How Genius Is Navigating the 2019 Media Landscape

"We’ve figured out really well how to make video content that works for the YouTube audience."
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Publishing can be ruthless; online advertising is collapsing; Facebook screwed all of us; the pivot to video does not always work out. And yet, some companies still find ways to thrive and continue pushing inventive content and artist discovery. One of these companies is Genius, best known for their “Verified” YouTube series and community-sourced lyrics platform. In the last five years, Genius has gone from a lyrics website to a premium content source, and one of the men instrumental to this transition is Genius Chief Content Officer, Brendan Frederick.

At 37, born in New Hampshire and now based in Brooklyn, New York, Frederick has a long history of working in the digital media space. Before coming aboard the Genius team in 2015, he spent seven years working and building out the Complex content suite, taking the brand from a single print magazine to a fully fleshed out digital media company.

“I was basically the No. 2 to Noah Callahan-Bever who was EIC at the time, and worked very closely with him on everything,” Frederick tells me. “We were putting out a magazine. We were also running multiple sneaker websites, fashion websites, sports websites, a video business.”

Yet, Frederick’s heart was always in music, and so when the chance to work for a 100 percent music-focused company a la Genius presented itself, he jumped at the opportunity. “Genius had this long history as a lyrics website and as a community, so the idea of building something totally new on top of that was super interesting to me,” he says.

In his nearly four years at Genius, Frederick has been instrumental in building a flagship video series, giving vision to the editorial team, and working closely with the artists relations team to ensure they are booking the best possible talent for their YouTube shows. One of the virtues of Genius’ YouTube skew, per Frederick, is that the “Verified” series is the perfect format to spotlight upcoming artists.

“When we decided to have our flagship series, ‘Verified,’ that was sort of intentionally chosen as a great forum for younger, newer artists, who had their first hit,” he explains. “That has been a key element to our success. That allows us to be covering a lot of these exciting new artists in a way other media companies are not because they don’t have a great format for them. Part of that is because we decided to make it a daily show. We have so many episodes! That’s a lot of time to fill, so we have a lot of opportunities to take risks.”

Taking these risks and booking these artists is not only a central facet of Genius’ success in the media space but is also the reason Frederick is excited to come to work in the morning. Tapping into the Genius data and booking the right acts, being someone’s first interview, and introducing the world to the next crop of musical talent all come together to make Frederick’s work at Genius special. 

On the consumer side of things, we certainly feel the love that goes into every episode.

DJBooth’s full interview with Brendan Frederick, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

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DJBooth: Starting from the beginning, where were you before Genius?

Brendan Frederick: I joined Genius in the fall of 2015. Prior to that, I spent seven years working at Complex, and really helped them grow from a print magazine to a digital media company. It was really amazing; I learned so much. I totally loved it. Obviously, different in some ways: Complex is more of a lifestyle magazine, but they also do a little bit of everything. I was basically the No. 2 to Noah Callahan-Bever who was EIC at the time, and worked very closely with him on everything. We were putting out a magazine. We were also running multiple sneaker websites, fashion websites, sports websites, a video business.

That was a really great experience to me because my background prior to Complex was more music journalism, so Complex was a great opportunity for me to really learn the digital media business and to prove that I could apply my skill set to things beyond just music content. That said, the whole time I was there, music is the thing I’m super passionate about, so the music related stuff we did, I was always most engaged with. So, the opportunity to come work at Genius, where we’re 100 percent focused on music, was really appealing to me.

What brought you to Genius? The opportunity to work with music directly?

I’d say that was a big factor in it, for sure. The other thing was the opportunity to get to build something new at a unique company, a little different than a traditional media company. Genius had this long history as a lyrics website and as a community, so the idea of building something totally new on top of that was super interesting to me. The company had, prior to my joining, a strong community operation and was starting to work on our Spotify integration, but largely was kind of a blank slate. There had never been any focus on doing video, social media, editorial. There was really an opportunity to build a lot of these operations around these kinds of content that I had experience doing. To really be laser-focused on music.

Our identity is not just about music, it’s about music knowledge. It’s about teaching people about context behind the music. Beyond learning about artists as people, it’s about learning about the music itself and learning about the creative process that goes into the music. Giving young people context about the thing they love, that’s what it’s all about.

Just so readers understand, what does a CCO do?

Probably very different at different companies! Here at Genius, I oversee the whole content team and that includes a bunch of smaller sub-teams: video, artist relations, editorial, social, and the knowledge team, which is the team that writes our Spotify Behind the Lyrics. On the most basic level, I had a role in hiring and grooming all those people and setting the strategy for the whole department. Making sure everything is working well together but also helping to represent the content department within the broader company and making sure the stuff that we’re doing on the content team is aligning with our broader interests.

