Media, Entertainment, Marketing, Music, Lyrics, Music Business, Genius.
If you’re a music lover like me, and have ever had to google the lyrics or meaning of a song you like a number of times, then you most definitely have come across Genius. Originally founded as Rap Genius, they are a media company founded by Mahbod Moghadam, Tom Lehman and Ilan Zechory, that allows its users to annotate music lyrics.
Genius is, as they describe themselves “the world’s biggest collection of song lyrics and musical knowledge”. Their Twitter bio a while back read “the lyrics company”. Peruse their website a little more, and you’d find a lot of articles, interviews, and videos all about artists and music culture. So now you get it: Genius as a company is all about music. But they weren’t always so.
You see, while Genius originally started as a media company providing annotations and lyrics to popular rap songs, its vision eventually evolved to something a lot more grand and ambitious. Upon the closing of a successful $15 million fundraising round led by Andreesen Horowitz in 2012, an article by Tech Crunch reported;
Ben Horowitz loves hip-hop, but in an interview with TechCrunch he outlined a deeper vision behind his firm’s $15M investment into Rap Genius. “Knowledge about knowledge over time becomes as important as the knowledge itself”, said Horowitz about the value of the site explaining lyrics, religion and more.
“Our model is actually the Talmud,” said Horowitz. He believes Rap Genius could expand to make any important text that’s too dense or confusing into something comprehensible, the way the Talmud did for the Torah.
That might seem like a leap of faith, considering right now Rap Genius is just an isolated website where users submit text, then annotate it with pop-up footnotes. It’s a huge help with rap lyrics that are chock-full of new slang, heavy metaphor, and obscure references. It’s also got other works like poetry, legal documents, rock songs, and religious texts.
Layered on CNN, users could point out bias, conflicting reports, or other articles offering background info. TechCrunch could annotate a startup’s blog post with in-line explanations of products referenced or bad news that’s been glossed over.
Even though rap genius started out providing annotations to just rap lyrics, its founders quickly saw the potential in its product and decided to build on that. With so much information out there, and rap genius being the perfect annotation tool, it could expand its product to reach other categories, from poetry to scientific text to even the Bible. They could actually do it all. They could “Annotate the internet”. That sounds like such a compelling vision, doesn’t it?
Today, however, Genius has its singular focus on the music community, allowing its users to provide annotations for just songs alone. So the question obviously follows; what happened to its grand vision to annotate the web? The answer to that question may lie in an interesting little management theory from the 1960s.
In his 2004 article, Theodore Levitt an economist and professor at Harvard Business School put forward his theory of “marketing myopia”. In it, he argued that every industry is capable of experiencing growth based on the superiority of its product. However, a lot of those that failed to grow did so because they made the common mistake of emphasizing selling, over marketing. The nifty little difference is that selling focuses on what the seller wants, while marketing focuses on what the buyer needs.
The reason the distinction matters is that focusing on the former leaves your business open to displacement and disruption, while focusing on the latter allows you to actively prepare and even create it. So for example;
“The railroads did not stop growing because the need for passenger and freight transportation declined. That grew. The railroads are in trouble today not because that need was filled by others (cars, trucks, airplanes, and even telephones) but because it was not filled by the railroads themselves. They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business. The reason they defined their industry incorrectly was that they were railroad oriented instead of transportation oriented; they were product oriented instead of customer oriented.”
In essence, several companies have died or shrunk because they defined themselves by their product rather than the needs that they satisfy. Marketing myopia prevents you from thinking beyond the box that is the service your product provides. And in so doing, robs you of seeing reasonable, and kinda-obvious-in-hindsight opportunities for revenue growth and expansion. Railway companies missed out on cars, buses, and trucks because they focused on providing trains, not transportation. And petroleum companies also missed out on solar, geothermal, and nuclear energy, because they focused on fossil fuels, not energy.
Why does any of this matter? Because how a company defines itself is important. How it sees itself, in turn, defines how it sees the rest of the world and how it will go about impacting it- its vision. And it could either identify itself by what its product does, or the need it satisfies. While the two may look similar, they are not the same. Genius provides a great way for music lovers to find accurate lyrics and a deeper understanding of songs they care about through its annotation tool. This lyrics-as-a-service tool has been its moat from which it has expanded in the music industry ever since. So if Genius defines itself by its product, then its ideating process goes somewhat like this;
Annotates music lyrics– Annotation company– “Let’s annotate the web”
This is the path it took at first. However, Genius is also a media company. It ideates, creates and distributes content across several channels. It caters to the needs of the thriving music community. It tells stories, creates engagement, and drives conversations about artists and the art they create. And it just so happens that a key way it does this is by providing annotations. So if Genius defines itself as a media company that caters to the literary needs of the music community/culture, then its process goes somewhat like this:
Annotates music lyrics– Attends to the literary needs of music lovers– “Let's build the world's largest library of lyrics and musical content”.
