When Abu Dhabi resident Brian Pepito released his song Bisayang Gwapito in January, the singer didn't expect for it to be a hit. But less than a month later, the track found its way on to a Spotify playlist in the Philippines, introducing it to the wider public.
Now, the song has been streamed more than two million times on the platform. It has become one of Spotify's most streamed songs of the summer in the UAE, and is part of the Top Hits Philippines playlist, which has more than 3.7m followers.
Bisayang Gwapito is a love song – most of Pepito's songs are – about a man trying to keep his lover's affection and interest, not with material wealth, but pure charm. It is a standard electropop tune, replete with synth backing vocals and a typical EDM drop, mixed in with Cebuano rap verses.
The 25-year-old Filipino from Cebu says he inherited his love for music from his parents, who would often sing at home, and wrote his first song, Love at First Sight, when he was 17. Growing up, he also taught himself the guitar, piano and the ukulele by watching videos online.
Pepito, who works as a sales manager at a school, moved to the UAE from the Philippines in 2016. Back when he was job-hunting, he joined a band as a vocalist and started performing at different venues in Dubai, including at The Fridge in Alserkal Avenue.
After he accepted his first job months later, however, it became harder for him to join rehearsals and gigs, so he decided to return to writing his own music, from lyrics to composition, in his makeshift recording studio at home.
Last year, he started sharing his songs on social media and online platforms such as Spotify. “My dream was just for people to hear my music,” he says.
One of the first songs he released was Love at First Sight, a track reminiscent of music by Filipino pop rock bands in the early 2000s. In April 2019, he put out his first album, Mapasaya Ka Lang, with seven tracks that leant towards alternative rock and acoustic pop.
He began working on Bisayang Gwapito in late 2019, collaborating with a producer in the Philippines. The song took about three months to complete, with Pepito and the producer sending various versions back and forth until they decided on the final track.
In terms of genre, it is a departure from his older styles, which he says is part of his approach to making music. Instead of cementing himself to one genre, he jumps around depending on what song or style happens to inspire him in the moment. When asked how he would describe himself, he says: “A versatile musician. I can go between different genres any time, depending on the mood … music itself inspires me.”
When he writes his emotion-laden lyrics, he gleans ideas from those around him. “I get inspired through my experiences and people’s stories. I don’t just write about my own perspective, because then it would be repetitive. I try to think outside the box and ask friends to share their stories,” he says.
Over the years, Pepito’s mother and six siblings have also moved to the UAE. Sometimes, they all play music together at home. “I come from a music-minded family, so we have a small studio set up with drums, piano and guitar. Though I’m the only one among my siblings who sings,” he says.
After Bisayang Gwapito's success on Spotify, he says his daily streams jumped from 3,000 to 4,000 per day to 12,000 to 15,000 per day, and his monthly listener count is now up to more than 143,000 people. His other song, titled Di Magdahom, racked up more than one million streams, thanks to his newfound recognition.
Pepito has also grabbed the attention of music distributors in the Philippines, with three labels approaching him for a deal. He has signed on with The Orchard, a subsidiary of Sony Music, which will help him market his songs globally.
Though his music career might be picking up, Pepito says it is too early to tell where it will go. Currently, he covers his own production costs with some financial help from his family. “I want to focus on my music, but I don’t know if my music can support me yet,” he says.
Pepito's trajectory reveals how the music industry has transformed in the age of streaming services. He is now able to earn some income from his streams on Spotify, Apple Music and Anghami, as well as platforms such as YouTube, Google Play, Deezer and TikTok, among others.
With a full-time job to handle, he is learning to balance his musical aspirations alongside work. "That's my problem right now because I work eight hours a day, so when I try to record, I don't have a voice any more. I'm doing my best to make time for my music on weekends," he says.
Pepito has more music in the works. His new single, Magikero, a Tagalog song with a moodier electropop sound, will be released on Thursday, September 17.
His new dream is now bigger than it used to be. "It's too far ahead – but my new goal is to be one of the top artists in the Philippines," he says. "I can see my music offering something different."