BandLab CEO Meng Ru Kuok on The Future of The Music Creator Economy

"Our fundamental principle is that music making is more than just the tools, and so with that in mind, in our paradigm, as social creation grows, so does social consumption and engagement."

Welcome to Issue #12 of Appetite for Distraction, a newsletter exploring how technology is bridging the gap between art and commerce. My goal is to make this a resource that cuts through the noise; helping creators and creative industry professionals make informed decisions. 

If you know someone who would prefer their industry insight in Spanish, point them towards Apetito por la Distracción for the Spanish version of this piece. 

As always, thanks so much for subscribing, and please tell a few friends if you’d like! 

— Yash


A few months ago, I mapped out why we still don’t have a vibrant music creator economy. One of the companies I mentioned in that piece was BandLab—a social music creation platform launched in 2015—essentially aiming users to create and distribute user-generated music content. BandLab supports 37 million creators, and recently announced that it is outpacing GarageBand in mobile downloads.

Soon after I published the music-creator economy map, BandLab’s founder Meng Ru Kuok reached out. We spoke about the future of the music industry and the creator economy, and more importantly, where and how these two worlds collide. In many of these areas, our views align. In many others, they don’t. But one thing is undeniable: Meng is uniquely positioned to have an insightful perspective on both—the music industry and the creator economy. In this essay, I distill some of the key takeaways from our conversation: 

(Before diving into this conversation, I strongly recommend reading my essay on why we still don’t have a music creator economy.)


What does the career trajectory of a successful music creator on BandLab look like? 

For a platform charting the course of the next-generation of artists, we definitely don’t think there is a cookie cutter career trajectory or definition of success especially as the platform is so young. Many of our users are of a generation where they have never paid for music in their lives, and don’t have the mindset of expecting to get paid for their music.

But for those who see income as a measure of success, one definition that we are striving to build for is a world in which we are supporting creators to be able to earn a living wage through music. Or at very least, fair compensation for the time they commit to their craft to focus on their passion and love for music, with BandLab as a component of their journey as a creator - whether in music creation or as a platform to engage with their community. That to us would be a success.

There is an extremely wide variety of creators on BandLab, from signed, professional artists who use BandLab in their ideation workflow, recording ideas on their phone and building them out before finishing them in the studio to absolute beginners who are beginning their creator journey.

Does success on the platform act as a funnel to record deals, or other forms of mainstream music industry success? (For example, record deals, charting, playlist placements on major DSPs, etc.)

In the context of the wider music industry, we don’t believe there is any longer a career trajectory of a successful musician in the traditional sense. A study in 2018 showed the median professional musician annual income to be $20-25k - which isn’t even a living wage for a single person in many states in the USA.

How does social capital accumulated on BandLab flow over to other social platforms?

For our users who use BandLab as their primary social platform as it relates to their music, social capital (followers, plays, likes, engagement) accumulated on BandLab is something that tends to be native to the platform and that which our users build upon as their foundation - in the same way that social capital on Instagram doesn’t usually flow over to Twitter and vice versa.

BandLab 10.0 lets creators directly upload their songs on TikTok. How do you see this feature playing out? 

Many of our users already share their music/creation process to TikTok, or use BandLab as the creation tool for their original sounds. Direct upload to TikTok for us is a fairly straightforward quality of life improvement to simplify the process of sharing their content to other sharing platforms - especially ones as crucial to music as TikTok.

If we segregate time spent in-app, does the average Bandlab user spend more time creating music? Or consuming music?

Given the speed the platform has grown in the past 24 months, we’re still improving how we segregate analytics across different parts of the platform. That being said, on a monthly basis currently roughly 55% of our user base actively both creates and consumes (social interactions like playing, liking, sharing, commenting on posts from users), 20% exclusively engages socially (so perhaps are fans only), and the remaining 25% exclusively creates without engaging in consumption/the social network.

BandLab today leans more towards music creation. How are you planning to become a hub for content consumption in the future?