We’re really trying to build a lasting business here, and a big part of that is building an audience and making sure you’re monetizing things in a smart way.

How do you balance editorial that points to large-scale artists versus lesser-known talent?

We have always been focused on having a really strong lane for covering emerging artists. When we decided to have our flagship series, “Verified,” that was sort of intentionally chosen as a great forum for younger, newer artists, who had their first hit. That has been a key element to our success. That allows us to be covering a lot of these exciting new artists in a way other media companies are not because they don’t have a great format for them. Part of that is because we decided to make it a daily show. We have so many episodes! That’s a lot of time to fill, so we have a lot of opportunities to take risks. That’s what a lot of coverage of new artists is about, it’s about taking risks and seeing what people are gonna react to. There’s opportunities to try different genres, to try super-super emerging artists and more established artists.

On the editorial side, we’ve developed some franchises that take advantage of that, too. Feature series that are really focused on identifying emerging artists. We have one called “In Search Of,” which is “Here’s a new artist that everyone is searching for, looking at the Genius data.” We’re the world’s largest lyrics website, so because of that, we have all this great data about what music people are interested in. What people are searching for on the site, and that’s really like a platform-agnostic data. Not just what people are looking at on YouTube, Spotify, Tik-Tok. Anywhere music becomes popular, people will search for the lyrics, and that’s where Genius comes in.

I think the ironic part is the more established stars are not always the ones that the audience actually wants to read about. Often, the new, exciting people are going to be more compelling to people.

What’s been the biggest challenge working in an industry that’s at the mercy of the publishing paradigm, online advertising, and social media?

It’s been super interesting seeing the industry evolve. Early days at Complex, it was us figuring out the display media economy, which was: We gotta get a ton of page views on articles. How do we do that? Even before that, it was the blog era, which we lived through. [The industry] is constantly changing. Definitely today, it’s very scary, because we’ve moved from a place of people controlling their own platform and monetizing through that platform into a situation where basically all of the audience exists on third-party platforms that are controlled by other companies. To survive in this era, we have to create content that engages people on those platforms. That means you gotta be nimble and figure out new ways to engage with people.

How do you tailor content for that platform? That does shift the power balance away from you, and my philosophy has always been: You gotta move with the times, and you gotta figure out how to be effective within the new framework of the industry. Work on the platforms and in the formats that make sense to you and connect with people in a real way.

We invest really heavily [into] YouTube as our video platform, in a way that we have not invested in Facebook or Twitter. That’s mainly because YouTube makes sense to us. It has a real audience, a real identity, a real taste, and it’s also very reliable. We’re not seeing crazy fluctuations in how our stuff performs. 

We’ve figured out really well how to make video content that works for the YouTube audience. We make song-level videos. We make videos that are about one song, which sounds sort of obvious, but no one else is really doing it on a consistent basis. That really takes advantage of the way YouTube works. People are streaming music, watching music videos, and we’re the only ones who are really making content that the YouTube recommendation algorithm can say: “You’ve watched this music video a million times, now watch this video Genius made where the artist explains the song that you love.”

What changes has Genius made as a brand that you wish you had made earlier?

Oh, man, there’s probably a lot, right? Early on, I wish I could tell myself to trust the data. Don’t trust your gut instinct of who is famous and what artists people wanna see, just because that’s not necessarily true. We’ve learned so much in the last year about how to actually choose artists [who] people want to watch or read about. A lot of that has really come through us getting smarter about looking at data.

Has social media been helpful or harmful to Genius’ growth over the past four years?

I’d say super helpful! Certainly, there’s a way to look at it, like, “Oh, people are just engaging with us on social media, on a different platform that we’re not directly monetizing.” But, to me, it’s like social media is another platform where people are just discussing music. Getting into it on Twitter is super exciting and is a big part of us building our credibility in the music space. Certainly helped us literally publicize our articles and our videos and our Spotify integration, but also, I just look at it like we’re creating content for these platforms. A tweet is a piece of content. A tweet is not a thing promoting another piece of content, a tweet is a piece of content in itself. Engagement around a tweet is a success in and of itself. Regardless of whether it drives traffic somewhere, or not. That’s a bit more of a long term way of thinking about things.

As a final note, what is the best part of working at Genius?

Definitely identifying and booking new artists, is the thing I am totally obsessed with. I love working with the artist relations team and the video team, figuring out who is the right person to book on our various shows. It’s really not as simple as “This person’s the most popular.” Popularity has so many different facets to it now. That’s super interesting to me. A few big recent successes we’ve had on our show “Verified,” we had Lil Nas X’s first interview. We had The Boyboy West Coast’s first interview on “Verified.” These guys may end up being one-hit wonders, but nonetheless, I’m really excited that we were able to identify them and build relationships before any other media company because we’re so plugged into the data.

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