Never invest in Music or Hardware…
I’m an avid musician, but when I hear about a music startup my first reaction is usually “not another music startup”.
Mattermark lists 17,000 Music startups — fighting for a global recorded music market of less than $20B. Ouch. We all want to start businesses in areas we’re passionate about — but music is a victim of its own popularity — a startup graveyard.
ROLI is one of those startups that makes you tear up the rule book.
I first visited ROLI in October 2013 (more here), and helped lead the Series A at Balderton. We loved Roland Lamb, the preternaturally thoughtful and visionary CEO. We loved the stellar team he’d assembled, with a calibre of design, hardware and deep-software talent that’s rare to find outside Silicon Valley. We loved the potential to shake up the Musical Instruments industry — an industry that, unlike music consumption, has seen surprisingly little innovation.
So when Roland came knocking at BGF Ventures’ door for the Series B, I was excited. But conflicted.
We’re all biased to believe in the companies we’ve backed before. We grow too attached to have true perspective.
So is this really an iconic, industry-transforming company? Or just a niche business with a cool product, charismatic team and great PR?
ROLI’s original Seaboard was a breakthrough in musical expression — allowing the player to bend pitch, make notes louder and softer, and even adjust the timbre, whilst sustaining the note. It enables you to play a violin like a violinist, an electric guitar like a guitarist. But more significantly, it allows you to create whole new sounds that have never been possible before. Just as the invention of the piano enabled Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt to create ground-breaking new compositions, so the Seaboard could potentially usher in a new era of music that’s more rich and expressive and awesome than any before.
But the Seaboard had two problems. It was really expensive. And it was hard to play. So much sensitivity, it was unforgiving to a competent amateur like me.
ROLI have answered these challenges in spectacular fashion with the Seaboard RISE. It’s a beautiful instrument, sturdily built, elegantly designed, sumptuous to touch. And thanks to the nifty backlit dials next to the keyboard, you can instantly adjust how sensitive it is to those other dimensions. The price, at $799 or $1199 (for the Rise 49) is, I think, remarkably good. And combined with the (free) Noise app — the first musical app to take advantage of Apple’s 3D touch — suddenly we have a way to create entirely new types of music, accessible to just about any musician.
As investors we love inspiring entrepreneurs with big visions. But what we love even more is great execution, and a trajectory that makes you stop in your tracks and say, “Wow, have you really achieved all that since I was last here?”.
ROLI is one of those companies that raises your bar of what great looks like. And, having seen several of the products in their pipeline, I can assure you, this is only the beginning.
So congratulations to Roland and the team on your $27M Series B. We’re thrilled to be part of the round here at BGF Ventures, alongside Foundry Group and Founders Fund.
Here’s to plenty more amazing music — and hardware — ahead...
P.S. “one more thing”.
Marco Parisi, one of ROLI’s incredible demonstrators, played Prince’s “Purple Rain” to a small group of us last week on the Seaboard Rise. All our mouths hung open in wonder as he recreated and riffed on Prince’s legendary guitar solo.
When he finished, I asked him if he could play that on the guitar.
“It would take me 10 or 20 years to play that solo as well as Prince on the guitar. Perhaps I could never play it.”
On the Seaboard, it had taken him 2 days.