Here, Kentish, together with Warner MD Alex Burford and SVP, promotions Jane Arthy dissect the campaign and look ahead to what’s to come…
What was your initial reaction when you first heard the track?
Joe Kentish: “I think I heard it first, in terms of people outside the studio. And it had such a strange bassline, it stood out a mile, and it was very long, it very much presented itself as a dance track. It sat between multiple genres, it had you immediately scratching your head as to what exactly it was, which is quite a fun experience to have when you're listening to music from an artist like Dua who's been searching so long for a different type of sound. I was immediately intrigued and excited.”
Alex Burford: “I thought, ‘She’s done it again.’ She raises the bar with every album. It’s an exceptional piece of earwormy music that is setting up for the album perfectly.”
What sets Dua apart is that she makes great pop music that's also a little bit challenging
How do you feel about the response to Houdini so far?
Jane Arthy: “We couldn’t be happier. In terms of headlines and stats, the launch has been unprecedented. We’ve had, at the time of speaking to you, 17 million streams, which is running way higher than any of our previous releases, and 25 million video views in three days. From my perspective, though, the most exciting thing is the energy around the project.”
What would you say to the idea that a song that falls between genres could be seen as an obstacle for a pop record?
JK: “I’ve been making these records with Dua for a long time now and, with what she’s going for, we don’t sit in the studio and wonder if it’s a hit. We know, now, what we want the first reaction to be. We want it to be exciting, but also slightly perplexing. We joke that you’re not supposed to get it on the first listen. When you have an artist who has such a huge platform and still wants to be different and use that platform to get people to listen to music. So, you’re right, with some projects that would be scary. But now we’re confident and we’ve had success with records that sound slightly odd the first time you hear them, so now we actively search for those records. Dua’s extremely ambitious about the level of success she wants. But we think that her path to get there is not necessarily the obvious one, we think what sets her apart is by making great pop music that's also a little bit challenging.”
She has managed to have consistent hits over eight years, and not many people have done that
Can you share some of the thoughts behind the planning of the campaign?
AB: “We wanted to have a very fan-focused strategy. With artists of Dua’s scale, everything can feel slightly untouchable and very big, but it's very important for us that the fans come first. The marketing strategy was driven through direct conversations with fans and revealing the key beats of the pre-release strategy, like revealing the title and artwork, was all directly done to fans and playing on the Houdini title, being able to unlock bits of information. And that felt like a massively impactful strategy because you go directly to the fans, and then fans spread the word on socials. We started with a new platform that drove people to sign up when we first started teasing and in the first week 100,000 people had signed up to her WhatsApp group. It allows for direct communication with fans that isn’t just about selling them stuff. It's about engaging them in the campaign and making them part of the reveal.”
JA: “We’ve quite conscious of positioning. The video is such an iconic pop video on one hand, but she’s also really down to earth and doing great content pieces with Greg James at Radio 1, for example, or turning up to the YouTube event for the video premier. It’s a perfect balance of being an iconic pop star and being very much available in the right way. We’re super selective with that availability, and obviously with an artist at this level you’re going to be limited in terms of time. We've always made, and will always make, a real effort to be loyal to the people who were there at the beginning, particularly with UK media where she broke out. We’re always keen to be really loyal.”
Why was Houdini the lead single?
JA: “To quote Dua pretty verbatim from a conversation last week, Houdini is first in a chronological run of stories that make up the album. Houdini references the most fun parts of singledom, when we’re out, we’re meeting people, we're having fun, we're in the club. And as the project progresses, the stories will continue to progress as well.”
Can you put the flying start down to anything in particular?
JA: “There's a natural momentum to this, this is her third album and she's managed to have consistent hits over the space of eight years. And not many people have managed to do that. It was an intriguing track that people recognise as different. I think she manages to bridge the idea of a modern pop star and an old-school pop star. There’s glamour, theatre, excitement, it’s epic. I think people recognise that not many artists in the world could do that, fewer and fewer new artists. It becomes an entertainment moment, people want to have heard the new Dua record.”
AB: “There aren’t many monoculture moments in today’s industry because everything is so fragmented. But look at the rise of stadium shows, people want to come together. So when you have an artist of this scale, the goal is to bring people together and put out great, timeless, massive pop music, rather than records for TikTok.”
The goal is not to have success in any one week, the goal is to change pop culture
And what makes it a great radio record?
JA: “Pretty much every component of it, because even the post-chorus is as strong as most choruses that you’ll hear on the radio at the moment. Every aspect of the track is the same… And then in addition to that, there’s the sentiment. That’s already starting conversation, this idea about staying in a relationship or pulling a Houdini, as she puts it. I feel it’s going to end up in people's vernacular. One of those things you’ve thought before but never really said them that well to yourself.”
How do you rate the track’s performance across DSPs so far?
JA: “We've had an amazing launch across all the DSPs. On Spotify, on day one, it was the cover of New Music Friday in, I think, 44 countries. And the cover of Today’s Top Hits and Hot Hits UK from launch. The support that we've had from Apple and Amazon has just been exceptional. YouTube completely leaned in, and there was an amazing Shorts campaign and the video launch event. What we've found with the DSP partners is the foundations that were built on Future Nostalgia have been really amplified this time around.”
When it comes to social media, what is the strategy?
AB: “TikTok and YouTube shorts and Instagram Reels are all amazing platforms to reach huge numbers of people. And it's where people are consuming content. We see them as channels to broadcast Dua’s art, as opposed to trying to reverse engineer content that we think it's going to work on those platforms. She’s got a massive audience. So that's where we need to go and speak to them and reach them. But the starting point is always the music.”
How do you plan to capitalise on Houdini’s success?
JK: “We want Dua’s campaigns to be long campaigns. We love day one success, but it’s not a North Star. We want her songs to be everywhere. We want her songs to be the finales of huge stadium shows. We want her songs to be number one radio records in multiple territories. We want her songs to go on and have viral moments. We want her songs to be sung at festivals. A successful Dua campaign is one that lasts a couple of years or more. We want more diamond records. We want streams of two billion plus. We want her to be the most streamed artist in the world.”
AB: “We went into the campaign thinking, ‘Judge us in two years’ and we want to have huge culturally important moments in that time, in the same way Future Nostalgia defined a particular time and became a really important album. The goal is not to have success in any one week, the goal is to change pop culture.
JK: “And this isn’t the ravings of despotic label heads. This comes from Dua. I can’t tell you how energising it is for our whole team to work with someone who expresses, daily, what her ambition is.”
Interview: Anna Fielding