Rick Rubin, Max Martin, Frank Ocean & More Step Into the Spotlight at Spotify's Secret Genius Awards

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Spotify
Rick Rubin and Frank Ocean speak onstage at Spotify's Inaugural Secret Genius Awards hosted by Lizzo at Vibiana on Nov. 1, 2017 in Los Angeles.

The peer-focused event focused on music's songwriters and producers, honoring the unsung heroes behind the past year's biggest songs.

It was an evening of few words at Spotify's inaugural Secret Genius Awards on Wednesday (Nov. 1) at Vibiana, honoring some of music's biggest songwriters and producers behind the streaming platform's most-played songs.

While the acceptance speeches were generally brief throughout the hour-and-a-half-long award show, none were as short as the night's top honoree, Rick Rubin, who was presented with the legendary secret genius award. Following an introduction by Spotify global head of creator services Troy Carter and a fairly abstract tribute video (which relied heavily on voice over from JAY-Z -- ironically owner of rival streaming service Tidal -- in audio pulled from a Samsung promo documentary around the release of Magna Carta Holy Grail), Frank Ocean offered only a single sentence beckoning his "friend" Rubin onstage. To a standing applause, Rubin walked up to accept the award, looked at the audience with his hands together in gratitude and then walked off without saying a word. It was an anticlimactic albeit fitting acceptance from one of music's most influential and enigmatic characters, as well as appropriate conclusion to the evening dedicated to those often unseen in the industry -- suggesting, perhaps, that often action speaks louder than words. 

Without reading too much into Rubin's actions, the sentiment of brevity was pervasive throughout the awards -- probably in large part due to modesty and self-awareness. With producers and songwriters filling the beautiful Baroque-inspired Italianate church, seated at tables alongside their family, friends and industry supporters, the event was almost entirely peer-focused and went on without any live stream or plans for broadcast. So, while the night's winners -- voted on by a group of songwriters, producers and publishers publishers representing the top streamed songs over approximately the past year -- all seemed pleased to accept their awards, there was fairly little hype pushing things along despite host Lizzo's best efforts to pump up the unconcerned crowd. 

Still there were plenty who showed excitement over their recognition, some of whom were totally surprised. 

"You ever win shit after never winning shit? That's what writing this song was about," declared songwriter and producer Andrew Wansel of the duo Pop & Oak, accepting his secret genius: social message award for Alessia Cara's "Scars to Your Beautiful."

And, later, Asia Whiteacre was caught completely off guard when announced for the secret genius: breakthrough award for co-writing "Starving" with Hailee Steinfeld, Zedd and Grey. "I thought I was just coming for free dinner and hugs with friends, so I don't know what to say," she said before quickly excusing herself from the stage. 

"I've never done anything like this so I'm very awkward. I'm used to nobody seeing me," Whiteacre had told Billboard earlier, saying she didn't expect to win and had initially thought her invitation email had been "sent to the wrong person." 

"It's crazy, I didn't expect it," she said. "It is nice to get acknowledgment after doing it for so long and nobody hearing anything I wrote, so that's fun."

The award show was put on as part of Spotify's Secret Genius program, which it launched in June as a means to honor the songwriting and publishing community -- in part seemingly also an effort of appeasement, since the platform pays out higher royalties to record labels than it does its secret geniuses. 

"Celebrating the unsung hero has been the reason why we have the Secret Genius program. It's through our playlists, our podcasts, the 'songshops' we're doing around the world and this award show," said Tiffany Kumar, Spotify's global head of songwriter relations. "A night to have an award show that's celebrating peers and the winners chosen by the writers and producers and publishers themselves is really important to the program."

"When when we think about creators usually people think about the artist and so we wanted to think about it more holistically, so the same way we apply a lot of our programs to artists being able to do the same thing for songwriters," added Carter. 

In the night's top categories, Max Martin won the secret genius of the year: producer award for his work on Justin Timberlake's "Can't Stop the Feeling," Ariana Grande's "Side to Side," Adele's "Send My Love (To Your New Love)," Katy Perry's "Chained to the Rhythm" and more; and J Kash won the secret genius of the year: songwriter award for his work on Charlie Puth's "We Don’t Talk Anymore," Maroon 5's "Don’t Wanna Know," Jason Derulo's "Swalla" and more; Starrah won awards for both the female and hip-hop categories for her work on Drake's "Fake Love," though she missed the event and was instead working in the studio; and Greg Kurstin won the pop category for writing and producing "Cheap Thrills" with Sia, later performing "Sorry" with Halsey, which he co-wrote and produced on her Hopeless Fountain Kingdom album. 

"I'm completely floored by the room I'm standing in front of right now. It's actually blinding but like the level of creative brilliance is blinding too," said singer-songwriter Dezi, the recipient of the new songwriter grant, which was voted on by participants of the Secret Genius Ambassador program. "Thus far in life I have not experienced something that is as fulfilling and beautiful an experience as is creating music."

Producer Mike Elizondo took home two awards in the rock ("Heathens" Twenty One Pilots, "Stressed Out" Twenty One Pilots) and motion picture adaptation ("Heathens" from Suicide Squad) categories and later told Billboard he was "humbled" by the honors. 

"You go in, you work, you do your best, you hope you meet some other amazing artists, and then the next thing you know it gets out in the world and people enjoy it. But to be acknowledged by your peers, is just there's no words for it. It's super humbling and I'm super appreciative of it for sure," he said. "It's the wild west right now, and musically I embrace that. I've always been into so many different styles of music and I feel like hip-hop wants to be rock and rock wants to be hip-hop and country wants to be rock and hip-hop and everything kind of can get thrown into a blender -- have some fun."c

The event also featured performances by songwriter Erika Ender of Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's chart-topping hit "Despacito"; PARTYNEXTDOOR and Andrew Watt performing "Wild Thoughts," which they wrote for DJ Khaled, Rihanna and Bryson Tiller; and Shawn Mendes with his "Treat You Better" co-writers Scott Harris and Teddy Geiger

Ahead of his acoustic performance, Mendes praised the spirit behind the Secret Genius Awards, saying it's important to recognize the musicians working behind the scenes "because outside of the industry it's kind of like a very invisible thing -- people don't know who's writing these songs."

Having just come off 25 days in a row of writing with Harris and Geiger, Mendes added he was excited to showcase his single with his two friends, promising, "When we get up there we're just doing what we did when we wrote the song. So it's gonna feel different, it will definitely feel more jammy. In it's natural state -- whether it's good or bad." And, indeed, during the generally laid back acoustic performance, Mendes altered his lyrics to joking draw attention to his playing the wrong chords at one point.

"For all of time there's been artists that rely on collaborators to make their music, whether it's Elvis, Frank Sinatra and the songs written for them... and I think it's really cool that the people at Spotify are taking the chance to give the people behind the scenes some shine," said Andrew Watt, who was nominated in the dance category for Kygo and Selena Gomez's "It Ain’t Me" and DJ Snake's Justin Bieber-featuring "Let Me Love You."

Watt -- who also worked on Gomez and Marshmello's new song "Wolves" -- also praised Spotify's charts, noting you can see a real-time response after releasing a track how it's performing, saying, "You can tell within 48 hours if that song is gonna be a hit." 

"So I can watch in real-time what people are into and it affects the way you make music," he added. "It's so great, it's like music as a democracy."