BandLab: Reviving Iconic Brands for Musicians

When Gibson Guitars was descending into its eventual Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing of October, 2017, one of the most demoralizing warning shots was the announcement months earlier that technical support for its Sonar DAW software would be effectively eliminated. As the only pro level DAW platform designed specifically for Windows PC, Sonar and its original parent, Cakewalk, had a long history of providing MIDI sequencing and digital recording software that would compete in audio quality with Avid’s Pro Tools, Cubase, Performer, Logic, Ableton Live, and the other Mac-preferred platforms. Musicians around the world with hundreds of thousands, if not millions of music files created on various Cakewalk and Sonar platforms were shaken and reluctantly preparing to transfer their files for future work to Pro Tools or Cubase, which also have PC versions, or one of the newer, less popular platforms.

Several months later, it was announced that all of the Sonar and affiliated Cakewalk IP had been purchased by a Singaporean company called BandLab Technologies. BandLab subsequently issued a press release that it would continue service for Sonar, now being relaunched under the name “Cakewalk by BandLab.” Unlike Pro Tools, Cubase, or other DAW companies, BandLab’s free Cakewalk would not be a limited function version or a trial basis sample.  BandLab essentially was offering Sonar Platinum, the Cakewalk brand’s premier product, for free.

Incredible – how could they do that and why? It turns out there is a larger strategy in the works, and the concept lies in lessons learned from the agriculture and shipping industries.

In a strategic and stealthy manner, BandLab CEO Kuok Meng Ru, a grand nephew of palm oil agribusiness tycoon Robert Kuok, has been acquiring historically adored and established musical instrument, technology, and publishing companies into a vertically integrated conglomerate structure. Heritage Guitars, Harmony Guitars, UK’s The Guitar Magazine, MusicTech magazine, New Musical Express, Teisco, MONO gig bags and cases, and Southeast Asian music retail institution Swee Lee are all part of Kuok’s burgeoning music empire.

Kuok Meng Ru. Photo: MoneyWeek

A passionate guitarist and music enthusiast himself, Kuok has big plans for BandLab and its rebranded Cakewalk subsidiary. As a combination DAW (digital audio workstation, used for music production) and social media network for musicians around the globe, BandLab, in conjunction with sister company MusicTech, is leading the cutting edge vision of music making, with some elements that Thomas Dolby referenced in his speech presentation at AES 2018 in New York about the integration of music, social media, and digital technology.

Entrepreneurial Roots

The Kuok Family is one of the most prominent overseas Chinese families in Southeast Asia. Meng Ru’s grand uncle is Robert Kuok, whose estimated $12 billion net worth makes him the richest man in Malaysia. His father, Kuok Khoon Hong, is the billionaire founder of Wilmar, which controls the bulk of palm oil production and distribution in the world and was merged into Kuok Group in 2007.

Guitars and Gear

An ardent music fan and musician, young 15 year old Meng obtained his first guitar, a Fender Stratocaster, from the venerable Swee Lee music shop (founded in 1946) in Singapore. A family owned retailer and distributor of musical instruments and equipment with 13 outlets throughout Asia, it bears little resemblance to the mega store lifestyle retailer that Meng Ru would transform Swee Lee into when he would take it over a decade later.

In a November 2019 issue of Financial Times, Kuok Meng Ru mentioned that growing up and observing how his family palm oil business was vertically integrated from food, plantation and trees to harvesting, processing, distribution and branding would influence his concepts of business.

Swee Lee’s flagship store at the Singapore Star Vista has since tripled in size and not only includes musical instrument and equipment selections that rival, if not surpass Guitar Center, but also includes teaching rooms, a vinyl record department reminiscent of Tower Records, an apparel and merchandise department, and a Swee Lee Social Club with baristas serving fresh brewed coffee. The flagship Kuala Lumpur store evokes a coffee house and recording studio ambiance, as well as showcasing their primary musical retail offerings.

An admitted admirer of Bob Taylor and Kurt Listug of Taylor Guitars, Kuok Meng Ru has folded some iconic guitar brands into the BandLab portfolio. Among these are:

  • Heritage Guitars – A high quality boutique guitar company ironically founded by former Gibson Kalamazoo craftsmen, Heritage makes old school archtop jazz guitars, semi hollow and solid body electric guitars that equal or surpass those of Gibson during the 1960s and 1970s. Heritage inked a worldwide sales and marketing agreement with BandLab in 2017.
  • MONO gig bags and cases – One of the first companies offering superb travel protection for transporting guitars and basses in practical gig bag configurations for urban musicians requiring public transportation, MONO cases set a niche industry standard that competitors are still attempting to match. Used by Metallica, The Roots and Red Hot Chili Peppers as well as countless musicians around the world, MONO was acquired in 2016 from founder Daniel Kushner. Kuok Meng Ru was a MONO fan for his own instruments purchased at Swee Lee and remains so to this day.
  • Harmony and Teisco – Popular guitar brands from the 1950s and 1960s, Teisco and Harmony instruments have been used on stage and in the studio by artists like Jimmy Page (“Stairway to Heaven”) and John Sebastian (in the film Woodstock ) among others. The company eventually stopped American production while its brand name continued through the 1990s and 2000s  being associated with cheap, mass produced, imported starter instruments. Founded in post World War II Japan in 1948, Teisco’s funky kitsch designs and unique gold foil pickups are crucial to the tones of consummate session musicians and ethnomusicologists David Lindley and Ry Cooder, as well as Glen Campbell during his days as a member of studio musicians “The Wrecking Crew.”

