Expanding Beyond Rap, Genius Raises $40M

Courtesy of Genius

Well-known for its lyric annotations, the company behind Rap Genius has raised $40 million to pursue broader goals. Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Genius Media Group has raised a new Series B funding, intended to support new annotated vertical sites such as sports, literature and history. Andreessen Horowitz investor and board member Ben Horowitz revealed the news in a blog post.

The company has also dropped "Rap" from the name it will commonly use, becoming simply "Genius," although Rap Genius will continue to be one of the company's genre sites. Genius has hosted rap, rock, poetry and news sites previously, with non-rap content since shortly after its establishment in 2009.

Quicken Loans founder and Cleveland Cavaliers majority owner Dan Gilbert led the new round. The funding builds on Genius' $15 million Series A round in October 2012, led by Andreessen Horowitz, which contributed to the new round as well. Representatives from the firm were not available for comment by press time.

Since the Series A, Genius has professed a strategy of "annotating the world," housing existing documents online while adding a layer of user-generated commentary that explains or clarifies meanings contained within them. That can include an explanation of a rapper's slang, an elucidation of a financial report, or a modern, Cliff Notes-esque interpretation of a Shakespearean soliloquy. Over time, the site has increasingly included lyric annotations for genres beyond rap as well.

"Communities have grown organically around dozens of different content areas, some of them pretty niche," wrote co-founder Ilan Zechory in an email interview. "We'll definitely look to expand beyond the series of channels you see now."

With the new sites, Genius will effectively compete more directly with Wikipedia, collecting information about topics of interest and allowing online communities to interpret them. Unlike that online institution, however, Genius is a for-profit company rather than a foundation backed, user-supported charitable organization.

Zechory called Genius and Wikipedia "pretty different beasts" that are based on texts and subjects respectively, although he cited the latter as a key inspiration. He added that Genius allows an artist or content creator to annotate his or her own work, while Wikipedia forbids it. "One day we hope to annotate it!" Zechory wrote of Wikipedia.

In addition to branching further beyond rap lyrics, Genius also intends to introduce tools that will allow other sites to add annotations, according to Horowitz’s post. It unveiled its mobile app for iOS in January, and is planning an Android version. 

Genius has endured a series of setbacks over the 19 months since its Series A round, not least because of questionable behavior by a Yale-educated founding team that has bristled some observers. Co-founder Mahbod Moghadan resigned from the company’s board and management team in late May after he participated in the annotation of Santa Barbara, Calif., spree killer Elliot Rodger’s lengthy screed, writing with "gleeful insensitivity and misogyny," in the words of CEO Tom Lehman. The company was temporarily spiked from Google's search results after a link-swapping scheme intended to enhance its search engine optimization came to light. And it appeared on a list of unlicensed lyric web sites in late 2013, before inking a series of deals with Sony/ATV, Warner/Chappell and NMPA that conferred legitimacy on its operations. 

Horowitz noted in a March conversation with Billboard that the music industry is a "notoriously difficult" licensing environment, compared to other areas. The investor said his firm has largely avoided music technology investments for that reason.

His partner, Mosaic web browser creator, serial entrepreneur and investor Marc Andreessen, wrote in a 2012 blog post that his early browser included a forerunner of Genius in 1993.  "[W]hen [we] were first building Mosaic… we built a feature called 'group annotations' right into the browser," he wrote. "Unfortunately, our implementation at that time required a server to host all the annotations… which would obviously have had to scale to enormous size. And so we dropped the entire feature."

Zechory wrote that Genius intends to offer "the most generous pay of any tech company in NYC" as it hires engineering, design, community and editorial team members. It’s also moving into a new office in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood.

The new investment's size nearly equals the two-year salary Gilbert's team will pay star NBA forward LeBron James, who signed a $42.1 million agreement to return to Cleveland this weekend after four years with the Miami Heat.