The Business of Empowerment — How The Founder of BandLab Sees Music As A Social Equaliser

In this wide-ranging interview, the founder of cloud-based music program, BandLab, talks about how he went from selling Digimon to becoming a music mogul.
by Zat Astha

“I was very lucky to grow up in Singapore, but then have an opportunity to go overseas,” Kuok Meng Ru, founder of BandLab tells me when I ask about his childhood. “So really, from a Singapore perspective, I think there was a duality of where I was always at academically.”

Still, even when faced with the disruption of moving countries and school systems at a young age, school for the son of palm oil tycoon Kuok Khoon Hong, was ‘not particularly challenging’. Academic rigour was par for the course for the 36-year-old CEO, who attributes his educational ease to having grown up in Singapore and being under the umbrella of tiger parents. But he offers another reason.

“My fear of disappointing my mother might have played a role,” Kuok offers with a laugh, “but more importantly, I was fortunate to have inspiring teachers who went beyond mere instruction; they established relationships that fostered accountability not only to my family but also to people I respected.”

He makes a point to mention his primary school teachers, in particular. “They shared their passion for teaching in a way that was palpable even to a child. It’s easy to distinguish between a passionate teacher and one merely going through the motions.”

This passion, he theorised, coupled with the relationships these teachers built, instilled in him a sense of accountability. “I was motivated to do better for my teachers as well as for myself, which likely fuelled my competitive nature to excel.”

Music beyond retail

In 2012, 23-year-old Kuok Meng Ru took a decisive step into the music industry when he acquired Swee Lee, a legacy music store founded in Singapore in 1946, transforming it into a linchpin of Southeast Asia’s cultural commerce.

Following this acquisition, Kuok established Caldecott Music Group (CMG) as part of an initiative to create a larger, more integrated presence in the music and lifestyle sectors.

But Kuok’s vision extended beyond mere retail innovation. His acquisitions, such as BandLab Technologies in 2016 — a global digital music platform — signalled a broader ambition. BandLab exemplified Kuok’s strategy of bridging traditional business models with digital innovation, catering to a burgeoning community of creators.

His latest move was purchasing Gawker from Bustle Digital Group in November last year. In an email sent to Variety for an exclusive story, Kuok adds: “As it relates to the future for Gawker, as a brand that spent many years in the public consciousness, my personal opinion is that it has the opportunity for reinvention. Whatever plans materialise, what’s for sure is that it won’t be the same as it was before.”

These strategic moves, made throughout the past decade, underscore Kuok’s role as a business magnate and a cultural architect. And it certainly has paid off. In March of this year, Kuok revealed to Bloomberg that BandLab had reached a milestone, surpassing 100 million users. As a comparison, in 2020, the app had 18 million users in 180 countries worldwide.

“It’s funny when you get to these large milestones, especially something like 100 million, which is slightly hard to fathom in terms of the scale of the number,” Kuok said in the interview with Bloomberg. “It was also something that felt like nothing really special. It sort of crossed, and I think we all realised, like, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ But I think that’s just the result of how fast things have grown.”

As of May 2023, BandLab Technologies, the parent company of the social music creation platform BandLab, has a valuation of $425 million. This is after the company raised $25 million in a Series B1 funding round. Previously, BandLab’s valuation was $315 million after raising $65 million in its Series B tranches.

In short, Kuok’s doing good. Really good.

Rooted in a Digimon

From a young age, Kuok has been entrepreneurial. So it probably comes as no surprise that that translates seamlessly into adulthood with his various acquisitions and business purchases. His first official venture, though, is Digimon.

“I would take a Digimon when they first came out and change the colours,” he shares, leaning closer from across the table. “I would buy red and black ones and then change and make them hybrid colours. Then, I will sell them to friends on a small markup and a premium because, you know, then you get something special. Everyone had a digital one, but everyone wanted one that was slightly different.”

