On a recent episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Genius founders Tom Lehman and Ilan Zechory explained how they’re trying to move past their "startup bro" days.
You can read some of the highlights from their interview with Peter at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Media on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.
Transcript by Celia Fogel.
Peter Kafka: Formerly known as Rapgenius.com dudes, now Genius.com dudes. Everyone knows who you are.
Tom Lehman: It's an app also, so just "Genius."
If for some reason people don't know what Genius.com and the Genius app do, tell them.
Tom Lehman: Genius is sort of like subtitles for what people are really saying.
So, like pop-up video.
TL: You might hear the lyrics of a song or the text of a speech, and wonder what's actually going on? What's going on behind the lyrics, behind the words, what went into the creation of this, what do the people involved have to say about it. It's sort of like a companion to experiencing culture and looking deeper. We always say "look deeper." It's a double entendre.
TL: We are annotating, yes.
Who's doing the annotating?
TL: Who's doing the annotating? It's anyone. Anyone can. One thing we like to say is that if you have a brain, you're a genius. Which is to say that there's no one genius out there that knows everything about music or politics or culture generally, but together we know a lot. And everyone has that little piece of obsession that they can contribute, and the sum of all those things. And of course the special pieces of obsession contributed by the contributors of many works of art add up to a pretty cool thing called Genius.
So it's crowdsourcing — you're getting people to do the work for you for free.
TL: Yes, that's correct.
I want to talk about that, I want to talk about the model, I want to talk about you guys as entrepreneurs, because I think these are all interesting. Let's start off just by explaining how you got to here, because you're a couple years into this now, right? Maybe more than that?
IZ: We're almost seven years into the project.
Because you look like you're 24.
TL: [singing] "When I was seven years old ..." I'm feeling like Lukas Graham right now.
I don't even know who that is.
IZ: Tom shaved, I can't grow a beard so ...
TL: He has a song called "7 Years."
IZ: We're sort of forever 27. But we're 32.
But was this something you did in college? Or you did it post-college?
IZ: This was post-college. We met in college.
Yale. You say New Haven?
IZ: Yeah. Mm-hmm. Are you from there?
No, I've just met people from Yale.
IZ: Yeah, we met in college and we just built some stuff together as we were roommates. And this was in the middle of some other projects we were doing, and this was the sort of lark for our own interests and for our friend's projects.
So this was a thing you built in college?
IZ: No. After college.
TL: This builds the groundwork of our relationship.
IZ: We were adult roommates at 23, 24, you know, that age.
And what was the plan? "Heyyyy, the internet's a thing, Facebook's a thing, we should do one of those things"?
IZ: It was sort of the internet's a thing, and it's sort of slow and weird, and people make weird design choices. We started actually being kind of salty critics of stuff we were seeing on the internet; like Tom was especially critical of Seamless. Seamless web, at the time.
TL: I really try not to be so critical anymore. It's hard! It's really hard. So, don't criticize people ever.
IZ: Tom had a really funny blog which was Seamless Web Sucks, where he shat on Seamless' UI.
When you were writing blogs about how much Seamless sucks, and you weren't the only one to think that ...
TL: It's a great service, though.
IZ: It's gotten better.
What were your day jobs? What were you doing after college?
TL: I was working at a hedge fund called D.E. Shaw in New York.
IZ: Tom was a product manager who was building, like, workflow technology. Tom had this piece of software he worked on extensively called Dez Flow, which was their internal work flow. Like, if you have to file a bug, or request an office supply. And Tom knew so much about Dez Flow, and I had talked to him so extensively about Dez Flow, it was only natural that we moved into something else, I think.
TL: The BlackBerry app for Dez Flow we would call Dez Flow Ber, like Flaubert.
Was the thought, "Our plan is to make a thing, and we'll just get around to figuring out what that thing is." Or was you plan, "I'm gonna hang out at D.E. Shaw and work my way up"?
IZ: I think we both had a sort of the "work my way up." I was working at Google, and I think we both thought our jobs were fine and great, but they made us tired, and we were there a lot, and they weren't our projects, and we had a lot of energy. And I think we applied it toward building stuff on the internet. And I gotta give it up for Tom, he became a great programmer very fast.
