SINGAPORE—As Rolling Stone magazine struggles to regain relevance, a friendship between the son of its co-founder and the scion of a Malaysian billionaire could help it chart a new course—in Asia.
BandLab Technologies Ltd., the Singapore maker of a collaborative music app, has purchased a 49% stake in the storied biweekly and its digital assets under a deal announced recently.
The two men behind the alliance, who became friends over dinner a year earlier, are both in their 20s. Gus Wenner, 26, oversees ad sales, marketing and digital editorial for Rolling Stone and is the son of the company’s co-founder, while Meng Ru Kuok, 28 and the co-founder of BandLab, is the son of palm oil magnate Kuok Khoon Hong.
In announcing the deal, Mr. Wenner and Mr. Kuok said a new Rolling Stone International unit will seek to leverage its brand identity in Asia, one of the few areas left for media companies to find fresh growth as its economies grow and incomes rise.
For Rolling Stone, which made its name covering the music industry, Asia has a large market of its own, worth more than $3.2 billion in 2015, according to IFPI, a recording industry group. The magazine publishes 12 international editions, including three in Asia.
The deal “is not a short-term partnership. It is about the expansion of Rolling Stone internationally into new areas of opportunity and propelling the brand’s global growth,” Mr. Wenner said.
That market can be tough to crack for foreign music brands, but can be valuable for those that do, both in the music and publishing industries that Rolling Stone straddles. The media market in Asia will be the largest source of absolute growth for the industry in the next five years, according to consulting firm McKinsey.
“I’d say they are going fishing where the fishes swim,” said Jasper Donat, president of Asian live music and conference organizer Music Matters. “In the past, people in the international music businesses have looked at Asia with a raised eyebrow, but now we‘re really coming of age,” he said.
The new Rolling Stone International unit will be led by Mr. Kuok. It will give Rolling Stone the opportunity to expand into the live event, hospitality and merchandising business in Asia, where Mr. Kuok has experience.
BandLab’s main product is a free mobile app that allows musicians to collaborate on songwriting. The company has declined to reveal user numbers, but said it is on target to have one million users by early next year.
BandLab wouldn’t elaborate on its growth plans after its investment in Rolling Stone. It said Rolling Stone International would be seeking growth “with a global mandate that is beyond just Asia.”
‘I’d say they are going fishing where the fishes swim’
The Kuok family brings with it long experience in the Asian market and close connections with China, a tightly-controlled market notoriously hard to crack for media companies.
Kuok Khoon Hong’s fortune was made mostly in agriculture under Wilmar International Ltd. WLMIY 1.48 % , a Singapore-listed firm that is one of the world’s largest palm-oil producers and has a market capitalization of about $15 billion.
The senior Mr. Kuok co-founded Wilmar, and is himself the nephew of Malaysia’s richest man, Robert Kuok, a business magnate who controls an empire that includes luxury hotel brand Shangri-La, as well as agriculture and real estate pursuits. The two men have a combined wealth of about $14 billion, according to Forbes.
Many of the elderly Mr. Kuok’s companies are exposed to China, where he has had longstanding ties to Chinese leaders and well-established business operations.
Yet the younger generation of his family, at least in Singapore, tend more to western tastes.
BandLab co-founder Meng Ru Kuok, a Malaysian citizen, has a degree in mathematics from the University of Cambridge in the U.K. and went to a boarding school there. After a short stint at Wilmar, he entered the music industry, buying a retailer and distributor of musical instruments and audio equipment before founding BandLab.
His wealthy family, according to his company, “is extremely supportive of his entrepreneurial pursuits.”
The company said in an emailed response to queries that the young Mr. Kuok “was trained from a young age that passion, patience and long-term commitment are key elements for success,” aspiring to build his own business in the manner of his father.
Meng Ru Kuok wouldn’t be the first in his family to pursue an interest in the media business. The family patriarch Robert Kuok owned Hong Kong’s premier English-language publication, the South China Morning Post, for more than 20 years before selling it to China’s Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. BABA 0.23 % last year.
Write to Jake Maxwell Watts at [email protected]
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