MUMBAI — The most Shazamed track of 2019 in India wasn’t a Bollywood or Punjabi pop hit, but an electro-pop song by a little-known teenager from Romania.
“Sugar and Brownies” by Dharia was also one of the top 10 most streamed English-language tunes on local audio streaming service JioSaavn during the past year. Its success in India can be traced to users on video-sharing app TikTok who found themselves drawn to its infectious hook line.
Dharia is the alias of 15-year-old high-school student Daria Comanescu. She co-wrote the track, her debut release, with her 21-year-old sister Iarina Comanescu and music producer Monoir, aka Cristian Tarcea, the founder of Romanian label Thrace Music, which released “Sugar and Brownies” in October 2018. Ultra Music has distributed the song worldwide.
Tarcea says he realized people were discovering the song on TikTok after it began taking off on YouTube. “People were leaving comments like, ‘Who came here from TikTok?’” says Tarcea. “But they weren’t all searching for ‘Sugar and Brownies.’ Many were searching for the hook line ‘uhhh na na na na.’”
There are currently over 1.7 million videos featuring the composition on TikTok, which users have variously tagged #sugarbrownies, #sugarandbrownies and #sugarnbrownies on the app. A spokesperson for ByteDance, which owns TikTok, tells Billboard that approximately 53,000 creators in India have used the track as background music for videos related to “food, fashion, lifestyle and travel.”
India is one of the fastest-growing markets for TikTok, accounting for over 200 million of its global user base, which is estimated to be between 500 million and a billion. Among the reasons for TikTok’s widespread presence in India, where its popularity is particularly high in smaller cities and towns, is that users who don’t have access to video cameras or computers can shoot, edit and add music and effects to their videos within the app. Many of them seek out catchy top lines to soundtrack their seconds-long clips.
“Sugar and Brownies”, with its infectious wordless hook, was a perfect match, says Jay Mehta, the director of digital business at Sony Music India. “For songs in which the vocals dominate, you need to feature lip-synching or dancing,” he says. “‘Sugar and Brownies’ helped creators make a variety of content.”
There’s another reason the song has connected so strongly with listeners in India, says Tarcea. The section that accompanies the drop features what sounds like a Middle Eastern string instrument but is actually a spliced-up and reversed sample of a man singing Indian classical music. “You don’t notice it but it’s there,” he says.
From TikTok, “Sugar and Brownies” found its way into pubs and clubs, plays which propelled it to the top of Shazam’s India chart. “Because it’s got a groove, DJs who saw it on TikTok started playing it at bars, which is where the most Shazams happen according to research we did in cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Pune,” Mehta says..
After Sony, of which Ultra is a subsidiary, saw that “Sugar and Brownies” was going viral, the label reached out to audio streaming services with data about the hit potential of the song.
Almost a year after it went viral, the majority of the YouTube views for the official music video — nearly 30% over the last month — continue to come from India. A substantial 19% of the over 95 million views to date are from the country. (Turkey, which has traditionally been a market for Romanian pop, tops the list with nearly 23%.)
“Simplicity” is the secret to the success of “Sugar and Brownies,” says Tarcea. “You don’t need to be complicated. We debated whether we should write lyrics for the ‘uhhh na na na na’ part. [Ultimately] we said, “let’s not.’ People need to just sing it like that.”
Now, TikTok and India are both “priority” for the promotion of Dharia’s follow-up single “August Diaries,” which is scheduled to be out March 6. She might also do a duet with an Indian music star. “I’ve received many emails from artists there asking if we can we collaborate,” Tarcea says. “Nothing’s confirmed, but we’re looking forward to that some time in the future.”