TL: My original plan was to go to law school, actually. One with old buildings.
Ah, and you wised up. So you wised up and you said, all right. Was Rap Genius the first thing you built, or was there something before that?
IZ: There was Fliff, which was basically Venmo. It was on the Facebook app platform when that was a thing. Remember Slide and like stuff like that? So Facebook app platform was the ...
In 2007/2008, there was a flood.
IZ: Yeah, and we built basically Venmo. It was called Fliff, and it worked and some people used it. And we built Bombsheets.com, which was like Casper for sheets. Which there are Parachute and stuff like that that exist now. We just didn't quite you know, slam-dunk that one. But we built it and sold some sheets and some other stuff.
TL: Better MetroNorth, gotta shout that out. Still exists actually, Bettermetronorth.com.
So you guys went through a bunch of these. "Let's try this one, let's try this one, let's try this one."
IZ: We had a Google wave where we would ... talk about this stuff.
TL: Yeah, my theory was, let's build 20 things. 20 things. How could one not take off? And Genius was like the fifth or sixth.
So it was originally Rap Genius, right? Annotating rap lyrics. Still is a core thing to what you do.
IZ: For sure.
And when you built that, was there a "Ohhh, this is working, this has real traction" moment?
TL: Definitely thought it was cool. It was working to do that from almost the very beginning. The sort of first day, the first couple of days. It definitely seemed cool to be able to click on the interesting and confusing lyric and it tells you what it means. Which was basically the internet version of the fun thing that was happening in our apartment with words and just conversation. And so that was definitely cool in terms of people using it.
Because there's Wikipedia, right? But nothing sort of seriously going through and figuring out what this Beastie Boys lyric meant.
IZ: Information's out there, it's very disparate. And so like there's an interview with the Beastie Boys that probably says a bunch of interesting stuff about what a song means, and there's also WIkipedia page and there's Beastie Boys fan sites or whatever. Our idea was basically like, you experience a song, what's the sort of companion information pack, internet interactive thing that goes along with it. And the lyrics are definitely a big part of it, and anything else that's interesting about a song centered on a song. And that core idea of just, let's take a conversation about rap lyrics and maybe put it online and see how it goes was like instantly the moment — the "aha" moment for me — the sort of "Whoa, now I can read" moment or something.
I know "Kung Fu."
IZ: Yeah, it was exactly that! Which was just reading through one song with the annotations that our friend Ariel had made ...
TL: "A Star Is Born."
IZ: And it just walked me through the song, and it was like, "Oh! This is a really fun, interesting way to experience a song." And I was like, "Wow, imagine if this was the companion to all music."
And because you guys are clever guys, you also go, "Oh, and there's a business here, too." Because if you look around, lyric sites were a big thing, still are a big thing. They're very search-friendly. Like once you look at it from afar, like "Oh, this is a really obvious thing for someone to have done." Did you figure out that this was also a business the same time? Or did that come later?
TL: Definitely there was a notion about a better lyric site from the beginning. And the size of lyrics was always on our minds.But mostly we were thinking about it from a pure, like, "How can we make this popular" standpoint. So we're thinking about SEO, we were thinking about building community, but in the beginning we were just thinking, like ,how can we get anyone to pay attention to this, and to work on it with us, and so that was the main thing.
IZ: A lot of it was getting people to work on it with us. So, you know, for the first little while I don't think we had some expectation of traffic and whatever. We definitely wanted feedback, but a lot of it was just, how can we get other people who know a lot about music, rap especially, involved in the project to make the resource. Because it was only as good as the annotations, basically. And so we needed people who were knowledgeable, who were passionate, to come join our Google group.
Yeah, how do you entice them?
TL: You know, it was sort of a lead by example thing. We were really careful at the beginning for the first three, five, 10, 20 songs. Like, we all looked at them, we all critiqued them, and asked if they were actually good. And I think by putting out some good stuff — and you know, it wasn't crowdsourced at the time, it was just a sort of invite-only thing. And we did make like a comment thread at the end, and people who would leave intelligent comments would often leave their email, and we would just email them and say like, "Hey, great comment, do you want to take part in this project?" And they'd be like, "Wow, cool!" And we'd talk to them on the phone, or ...
