Family-backed music app BandLab, owned by billionaire Kuok, uses AI for TikTok’s breakout stars

A scion of the richest family in Malaysia, Kuok Meng Ru turned his love of classic rock and blues into a music empire. Foresighted his music production app BandLab aims to help everyone create songs for free.

Kuok Meng Ru, founder and CEO of Caldecott Music Group, believes that AI-generated instrumentals are a component to “empowerment and democratization” of the music industry. “Today, legitimately, you can just push a button and run through a lot of different ideas of what might be the right backing track for you,” Meng Ru said in an interview on the sidelines of the Forbes CEO conference. “I think that’s one of the beauties of the new music trends.”

The son of palm oil billionaire Kuok Khoon Hon – and grandnephew of Malaysia’s richest man Robert Kuok – Meng Ru, 34, founded the Singapore-based Caldecott Music Group in 2021. The group, renamed BandLab Technologies, includes media company NME Networks and musical instrument retailer Vista Musical Instruments. Its flagship product is BandLab, a music production app and website that also doubles as a social network for creators.

In 2021, BandLab raised $65 million in a Series B funding round that valued the startup at $315 million. Led by Vulcan Capital, the multi-billion dollar investment arm of former Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul Allen, the round included the participation of K3 Ventures, cousin of Meng Ru, Kuok Meng Xiong, an early backer of super app Grab and tech giant Bytedance.

“If you think of BandLab as a platform, the easiest analogy is Google Docs to Microsoft Word or Sheets to Excel,” says Meng Ru, who co-founded the startup in 2016 and remains CEO. Users can invite others to work on their projects, either individually or in “live sessions” in real time. The young founder attributes BandLab’s “extremely strong” growth to his sharing tools: The company reached 60 million registered users in January, 20 million more than in the previous year.

As generative AI models like ChatGPT reinvent industries from education to medical research, they also hold potential for music creation. The latest iteration of ChatGPT, unveiled by OpenAI last November – recently backed by Microsoft in a “multi-year, multi-billion dollar” deal – is capable of generating lyrics, melodies and chord progressions. OpenAI’s separate software MuseNet can create and play 4-minute compositions given genre and instrument.

“Our approach to AI is, I would say, a little less conventional,” says Meng Ru. BandLab’s AI tool, SongStarter, generates royalty-free instrumental soundtracks that users can remix into their own songs. To customize the output, BandLab users can enter lyrics or emojis into SongStarter, which then uses Google’s TensorFlow machine learning system to generate three possible “vibes”.

More than 60% of BandLab’s user base is under 24, leading them to “generally embrace new ways,” adds Meng Ru. The platform overlaps with other social media platforms, notably TikTok, where short-form video content features “funny noises and memes” or remixes and sound effects.

“We think that having more people involved in music from creation to consumption is good for everyone overall,” says Meng Ru. “Everyone has a musical instrument in their hands today, which is their cell phone, and more people are making music today than at any time in history.”

BandLab says this is just “the beginning” of its expansion into AI-powered music tools, but declined to list new features. To date, AI-powered tools are able to replicate performances and separate the components of backing tracks: the open-source speech generator Uberduck can imitate the sound of well-known rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Drake, while the Basic Pitch tool of the Streaming giant Spotify Audio can translate input into editable MIDI files.

The development of the digital music app is based on traditional, physical instrument stores. Shortly after earning her bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Cambridge University, Meng Ru acquired Swee Lee, a chain of guitar shops in Singapore. An avid fan of classic rock and blues, including artists Eric Clapton and BB King, he says the 66-year-old retailer’s transformation was a “lightning rod” of an experience: “That was really the starting point… an opportunity to see you take it.” an existing business to build a great customer experience and integrate the supply chain.”

“Everyone has a musical instrument in their hands today, which is their cell phone, and more people are making music today than at any time in history.”

Kuok Meng Ru, Founder and CEO of Caldecott Music Group

The founder says BandLab’s “consumer experience” focuses on a music lover’s learning journey, from buying a physical guitar to exploring online music production. Another part of this sprawling ecosystem are long-established media publications. In 2016, shortly after founding BandLab Technologies, Meng Ru acquired a controlling 49% stake in Rolling Stone for an alleged $40 million. He sold it to Penske Media Corp the following year and acquired NME and the publication Uncut in 2019 for reportedly $11.2 million.

One of BandLab’s breakout stars is 17-year-old singer David Burke, who goes by the stage name “d4vd”. Unable to afford professional recording equipment, Burke used the app to produce vocal tracks in his sister’s closet. His work gained traction on the music sharing platform SoundCloud, and after becoming a hit on TikTok, he gained mainstream popularity. Just months after its summer 2022 release, Burke’s single “Romantic Homicide” peaked at #33 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Meng Ru remains enthusiastic about bringing the “big time” to other rising stars like Burke, whose first exposure to music production came from BandLab. Last year, the startup launched a $60,000 annual “Creator Grant,” awarded to musicians on its app who demonstrate “devotion, ingenuity, and growth.” Meng Ru says he remains an angel investor focused on music and media technology startups through his personal fund Caldecott Ventures.

“Someone who sings in the shower or in their sister’s closet is legitimately someone who could have a real career and make a difference in their family’s life,” he says. “That’s one of the most amazing things about social media…the ability to empower people who didn’t have that voice before.”

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