It was one aspect of his childhood that he recalls as everything else blurs to vagueness (“I don’t even know what I had for lunch yesterday, let alone my childhood”). What he does remember with startling clarity is what it was like growing up as someone whose childhood was markedly different from the norm.

“Unlike most, who typically attend school locally until they’re 16 or 18 before possibly going abroad for further education, I was enrolled in a full boarding school from a very young age. This experience fundamentally altered my concept of family and upbringing.”

At boarding school, surrounded exclusively by boys and living on-site even during some holidays, Kuok’s peers became family. They were a tight-knit group, growing and learning together, distinct from day students who returned home nightly.

“This unique setting instilled values and perspectives shaped not just by my biological family but also by the institution and the individuals within it. The housemasters, for instance, assumed parental roles, offering guidance akin to a father figure.”

Still, his environment was not just different in geography — moving from a familiar cultural setting to one where Kuok was notably the only Asian among hundreds — but also in the day-to-day interactions and bonds formed with those around him.

“Despite the drastic change in setting and community, I consider myself fortunate,” he stresses. “My upbringing, while unconventional, was not fraught with trials but enriched by the diverse environment and the new ‘family’ I found at boarding school.”

A mathematical assumption

As the CEO of CMG, I was admittedly surprised that Kuok studied Pure Mathematics in university. And not just any university, mind you. We’re talking Cambridge — the creme de la creme of all things academic. But on second thought, what is music if not mathematics set to sound?

I’m slowly beginning to understand when Kuok said he excelled in school. And while he could have gone to any other storied institution in the United Kingdom, Kuok chose Cambridge for one important reason — his older brother had studied there, too. Well, that and the ‘challenge and competitiveness of the environment’.

“Did you actually like Mathematics?” I probe. “I thought I did — especially before university. Up to that point, maths was about right and wrong answers, and I liked that. There was a sense of satisfaction in finding the correct answer.” This supposed binary appealed to Kuok’s completionist side — a straightforward approach to mathematics, where answers were either right or wrong, was very rewarding for him.

“But, when I started university mathematics, I realised it was a different ball game,” he recalls. “The focus shifted from seeking clear-cut answers to exploring proofs and theoretical concepts. It was no longer about the right answer but understanding and proving foundational principles.”

Suddenly, the subject that was as clear as black or white, right or wrong, morphed into pages of theory, abstract thinking, and a study of the history behind basic arithmetic concepts.

“This shift was a bit of a shock,” Kuok readily admits. “One of the most telling moments was when I was preparing for Cambridge and saw the checklist of things needed for a mathematics student. A calculator wasn’t on that list.”

Jazzing it up

Surrounded by peers who were deeply passionate about mathematics led Kuok to feel slightly left behind. And although he never explicitly drew connections to this feeling of inadequacy, I reckon it was one of the reasons why his interest in music took off and became a more significant part of his life.

“Music became a significant outlet and passion during this period,” he reminisced. It wasn’t just about trying to catch up in mathematics; it was also about enjoying and making the most of the university experience through other interests.

His love for music endures. Today, even as CEO of a big music conglomerate, Kuok finds the time to practise. These days, Kuok takes solace in playing the piano in his free time. “I play a lot of scales,” he explains with a grin when I ask what his repertoire is like.

“Now, as I’ve been playing more piano, especially jazz piano, it feels much more engaging because it aligns with what I already know from playing guitar. I can jam along to something, hear it and play it without focusing too much on the keys or the theory. It’s a different, more abstract understanding.”

Kuok lets on that perspective — understanding the “why” — would have been incredibly valuable earlier on. He believes it would have fostered a deeper appreciation for the music, especially when he had more time as a younger person. “Looking back, I wish I had seen the value in that approach because embracing your passions more fully when you’re younger can significantly enhance your skills as you progress,” Kuok ruminates.

“Why jazz?” I probe. Without missing an (up)beat, Kuok explains that he was captivated by the idea of improvisation while playing the guitar. “Jazz, for me, feels like a step up in difficulty. It’s not that music is easy, but jazz feels like learning a whole new language on your instrument.”

