Music startup Roli adds Sony as investor, eyes up expanded range of hardware and software

When people think of music startups in the tech world, the focus is often on streaming, or figuring out how to better track and monetise those streams, or perhaps hardware to make those streams sound better.  But today comes news of funding for a startup that is tackling a different kind of challenge: tapping innovations from the tech world to develop new instruments and ways of creating music.

Roli, a London-based startup that develops new styles of keyboards to compose and play music that subsequently can be consumed and engaged with using smartphones and other devices, has announced new strategic investment from the Sony Innovation Fund, the VC arm of the Japanese consumer electronics and entertainment giant. The plan is to use the funds to expand its range of connected instruments — or, as the tech world might call it, hardware — as well as to develop the software that runs on them.

“We’re developing new music-making tools across hardware and software,” founder and CEO Roland Lamb said. “It’s part of our long-term plan to create the first totally integrated hardware-software platform for music creation. The funding from SIF accelerates this, and positions us to continue focusing on innovative research and development as we scale.”

This is a strategic investment for Sony across a number of areas. Among two of the biggest: Sony has a sizeable business in audio hardware; and, by way of Sony Music, one of the world’s biggest recording label conglomerates. (It’s also the owner of a vast gaming empire and film and television studios, giving it a number of entry points to working with Roli.)

Neither Roli nor Sony are disclosing the amount of funding, but for some context, PitchBook notes that Roli had previously raised around $46 million, and today the company said that the total raised is “over $50 million.” Sony is not the first strategic investor in the company: others from the music world include Universal Music; Pharrell Williams, who is also Roli’s chief creative officer; and Onkyo, the Japanese audio company that also controls the Pioneer brand of home entertainment devices — which had invested previously but is only getting disclosed today.

Technology backers, meanwhile, include a strong list of VCs such as Index Ventures, Foundry Group, Balderton, Horizons Ventures, Founders Fund, Kreos, BGF and Local Globe, Saul Klein’s new fund.

The fact that there are so many tech investors in the company is notable. It underscores how Roli is aiming to build not just a music company, but one that is rooted in tech and views a large part of the effort here as one of hardware and building software that is able to recreate on digital platforms something that has in its traditional way remained an analogue undertaking. It also speaks to how investors are looking for what new frontiers tech might be tackling, beyond those where it is already alive and well.

Roli is not disclosing its valuation with this investment, but from what we understand, Sony’s funding will have a “neutral” impact. PitchBook’s records note that the most recent round before this (in January 2017) put the company’s valuation at around $82 million.

To date, Roli has released two primary devices: the Seaboard, which resembles a traditional keyboard; and the modular ROLI BLOCKS, square-shaped pads that use light to indicate sounds, pitches and volumes. Both are characterised by their touch-sensitive squidgy material covering, which isn’t hit (as you would a normal piano or keyboard) as much as it is pressed, smudged and tapped in order to create and bend different sounds.

These work in conjunction with each other, as well as an array of other accessories and variations, with prices for the main building blocks starting at $200 and reaching up to the $3,000 range depending on what combination of devices and accessories you get.

The idea is that by changing the interface a musician or composer has with the device that producer uses to create the sounds, you are opening up a new world of music that couldn’t have been made before, or could have been made but with more work and expense involved.

One big question for me with Roli has always been the mainstream potential of its products. There has long been a gulf between creating music yourself and consuming it, with the latter being much easier to do than the former. But now that we have lightweight devices that link up with your smartphone, and make music-making something that is not the exclusive terrain of those who have put in many hours of practice time, or those who have the space to accommodate instruments, will this actually lead to more people wanting and using those devices?

The company has never released any numbers that indicate how well they sell, but they are sold in 30 markets and the plan will now be to expand that number. Of note, Roli has a deal with Apple to sell its devices in Apple’s retail stores, which speaks to how the company pitches its products and, presumably, some of the success it has had with sales.

The Sony investment being announced today is another indicator of Roli’s traction. Sony has a long legacy in audio equipment and audio technology, and one result of this partnership could be closer integration between Roli devices and, for example, Sony’s line of speakers and audio services to help the latter with its sales, in particular to a new wave of consumers who might not be as swayed by Sony’s storied history and brand as older users might be.

“A Sony Walkman was one of the first music products I ever owned,” Lamb said. “I took it on my first trip to Japan as a teenager. It was a magical way to bring my musical world with me everywhere that I went.”

Lamb himself is not a technologist by training but an avid amateur musician who studied philosophy and product design, and believes that there is a parallel between the innovations Sony helped usher in and what Roli is trying to do. “What ROLI is doing with BLOCKS is very similar to what Sony did with the Walkman, but in our case we’ve made a music creation device that you can take with you anywhere. It’s pioneering a new, liberating way of making music, just like Sony pioneered the modern revolution of music listening which hundreds of millions of people benefit from today.”

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