An Indo-Canadian Chart-Topping Sensation
AP Dhillon is the Indian diaspora’s biggest pop star. From announcing his North American “Out of this World” tour to throwing the first pitch at a recent Blue Jays game, this Brown Munde (brown boy) has broken into the mainstream. AP Dhillon’s latest single “Summer High” currently sits atop Apple Music’s India Top Tracks list, and is notably the only top 10 song distributed from outside the Indian subcontinent.
Dhillon’s success is remarkable not only because he lives in Toronto, but because his record label, Run-Up Records, is managed by him and his co-songwriters, Gurinder Gill and Shinda Kahlon. The Indian music market is notoriously dominated by establishment players; an estimated 80% of music revenues flow to Bollywood (music from major motion pictures), whose recordings are primarily distributed by the “local majors” – T-Series, Sony Music, and Zee Music. Yet today’s Punjabi independent artists, like AP Dhillon, are breaking through this stranglehold.
Four Punjabi artists, AP Dhillon, Shubh, Diljit Dosanjh, and the late Sidhu Moose Walla, feature on Apple Music’s top 20 tracks in India, an outsized proportion relative to population. Aside from Diljit, who rose independently but recently signed with Warner Music Group, these artists release music through self-owned record labels.
So how did AP Dhillon, this cohort’s prince, compete against Bollywood for the Indian music listeners' attention and rise to the very top?
The Right Mix of Consistency and Creativity
A number of factors should theoretically make it difficult for AP Dhillon to engage his core Indian audience. He lacks a major label marketing budget, India’s TikTok ban limits opportunities for independent artists to go viral, and he lives across the world from Punjab. But AP Dhillon has overcome these obstacles with regular releases, novel fusion concepts, and community support.
Since his debut single, “Fate” in 2019, AP Dhillon has released 19 singles and a studio album, driving consistent engagement and growth.
His first several singles featured his Punjabi language melodies over traditional trap and boom-bap instrumentals, but since dabbling with playful 8-bit synth and pop-leaning drums in “Mahjail,” AP Dhillon has drawn synthwave, R&B, and Bollywood sounds into his instrumentals. His audience has appreciated the experimentation. Dhillon’s second and third most popular songs, according to Charmetrics engagement score, are dark-pop record “Summer High” and synthwave track “Excuses.”
Standing tall above his other releases is the anthem “Brown Munde,” which has clocked over 600 million views on YouTube, 200k videos on TikTok, and rose to the #1 position on the UK Asian charts. Singable, light-hearted, but heavy hitting, Brown Munde became an internet sensation, with celebrities from actor Ranveer Singh to One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson sharing the track. The official music video features cameos from fellow Punjabi stars Nav, Sidhu Moose Walla, and others. Such support from the Punjabi music community has been essential to AP Dhillon’s success.
A Brief History of Punjabi Diaspora Music
Punjabis began immigrating to the English speaking world as early as the late 19th century, with thousands living in North America by the early 1900s. Over the years, they formed vibrant communities in California, Canada, and the United Kingdom, creating art that reflected the confluence of Punjabi and Western cultures.
In 2002, British-Indian artist Panjabi MC independently released the superhit “Mundian To Bach Ke”, which sold over 10 million records worldwide and had Jay-Z cashing in on bhangra’s popularity with a remix that has played at every Indian wedding since. Even before that, British-Punjabi MC Apache Indian’s reggae-bhangra fusion was well-known in the UK’s underground dancehall scene and his single “Boom Shack-A-Lack” played over the opening credits of the Jim Carrey movie “Dumb and Dumber.”
Today, there are Punjabi communities, millions strong, in the West that serve as early curators of media, which filters down to Indian audiences through Instagram, YouTube, and playlists.
AP Dhillon’s TikTok fan distribution, for instance, reflects his popularity among a young Desi diaspora that is culturally similar across nations.
Independent Indian Music is Small but Growing
Despite a deep musical tradition tracing thousands of years across various folk, classical, and contemporary genres and a population of 1.4 billion citizens growing rapidly richer, the Indian music market is only the 14th largest in the world. The Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations suggests a number of reasons for this surprisingly low number including high rates of piracy, poor payment infrastructure, and a large and difficult to estimate “informal music” sector of folk and classical music, and the stifling of independent music by Bollywood.
Spotify’s major Indian playlists reflect Bollywood’s domination of what music does make money. Nearly 50% of the popular Hot Hits Tamil playlist is controlled by Sony Music, and a similar proportion of the Hot Hits Hindi playlist by T-Series, both labels holding distribution deals with the cinema industry. Punjabi music, on the other hand, is starkly more independent.
Despite independent music comprising a small share of Indian commercial music, some evidence suggests that the audience is growing. Over the last two years, Spotify’s mostly Hindi “Indie India” playlist has outpaced the growth of the Bollywood dominated “Hot Hits Hindi” playlist. Similarly, Spotify’s “Tamil Indie” playlist is growing faster than “Hot Hits Tamil,” which focuses on new Kollywood (Tamil Nadu’s cinema industry) releases. Kannada Indie lags behind their respective cinema playlist “Latest Kannada,” but both playlists have fewer than 50,000 followers at the time of writing.
While Hindi, Tamil, and other Indian-language independent music continues to struggle to break into the mainstream, growth rates are healthy. In the future, we should see a burgeoning global Indian indie scene, propelled by fans around the world. Yet, we must be patient. It took decades of Punjabi artists flirting with global fame before AP Dhillon could break out without Bollywood’s help. He is proof that young Indian musicians can take ownership of their music and attract fans through a combination of traditional and social media. We can expect others to follow suit.