It’s part science, part art, he explains. “It’s hard to pinpoint why I’m drawn to it, especially since I don’t often listen to jazz for leisure. But there’s something about the soundscapes you can create with jazz, the way it challenges you creatively, that really appeals to me.”

“It’s a different kind of creative challenge, and that’s what I find intriguing.”

Actually, a business of empowerment

In an interview with American Songwriter, Kuok sheds surprising light on BandLab’s gender mix: “When we were looking at BandLab, we realized that we have much closer to a 35% to 65% split between female and male. We’re not going to take credit for something we didn’t necessarily intentionally do, but I think there’s something very interesting there, especially considering that other platforms usually have a 10% to 90% or even a 5% to 95% split.”

“We’re extremely proud of this,” Kuok tells me, “but I wouldn’t be the first to put my hand up and say that was necessarily our intention out the gate with BandLab. I would say this has been a positive corollary of what we’ve been doing, which is our vision of empowering everybody.”

This objective of empowerment is praiseworthy given that, according to Kuok, most of the stats out of instrument companies show ratios of like 90-10, 95-5, or 85-15 male-female splits. “The reason why we ended up today with a slightly higher ratio is because there is a difference in the accessibility. If you’re empowering everybody, which is our goal, you will empower more people who were disempowered.”

He draws an analogy of going into a Swee Lee — a traditional music store that, historically, can be very intimidating even for the younger generation. “The idea of the old Swee Lee was where you have to go in, and there’s a list price, but when you tell the staff, “Hey, I know so-and-so who works here,” you know, and you can get 30% off. Our generation is not used to that sort of bargaining exercise.”

Drawing back to how BandLab managed to create greater gender inclusivity amongst its users unintentionally, Kuok thinks that it helps, too, that there are more, louder voices encouraging such change — though he cautions against just speaking about it.

“A lot of these things come from institutional change. The empowerment that happens due to tech innovation means that everybody can have access in their hands. They don’t have to walk into a guitar store or a dark, dingy studio to learn how to make music — they can actually just download the app, and it’s safe.”

Kuok is just glad that BandLab can play a part in ensuring everyone has access to and the means to create music. But he doesn’t think the story is over just yet. “What is success? Is success a 50-50 split? 60-40? The most important thing for me is that everyone has the same opportunity. When I see these kinds of stats from BandLab, it doesn’t make me feel any way other than being interested in understanding why and trying to understand where we contributed positively.”

And while he’s grateful that that’s something they’re experiencing, he is cognizant that it comes with a different responsibility. “We need to make sure that we continue to empower in the right way and then try to understand what else we can do.”

A social equaliser of sorts

This year, Kuok celebrates 12 years since he bought over local music retailer Swee Lee. Under his leadership, the brand has since expanded into Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines, with an online presence in China.

This rapid growth is instrumental in the road map for supporting customers from all walks of life and all over the world. But more importantly, it ensures Swee Lee remains relevant — come what may. Another critical shift Kuok initiated at Swee Lee was transitioning from a distributor to a retail experience.

Their recently opened store at Clarke Quay is a testament to Kuok’s dedication to the retail shift, which, unlike their flagship at Star Vista, will be a 60/40 mix of instruments and lifestyle products. Unlike their flagship, The Star Vista, which is heavily weighted towards instruments, Clarke Quay, Kuok explains, will be a 60/40 mix of instruments and lifestyle products.

It’s easy to see how Kuok envisioned Swee Lee’s retail experience here in Singapore and Southeast Asia as a social equaliser of sorts. “When we think about social equalisation and underserved markets, there are many reasons why some markets lack access. Geopolitical factors play a role, but ultimately, economic priorities dominate.” Kuok is aware of how, for some, creativity isn’t accessible to everyone. “Even affordable guitars, costing $150-$200, can be many months’ salary in some places.”