So you were building up a network literally one person at a time via email, via phone calls.
TL: It's gotta be playful, too. That's something we realized early. For it to be fun to read, for it to be fun to contribute to, it's gotta be playful. Literary criticism is literature, period. Like you can't draw a line between the two.
Okay, so the playful part, right. You guys are entertaining yourselves right now, you're funny guys, you're entertaining guys, you also made, I think, a deliberate choice -— you tell me — of "We're going to project an image that we're treating this, not as a joke, but there's a good sense of humor." Anytime I Google you, there's a picture of you and Josh Constine, former co-founder, wearing Ray-Bans onstage. What was the thinking there? Why brand yourself that way?
IZ: It was sort of an emerging phenomena, and definitely there are people, if you've met many people, you've been in Silicon Valley, or any context, New York, San Francisco, whatever, who take themselves too seriously. And to some extent, we were interested in parodying and telling everyone, "Let's not be taking ourselves so seriously." Looking back, there's definitely some embarrassing material out there. I think there's also a piece of it — the biggest challenge at the beginning stages of something is that people don't care. And so when you get feedback — and I'm not really speaking for me particularly, because I'm not really much of a performer — but like when you get the feedback that people care and are paying attention, that you can kind of keep doing what you're doing. Double down! Be crazy and get more attention. And so I think we've changed a lot, but there's definitely those pictures of the sunglasses are still a top Google image search for people.
I mean, for better and I guess mostly for worse, right? Like when people talk about sort of a bro-y stereotype for startups. Like, you guys fall into that group.
IZ: I don't want to be the bro who protests too much, but we're the least bro-y.
TL: I'm even less bro-y.
Bro-y's a pretty malleable term, right? It means "dudes" right? Mostly, at this point. And I think of young startup founders who ...
TL: Who play Magic: The Gathering.
Who play Magic [laughs].
TL: I played last night!
Who are quite pleased with themselves, who think like, "All right, we've licked this problem. We're in our twenties, and we've solved the problem the rest of you guys haven't." And it can be anybody. But you guys sort of leaned into that, and I think it's probably come back to bite you a couple of different times.
IZ: I'm nodding my head.
You're nodding your head because you're not going to keep digging the grave.
IZ: Yeah, I just think the early public image of Rap Genius had a ton of different, a lot of negative stuff.
Yeah, one of them was your co-founder, whose name I'm going to butcher, so you guys tell me what his name was.
IZ: Mahbod [Moghadam].
Mahbod. And so he's no longer here.
IZ: He's doing his own thing.
You guys fired him after he left comments — I hate it, so many mass shootings. After the Santa Barbara mass shootings. Was that something that was going to happen anyway? Were you going to part ways with him anyway, or was it because of that one incident?
TL: Who knows, you know? It's tough to say about the past. I think hard to ... yeah.
IZ: It's a complicated situation. He's doing his own thing, he's got his own startup now, which is another knowledge project. Seems like a good fit. And they're doing some interesting stuff, so like, we really wish him the best. It's more complicated than one event in time. Like we had a whole long relationship, knew him for a long time, and you know, wish him the best.
So have you guys made a conscious decision to sort of reset? So it's not Rap Genius, it's Genius, no more Wayfarers or Ray-Bans or whatever the glasses were. Is that intentional on your part, or just a natural evolution?
TL: I think you've gotta always be sort of rebirthing yourself. There is something of what we were doing before that related to ... did people know about the thing we were doing, and how could we get attention. I think we definitely made some mistakes doing that. But I think now it's a different stage. Now we're trying to do, you know, some more serious significant stuff, and act a little more in accordance with that. I think that also, like what you say, when you're younger, so there's the Bob Dylan song, "My Back Pages."Are you familiar?
Mmm-hmm. I'm old, I know Bob Dylan songs.
TL: The refrain, or I guess the chorus, what's the difference between? Okay, so the chorus is: "I was so much older than, I'm younger than that now." Do you know what that means?
No, it's a Bob Dylan lyric, it's whatever you want it to be.
TL: Nope, nope, this has a definite correct interpretation.
Oh, you know ’cause you're the guy.
