Google Just Dealt a Big Blow to the Digital Economy of Lyrics

Dan Winters
Kings of Leon

Remember the days of MetroLyrics and AZLyrics, when you'd search for a song and links to those sites would likely appear right below the YouTube video? You probably do because they lasted until, well, very early Tuesday morning. Now, within the link to a song's official YouTube video, beneath the title and release date, are lyrics, which can be viewed in full on Google Play.

"The hammer has fallen," wrote Glenn Gabe, founder of online marketing consulting service G-Squared Interactive, in a Google+ post about Kings of Leon's "Molly's Chambers." "Google now displaying lyrics in the SERPs." (That last word stands for "search engine results page.")

On the eve of Christmas Eve, Google showed the fruits of a labor that's been long in the works, according to industry sources. "They're creating the database themselves," says someone familiar with the matter. "They've done direct licensing deals with the major publishers to enable the service, and they're doing it internally at the moment. The data isn't crowd-sourced; there's a team of people working to create the database."

Billboard's source adds that the mechanism at work (which is to say, manpower) is likely very similar to the one used by LyricFind, which has amassed a fully-licensed database of songs from 2,000 publishers, including the majors. Their service has partnered with the Echo Nest and has been utilized by WinAmp, Yahoo!, and Lyrics.com. In 2013, the company merged with Gracenote Inc., a metadatabase and music recognition technology company that in November unveiled a new platform to synchronize lyrics across multiple devices in dashboard streaming.  

"The latest move to put lyrics in search results makes a lot of sense for Google," adds Massimo Ciociola, founder of Musixmatch, the world's largest lyrics database that adds a crowd-sourcing element, much like Wikipedia's public editors. "The company needs to produce a continuously high search experience, and they have to make it work properly for users. Adding lyrics is an essential and long-overdue move when you consider lyrics are the seventh-most searched-for term on Google ever."

Google's move is a step forward in the business of legal lyrics, which has been developing since the mid-2000s. In those "Wild West days," according to another industry source, many unlicensed lyrics sites (including MetroLyrics) were essentially platforms for users to acquire ringtones. Users would visit the site to view pirated lyrics and from there would be shown a link to create ringtones of the songs listed. "Sketchy lyrics sites were essentially affiliate link farms for confused people to buy ringtones," says Billboard's source. 

The most famous offender was probably RapGenius, which fielded take-down notices from the National Music Publishers' Association (NMPA) in November of 2013 for hosting unlicensed lyrics. Google has also been targeted in the past for placing ads on illegal lyrics sites.

When asked for comment, a Google spokesperson said, "There's a feeling you get when you turn to a song and you know that the words have two meanings. Well it's whispered that now if you go search the tune, maybe Google will lead you to reason. Ooh, it makes you wonder..."