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Genius Uses Live Video to Pull in Music-Loving Fans and Brands
By hosting live online events featuring some of the biggest names in rap, music site Genius has found a way to create events that brands want to take part in.
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Lines of people have been appearing in the Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn. Proving that websites can be social and that there are still great free shows around for people who know where to look, these crowds have been queuing up to see their musical idols interviewed live and in person. And they’re not the only ones clamoring to get a look: Brands have been lining up, too.

The shows are created by Genius, a music website that started life in 2009 as Rap Genius, then broadened its appeal by shortening its name a few years later. Genius bills itself as “the world’s biggest collection of song lyrics and musical knowledge.” While Genius creates several online shows, the one fans are lining up for is called Genius Level. The idea is to spotlight icons of the music industry. So far, it’s presented interviews with Terius “The-Dream” Nash and DJ Premier.

The brains behind Genius Level are Brendan Frederick, the company’s chief content officer, and Rob Markman, its manager of artist relations. Markman has a long history as a music journalist and has interviewed many high-profile acts. Genius had already found success with a show called Verified, where an artist breaks down the lyrics to one of his or her songs, explaining what it all really means. The site followed that up with Deconstructed, where a producer explains how a particular hit song was made, and IRL, which focuses on a hot young artist going through the evolution of his or her career. In all three, Genius brings fans a deeper level of information about songs on the Hot 100 chart, the ones everyone is talking about.

Lyrical Tactics

With Genius Level, the company decided to pivot and focus on the veterans who created the current music industry. The idea was to present real icons with a quarter-century of experience behind them and a lifetime of wild stories to tell. Right away, Frederick and Markman decided if they were going to do this project, they needed to do it big. That means working with a live studio audience and really creating an event out of the whole evening. This was the first live/online hybrid event Genius had done, so there was a lot of nervousness around getting it right.

Genius is well set up to host live productions, as it happens, since its Gowanus office has an event space capable of holding 400 people. The company has held concerts, parties, and lectures there, but never a live show. The stage is in the middle of the audience, which creates an intimate experience for guests.

Given that Genius is a lyric-oriented website, Frederick and Markman felt the first Genius Level guest should be someone known as a songwriter. That led to them booking Nash, one of the best-known songwriters of the past 20 years. If his name isn’t familiar, his credits are: He’s worked with Rihanna, Beyoncé, Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, and Jay-Z. Besides being a songwriter, he’s a recording artist in his own right. With Nash, the producers knew they could dive into the creative process of a hugely talented artist and generate a lot of excitement around their event.

For their second episode, Genius choose someone rooted in hip-hop, since that’s part of the brand’s DNA, and chose producer DJ Premier, aka Chris Martin, perhaps better known as half of the iconic ’90s duo Gang Starr. Since then, he’s worked with talent like Biggie, Jay-Z, and Nas. Like Nash, he had plenty of stories to tell—about his own creative process and working with important rap talent.

Legendary rapper DJ Premier (left) is interviewed in an episode of Genius Level at Genius’ Gowanus headquarters. (Photo: Mary Kang)

Mass Appeal

In crafting the interviews, Genius looks to its community of passionate music fans. It asks them to submit questions ahead of time, integrating them into the interview. The interviewer even credits the fans who posed the questions. In preparing for the first episode, Genius held a contest on Twitter in which the person who suggested the best question could come to the event and ask his or her question in person.

“We had a guy who came, he was a huge fan of The-Dream and was super excited to be there,” Frederick remembers. “He asked his question and The-Dream was like, ‘Did you ask me this on Twitter? You sent it to me like 100 times didn’t you?’ And the kid was like, ‘Yeah, I was a little overexcited.’ So The-Dream already had seen the question and knew it and this kid had been so excited he tweeted at him like 100 times.

“We love those moments of just connecting someone who’s a super fan with the actual artist to find out something, that question that they’ve been dying to know this whole time. Even for our community members who couldn’t be at the actual event, just for them to see their question asked and see their name in the video was, I think, really exciting for them in a similar way.”

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