The BandLab ethos

“Music is a powerful industry unlike any other,” says Kuok, elaborating on my question of how music can be a social equaliser in the world today. “We’re biassed, of course, but the opportunity music offers is why we advocate for copyright and empowering people with AI while also protecting them and focusing on regions needing more support.”

But in music,” Kuok adds, “the work is supported by copyright, a financial royalty system, and IP protection. It’s one of the few places where you can create something and protect it for decades. With stories like those of our BandLab breakout artists, you can go from being unknown to a superstar in a year.”

It’s one of BandLab’s outcomes that Kuok is proud to have seen manifest, adding that very few industries offer not just fame but financial stability and career mobility. “A hit song can lead to a career that sustains an artist and their family for generations. This is why we’re vocal about copyright—emerging talents are most at risk if copyright and institutions are weakened. They would be fighting against those with greater financial and intellectual property advantages.”

For him, copyright and IP allow music to create a true class and social mobility on a global scale. “Music is global, a universal language. We see this with K-Pop and thriving regional markets like Indonesia and Thailand.”

“Today, anyone, anywhere in the world, can create an incredible career with talent and determination, thanks to the power of the internet. Ultimately, we’re working to break down barriers and help more people create music.”

The irony of empathy

“What do people most misunderstand about you?” I ask as our interview inches close to the 90-minute mark. Kuok pauses, laughs nervously, and in between, stutters as he tries to get a response out. It’s the first time during this interview that I see Kuok stumped. “I feel like I had an answer to this,” he offers, slightly unsure. A quick second later, recomposed, Kuok resumes his coherent, sharp, and sure self.

“Lately, I’ve been thinking about this more, actually,” he offers as a sort of prelude. “About how, as you get older and interact with more people, you realise you can never truly understand anyone completely. Even if you think you understand someone, like a family member or someone you live with, you’re just getting a better concept of them, not their full essence.”

Cryptically, Kuok explains that people often base their understanding of who he is on what he presents in a moment (“Much like this interview”) rather than the whole of his daily life. “This makes me realise that probably everything people think they know might be skewed. But this also means I acknowledge I don’t fully understand others either.”

“The deeper you dive into understanding people through music or any means, the more you’re still approaching it with your own biases and background — whether that’s growing up in a certain culture, with certain political beliefs, or any other factors. The truth is, you can never truly know someone because you haven’t lived their life. You can try to be empathetic and understand when their experiences don’t match yours, but it’s always going to be through your own lens.”

What gives him hope

In some ways, Kuok approaches innovations and technology at Caldecott Music Group with this blend of personal and societal perspectives. He recalls someone he met recently who described themselves as a “technology pessimist, but society optimist,” adding that it was a turn of phrase that stuck with him.” Is that something that gives you hope when you look at the state of the world today?” I ask.

“Looking around the world today, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenges we face – economic woes, social unrest, political turmoil. But here’s what keeps me optimistic — we’re still here. Despite pandemics, wars, and countless other crises, humanity has endured. These events might feel exceptional as we live through them, but they’re historical norms. We find ways to adapt and keep going.”

That inherent drive for self-preservation, both on an individual level and for future generations, fills him with hope. “We’ve faced seemingly insurmountable odds before, and we’ve come out the other side. It’s part of being human—we’re self-interested, and ultimately, we make the decisions that shape our future.”

Even the newest tech does not faze Kuok since everything, Kuok postulates, will eventually become outdated. “This constant churn can lead to a kind of pessimism — you never quite know the true impact of any new invention. People tend to focus on the potential dangers – today, it’s artificial intelligence, but these anxieties have always been.

He reminds me of the uproar when the phonograph was invented, as people assumed that it would destroy the music industry — no more live music, and everyone would just stay home and listen to records. “Of course, that didn’t happen. But it’s a great example of how innovation can trigger fear. We’re resistant to change, and the unknown is naturally unsettling.”

“The real concern shouldn’t be machines making decisions, it’s people exploiting them for malicious purposes. Right now, I worry more about those who misuse technology than the technology itself.”

This story originally published on The Peak Singapore.

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