Billionaire Kuok Family-Backed Music App BandLab Taps Into AI For TikTok’s Breakout Stars

A scion of Malaysia’s richest family, Kuok Meng Ru transformed his love of classic rock and blues into a music empire. Looking ahead, his music production app BandLab aims to help everyone create songs for free.

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

The son of palm oil billionaire Kuok Khoon Hon – and grand-nephew of Malaysia’s richest man, Robert Kuok – Meng Ru, 34, founded Singapore-based Caldecott Music Group in 2021. Rebranded from BandLab Technologies, the group spans media company NME Networks and musical instruments retailer Vista Musical Instruments. Its flagship company is BandLab, a music production app and website that 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 cofounder and philanthropist Paul Allen, the round included participation from Meng Ru’s cousin Kuok Meng Xiong’s K3 Ventures, which was an early backer of superapp Grab and tech giant Bytedance.

“When you think about BandLab as a platform, the easiest analogy is Google Docs to Microsoft Word, or Sheets to Excel,” says Meng Ru, who cofounded the startup in 2016 and remains its CEO. Users can invite others to work on their projects, either individually or in real-time ‘Live Sessions.’ The young founder credits BandLab’s “extremely strong” growth to its sharing tools: the company reached 60 million registered users in January, an increase of 20 million from the year prior.

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

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

More than 60% of BandLab’s userbase are under 24, making them “generally accepting new ways of doing things,” adds Meng Ru. The platform overlaps with other social media platforms, particularly TikTok, where short-form video content incorporates “funny noises and memes,” or remixes and sound effects.

“We think that as a whole, having more people involved in music from creation and consumption is good for everybody,” says Meng Ru. “Everybody today has a musical instrument in their hands, which is their mobile phone, and more people are making music today than ever before in history.”

BandLab says this is just “the start” of its expansion into AI-powered music-making tools, but declined to list new features. To date, AI-powered tools are able to replicate performances and separate the components of backing tracks: open-source voice generator Uberduck can mimic the sound of popular rappers, like Kendrick Lamar and Drake, while streaming giant Spotify’s Basic Pitch tool can translate audio input into editable MIDI files.

Underlying the digital music app’s development are traditional, physical instrument stores. Shortly after graduating from Cambridge University with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, Meng Ru acquired Swee Lee, a chain of guitar shops in Singapore. As an avid fan of classic rock and blues, including artists Eric Clapton and B.B. King, he says transforming the 66-year-old retailer was a “lightning rod” of an experience: “That was really the starting point…seeing an opportunity to take an existing company to build a great consumer experience, and integrate the supply chain.”

“Everybody today has a musical instrument in their hands, which is their mobile phone, and more people are making music today than ever before in history.”

Kuok Meng Ru, Caldecott Music Group founder and CEO

The founder says BandLab’s “consumer experience” centers on a music aficionado’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 majority 49% stake in Rolling Stone for a reported $40 million. He sold it the year after to Penske Media Corp, and in 2019, acquired NME and publication Uncut for a reported $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 music sharing platform SoundCloud, and after becoming a hit on TikTok, won mainstream popularity. Just months after its release in the summer of 2022, Burke’s single “Romantic Homicide” peaked at number 33 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Meng Ru remains excited about making the “big time” attainable for other rising stars like Burke, whose initial exposure to music production came from BandLab. Last year, the startup launched an annual ‘Creator Grant’ worth $60,000, awarded to musicians on its app who demonstrate “dedication, resourcefulness, and growth.” Meng Ru says he remains an angel investor through his personal fund, Caldecott Ventures, with a focus on music and media tech startups.

“Someone singing in the shower, or singing in their sister’s closet, is legitimately someone who could have a true career and change their family’s lives,” he says. “That’s one of the most amazing things about social media … the ability to actually empower people who didn’t have that voice previously.”

MORE FROM FORBESSingapore Hotel Tycoon Ho Kwon Ping To Double Banyan Tree’s Branches As China ReopensMORE FROM FORBESGrandson Of Hong Kong Property Giant Sun Hung Kai Cofounder Forges His Own Path As A Tech InvestorMORE FROM FORBESHow China’s Leading Female Healthcare Investor Backs Billion-Dollar Biotech Companies

#Billionaire #Kuok #FamilyBacked #Music #App #BandLab #Taps #TikToks #Breakout #Stars

Leave a Comment