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Five years ago, few could compete with GarageBand as an entry-level digital audio workstation (DAW). Pre-loaded onto Apple products, its captive audience embraced the simple system for multi-track recording and mixing demos. Designed to open the doors to professional-level products, it became the learning tool for aspiring record producers, songwriters, DJs and audio bloggers.
In Singapore, an energised young entrepreneur called Meng Ru Kuok saw a gap in GarageBand’s model and decided to take it on. BandLab was the result.
Mobile-led, free and cloud-based, BandLab was conceived as a hybrid DAW, sample and beats library, file sharing and storage space, social media platform and marketing and distribution system. It offered greater collaborative opportunities than GarageBand and access to a growing community audience.
At the beginning of 2021, BandLab passed 33 million registered users (a higher number than the population of Kuok’s native Malaysia), and although that can’t match the numbers of Apple products that had GarageBand pre-loaded, it surpasses the number of users who actively chose to download the software.
To mark the occasion, Kuok spoke to CHORALLY about the reasons for his product’s success, the future of music creation and participation and that of music as a whole.
He is clearly proud of what his company has achieved in such a short period. He shows deference to GarageBand for leading the way but is also quick to highlight the main differences between products.
‘GarageBand is an incredible product, and we still look up to them as a first mover in bringing music-making to mobile,’ he said. ‘But the difference between us and GarageBand from a music-making perspective is like that between Microsoft Excel and Word and Google Docs and Sheets in the collaborative nature of the mobile approach. The idea that I could record something on my phone and straight away open it up on a browser without needing to install gigabytes of software is massive.’
BandLab was designed to respond to a marked change in the way people created, listened to and used music, and it couldn’t have come at a more pivotal moment in terms of technological advance, inclusiveness, the next phase for the music industry and, of course, Covid-19.
Kuok admits to a certain amount of survivor guilt for the way BandLab thrived through the pandemic. Lockdown aided an exponential increase in users, but it also changed the mindset of many people who, until now, may have avoided such technology.
‘We’d hoped last year that we’d get maybe 15 million [users] by the end of 2020 and we more than doubled that,’ said Kuok. ‘Some of that, obviously, was through the pandemic, and I think that as a platform that supports distance and online collaboration, we’ve definitely benefitted from some of the lockdowns.
‘People have been forced to try new technologies and music-making they didn’t necessarily have to use before because they could get together in person or go to a studio.
‘Now they’re empowered by technology to be able to make even more music. It’s a pull-forward of user behaviour, rather than just a replacement for things until normality resumes. The pandemic has taught everybody from young to old. Even the Queen can use Zoom.’
The pandemic also forced BandLab to adjust its plans, to reconsider the app’s purpose and needs of its customer base.
‘A lot of what we did was pushing a progressive idea of what’s possible into the next generation of music creation,’ Kuok said. ‘But the sudden growth has meant that we’ve had to accelerate our plans.
‘The first five years of the business have been focussed on helping people make their music. But the wider vision of BandLab is sort of like Facebook for music but with GarageBand and Soundcloud and BandCamp built in. It’s a place where people make the music but also share the music and engage with other people socially. Music making is not just about the tools you need. You need inspiration. You need people to collaborate with unique skillsets, like drummers and guitarists. And you also need fans and friends to give you honest feedback.
‘That’s where social environments and music-making come together. That’s why we built BandLab, to empower musicians to earn a living doing what they love.’
BandLab’s concept is a one-stop-shop that takes a musician from the idea to the audience. That, in itself, might seem obvious, but as with so much technology, success is in the timing. BandLab has developed in parallel with a huge cultural shift in the relationship between music and other technology and between musicians and their consumers.
‘Short-form video like TikTok and Instagram Reels has made music essential to user-generated content (UGC) in a way that’s never been seen before… Everybody who is making content for the biggest short-form video social platforms needs to make music to differentiate themselves… That’s why you’re seeing all the Spotify and Billboard charts dominated by TikTok songs of 10 to 15 seconds long. TikTok feeds today are people’s radio stations.’
According to Kuok, many of this new community of music makers have never played an instrument before, but they all have a device that can help them create music.
‘Everybody now has their first instrument in their hands, the mobile phone,’ said Kuok. ‘And having something like BandLab, which is free and accessible, is the closest you get to intent to action. One of the interesting things we’re seeing is that when you take away institutional barriers and empower people with technology, there’s a huge amount of talent out there, excited to make music.’
One of the trends that this empowerment has brought about is a substantial shift in the gender balance of users.
‘Most music creation tools or even distribution platforms have traditionally had gender splits of 90/10 or 85/15 male to female,’ says Kuok. ‘But on BandLab we have a 65/35 split… We won’t take credit for something that we didn’t necessarily set out as a core part of our mission beyond empowering everyone, but in the old world, having to get into a room with different people, strangers you’ve never met before, would be scary for some and not necessarily welcoming or a safe space.’
BandLab’s aim to liberate music-making includes music education, attracting the Best Classroom Technology award at NAMM 2018. Working across all platforms and hardware, its cloud-based music studio, virtual instrument resource and, private classrooms, offer a secure space for teachers and students to collaborate, create and experiment.
‘We have a product called Bandlab for Education, which now has more than half a million teachers and students using it around the world,’ said Kuok. ‘It has all the classroom tools to send assignments, grade assignments and allow teachers and students to have a safe space. It’s grown in multiples through the last 12 to 15 months and we expect it to continue growing as people see this as a useful tool that you don’t need to install gigabytes of software on every computer and keep updating because everything’s available through the browser.’
BandLab’s future plans offer little comfort to the traditionalists of the music industry. Even though Meng Kuok also owns the publishers of the NME and a stable of other music titles, he has little truck with the established music business model or those who complain about their royalties slipping.
‘I think that though people criticise the big streaming platforms, the thing that we have to remember is that more people are getting paid than ever before, but not all of them are getting paid as much. The sheer volume of artists that are actually able to get some compensation or sell any music is significantly higher than in the past.
‘We would be most happy if BandLab artists eventually got signed to labels but if you look at it from a macro scale, the record industry was more an anomaly than the norm. The idea of being able to ‘productise’ content and all the things associated with it in terms of music rights only came out of being able to create a physical product and ship it round the world.
‘The problem now isn’t distribution, it’s differentiation, but the challenge of curation and filtration isn’t necessarily our primary objective right now. What we focus on is empowering people in the music creation process.
‘One of the exciting things for artists today is that if you’ve got talent and someone’s willing to pay for it, you can get compensated no matter where your fans are in the world and no matter where you are. But I think one of the biggest challenges is the sheer volume and the number of artists that today have distribution through the internet. The infrastructure of labels isn’t able to support 99% of artists and they need to have that independent route to their audience, to build that relationship with the audience.
‘How do you find your 1000 superfans who are willing to go to a gig or buy a record, even though they don’t need to pay for music in 2021?
‘Building those relationships is something that that needs engagement at a different level than the other social networks are able to provide. And the idea of relying on streaming revenue or just selling records is very challenging for artists and will continue to be more and more challenging.’
This is part of BandLab’s ongoing grand plan and Meng Kuok’s international team in Singapore is expanding rapidly to achieve it.
‘I think the milestone that we’ve crossed was a great one an important one for the team just because of how much respect we had for Garageband and how much we looked up to it. But we have our own path – we have our roadmap for the things that we want to bring to music creation, empowering more and more people around the world who never thought about making music before in their lives, creating a musical journey that lasts for a very long time.’