BandLab Technologies’ revival of these iconic brands includes new designs, such as Harmony’s Silhouette, Rebel, and Jupiter, that have impressed musicians with their sound, playability and appearance. They have also reissued the Harmony 8418 tube amp combo, which early guitar lore cites as similar to the model first used by Keith Richards and Brian Jones during the genesis of the Rolling Stones. For Teisco, no instruments have been released so far, but a series of a Boost, Delay and Fuzz pedal, each hearkening back to the sounds of the psychedelic 1960s, is a first step towards redefining the brand with a nod to the Teisco pedigree.

Publishing

One of the first instances where BandLab Technologies made its presence felt on the international music scene was in 2016, when it bought founder Jann Wenner’s 49% stake in Rolling Stone Magazine. BandLab has also acquired periodicals Guitar and MusicTech from the UK.

With both physical print and digital versions now consolidated, BandLab’s communications to musicians, musical equipment manufacturers and the music industry is a unique hub for making it a “go to” as both an information source and an influencer through the BandLab social media platform.

Unable to acquire majority control over Rolling Stone from Penske Media, BandLab subsequently sold its stake earlier in 2019.

Turning back to England, BandLab Technologies’ latest acquisitions have been Uncut and NME (aka New Musical Express), a publication rivaling Rolling Stone. NME had been published in the UK since 1952 but had ceased printing earlier in 2018. As of late 2018, NME now reaches the widest readership in its history with over 16 million people a month through its digital platform.

Social Media and Putting It All Together

Kuok Meng Ru is one of millions of musicians in the Pacific Rim and Asia. Apart from K-Pop and Bollywood, original music from that region (aside from Australia) has yet to become as ubiquitous around the world as music from the US, UK and Europe. One of the driving imperatives for the founding of BandLab Technologies was for establishing a social media platform for artists worldwide to showcase their work, connect with each other, and exchange ideas internationally.

With the publishing pieces in place to connect musicians with gear, trends, and international music industry news, BandLab’s GarageBand-styled recording platform was adequate for hobbyists, semi-pro musicians, and EDM or sample-based hip-hop artists who relied more on loops and digital cut and paste to assemble tracks than on professional-level recording. With the acquisition of Cakewalk, BandLab essentially is offering a revamped version of the $499 street price Sonar Platinum, the top DAW choice for PC-based musicians, for free.

In addition to BandLab’s ability to offer a pro level DAW established brand that was capable of 96 kHz high-resolution and 5.1 surround sound mixing, they also accessed the millions of loyal Sonar and Cakewalk users around the globe to add to the millions already subscribed to BandLab. Making a premium version of Cakewalk available for free is a canny way to cement thepast loyal users and gives BandLab a pro level credibility cachet in its subscription expansion overseas.

Putting the vertical integration structure palm oil industry lessons of his father into practice, Meng has completed the circle for his own music business empire:

  • The ground level tool elements to offer musicians for the creation of music (Cakewalk, guitar companies).
  • The marketing and promotion elements to establish his brand, via the periodicals (NME, Uncut), and websites, which includes education (MusicTech), training, and social media connections.
  • The Swee Lee retail outlets to promote the lifestyle image and access to the instruments, in person networking, and concert events.

BandLab is the hub around which all of these elements, seamlessly connected and smoothly coordinated along multiple avenues, revolve.

First Singapore, Next, the World

The Kuok Family could easily be a reference model for the fictional Young family from the hit movie Crazy Rich Asians. Kuok Meng Ru, 31, has already forged a separate path and is building a self-contained music industry conglomerate with BandLab that is successfully growing.

Ironically, the downfall of Gibson was due to Henry Juszkiewicz failing in his attempts to construct a similar model, which was the rationale for Gibson’s mismatched acquisitions of such disparate companies as hi fi audio company Onkyo, KRK Monitors, Cerwin Vega, Stanton, and Teac – along with Sonar. Juszkiewicz’s acquisition plan lacked a cohesive way to connect these standalone manufacturers’ offerings together for the end-customer musician in the digital age.

BandLab may not yet be a household name, but its achievements have not gone unnoticed by its rivals. Hamamatsu, Japan-headquartered Roland has recently launched its own take on the BandLab model with Zenbeats. They are already adding subscribers via the acquisition of Stagelight, a smaller social media and GarageBand model music website catering to EDM and Hip-Hop artists. Roland synthesizers, keyboards, sound processing, and amplification are firmly established products at all levels in the music industry. Roland is using Zenbeats to connect its loyal user base of musicians in a similar manner to BandLab.

At 31, Kuok Meng Ru still has a long career ahead of himself.  He has not ruled out joining the family’s multi-billion dollar business in the future, but has not felt any pressure to do so. Thus, for the time being, he is clearly a man having fun in a field he loves while reviving brands that millions of musicians feared would become extinct. Music fans around the world may not know BandLab or Kuok yet, but one suspects that anonymity will be waning very soon.