When rising music executive Abhi Kanakadandila attended an 88Rising show in 2018, he left inspired by the label’s work with Asian-American artists. “[That show] changed my perspective in terms of what I thought could be possible for our own community,” he says. “There were Asian kids there but also tons of white kids, black kids, Latinx kids and South Asian kids like me. I saw that, and I was like, ‘I see the same talent across our community — and there’s definitely a desire for something like this to exist.’”
By the summer of 2021, Kanakadandila quietly launched D36, an independent Los Angeles-based music company with, as he says, “South Asian stories at its nucleus.” Its aim is to spotlight South Asian artists worldwide in the same way Latin and Korean acts have been showcased in recent years. A focus, and differentiator, is the goal of exporting South Asian artists based in the U.S. to the subcontinent and importing artists from the region to the West in an effort to “amplify our music, share our stories, and build our spaces,” according to the company, on a global scale.
It’s a vision shared by the company’s key advisors Shridhar Subramaniam, president of Sony Music Asia and Middle East, and Rishi Malhotra, co-founder of audio-streaming service Saavn and CEO of podcasting network Luminary. Sony Music led a seed funding round for D36 last year while Malhotra has a minority investment that he describes as “a vote of support for the company, and to have some skin in the game for entrepreneurs that you care about.”
Malhotra was impressed by the 30-year-old Indian-American CEO, citing Kanakadandila’s “systems-like approach” as opposed to the “hit-driven” focus of many labels today. “This isn’t about building something for a quick flip or an exit,” he says. “It’s about building an overall cultural infrastructure for South Asian independent or as-yet unknown artists. I like the fact that it’s, for lack of a better phrase, geo-agnostic, and is about taking someone from the east and bringing them to the west, and then likewise, taking someone from the west and being able to put them on a stage in the east.”
He’s even developed a shorthand when describing the label and its mission: “Bandra to Brooklyn.”
Kanakadandila grew up loving music, even forming a hip-hop group in high school, but never seriously considered a career in the business until he started working on the finance and operations team at SpaceX in 2015, at the age of 23. There, he started a jazz group with some colleagues and the more they performed, the more he met South Asians across the industry, from music video directors to stylists to senior executives at labels. By 2019, eager to learn more, he took a new job as vp of strategy at Stem Disintermedia. “The beautiful thing about being a distributor is that you sit in the middle of the entire ecosystem, communicating and understanding the perspectives of the DSPs as well as those of artists and their teams,” he says.
During his stint at Stem, his friend Sanchay ‘Dharmic’ Jain, vp of marketing at Alamo Records, introduced him to Abdullah Ahmad, an artist manager with over a decade of experience with acts including Jelani Aryeh, Kevin Gates, LMFAO, Mac Miller and Young Thug. Kanakadandila and Ahmad hit it off, co-founding D36 with the latter working as general manager. Affan Arif, who has developed the careers of Ella Mai and NoName, was soon after hired as director of A&R (with Daniel Ahmed filling out the A&R team) and former Stem colleague Siya Bahal as creative director.
D36 offers two kinds of record deals. The first offers long-term artist development with significant financial investment for multiple album cycles. The second deal is for already-signed artists who have “a personal mission and interest in being able to enter the Indian market, collaborate and use their platform to support artists on the ground there.” For artists who enter into a deal of the latter kind, D36 operates as a “hybrid label-agency-partner within the Indian and broader South Asian market,” explains Kanakadandila. Artists who are signed to more traditional record deals include indie rocker Ethan Fields, pop purveyor She Loves Boon and alternative hip-hop acts Cable and Rahul. Additionally, D36 now represents electronic music producer Jai Wolf and his label Mom + Pop Music in South Asia to help secure tours and festival slots as well as cross-continental collaborations.
According to Kanakadandila, D36 has garnered over 30 million streams across its catalog of around 25 releases so far, which include the acclaimed Priestess by singer-songwriter YULOLLA (who had a one-album deal with the label). Projects by each of the platform’s four acts will roll out over the summer while releases by Jai Wolf are also in the works. By the end of the third quarter, the label hopes to sign two more U.S.-based artists. “The goal is to quadruple the amount of catalog that we have out by the end of the year,” says Kanakadandila. On the live side, D36 has already staged two showcases, one in New York and one Los Angeles. And at the inaugural edition of the now-postponed LETSGETFR.EE festival in Queens, the label was tasked with curating its own stage. The bill included Jai Wolf, Cary, North Carolina band Weston Estate, UK dance music collective Daytimers and Indian singer-songwriter Prateek Kuhad.
In May, Kanakadandila traveled to Mumbai to meet with heads of the major music festivals, streaming platforms, managers and artists. “A lot of our focus over the next six months and year is going to be on recognizing the immense amount of talent that exists across the indie scene, specifically within South Asia,” he says. “[We’re] finding ways that we can provide our resources, creative expertise and infrastructure with the ultimate goal of bringing those artists to a global audience.” When he’s not traveling or taking meetings, Kanakadandila is listening to as much music as possible — and from as many places as possible. “I’ll hear some hip-hop out of Bengaluru or indie rock out of Chennai,” he says. “Even if the market for it within that region is smaller, I know for a fact there’s a bigger market internationally.”