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Musical Newbie? This App Thinks Anyone Should Be Able to Create Songs — for Free

Kuok Meng Ru says BandLab's goal is to empower artists and democratize music. One artist has even scored a Billboard Hot 100 hit with the platform.

In July 2022, a 17-YEAR-old artist from Houston named d4vd released “Romantic Homicide,” a track he had made using BandLab, the Singapore-based social music creation platform. “He recorded a song in his sister’s closet on his mobile phone with Apple earbuds, using a stock preset,” says CEO Meng Ru Kuok — stock presets being one of many things aspiring musicians can find on BandLab, which wants to make it possible for anyone with an idea, no matter their skill set, to create music.

“Romantic Homicide” became an example of that ideal: The brooding, guitar-hooked track caught fire on TikTok, and d4vd (pronounced “David”) signed to Interscope, with the song peaking at No. 45 on the Billboard Hot 100

“I was cheering him on,” Meng says of d4vd. “We’re so excited and rewarded when people move on to other places, whether they stay independent or get signed by major labels.”

BandLab, which was founded in 2015, doesn’t receive royalties from music made on its platform. Instead, the company makes money on artist services (which include distribution, livestreaming and BandLab Boost) that allow acts to turn their profiles or postings into ads on the platform to better reach the 50 million registered users BandLab has.

Meng, 34, has aggressively expanded BandLab’s assets, which are grouped under the holding company of Caldecott Music Group. Along with instrument manufacturing and sales (including Michigan-based Heritage Guitars and Asia’s largest musical instrument retailer, Swee Lee), Caldecott has editorial properties like Guitar.com, Uncut and NME. (BandLab acquired 49% of Rolling Stone in 2016 before selling it in 2019 to Penske Media, Billboard’s parent company.) In September, Billboard and BandLab launched the Bringing BandLab to Billboard portal to expose emerging artists to a global audience.

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“On a day-to-day basis, it is not just geographically split, but also mentally in terms of all those areas,” Meng says.

In November 2021, BandLab announced the acquisition of independent artist platform ReverbNation from its parent company, eMinor. And in April, it announced it had raised $65 million in series B funding, bringing the valuation of the platform upwards of $300 million. BandLab envisions a different sort of future — shorter songs made by anyone, using presets or even artificial intelligence (AI) — with the idea that the more music that exists, the more need there is for its range of offerings, from equipment cases to advertising. Business, says Meng, is “gangbusters, in terms of focusing on product and improving the experiences that we bring out.”

Do you feel that d4vd’s success validated your business model?

Yeah, it’s extremely rewarding. We’ve seen stories like that happening thick and fast. Earlier this year, we had an amazing viral success with an incredibly talented young rapper. He was 13 when he started making music on BandLab. He’s 14 now. His name is Cl4pers. He has 1.2 billion views on his hashtag on TikTok alone. It’s not just the viral success but the incredible talent — like d4vd, like Cl4pers — that, prior to BandLab, wasn’t making music with the capabilities that their creativity would have afforded them. D4vd is now signed to Interscope Records and [its artist development/management joint venture] Darkroom and has changed his personal career and the life of his family. Millions of people around the world have listened to his song and have really connected with it. It’s truly special, and it just reminds us of what we’re doing every day, beyond just creating a great business that we’re excited about.

What are the numbers behind that growth at BandLab?

Our last public figure that we shared, we have over 50 million registered users around the world. More than 16, 17 million songs are being made a month on BandLab. I still feel like we’re a small platform getting started. We have 80 full-time staff, 140 if you include all team members around the world. That has grown relatively quickly, and we have a lot of hiring plans in place to expand even further in the next six to 12 months.

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Do the creators get royalties?

Yeah, that goes to the artists. We don’t take a position on artists’ rights. There’s a big movement, obviously, toward independent creators being fully in control of what they own. That’s really important to us. We’re focused on empowering the artists. The music is their content. So they are generating their own royalties if they’re distributed by BandLab or ReverbNation or via TuneCore, CD Baby, DistroKid — that’s one way they can be generating money off their music. The artist gets 100%. That’s what we do.

