As far as the music industry goes, you’d be hard-pressed to find a company with as much potential as BandLab Technologies.
Perhaps best known for their popular “pocket DAW” app which allows users to make music anywhere at any time on their phones, the company is actually much, much more. Founded just six years ago by Meng Ru Kuok—the 32-year-old son of Kuok Khoon Hong, a prominent Singaporean billionaire and the CEO of the world’s largest palm oil trader—BandLab also owns a slew of other ventures. They own Swee Lee, a trendy music retailer in Southeast Asia; Harmony Guitars and Heritage Guitars, two iconic guitar builders; and several notable publications, including NME, Guitar.com, Uncut and MusicTech.net. For a period of time from 2016 to 2019, the company even owned a 49% stake of the powerhouse music press, Rolling Stone.
All of this alone would be enough to make Meng an incredibly powerful player in the international landscape of the music industry. But on top of it all, BandLab’s main project, the DAW app, is sky-rocketing in popularity, in part thanks to the pandemic. Just since 2019, the app’s seen a 150% increase in the size of its user base and now bolsters over 30 million accounts. As of the writing of this article, it’s the 11th most popular music app on the iOS app store and is outselling Apple’s own GarageBand app.
With all of these things going on, Meng is smack-dab in the middle of a very interesting moment in music history… so last week, American Songwriter hopped on a Zoom call with him to talk about it all. With streaming, social media and other technological innovations changing the name of the game—especially in regard to how the label system works and where money is actually being generated—the insights of someone like Meng, who has his hands in nearly every sector of the music economy, is invaluable and enlightening. We discuss everything from the origins of BandLab to the impact of TikTok to how artists are going to be making money in the future. Read our conversation below:
American Songwriter: BandLab is a huge, international operation, but at its heart is a commitment to music and the musicians who make it. You yourself are a musician. What was your early relationship with music like? When did the spark of your passion get lit?
Meng Ru Kuok: On a personal basis, I was always into music when I was younger, but it wasn’t really until I went to the United Kingdom that I ‘got into music.’ Singapore is a very young country—it’s just over 50 years old—so culture hasn’t developed in the same way there as in a place like the United States or the U.K. I was very lucky to be able to go overseas and go to school. Going to the U.K., a place with so much history and culture, the first things my friends would ask me would be ‘What football team are you into?’ and ‘What bands do you like?’ At first, I couldn’t answer either of those questions, so I had to get up to speed quickly! My friends burned me a copy of Radiohead’s The Bends and said ‘Go away, listen to this and don’t come out until you like it.’ From there, I read in NME—which, today, we own and operate—about Radiohead, The Libertines, Muse, The Strokes and those types of bands. They were very much my ‘growing up’ bands and they’re what got me into guitar music.
Then, I started playing guitar as a huge Matt Bellamy fan—I loved everything about Muse and that British rock scene. As I got older, I got into acoustic guitar and started to listen to more music that my dad liked. That’s when I got into Eric Clapton—because of his pop stuff—and then I got into his blues stuff, then his Cream stuff. Then I eventually got to B.B. King, which led to Steve Ray Vaughn and then I progressed all the way to Robben Ford. Now, I’m also cutting my teeth on some of the amazing guitarists I see on Instagram. That’s pretty much my journey. I’m just lucky to have had a passion for something and to have been able to turn it into something I can do commercially, career-wise.
AS: When did you start seeing the music industry as your path forward career-wise?
MRK: I actually got into the music industry through the acquisition of a company in Southeast Asia called Swee Lee. It’s a distributor of many different types of musical instruments—retail distributors of everything from Fender to Martin to Taylor to Ibanez. It has over 129 different brands of musical instruments. That’s actually where I bought my first guitar, which was a Fender American-made Highway One Stratocaster.