We don’t think purely in the context of content consumption like we would if we were a DSP - rather we focus on engagement with content and creators. Our fundamental principle is that music making is more than just the tools, and so with that in mind, in our paradigm, as social creation grows, so does social consumption and engagement.

How do you plan to make the creation of music truly-frictionless? (especially given how intolerant we are to amateur music, as well as the attention economy)

Our vision is a world in which there are no barriers to making and sharing music. In the context of BandLab being the world’s only mobile-first, universal, free and cross-platform tool to making music solo or collaboratively, with over 10 million tracks being made a month on the platform we feel we’ve made some progress in helping to make the creation of music more frictionless. That being said, we’re just getting started. Tools like the Looper allow our users to be making music without any musical background and just a few taps of their fingers - but we have some exciting updates coming soon that will continue to simplify the ability to generate ideas and make that zero-to-hero moment even more seamless and approachable. Watch this space!

Amateur or professional, the sheer amount of music in the world today means that the problem for any artist, big or small, is not distribution - but differentiation. The skill level of an artist, or the precision or techniques with which they record do not define the success or ability for their music to connect with fans and it would be irresponsible for us to value music in that way. That’s again why the social interactions between our creators is so important, because it helps to build a relationship with artists and then subsequently their content in ways that are not possible when just on a shop-front at a DSP.

Thoughts on interest graph versus social graph for recommending user-generated music content? 

In a music social network context like BandLab these things are actually closely intertwined and live and breathe in conjunction with each other. Artists tend to group socially in terms of the things they have common interests in, genres, types of music - but the act of collaboration and finding new sounds tend to drive discovery, recommendations and user generated creation around social connections rather than just similar styles of music (rappers/producers collaborating with pop artists for hooks).

What are some of the creator-monetization models Bandlab is exploring? 

Today on BandLab we already have Fan-to-Artist one-time payments via the BandLab Tip Jar as well as BandLab Albums, which allows artists to sell digital albums and singles to fans via the platform. For both these features, unlike other platforms, the creator keeps 100% of the take.

As it relates to the things we’re exploring, I’m unfortunately unable to share more right now, but we have new Artist-Fan monetization features we will be announcing in the coming weeks!

ICYMI

New studies quantify TikTok's growing impact on culture and music  | TikTok

  • TikTok recently published a commissioned study on their impact on culture and music. “The majority of TikTokers not only discover new music on TikTok but also hear songs they don't hear anywhere else. 75% of TikTok users say they discover new artists through TikTok and 63% of TikTok users heard new music that they've never heard before on TikTok.” 

YouTube Culture & Trends Report 2021 | YouTube

  • This report is a great summary of how YouTube thinks about its creators, and just how ubiquitous it has become when it comes to video creation and consumption across the globe, as subgenres become subcultures. Read the tl;dr version here.  

Borders Blurred is a new agency aiming to create in-game music events  | Will Nelson, NME 

  • In-game music events are growing, so the fact that supporting stakeholders are cropping up isn’t surprising. Will legacy stakeholders like Live Nation and AEG start acquiring some of these younger companies? Or will we see a new breed of virtual-first live music stakeholders? My bet is the latter. “Borders Blurred believes that the crossover between music and esports & gaming is where the exciting stuff is happening and we are the drivers and the facilitators of this brave new world.” (also, hope they’ve read the book) 

Music Industry x Web3 Reading List 

  1. Selling Music Rights as NFTs: Fad or Future?  | Eamonn Forde , SynchTank

  2. The Dao of DAOs | Packy McCormick, Not Boring 

  3. The Decentralized Autonomous "1,000 True Fan" Organisation | Bas Grasmayer, Music x

What I’m Listening To 

If You’ve Made It This Far.. 

You can make it all the way. 

What I’m Brewing

Idjwi Island, Lake Kivu, D.R. Congo from Shokunin via Bean Portal (Gracias Ree!!)  

Also check out James Hoffman’s guide to steaming milk perfectly—an incredibly hard task as I’ve recently realised. 

Thank you so much for reading! If you want to get in touch, you can respond directly to this email or reach out on Twitter! Always excited to meet like-minded humans! 

Until next time,

— Yash