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Sam Smith and Kim Petras’ ‘Unholy’ Hot 100 Debut Was No Accident – Inside the Winning TikTok Strategy

"In this world of internet clutter, creating familiarity with a song well in advance of the song being released isn't optional… it's a necessity."

Over a month prior to its official release, Sam Smith and Kim Petras‘ “Unholy” caught fire on TikTok, building a head of steam for the track that ultimately landed it a top 5 debut on the Billboard Hot 100. One of the key drivers of its success: total buy-in from its two stars.

Starting in mid-August, Smith and Petras began teasing the collaboration on social media — including with a TikTok dance challenge — creating buzz weeks ahead of release thanks to the duo’s engaging posts and the track’s ear-wormy hook. It then became the job of Smith’s label, Capitol Music Group, to convert the viral social moment into chart-friendly metrics, leveraging the engagement on TikTok with streaming partners to set the track up for success. The strategy paid off: “Unholy” debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped the Global 200 and Global Excl. U.S. charts, landing Smith their highest placement on the tally since “Stay With Me” hit No. 2 in 2014 and Petras her first-ever showing on the chart. And that success so far helps earn Capitol Music Group president Arjun Pulijal the title of Billboard‘s Executive of the Week.

Here, Pulijal tells Billboard how CMG harnessed the power of Smith and Petras’ loyal fan bases to launch the track’s fiery debut across the globe. “Artists must have a dialog with their fans and participate in conversation,” he says. “There’s a need to listen and engage, one isn’t in a vacuum…in this world of internet clutter, creating familiarity with a song well in advance of the song being released isn’t optional…it’s a necessity.”

Sam Smith’s “Unholy” feat. Kim Petras debuted at No. 3 on the Hot 100 this week, marking Sam’s seventh top 10 and Kim’s first-ever entry on the chart overall. What key decision did you make to help make that happen?

Any release of this magnitude requires numerous decisions being made by many talented people, but it all starts with an amazing song paired with the artist’s vision and drive.

The key decision on this campaign was two-fold: 1. taking an intrepid approach with optimizing release strategy and 2. identifying the explosive potential of this song early enough to set a narrative.

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Our digital, commercial, research, and marketing teams played a vital role in engineering the journey from initial sound post to most streamed song in the world. As we mapped out the release timeline, we collectively felt that we needed to approach this release differently. Sam dove headfirst into the world of teasing music in a way they previously hadn’t and had fun engaging with fans and the online creative community. Our job was then to fan the flames of reactivity, help Sam focus their efforts, and drive towards turning the virality into tangible result, such as pre-saves and streams. We were able to then take the engagement we saw and contextualize it to our trusted partners – to give the song the biggest platform possible for release. From the start, everything about this song felt singular and special.

“Unholy” sounds pretty much unlike any other Sam Smith single. At what point was it decided that it would be a focus track for their next album campaign?

Sam brought us all together for an album playback session in Malibu in early May. Immediately, “Unholy” jumped out of the speakers. It sounded fresh, exciting, and urgent. Sam’s passion and vision for the song was infectious. We (artist, management, our amazing label partner Capitol UK, and CMG) solidified the song as the next single within weeks after that playback.

Sam Smith and Kim Petras teased the “Unholy” hook on social media for weeks leading up to the song release, including creating a dance challenge for it. How much coordination took place between Sam and Capitol on the rollout specifics?

To use volleyball terminology: We set. They spike.

We laid out what a tease strategy structure could be on a macro level. Sam took full ownership and was super dialed in personally and engaged with what they liked. From there it was a constant dialogue about what posts and trends were creating the most buzz, setting clear goals (such as daily creation targets and pre-saves), and staying fluid on solidifying the release date based on reaching peak thresholds and reading cultural conversation.

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How were different versions of the song (i.e., instrumental version) utilized during its first chart week?

While there were hundreds of mixes and mashups all over social media well in advance of the song coming out, only one version of the track was commercially released in the US to contribute to the first chart week. An instrumental version of the track was available exclusively in the UK for a limited period of time during the first chart week.

Where does “Unholy” go from here, particularly at radio? Any live performances upcoming?

The sky is the limit. We are in rare air already, and the song only continues to grow. As far as radio is concerned, we are just getting started. “Unholy” was the No. 1 greatest audience and spin gainer this week and we see no reason why that won’t continue for the following week. Our goal is that it’s a No. 1 song at radio just like it is on multiple song and streaming charts already. Stay tuned on live performances!

What do you think the TikTok-heavy rollout of “Unholy,” and its resulting success, says about the future of how pop singles are marketed?

There is less of a separation between artist and art now. Pop audiences are looking to be part of the journey with the artist. Artists must have a dialog with their fans and participate in conversation. There’s a need to listen and engage, one isn’t in a vacuum. Lastly, in this world of internet clutter, creating familiarity with a song well in advance of the song being released isn’t optional… it’s a necessity.