TL: That's the other thing. I used to be much more of a child of the enlightenment in terms of, like, you could say what something actually means. But in this case, you can. It means that when you are younger you feel more certain of yourself. You feel older, you feel like you've figured things out maybe a little bit more. Then you get older and you're like, I don't know. So I think that natural process of evolving has definitely made me more forgiving of the Seamless UI. [laughter]
Let's talk about the product today. It's Genius, it's Genius.com, it's annotating the entirety of digital existence. Am I summing that up correctly?
TL: You can go to Genius.com, definitely. Great website. Also apps, also a presence in Spotify, and in the future, everywhere music is played and culture is experienced, so definitely, Genius.com is a big part of it. But the goal is to be much more of a substrate.
So you want your stuff to show up in places where I'm not looking for it necessarily, right? Like, I should be encountering something on a app or on the web, and you guys have a presence there, but you can't just sort of show up, right? You've gotta get me to do something for that to happen. So there's a tension there.
IZ: Yeah, there is a tension of how do you expose your content on other publishers, and how do you distribute, and everyone's doing that via Facebook and Twitter and whatever else. We've been doing it for years. You could have turned on BET in 2012, at the end of 2012, and you'd be watching the countdown of best music videos of the year, and there's Rap Genius with the fact you weren't expecting about the music video. And so we're doing that with Spotify, and we believe that the future of this thing is not people quitting the out where they're listening to a song, opening a new window and Googling song lyrics and ending up at a different thing, our thing, or opening our app. We believe the future is everything is where it's supposed to be. However long that takes. And so you know we believe that in YouTube, in Apple, in Amazon, Spotify, when you're listening to a song there's going to be more for you. And we've been spending a long time building up that more, and we're still working on it, and it's going pretty well.
So to be clear, on the web, there's a version where I can go in and type in the URL on at what? Dot … how do I ...
TL: You're saying to annotate another website?
Right. So there's a version where I can look at a New York magazine article with your annotations by changing the URL.
IZ: You can just type to the left of the URL — and that's a weird thing — but go to the left of a URL and type "genius.com/" and then hit enter. Before the URL. So it's genius.com/nymag/.com/ ... ehh ... genius.com/nymag.com/articles/10besthamburgers.
It seems so simple to do it. Maybe you guys can do an instructional video. So there's a way I can do that if I'm a hardcore ...
IZ: You just type genius.com/ before the URL, and then the world of annotation on any website is open to you.
I need to know that exists, right? So you guys need to figure out how to get me to do that. But like you said, we're moving to a world where I'm gonna consume — we were just talking about this — it seems like most media now is going to end up getting distributed either via Facebook Instant Articles, and probably Google AMP pages, or some version of that. And then Snapchat.
TL: Snapchat, yeah. Snappy-snap is what I call it.
But it's going to happen on someone's platform, where someone's going to say, "Here's how you should consume this media." So your stuff is not going to show up there unless you work out a deal with those platforms, right?
IZ: Yeah, and we are working with a lot of those platforms. The Washington Post, for example, is putting out political content that's annotated by their writers, or annotated by other experts and candidates and campaigns, and so that's a great example of, like, an engaging way a publisher could do it, could participate, too. So there's the Chrome extension, there's using the URL and distributing that through Twitter and Facebook. And there's also publishers doing it, too.
But for this to work at scale, it's gotta be ... I mean, there's the version where I want to know more about that rap lyric, and I go to your site because I know it exists, but there's the stuff where it turns out that The Washington Post articles have been annotated — I don't know that unless someone brings it to me, I won't know that this New York Magazine article is annotated and discussed unless someone brings that to me. Usually. Or I'm in a very small circle of people who talk about this stuff and blogs about it.
TL: Look, it's like early rap. Like you've got to build something of value. So until we built a layer on top of rap music that people found valuable and worth using, you know, ultimately, like, whatever. You're just trying to build that layer. And so I think right now, through the mechanisms we have and the amount of publisher participation we have, it's more than sufficient, and the distribution, to get people interested in creating good annotations on stuff that's relevant to them. And so we want to build a group, another type of group, a media-critic political-type person, who wants to write about the news. We want to build that community the same way we built the music community. And then when there's something of value, the publishers, the browsers, the distributors are going to say, "Oh, wow, that layer of value is something I want." Just like the music distributors are going to want the annotation of music.
