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State of Digital Publishing speaks with Genius’ Executive Editor Insanul Ahmed, about the state of music journalism and Genius – how to succeed as a professional, identifying trends (the power of 3), tips for growing an audience and what’s ahead for music, the profession, and Genius.
Note: At the time of this recording there were several mentions of the Needle Drop and how he is associated with the ALT-Right however, this video debunks this claim. Every interviewee is entitled to their opinion and State of Digital Publishing reconfirms its position of not taking any political preference or bias from an individual.
How-to and trends
Jump straight to Insanul’s advice for trend spotting, audience growth how-to and the tech trends that lie ahead in music journalism.
Vahe Arabian: Welcome to the State of Digital Publishing Podcast. State of Digital Publishing is an online publication covering media technology trends, perspectives, and news for online publishing and media professionals. We hope that as developers better develop audiences by encouraging others and sharing knowledge, experience, and practical advice in order to act as a bridge between startups and established companies. I brought with me today Insanul Ahmed from Genius. He’s the Executive Editor and he’s responsible for the social media strategy and is Editor at Large. Welcome, how are you?
Insanul Ahmed: I’m good, I’m good. Thank you for having me on.
Vahe Arabian: Awesome! How’s your week been?
Insanul Ahmed: Oh, it’s been good, it’s been exciting. I have a new album that’s coming so a lot of work to be done for us.
Vahe Arabian: Awesome! He doesn’t publish as much albums as often so as soon as he drops something everyone’s covering it so yeah.
Insanul Ahmed: Oh yeah.
Vahe Arabian: Awesome! Just for everyone that doesn’t know much about you, can you provide a bit of background about yourself and also about Genius?
Insanul Ahmed: Oh yeah, for sure. My name is Insanul. I’m a long time journalist and writer. I got into journalism when I was in high school. I started writing for my school paper and that kind of sparked my interest in it. And I’ve been writing about it ever since then, writing about music ever since then. When I was in college I had interned at Vibe and that kind of started me on a professional path. When I got out of college I worked at Complex for about five-six years, really helped grow that brand. In about 2016, I kinda felt like I had been there long enough. I wanted a new change of pace, so I joined Genius where I’ve been working for about the past two years about. I think a lot of people are familiar with Genius as a lyrics website which is what we started out as, known for annotations. You know, which people can explain lyrics.
Insanul Ahmed: Started out basically as a tech start up and in the last couple years, especially since I’ve gotten here, we’ve really transitioned into more of a media company than a straight up tech company or sort of maybe a hybrid where not only do we have our website where we have all these lyrics, we have a community who annotates all these lyrics and who adds explanations and meanings about songs. But now we also have a wing, that I’m involved with, which is the web editorial site. We have a larger social media presence and we have a much much larger video presence where we interact with artists, get them to explain their music. We have several YouTube shows like ‘Verified’ and ‘Deconstructed’, where artists will come in and explain what went into their music. I’m more in charge of the editorial where we’re covering new releases; we’re covering breaking news on social. We’re also promoting all these products that we’re making and also engaging with our audience.
Insanul Ahmed: Genius has really expanded in the last few years from just being another lyric website to being a full-fledged media company with a lot of reach to a lot of artists.
Vahe Arabian: It’s really interesting how you guys have been able to combine the community aspect with the editorial. How did you guys come to that conclusion? I guess it helps to first start off as a lyric website but how did you, how do you think Genius progressed to that point of combining community and editorial?
Insanul Ahmed: Oh yeah, that’s a good point. Like I said, when the site first started out (and it’s been around since 2009-2010, I would say) I wasn’t here for the early days of that but when it started out it was rooted in being this hot, understand music. That was kind of the question that Tom and Ilan who founded the site, they started with “Here’s a lyric that I like, what does it mean? I don’t know what it means but somebody knows what it means. Somebody fill it in.” It kind of started off like where Wikipedia is where anyone can write it, anyone can update it, and as the site grew we got moderators and editors and people who were more serious about filtering the site and just making it look … making the information and annotations more professional and more presentable. That went on for several years.
Insanul Ahmed: Until, I think… like I said, a few years ago we transitioned to a media company and one of the reasons why is, I think it became clear that although we have an amazing site and we have an amazing community that puts in so much effort and work into making the site. Just like I think Wikipedia is a good example of this too, where the people who write all this stuff they take a lot of time to edit these articles and update them and make sure they’re correct and things like that. One thing, I think, that we realized was that although our site is great, it’s a little difficult to navigate. Even for me when I first used Genius, I had known about the site for years but I didn’t always actually do the annotations and editing all those things. When I got more involved, I realized this is difficult for the average person who’s not a music fanatic but is interested in music and their interested in knowing about music, but they don’t know how to navigate this site. I think the reason, the whole goal of our editorial strategy is, there’s all this great content on our site, but it’s buried under layers of this website and these annotations and this community. That’s not easy or accessible for everyone to just jump right into.
Insanul Ahmed: So what we need to do and what our strategy is for a lot of it is, finding the best stuff and basically polishing all the gems. Our site is very much a diamond in the rough kind of thing. Like I said, there’s a lot of content that’s on our site that’s created by our community. Our community is great but you know they’re not professional journalists, they’re not professional writers, they’re young kids mostly who are big fans of Eminem or Rihanna or Kendrick Lamar or whoever the artist may be and these people are writing stuff but whatever they’re making is not being seen by the wider audience who doesn’t know how to access it. So what we do on the staff side is to take all that content, sift through it, find the best stuff, and then sort of repackage it into something that’s easily digestible and consumable by the wider and greater audience of fans, people again who are fans of Kendrick Lamar, fans of Eminem, these people have millions of fans all over the world but not all of those people are going to learn how to navigate our site, so for us we make it easy and kind of bring it to them.