You see, although they start at similar points, the points at which they end are totally different. Perspective impacts everything else. While we can’t say for certain why Genius hasn’t succeeded in its mission to annotate the web, we can say for certain that it didn’t succeed. And although its annotation tool certainly was extremely useful for establishing itself as a company, the tool, as useful as it is, is not its moat. Because Genius is a media company. And for media companies, while having excellent distribution, or high-quality content, or multiple revenue streams, can all serve as unique differentiators, these are not its true moat. All these are just tools for monetizing that culture and surviving. A media company’s true moat, is culture
Culture is two hears beating as one
In one of the finest essays I’ve ever read, Nathan Baschez, writing on the power of content wrote;
"When you think about it, languages are just networks of words; culture is just networks of narratives; and content is the thing we do to extend the network”
And that’s aptly put. For every form of art, sport, subject, or IP for which some form of shared love and interest exists, there is culture. Can you estimate how many people have built a living from driving conversations over some popular IP that is beloved all over the world? Think about stories like Marvel’s Avengers or Lucasfilm’s Star Wars. For every single activity that was loved by millions, from business to tech, to sports, we have influencers talking, YouTubers making videos, and writers writing about them. These creators become the hotspots around which communities form. and the aggregation of all these communities on a global scale is what we call culture.
And right there; at the intersection of culture and commerce, lies an opportunity for media companies to be born. for Genius, the culture is music. By asking the right questions, like; how can we expand this culture to more people? Or how can we drive discussions and increase connection within our community, media companies like Genius are able to create and extract more value per unit of content. Ultimately, the operations of a media company must be geared towards creating more ways for people to better enjoy the subjects they love. This already established "love" is the key. You can't eradicate it. You only need to build on it.
And the last two sentences are important. Because when you have something as powerful as a shared narrative, the best course of action is doubling down on it. Seeking to evolve the product by introducing foreign or distant elements will probably muddle things up more than it will drive growth. As far as the culture around which the company is centered remains relevant, the media company(ies) remains relevant. But it is a company's ability to tap into that culture by creating content that it can monetize sustainably, that determines whether it grows or dies.
But does this “shared love” mean media companies cannot fail? Far from it. Several factors such as competition, technological advancements, and market economics all affect a media company’s longevity in the market. The economics of the media business do not easily lean towards lucrativeness, so media companies tend to work so hard and make so little.
Advancements in technology are probably one factor that have been historically known to significantly affect the media industry. Once upon a time, the newspaper industry was a behemoth. Then Television came along and now newspapers are almost obsolete. Then the internet came along and brought TV to its knees. Social media killed it. And now Streaming technology is putting the last nails in its coffin. Littered along this trail of development of the media industry over the past century are thousands of dead companies that opposed the shift in technology. They saw the changing times as something to bet against. For them, the medium defined the message. But they were wrong.
And that’s the point of this essay, we must learn how to think about the media. Media companies must refuse to make the error of defining, or better yet, confining themselves to the services they provide and the medium they use.
A good example of this in the Nigerian media scene is Victor Ehindero and the Pottv media. After founding Pottv, the first and biggest WhatsApp TV in Nigeria, and practically birthing the field of WhatsApp influencing, Pottv has decided to move on to expand its horizons. Although its creation of WhatsApp influencing helped it establish itself as a force in the influencing industry, it has refused to confine itself to being just a "Whatsapp TV". Instead, it has gone on to expand its reach across several other social media platforms, establishing itself from Twitter to Instagram to Snapchat. Pottv is not just a Whatsapp TV, it's a media company.
Realizing that you're a media company means understanding that you're not just a newspaper/radio/TV news company, but a company devoted to finding better ways to satisfying the needs of the members of its culture. When media companies truly understand this, they are forced to think beyond the limitations of the tech or medium they traditionally use, and more broadly about how to satisfy their audience. This forces them to innovate, and inevitably leads to business expansion as well as revenue growth.
Doing this is what allows you actively prepare, and position yourself to profit from the inevitable changes to the landscape. Any contrary perspective is myopic. You are not a newspaper company, or a radio company, or a TV news company. You are a media company.
Genius, is a media company.
First off, I’d like to point out that from now on, the scope of the newsletter will be a little broader. While I will still write breakdowns of growth strategies of some of the world’s biggest brands from time to time, I’d also like to write general commentary on tech, and media from Africa and the rest of the world. I trust you’d find it insightful as always. if there’s any brand you’d like me to comment on then feel free to mention. (Although I’m thinking of doing something on Apple next).
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