So we've got this group of people who are hardcore rap or annotator or whatever fans, and will build that up, and eventually that will become an asset that those distributors will want, and then they'll cut a deal with us.
TL: That's right.
Periodically, there will be a story about you. There was one recently, where there was a fight about — I can't even remember, was it a New York Magazine piece? And we even wrote about it. I talked to the writer who wrote it, we had a hard time understanding, and we flipped around and around.
TL: Alana Massey.
It was about whether or not some outsiders had the right to annotate a piece essentially, right?
And it struck me that this was a non-debate. Like, if you publish something on the internet, anyone can say whatever they want about it.
TL: Well, it's more a testament to the power of annotation. Kind of, as we were saying, annotation at its core is about attaching commentary, criticism, explanation to the actual thing. And, you know, you could, even in the earliest days of Rap Genius, you could explain, or criticize or comment on what was going on in lyrics without attaching them to the lyrics. And that existed, and people have done that, but there's something special and intense and magical that happens when you attach it to the thing, and that's what I think people were reacting to in this case.
Yeah, but there was an argument saying that you don't have the right to do this. And that really — I came up short there. It seemed like I'd wandered into some discussion that I'd missed half of. But when I went back, I said, "Oh, not the author said you really don't have the right to do this — it's hateful in some way, and/or threatening."
IZ: I think it's a reaction to the visual display of information. It feels more like an invasion of space. When it's literally exactly, conceptually, logically, it's exactly the same thing as just writing about something.
Right, or my metaphor, these are people in a room talking about you, and you may not like the fact that they're talking about you, but they're in the room doing it.
IZ: Annotation is basically the courage to say it to your face. It's like, I'm not going to go over here ... And that's why it's going to be interesting in the election, people annotating each other's things directly.It just draws you a little closer. Like when Trump gives a speech, and then Hillary gives a speech elsewhere in America later, on a different channel or whatever, in response to it. Then there's articles written, you know, let's just bring everybody, let's just make it a debate right on the thing.
Usually the debate doesn't actually happen. Like-minded people end up on one Facebook feed, and everyone else ends up on the other Facebook feed. Your Facebook feed, everyone loves Hillary, and you can't believe it, and everyone thinks Trump is a good idea, and then there's an alternate version of reality.
IZ: Except that one kid from middle school who's on Infowars and is hitting you up.
Exactly. I found that guy, he's also an NRA fan.
IZ: We'll talk about Infowars later.
So, your idea is that you can actually bridge that stuff together. But did that reaction in that New York magazine piece — did that make you guys rethink at all what you're doing? Or you said, "No, no, we're plunging ahead."
IZ: What we did do was, even though we have a very strong community of moderators who are policing things for abuse and hate speech, and we really have not had real abuse. We've had criticism of other people's writing, and whatever. But we did build a feature just out of respect for, you know, as this thing gets bigger, the possibility — we built in some better detection and reporting of abuse functionality. So to that end, it was productive for your product. I did think some people were a little but sensitive and confused in the conversation, and I think annotation and holding people accountable and shedding light on, you know, different types of claims that people are making is just a positive.
So, you're doing what you're doing.
IZ: Yeah, we're not really changing philosophies.
You're not changing your product. You guys raised a pile of money, Andreessen Horowitz was the main investor, that was a few years ago. Do you have to go back out anytime in the near future and raise more, or are you good for a while?
IZ: We're good for a while, and we're also focusing on making money. You know, we spent a long time building a company, building technology, building community, and I think now we're properly investing in turning it into a business that can stand on its own two feet. We're very motivated to keep the project going and make it successful.
Are you aware of the sort of discussions about, "Oh, there's a crunch, and it's harder to get funding for startups, and if you wanted to raise more money, you've got to prove out that you're at X, Y and Z stage?" Or is that sort of separate from what you're doing day to day?
TL: There's a lot to look at on the internet that can distract you from the very challenges you have day to day. So, I, among various other things, I didn't know what Infoweb was.
TL: Infoweb, good domain.
Maybe we can annotate podcasts.
