It’s been a tough few months for Rap Genius, the lyric interpretation website that invites users to annotate their favorite rap songs with their own explanations. In October 2013, Rap Genius was one of 50 sites targeted by the National Music Publishers Association for the “unlicensed publication of song lyrics”. In December, Google gave them a 10-day penalty for questionable SEO practices that led to a discussion about the right way to link between sites. They’ve since addressed both of those problems (especially the SEO stuff), and seem to be on a continued path of growth and success.
While these bumps in the road have gotten a lot of recent press, I’ve always found Rap Genius to be one of the best-run startups on the Internet. They’ve integrated a lot of really useful tech practices over the years, staying true to their goals as a startup while improving their site to build something truly special.
So here are six features that Rap Genius has incorporated into their groundbreaking lyric site, filtered in the style of one of their annotations. Don’t let the rough language fool you; each tip has a lot of potential value for your next startup.
1. “My crew’s behind me, mad question asking…” (Crowdsourcing)
One of the beautiful things about Rap Genius is the site simply couldn’t exist without its users. Rap Genius is one of a growing number of sites that uses a variety of users to aggregate their knowledge and create value. Wikipedia is the most prominent example of a crowdsourcing project, but there’s countless examples of people coming together online to fund projects (Kickstarter), voice their political opinions (IEM), find missing people, and more. In their case, Rap Genius uses the wisdom of the crowd to mine its users’ collective lyrical knowledge, building the largest online library of lyric explanations in the world.
There’s a presentation from Mahbod Moghadam (yeah I know), one of the site’s founders, that talks about a concept called “Worse Is Better”. In it, he shows the very first version of Rap Genius: a Cam’ron song entry with one explanation of six lines. That’s all. But as Mahbod points out, everything starts somewhere. Since its creation in 2009, Rap Genius has grown into an absolute behemoth, mainly because its users chose to contribute and help expand the site. In other words, ideas that can create a community will build loyalty faster. Ultimately we’re all better off when we work together to achieve something bigger than ourselves.
2. “Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t” (Upvoting)
Dozens, even hundreds of people may try to explain a single line of a popular song. So how do we decide which one gets shown?
Upvoting, the practice of increasing a piece of content’s visibility based on a cumulative tally of popularity, has been around for a long time. We see it on most social media sites now, though it’s most highly associated with Reddit. What’s great about this system is that all submitted lyric explanations are available to be found and potentially ranked higher.
This is an especially interesting phenomena on Rap Genius, which leaves the parameters for an “explanation” completely open—plain text, YouTube videos, gifs and more are all acceptable ways to annotate a lyric. It remains to be seen if the “best” comment (if that’s possible) is actually the highest rated, or if some kind of hivemind culture naturally coalesces around certain comments. Either way, there’s no denying the democratic beauty that comes with an upvoting system (even if the masses are choosing a joke). It’s the best way to determine what adds the most value to the most people.
3. “Putting down in different projects at the same damn time” (Hypertext Accessibility)
As you can probably tell, the annotating of literally every single line in a song sounds like a messy proposition. Thankfully, Rap Genius has a great workaround for that by making every annotation accessible as part of a hypertext system. This means that when you click on a lyric, instead of being redirected to another site or forced to open another tab on your browser, the best explanation (from above) appears in a convenient box on the same screen. Click again and the box goes away.
I can’t emphasize how important it is for a site to have a way to display content without automatically making it harder to navigate. As someone with dozens of tabs open across multiple windows, I’m way more likely to spend time on a site if it’s presented in a logical way. Rap Genius makes it easy to click from annotation to annotation within a song without loading anything, dramatically increasing each page’s value to users. That’s extremely important in a time when at least 17% of page views last less than 4 seconds.
4. “I’m blowing up like you thought I would” (Venture Funding)
Is there anything more beautiful than a site without ads on it? Rap Genius has been allowed to grow for the last 4+ years unencumbered by having to turn a profit thanks to venture capital financing. VC funding is a way for private groups or individuals to fund high-potential startups, essentially giving companies extra time to grow in value and generate a return down the line in a public offering.
What that means: thanks to a $15 million investment from Silicon Valley VC Marc Andreessen, Rap Genius can concentrate on building the best possible site for its user without cluttering the screen with unnecessary spam. It’s a worthy use of their funding, and it ensures that the site’s founders stay focused on adding value to their property without worrying about how to pay their rent. Venture funding is hard to come by, but it’s worth the effort if you have a unique idea that needs to develop a user base. But don’t forget: the idea comes first. As the chart above shows, if you can’t do well without extra financing, you probably can’t do well with it.
5. “I can relate to what you’re saying in your songs” (Direct-To-Fan Interactions)
One of the most unique aspects of Rap Genius is how warmly it has been embraced by actual rap artists. In March 2012, Nas became the first rapper to get a verified account on the site, opening the door for hundreds of artists to explain their poetry and interact with their fans. By encouraging the creators of these songs (a wealth of rappers, producers, and engineers can all be found on the site) to actively participate in the annotation process, Rap Genius gives everyone’s voice a level playing field, similar to Twitter. The site’s annotations actually have more value with this input—personal anecdotes and direct references are easier to understand when the writer gives them extra context.
Direct-to-fan approaches are a quickly growing tool in any music marketing team’s business strategy. As any artist who’s had a merch table at their concert will tell you, fans are more likely to give money to an artist or band if they’ve had a personal interaction. It’s a symbiotic relationship: create something that allows celebrities to have a meaningful relationship with their fans and reap the rewards of the increased traffic. I haven’t seen any major marketing campaigns that incorporate Rap Genius, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one’s right around the corner.
6. “I want this s**t forever” (Always Be Growing)
The best way to keep adding value to your site and bring in new users is to find a logical way to grow. Rap Genius has done that by beginning the next stage of its project. In the last six months, they’ve added three new “channels” to the site: News, Rock, and Poetry. Now users can add information about an even wider variety of texts, and though the site’s other areas are extremely lacking in content compared to the Rap explanations, it’s an important step to overall growth (see “Worse Is Better” in tip #1).
They dream big at Rap Genius: their stated end goal is nothing less than to explain and annotate every single text in the world, from the Bible to the Declaration of Independence to President Obama’s most recent UN speech. It’s ambitious, it’s exciting, and it’s the kind of long-term vision that will keep Rap Genius creating new value for years to come (though I imagine they will eventually just call themselves ‘Genius’). The final piece of advice for a startup is deceptively simple: find out what you’re good at, and think outside the box to get there. If you’re not growing, you’re dying.