The maker of futuristic musical interfaces gets new direction, new co-ownership, and of course a sound pack from the pop star.

UK startup ROLI continues to break from the path of the conventional musical instrument maker. There are the instruments themselves – the spongy spaceship-deck piano that is the Seaboard; the small, touchable, square wireless mobile music interfaces BLOCKS. And then there are the splashy investments, the focus on pushing forward technology, the chic London office and manufacturing, and — well, now this.

Pharrell Williams, the polymath producer and chart-topping popstar, will join ROLI.

The star joins ROLI founder/CEO Roland Lamb.

There are several things happening here at once:

1. He’s becoming Chief Creative Officer.

2. He’s investing – which makes him a co-owner.

3. (Of course) he’s making a sound pack (“studiopack”) for the app, based on his song “Happy.”

#3 – the problem here, and maybe with Williams himself, is the short lifespan of pop. “Happy” would have been huge had it come to ROLI’s platform earlier. Now, it’s fun, and goes nicely with this announcement, but remember that Guitar Hero and their ilk able to incorporate pretty much all major pop music ever and eventually still lost steam. On the other hand, this isn’t Guitar Hero or Rock Band. We’ve seen abortive attempts to create hits with mobile remixing before, but if Williams brings some popstar friends with him – and ROLI play on their ability to make the experience tactile with their hardware accessories – maybe they can make this a success.

More immediately is the impact this appears to offer for ROLI the firm. Adding Williams means connections to the pop music world, and other artists. That was huge for Beats, and has been significant to many other startups. And … it can also backfire, as it did with Tidal. But at least ROLI has a product, and a unique one.

This also means Mr. Williams is bringing ROLI cash. With forward-thinking, research-heavy products, that seems something that could benefit the company. Musical investment – see SoundCloud – can be slow in generating returns. To do things that are genuinely futuristic requires looking pretty far down the runway, in a way that car-hailing apps or chat tools may not.

The company says in a statement they hope the collaboration will “accelerate the arc of innovation.”

Money and connections to popular music may well be essential if ROLI will achieve wider reach. And we haven’t yet seen a pop-hardware instrument collaboration quite like this. It comes the same week as a major investment deal announced by Native Instruments, one which also promises to chase the consumer space and new ways of producing music. (More on that in a separate story.)

Track record: Williams joined Hans Zimmer in launching UJAM, a collaborative online music production tool that… well, never really went anywhere. And he’s invested in bionic yarn (no, really – think environmentally friendly textiles), real estate in Detroit, and recently became a co-owner of G-Star Raw.

More of the ownership and leadership is inclothing companies and textiles than it is music creation, surprisingly. Confusing those categories can lead to trouble – ask Apple how they’re doing with Watch relative to the rest of their offerings. And there doesn’t seem to be anything to suggest Williams will bring any additional focus in the leadership role. (The parallel is, perhaps, Trent Reznor with Apple Music. But then, Apple Music hasn’t necessarily turned into a darling of music producers, and the artist sharing features Reznor touted publicly were all quietly taken out of the spotlight.)

I’m regularly in touch with ROLI, though, so I’ll see if they can shed some light on how they expect the collaboration to unfold – and we’ll have to wait and see.

The ground around music making is shifting. The question is to what – and whether these sorts of gambles will pay off, or if they’ll go the way of other celebrity-tech dreams in music creation.

  • Eh

    I appreciate your criticism but I think professionals are meant to ignore this… It very respectable of them to offer shares instead of using urban celebrities by giving them free gear, but unless you have something to source claiming financial issues, they have several very impressive rounds of funding.. just doubt someone who only made $2,700 of 43 million streams of “happy” is really gonna impact funding that exceeds his own net worth. I can’t find any other news that suggests roli is stressed, I would probably still buy if it went public.

    • foljs

      > just doubt someone who only made $2,700 of 43 million streams of “happy”

      If you think those “$2,700” from streaming are in any way indicative of Williams net worth (which is estimated in the $80 million) then you really have a lot to learn about the music business.

      • eh

        Cognitive distortion tends to happen when you read my comments.

  • richard conrad


  • i wished they would more take care of their dev forum instead of only focusing on advertisement communication..

  • chap

    Lol !
    I dislike this company more and more everyday !
    Star system, sexy videos… Ok. What about customer respect and artistic innovation ?
    The new Roli blocks that “fixes” bad pressure sensitivity less than one year after v1 is an insult.
    Won’t take part of this entertainment system.

    • foljs

      > What about customer respect and artistic innovation ?

      What about it?

      > The new Roli blocks that “fixes” bad pressure sensitivity less than one year after v1 is an insult.

      It doesn’t fix any actual bug.

      It brings a new, improved form of surface. Adding new and improved stuff is what all version n+1 products do. That doesn’t mean the older model was in any way broken.

      > Won’t take part of this entertainment system.

      Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.

      • chap

        They made at least one firmware upgrade that claimed to improve the pressure sensitivity. This means they were aware of the problem. Anyway, i’ve seen no improvement.
        The first generation is really unexpressive, not to say useless. So a second generation less than one year after, that hurts.
        M4L or custom software is were innovation could reside. Unfortunately, the max externals are developed by a third party and quite unstable in m4l (the connexion is always lost when reverting from edit mode). On the other side, the Blocks Dashboard software is still in massively buggy beta version.
        So what’s left is iOS gadget apps and a wonky piece of hardware.
        Not to mention the fact that if you want to use it with bluetooth, you have to re-enable it as a MIDI via BT device, EVERY time you switch on your computer. That’s ok for shooting an ad, but definitely unusable on stage.

  • eh

    shade was thrown cause ableton 10 doesn’t have mpe support lol

  • cpc464freak

    Ahahahah… and with that dumbass move, I’m outa here Roli, you not gettin my cash!