IZ: But of course you're aware. We don't have our heads that far down. We know what the world is like, and we also know that a business needs — money is the lifeblood of any business, and it either has to come from an investor or a company or brands or your customers or whatever, and we know what spreadsheets say. And, like, we're aware of what's going on in the world.
So, how are you guys going to make money? You hired a revenue guy. What's he going to sell?
IZ: We built a small sales team, and we're developing a bunch of products and media that we're going to market with, and it's going really well.
What are you selling?
IZ: So, we're selling a few things. One is we've invested in content over the past year a lot, and maybe quietly, but maybe you're starting to see more on your Facebook feed. Genius premium sort of video stuff coming out. And we're getting a lot of video out there, and we're creating these video series.
My Facebook feed is all someone else's kids and then Hillary stuff, so, no.
IZ: Facebook's rough [laughs]. But we're creating content, but the thing we're really excited about is, basically, Tom likes to call it "sponsored knowledge," and so this is something we're actually working on with a few brands. It's like an ad product that we think is interesting, which is basically like, if you're a consumer and you're experiencing something you love — like a song, for example — brands like to throw you an advertisement there. But what actually brings you in closer to the song, what gets you to pay attention? So if you can imagine watching a music video or watching a song streaming, and as you're learning something, you focus in on that. Your eyes look at that, you read that, you look closely, and you're experiencing something you're really interested in, that's a deep moment of openness and engagement. And brands just bring you that fact. Bring you that knowledge. So a brand can sponsor an artist talking about their music, or a really interesting fact.
So this is branded content?
IZ: It's just content, it's just knowledge brought to you by a brand.
So, this is a new idea that everyone's embracing, this is a super-old idea, right? "So and so brought to you by …"
IZ: It's literally "brought to you by ..."1950s — this show is brought to you by Tylenol, but it's like, hey, it's the song you love, and some knowledge that interests you, that's a friendly "brought to you by."
TL: But there's something special going on in terms of the user experience of annotation and the user experiencing it are kind of similar. So, for example, you're reading a New York Times article, you're reading a Recode article, and you scroll ...
Some kind of content.
TL: Some kind of ...
TL: Of premium, fire content. And you scroll, and then between two paragraphs you will see an ad. It’s something kind of in a sense layered on top of the content you're experiencing, and that's kind of what we're trying to do with annotations. So, what if between paragraphs, instead of being a sort of total context switch to a different train of thought, what if the thing between the paragraphs were an annotation about the thing you were reading? A piece of context that was not part of the thing that you were reading, but was about the thing that you were reading. And so, that's kind of the idea behind annotation. That's also the idea behind a lot of advertising, so you can kind of meld those things together.
So, you guys were like five years into this before you were trying to monetize it any significant way?
IZ: We've always been kicking around ideas, and talking to be in the world and the marketplace. But before seriously investing in monetization, yeah.
Now that you're out in the market, what surprises you about the reaction you're getting when you bring this stuff out? Because it's one thing to say, "This would be a great idea", and another thing to knock on doors and try to sell it.
IZ: I don't want to speak too soon, there haven't been such major surprises. We're learning about what the world of brands and how they work, and how those institutions function and what they want, and agencies, the brand-agency relationship. Who does what, what the secret codes are. And I think we've never done that before. So that's been a learning experience. And just understand the timelines. There's just a lot of specific specialized stuff.
It's going to take this long to sell this thing.
IZ: Yeah, like how does an agency plan a budget for a brand's advertising spend, and what does that spreadsheet look like? It's pretty complicated and specialized stuff, and stuff takes longer than you think, but, like, no major surprises. I think people still like good ideas and shun bad ideas.
And they want novel stuff, right? And that's an advantage you guys have right now. This is a thing you haven't seen before, you guys can pitch it yourself, I don't need to pitch it for you.
TL: Also, if you think about the persona of Genius. You know, if Genius were a person, what type of person would it be? And this is something we've thought about from the beginning, because when I was thinking about the product, especially, I was thinking about the literal conversations that the product was supposed to mirror, and the people that were involved in the conversations. These were conversations about musical knowledge and, you know, when Ilan and other early contributors to the site were explaining and commenting on lyrics, I was like, "Wow, this is so interesting, and y'all are so cool for knowing about lyrics." And so the idea behind the product is, what if you had your musical-expert knowledgeable friend listening to music with you and pausing the track and explaining stuff to you? And then obviously Genius is the amalgam of so many minds, and that personality is just a cool personality to hang out with, and a cool personality to align yourself with.
