Music Ally first came across Roli in 2013, when it was named as a finalist in the SXSW Music Accelerator startups contest, before we reported on its $12.8m funding round the following year from investors including Universal Music Group.
The company was focused on music instruments, with its first being the Seaboard Grand, a keyboard whose rubber keys allowed players to bend notes a bit like a guitar. It was priced for professionals, but it marked the company out as one to watch in the music hardware space.
Since then, Roli’s products have been getting more accessible and affordable: there was the Seaboard Rise in 2015; the Roli Blocks modular synth controllers in 2016; the Seaboard Block keyboard in 2017; and then the Lumi keyboard in 2019.
Lumi, which launched with a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign that drummed up £1.6m in pre-orders, was a hardware/software/service play. A keyboard that could light up with different colours, designed to be used with an app that would teach you to play piano, with access to a subscription-based library of lessons and songs.
Fast forward to September this year, and Lumi’s off-Kickstarter debut as a redesigned device (the Lumi Keys 1) costing $299, with more than 400 songs and 100 lessons for people to work through. The cost includes a 12-month subscription to the Lumi Complete subscription, which usually costs $9.99 a month with a discount for annual purchases.
Music Ally talked to Roli CEO Roland Lamb ahead of the launch, to find out more about the device, and how it and Roli fit into the worlds of music/tech and music education.
The spark for Lumi was partly the Roli Blocks, and their use of light and colour. “We realised that light could be a powerful tool for making a product that was even simpler, and could address a wider market,” says Lamb.
“We had that experience of working with light in instrument design, which we wanted to apply to the keyboard, but in a form that’s for absolute beginners. Seaboard was designed for professional musicians, but we felt there was a huge group of people out there who want to engage with music, so could we use our technology to engage with them?”
These thoughts came amid another trend within technology more generally: “the market shift towards hardware and software services, and subscriptions”. Lamb saw fitness startups like Peloton emerge, with its exercise bike and video workouts, and realised that this approach might work for music education.
“Peloton was a real inspiration to me. Fitness is a big market, but it’s very distributed. There are lots of little entry points: little gyms and different kinds of exercises you can do, so it was finding ways you can consolidate that a little bit into more of a technology platform,” he says.
“Music is like that. There are lots of instruments, but for different reasons – largely with technology readiness – there hadn’t yet been bigger and more ambitious platforms that could consolidate, to address a wider set of people’s needs.”
Lamb was certainly aware of companies like Yousician and JoyTunes with their piano-learning apps and subscription services, although they relief on the user owning their own piano or keyboard, or using the app’s on-screen version.
He’s also followed the progress of Fender Play, the guitar manufacturer’s digital lessons platform. Lumi is an attempt to take the next step on, with hardware designed specifically for the learning platform.
“The thing for us is that the integrated model is quite powerful. There are a lot of good apps out there, but the integrated hardware and software can really take the friction out of the early stages of learning, making it into this colourful, fun experience,” he says.
The pitch for Lumi is a nuanced one. Yes, it’s very easy to start playing songs (from nursery rhymes to pop hits) by following the keyboard’s coloured lights. But Roli wants it to be more than just a Guitar Hero or Simon Says-style rhythm game.
“Without knowing anything about music theory or the notes, you could confidently play Stand By Me or Get Lucky. But once you’re comfortable playing the track, you can then start to understand the notation. The skills that you’re learning on Lumi are transferable to any piano or keyboard in the world,” says Lamb.
One interesting thing about the Lumi Complete subscription (and those existing rivals) is what it says about the value of music education. The cost – $9.99 – is the same price that people pay for a music streaming subscription.
There’s a value to learning that, for some people anyway, sits alongside the value of listening – of access to the global catalogue of music.
“I think that we have pretty different ideas about services associated with consumption, and with enrichment,” suggests Lamb. It’s one thing if you’re consuming a track or watching a movie – of course those can be enriching experiences too – but it’s different if I’m building the foundation of a lifelong skill. People will pay!”
A Lumi Keys 1 is certainly more accessible and affordable than the original Seaboard Grand, but Lamb makes it clear he understands there’s still a cost: $299 plus a monthly subscription is “still not in range for everyone, and over time we want to look at all of that”.
Historically, when Music Ally has talked to music education technology startups, many have said that the experience of dealing with music rightsholders (and publishers in particular) was a challenge – through lack of interest and/or inflated expectations of licensing fees. Encouragingly, Lamb says that’s been changing.
“Quite dramatically there’s been a shift from rightsholders, from the feeling like ‘we need to build walls around our IP’ now they’re feeling that they need appropriate deals of course, but really the name of their game is going to be multiple revenue streams, building up different ways in which this can be benefitting rightsholders and creators,” he says.
Lamb adds that Roli has seen strong engagement from musicians in its products and its efforts to license their music.
“Musicians love music learning,” he says. “They love people to be learning their track, becoming super fans and engaging with their content. And frankly just to be learning music. They have a natural affinity: they believe music [making] should be democratised in some form.”
The super-fans pitch is important for Roli: the hope that “if you had learned several tracks of an artist, you’d be more inclined to go to their concert, for example, and would feel that you have a deeper relationship with this artist now”.
Looking ahead, Lamb is also excited about the impact that Lumi and similar products can have: not just in teaching people to play famous songs by artists they know, but to lead some of them towards composing and sharing their own music.
The marketing emphasis with Lumi is on the education and its companion app, but the device can also be used as a MIDI keyboard with music creation and production software, including Roli’s own Roli Studio, which launched commercially in April as a standalone product.
“It’s no coincidence that this product is also going to be sold to hobbyists and professionals with this other software suite,” says Lamb.
“We’re also going to work on ways within the Lumi app that you can get creative and play with more compositional ideas. We’re very keen on bridging the gap. One idea that’s been foundational for us is building a smooth on-ramp to music making, from the first baby steps to the wider journey.”
“Actually with Lumi that same modality of light, which is very powerful for learning, can also be quite helpful for people in composition.”