Fortunately, when we got the chance to take over the company, we saw a real opportunity to develop this great distributor into a force around the region. Today, we have stores in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and also represent many, many more brands and physical stores. We’ve really developed the consumer experience. If you look at pictures of our stores, it’s kinda like Urban Outfitters but if you replaced all the clothes with guitars. We also have a cafe, we sell vinyl, we sell tape and cassette players these days too, which sell really well.
AS: When did BandLab come into the picture? What was the mission y’all set out with?
MRK: Through Swee Lee, I met the co-founder of BandLab and he had a great idea for what you could do with the technology of putting a DAW into the cloud. For me, having grown up through the time when social media came into existence, I feel that music creation software can be more than just a tool. When you’re creating something, you could use one of a myriad of softwares or methods or studios, but ultimately, making music is a lot more than just those things. It’s about inspiration, it’s about feedback, it’s about the different people you make music with and the different skill sets you may or may not have. Some of the biggest barriers to making music, on that front, were geographic ones.
Then, there was also a barrier in regard to technology—if one person uses an Android device and the other person uses an iOS device, how do they work together? Trying to convert AAC format into something that works for an Android was very challenging back in the day. So, this idea of creating a place where you could make and share music really led to the ultimate vision of BandLab that we started in Singapore. It was an idea about a world with no barriers to making and sharing music. So, the platform was really born out of that. We’re very lucky that we’ve been able to build it to where it is today. That was really the inception of it, though: take the tools of music creation but bring them to a place where people can share that content… it puts the power into the people’s hands.
For myself, the very first time I played an instrument was going into a guitar store and buying a Fender guitar. For the younger generations, the mobile phone is their first instrument. That’s the doorway into making music for so many people now, so we’re very excited to be a part of that all over the world.
AS: With so much innovation happening—creatively, technologically and economically—in the industry, it must be an incredibly exciting moment. You mention putting “power into the people’s hands”—in many ways, that goes along with the general trend of artists moving away from the traditional label structure. What does this moment look like from the point-of-view of BandLab?
MRK: I think it’s a fascinating time. With more than 33 million registered users on BandLab and 10 million songs being made every month around the world… the numbers can get insane. We try to do our best in terms of responsibility looking at data and trying to make sense of it all. But, we have such a wide base of people that it can sometimes be very difficult to understand where it’s making an impact.
However, there are some very interesting trends that we’re excited about—and it’s not just the huge influx of people that, through a difficult time, re-engaged with music. Everyone in the music industry—especially the musical instrument industry—felt a bit of survivor’s guilt in that it was a very strong year for instrument sales. A lot of people realized it was their chance to reconnect with music-making. We thought a lot of those would drop off—Andy Mooney at Fender talks about 99% of people at Fender picking up a guitar, giving up and then dropping off. But, the truth is: the number of users is holding through. I think that in the years to come, there will be some incredible music made. The fact that some people were able to embrace technology during that time will actually create even more opportunities for artists when they can begin connecting physically again. Now, they’re empowered by the technology around them. It’s pretty amazing.
I think too, in relation to existing musicians—there are some interesting tailwinds when it comes to things like UGC and TikTok. A lot of songwriters or session musicians are wondering ‘What does this mean for us?’ They usually work on longer projects or full songs, which play a different role in the industry than TikTok dances and bite-sized content like that. What’s interesting with UGC—and BandLab benefits from this as well—is that TikTok and short-form videos (like Instagram’s Reels) have made music more essential than ever. Today, every little bit of UGC now requires music in a way it didn’t in the past. Before, you could just post a photo or a status, but with TikTok, it’s essential that you have music.