You mentioned "music experts." Was it a year ago you hired Sasha Frere-Jones? Who was then The New Yorker's main music writer. He's not there — you guys said that didn't work out. Are you hiring other people to do what he did for you? To sort of be in-house experts?
IZ: Yeah, we've hired a lot of really amazing people. So I can rattle them off and brag about them. Like Rob Markman, who we hired from MTV, and is an amazing music journalist. Brendan Frederick is from Complex, and we was the VP of content there, and knows everything.
Som the idea of having experts, but having the business model where you get the community to do this stuff for free for you — how do those balance out?
TL: It's not so much like a business model of getting people to do stuff for free — it's only good if it's fun for them. So we've tried to create a video game that people want to play, and give them pride in creating something. We are really, I think, much more like Wikipedia in what we want to build than we are like social media. It is a social experience for the people who create it, but it's, like, how do we find people that want to create something of lasting value and point to it and say, "I made that". And you know what, in 10 years, when you're listening to that song, my contribution is going to be a part of that experience, and I do that for free, because it's a self-expression and I enjoy it and so ..."
It seems to me that Wikipedia is social media. No one forces you to make this stuff, you make it ’cause it's fun.
IZ: But where are the points? Another thing that I think is interesting that we're doing is that there are some sort of mediums and forms of content that are very difficult to crowdsource — for example, crowdsourcing a video. Very hard to do. So a lot of what people at Genius do is they look at the knowledge on the site and think about creative ways of packaging it for different modes of consumption. So you might see, you know, an amazing annotation or an amazing set of annotations on a song and think, "How can we make a video that breaks down what you need to know about this in a minute, or in five minutes, or in 20 minutes?" And so that's something that I think is pretty powerful. Where you take the raw knowledge, generated in the best way to generate it — which is from crowdsourcing — and then you package it in the best way to experience it for a given use case. Whether it's scrolling through Facebook or otherwise experiencing ...
What's going to be the toughest platform for you guys to get onto? I assume Snapchat, because they're the most closed?
IZ: I don't think Snapchat ... Especially with their new thing they just released, their advertising API. I think they're going to welcome a lot of different types of content, but I think the hardest thing is Facebook. You know, Facebook Instant Articles is one thing that I think is not that hard to get into or get involved with. But the more content that's distributed through Facebook, the more challenging annotation of the internet becomes. I think with music — Facebook doesn't do a lot of music, so it doesn't really matter.
TL: Live performance is also tricky, Bonnaroo is going to be a touch platform. You know, you're at a concert, you're at a music festival. It's your first music festival actually you've been to. And there are screens next to the stage, and they are showing lyrics and Genius facts and Genius annotations as the music plays, synchronized.
That's going to be a thing?
TL: That's going to be difficult, but also very important
IZ: I think also just, the music industry. I'm sure you've talked to a lot of guests in the music industry and music businesses but, like, the music industry is a complex industry with a ton of licensing dynamics and a ton of competitive dynamics between streaming companies that, you know, we're living that as we figure out our product integrations with everybody.
Yeah, but you guys, you got your licensing deals with the labels done a couple years ago.
With the publishers. And you got a Spotify deal, so you're well on your way.
Thanks for coming in, thanks for letting me ramble.
TL: That's it?! It's a two-minute podcast!
These should be an hour and a half, they should be two hours. Jason Hirschhorn came in — he's still here in the basement talking. You can find that one if you want.
TL: You know Jason Hirschhorn has an early ... You know, you mentioned, like, when did you know it took off, or whatever There are a bunch of little moments, and one of them was Jason Hirschhorn and Alyssa Milano in, like, our first few months on Twitter, talking about Rap Genius. And we were like, "Holy shit!" Mostly about Alyssa Milano. We had to look up Jason Hirschhorn. She retweeted him, and we were like, "Damn, Alyssa Milano!"
You guys should go tell Jason you're excited. He's in the basement. Thanks for coming.
IZ: Thanks, Peter.
TL: This was so fun.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.