Analysis

Rap Genius inks Universal Music publishing deal (with wheelbarrow thrown in)


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rapgenius_6201Annotated lyrics site Rap Genius has been under fire in recent months from music publishers over its lack of licensing deals. The company has moved quickly to respond, announcing a deal tonight with Universal Music Publishing Group.

As ever with such deals, the terms haven’t been announced. “We love UMPG! They have a truly incredible stable of writers – we will lend them a wheelbarrow for the Grammys they are about to win!” said Rap Genius founder Ilan Zechory in a statement. “Rap Genius lets UMPG’s writers connect with their most obsessed fans, and we couldn’t be more excited about solidifying this partnership.”

It’s Rap Genius’ second deal with a major music publisher in a matter of months, with the company having announced an agreement with Sony/ATV last November, saying then that it was also in negotiations with other publishers.

That announcement came only days after Rap Genius had the dubious honour of topping a list of unlicensed lyrics sites published by the US National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) as part of its crackdown on copyright infringement.

“These lyric sites have ignored the law and profited off the songwriters’ creative works, and NMPA will not allow this to continue,” said NMPA boss David Israelite at the time, although within a week the two had agreed to talks in order to, in Israelite’s words, “find an acceptable solution for both songwriters and the website”.

Publishers have been keen to sit down with Rap Genius rather than sue it. The site, originally based around its community of users providing annotations for rap lyrics but now also covering rock, poetry and news too, has been one of the most high-profile startups dealing with lyrics in recent times.

Billing itself as “the Wikipedia of annotated texts of all kinds”, it raised $15m of VC funding in 2012 to build its business. NMPA board member Matt Pincus recently told Music Ally that the company wasn’t a villain, based on their response to the body’s crackdown. “Rap Genius is a good example: they responded to it, because those guys are looking to build a legitimate business,” he said.

Securing publishing deals at least removes one legal threat from hampering that business’ growth, although it also brings more pressure on Rap Genius to find a sustainable business model to factor in its new royalty commitments.

The company also hit the headlines over Christmas for a row with Google over Rap Genius search engine optimisation (SEO) strategy, after it was found to be soliciting inbound links from other sites in a way disapproved of by Google. The site was heavily demoted in Google’s search rankings, with its traffic steeply declining as a result, before recovering after Rap Genius apologised and took steps to change its ways.

“We owe a big thanks to Google for being fair and transparent and allowing us back onto their results pages. We overstepped, and we deserved to get smacked,” explained the company’s founders in a blog post earlier this month, which also referred to the company’s recent SEO strategy as “more or less totally debauched”

“To Google and our fans: we’re sorry for being such morons. We regret our foray into irrelevant unnatural linking,” wrote the founders. Getting back in the good books of both Google and music publishers is an encouraging start to 2014 for the company.

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Stuart Dredge

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