You don’t take commission?

We don’t. Actually, we have a lot of creator economy features on BandLab. For example, someone can tip users on BandLab in their profiles. We allow users to subscribe to other users, similar to Patreon or OnlyFans. We have features where artists can sell their tracks and albums, similar to the iTunes Store or Bandcamp, for example, and the artist keeps 100%. We don’t take a commission from the artists’ earnings after processing fees; Stripe and PayPal are involved in that transaction. We as a platform don’t take a cut of the creator economy. We believe it’s very important the artists are able to monetize. Especially in the United States, you guys get taxed enough. They don’t need more taxes on top from a platform.

How do you make your cut?

We’re focused on empowering artists in creating, making that accessible and free, and truly democratizing music. What Apple did with GarageBand was obviously an incredible progression in democratizing music creation, but 80% of the world uses Android. To be able to afford an iPhone is already out of reach for many people around the world. We don’t believe that people’s creativity or their ability to make music or to express themselves should be limited by their spending power or their knowledge of how to write a song.

Where we make our money is actually in artist services. If you are spending to distribute your music to Spotify, Apple Music, if you are running a promotional campaign — things to help promote your music or develop your career as an artist — that’s where we charge. We have a subscription service that we’ve just announced. There’s our BandLab Boost membership. We also have ReverbNation services that come through membership and various a la carte services.

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Your business also supplies royalty-free music packages?

We do provide royalty-free samples. One of our features is BandLab Sounds: We collaborate with artists, commission our own sample packs for people to use in their ­music-making. And those are provided royalty-free — loop samples, one shots, which are utilized by musicians all around the world to make music. We also have an AI feature called SongStarter, which helps people generate royalty-free song ideas to start off their songwriting process.

All the music on BandLab is original music and original content. We’re very strict and pro-rights owners because we’re trying to protect the creators and all rights holders. This is something that we take very seriously with regard to licensing. It’s about protecting rights holders both on platform and off platform.

Do you train your AI to mimic popular human artists?

No, we don’t.

In the United States, the presumption, based on the Copyright Office, is that only works by human authors can be copyrighted. Who will own the copyright to AI-created portions of songs?

Ownership of content that is developed further from our AI SongStarter tool is owned by the user.

Do you offer marketing services?

We provide a variety of services through BandLab but also through our ancillary services. We acquired ReverbNation last year, which allows you to run third-party advertising campaigns on sites like Billboard, NME and Rolling Stone. They can buy campaigns and centralize their music for promotion on Instagram, Facebook and to promote videos they release on YouTube, for example. We recently announced the beginning of the rollout of BandLab Boost, which allows users to promote, for a fee, their posts and their profile on the BandLab network.

Do you have relationships with the streaming services?

Absolutely. We’re not a [digital service provider]. We believe there are platforms out there that do their job incredibly well. We’re here to empower the music that has been created that ends up on these platforms. We obviously have commercial relationships, like our distribution relationships, but also where we can funnel exciting talent that blows up on their platform.

Whom do you see as a rival?

I’ve been asked that question a bunch. BandLab is creating a whole new category of platform. There are certain services out there that do similar things, but our whole perspective on the ecosystem is that music is collaborative. By nature, it’s not just about the tools — it’s about collaboration, it’s about different influences when people get together. Services need to collaborate as well. That’s where we work closely with other platforms that people outside may see as competitors. There are lots of ways a platform like BandLab can have relationships as a funnel to other services through affiliate partnerships. There are many businesses that have the full suite of tools that we have as BandLab, and it’s our core objective to work closely with all of them. If the music market grows and the creator market grows, everyone benefits.

How has the democratization of music creation that BandLab and other companies and applications have enabled changed music?

The barrier to making a hit is now fundamentally more accessible to anyone. You don’t have to have had a long education or engineering degree to do so. So much of this is being empowered by short-form video and changes in the music industry where a hit song is no longer three minutes long but 10 to 30 seconds — which is really scary and meaningful at the same time.