The Genius is perhaps the most recognizable publisher known for its online annotation platform for music lovers. The website Genius.com ranks #4 position on Similarweb. But have you ever wondered how a bootstrapped startup established in 2009 outranked behemoths like Pandora, Rolling Stone, and Billboard?
We did. And there isn’t a single reason that encouraged us to select Genius for our next Becoming series. What most of the music publishers missed, Genius built. The publisher came up with a platform that transformed the static, flat lyric pages into an interactive, vibrant art experience.
In just a span of ten years, the publisher has grown its audience base from 0 to 94 Million and generates over $45.9 Million in revenue (Src). To understand how this startup remains one of the top five world’s iconic music publishers, we have to look deeper into their journey, including distinctive expansion strategies, successful and failed attempts.
How It All Started?
Launched initially as Rap Exegesis in 2009 with a prime focus on demystifying hip-hop or rap music, Genius was just a fun weekend website created by three Yale students – Tom Lehman, Ilan Zechory, and Mahbod Moghadam.
Where are they Today?
Today, from a crowdsourced blog to an annotation powerhouse, Genius has grown to serve music knowledge to over 100 million people each month on the website. More than 2 million contributors and editors are collaborating with the publisher to expand the culture beyond the rap genre. Globally ranked at 4, 85% of the Genius website’s total traffic comes from the Search engine.
Data Source: Similarweb
So, why is the Genius so famous? How does it become such an indispensable resource for millions of audiences? Let’s take a deep dive into the journey of the publisher.
Becoming The Genius
The Beginning of a New Musical Era
From 2009 – 2011
In 2009, three classmates at Yale University – Tom Lehman, Ilan Zechory, and Mahbod Moghadam were brainstorming the lyrics of Camron ‘Family Ties’ song and asked the meaning of ‘80 holes in your shirt, there: your Jamaican clothes’. And this is how they came up with the idea ‘Rap Exegesis’, a platform for annotating song lyrics.
“Lyrics is the most popular word searched on the Web after Facebook,”
– Mahbod Moghadam (Src)
A week later, Tom Lehman, being a programmer, started coding the website to make it live on the Internet. It was 19th August 2009, when Lehman entered the first line of code at 12.30 PM, and by 6.22 PM, the first version of Rap Exegesis was finished (Src). But the website had no mechanism to add or edit the annotations, and Lehman had to add them in the application’s code by hand.
First Version of Rap Exegesis
The very first article published on Rap Exegesis was Camron’s 2004 soundtrack ‘Killa Cam’ lyrics. The first post broke down the meaning of the song when users clicked on the text on the website and looked like this:
The publisher was pretty excited about the new beginnings, but the challenges were just starting. First off – the name of the blog ‘Rap Exegesis’ became the hurdle for the publisher. Because nobody could spell ‘Exegesis’, the Co-founders found it challenging to familiarize their families and friends with the brand name. How would they spread the word about their website?
As a solution, the publisher added the pronunciation of ‘Exegesis’ and redesigned the website. Now, the users were able to learn how to pronounce Exegesis by downloading the MP3 file. But do you believe it worked for the publisher?
No right? Because for a website with minimal traffic, word of mouth is the best method of marketing. And adding an MP3 on a website wasn’t supposed to be helpful. Due to the failed attempt, the publisher had to rename as ‘Rap Genius’ in December 2009.
With a simplified and memorable name, the next thing was how to produce enough content for the website to bring enough users. And while working on Genius as a side project, it was strenuous to do. So, the publisher allowed any interested artist or music lover to contribute to Rap Genius, and they could add/explain lines of verse or chorus of any song.
“Opening up the site, Wikipedia-style, came out of a desire to talk about lyrics with people smarter, funnier and more insightful than we were,”
– Tom Lehman, CEO, Genius (Src)
Contributors could upload the annotation they deemed worthwhile, and users could click on any text/word to understand the meaning of lyrics. But that doesn’t mean that the content was published without approval. The Rap Genius Community checked the submissions and commentary so that only valuable content appears on the website.
“My approach is let’s do something shitty, see how people interact with something real — something functionally and immaturely designed. Once we know we want to do something, our goal is just to get it out there.”
– Tom Lehman, CEO, Genius (Src)
By the mid of 2010, the website rapgenius.com started gaining serious traction from the public. As they searched for the song lyrics on Google, they started arriving at Rap Genius’ website.