I think that’s exciting because it’s spurring a seismic shift in what a ‘song’ is. I think this is a little scary—I’ve written songs myself and understand how challenging it is on a professional level—but what has changed is that songs are getting progressively shorter. It felt like there was a period of time where songs were really only three minutes long—verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, final verse, final chorus. It built up a story and had a strong structure all while fitting the requirements for the radio. But with TikTok and UGC, you kinda compress that down into something much, much shorter. That seems scary because the barrier-to-entry for writing a hit song is now ‘Can you write a 10 to 15 second vibe?’ But it’s actually very exciting for the people around the industry because it means that so much more music is being made, which opens up more opportunity for the people around the industry to build up the talent, skills and potential into full-length projects. What we hear on the top of the Spotify charts are predominantly TikTok songs, even if most of us only recognize 10 to 15 seconds of the song. They’re charting and launching massive careers for these artists.
So, that’s a very long way of saying: there are obviously some challenges that everyone is aware of now. But the influx of music, the influx of creativity, the tailwind of short-form video and the increased accessibility to music making… for people on the songwriting level, it’s going to create a lot of opportunity. For people further down the supply-chain who are talented and able to build these people up, it’s going to be a big influx as a whole.
AS: You make a great point in highlighting that things like UGC and TikTok are not only changing the way the economy of music works, but as a result, just the sheer way music sounds. There are all sorts of material consequences for these innovations that are kind of an exciting, open-ended question at the moment.
MRK: For sure. I think a lot of people are trying to figure out how to access that and make sense of it. Even myself—I’m 32 and I certainly feel older than I was. But when you look back on when you developed your best relationships with media outlets and artists, that was at the ages 11 through 17. That’s when people start taking music seriously. That’s definitely an age group that, now, is native to these platforms and technologies. The scary thing is—there’s a whole generation of musicians now who have grown up without ever paying for music once in their life. They experienced music for free through YouTube or through streaming platforms. They never paid for a product… so for a lot of our users, even, the idea of getting paid for your music is a foreign one.
That being said, part of our vision of removing barriers is supporting people and making sure they get compensated fairly. That’s a big part of what I’m proud of with our achievements—we overtook GarageBand on the app store and went #5 last week, ahead of Shazam and Amazon Music. We’re focusing on that side of it, and you’ll see more and more features come out in support of that. Last year, we released BandLab Albums and Tip Jar, where we allow users to put up their music and sell it directly to fans. They get to keep 100% of the transaction, and not just on Fridays. Helping musicians and artists earn a living is a big part of what we want to support and we believe there are definitely equitable ways of doing so in the scope of a platform like BandLab.
Especially considering that many more musicians are going to come out of this pandemic than what we would’ve seen in a non-pandemic year… the number of people who are able to flow into the label system are having to fit through smaller and smaller funnels. Therefore, supporting those independent artists—the ones who won’t have the infrastructure or institutions or support to make content—is a massive opportunity to help artists figure out a new way of doing things. We’re going to see those changes in the industry. But it’s certainly the responsibility of a platform like BandLab to get involved and offer support.
AS: You just alluded to some new things y’all are working on, but do you have any other projects on the horizon that you can share with us?
MRK: There are projects, but nothing I can share right now. We’re excited to roll out more things to support artists directly, not just more creation tools or features. It’s going to really support the consumer and the workflow, both for amateurs and professionals. As our platform matures and our user base matures, we definitely want to support them in their process, whether they’re just starting or already earning a living.
AS: Are there any success stories from BandLab users that stand out in your mind? What are you most proud of?
MRK: We had a special contest the other day to celebrate 30 million users: we gave away a phone. For a lot of people in the world of BandLab, upgrading your phone is the equivalent of upgrading your guitar. Some of the stories we saw for that contest were amazing. For me, it’s not the big stories, it’s the small ones. Whether it’s someone whose life was changed or someone who was able to make music when they were in prison or if they were able to just reconnect with a community of friends… the emotional side is what’s meaningful to me, personally.
One of the biggest powers of BandLab is empowering people. But, we want to empower people in a way that’s truly supportive of what they want to do and accomplish. We feel that music-making is a very holistic endeavor. We want to use our accessibility to empower people around the world.
BandLab is available on the iOS app and the Android app store for free and is also available online for computers. Learn more about it HERE.