Vahe Arabian: That’s really interesting. I’d like to come back to that point after and tie it back into your day to day roles and responsibilities but let’s take a step back. When people, I think, looking at it from a user perspective, if someone wants to look around updates around a specific artist they would usually associate it with an entertainment and news site or like a gossip site. How do you define music journalism and how did you come to the path of going to music journalism? I know you explained it a bit in your background but I’d really like to make it clear for everyone who doesn’t know much about music journalism and really differentiate it, if you can go down to that detail.
Insanul Ahmed: That’s a good question. You know it’s funny. This very much ties into, I think, one of the strategies and our overall outlook of how we cover news at Genius. I’ll take it back, like I said, I started out writing about music when I was in high school; this is in 2004-2005. I actually remember the first article I wrote for my high school newspaper was actually a review of Jay Z’s “Black” album which had come out at that time. I think it was 2003, in fact. At that time, obviously the media landscape was very very different and to me I saw criticism as the sort of the holy grail of what music journalism was. It was people writing about album views, discussing whether the album was good or the album was bad, why you should buy it and why you shouldn’t. In the last ten- fifteen years, that entire idea is completely dead. I mean, I used to be, again a kid like me, I grew up reading reviews. I loved reading reviews. I used to read five-six reviews of an album I liked from every different kind of organization just to see what everyone was saying, just to see what the consensus was. I don’t even read reviews anymore. A lot of that has been decimated by, basically by Twitter and the internet in general.
Insanul Ahmed: It used to be a time where if you wanted a critical opinion you had to go to this critical person, who almost was sitting in this ivory tower and works at Rolling Stone, and gets to hear the album before you, and he writes his high minded opinion of it, and then you’re kind of left to decide whether or not want to buy it or not. That’s something that is totally dead because a lot of that, all of that stuff has been destroyed by the internet. Because now… there used to be a time that was like, “Well should I buy this album? Or should I not? I don’t know. Let me read a review and get an opinion.” Now it’s “Should I click on this or not to listen to it? I’ll listen to it one time”.
Insanul Ahmed: If you’re interested in an album today you can just go on Spotify, go on Apple Music, go on YouTube, and listen to it one time. You don’t need someone to tell you whether or not your money is worth spending because you don’t spend any money on it. So that’s a big change that’s happened in music journalism. I mean, critical reviews still exist but they’re not nearly as important as they used to be. Nowadays, the biggest music critic in America is a guy named ‘theneedledrop’ who’s not a trained journalist, he’s a YouTube vlogger who shoots from his living room, of like, “Hey, this is what I thought of this album.” That’s increasingly how the game has become.
Insanul Ahmed: On a professional side, when I did actually start writing, when I started working at Complex, which was in 2010, and I started covering artists, the sort of bread and butter of what we did was interviews. What had changed but not entirely has changed in that period from when I was in high school to when I started working at Complex, was celebrity culture and access. As I said before, every artist, or any major artist has thousands of fans, millions of fans across the U.S. across the world and they want access to their favorite artist, they can’t get it because there’s only so many people. So artists do interviews with organizations like Complex, like Genius, and other places that give them the sort of face to face with this artist. The Q and A, a making of, and all these kinds of things, right?
Vahe Arabian: Yep.
Insanul Ahmed: That’s the kind of culture and the coverage that music journalism became. It became writing profiles about artists, about emerging artists, about established artists. I wrote cover stories about people like Mac Miller where he talked to me about his drug addiction; now that’s not something I think he would necessarily have told the whole world on his Twitter feed or his Instagram but in a private one on one conversation, you build a rapport, a person tells you a story, you can relay that story into a narrative, bring that to the audience, right?
Vahe Arabian: Yep.
Insanul Ahmed: But one of the things that at Complex I remember I did a lot was, when I did an interview, my plan was basically, I have four-five questions, it’s like some one’s on a press run, their new album is coming out, they come to the office or I get them on the phone, or I go see them, and it’s like, “Oh, I have five questions about your album. Tell me where’d you make this album, you worked with this guy, what do you tell me about the single,” and then the rest of the interview is me asking, “Hey, what about that guy you have beef with? Who’s this girl you’re dating? How many drugs are you on? What about this thing? What about this thing?” All these other things that had very little to do with the music and much more to do with the lifestyle and the image and essentially the celebrity culture of music. Unfortunately, that’s the way a lot of coverage is and it has kind of always been. You mentioned it too, you said “oh, a music site” and it’s funny too that you also said a gossip site. That’s not the way I initially saw the business when I got into it but when I actually worked in it, I realized it’s true, that’s the kind of the stuff that people gravitate towards.
Vahe Arabian: How can a music journalist stand out as a music journalist?
Insanul Ahmed: Oh well, that’s the thing I wanted to say about Genius. So when I worked at Complex, that was kind of the thing, the way I approached things, and I still tried to do things that were music oriented but when I got to Genius, I realized something had changed in the media landscape in the past few years.
Insanul Ahmed: One of the things was, a lot of artists stopped doing interviews. People like Beyoncé and Drake, and other artists they realized they can control their own narrative and they don’t need publications to access their audience, they can just go on their social media feed, talk about what they want to talk about, promote what they want to promote, and not have to deal with the journalist who’s trying to ask them a tough question about, “Hey, what about these allegations?” Or “What about this negative story that you don’t want to talk about?”
Insanul Ahmed: So that kind of has changed, where I think even younger artists and even emerging artists have realized that the leverage of media representation has changed. But the thing about Genius, and I think that makes us really unique, is that we’re a music brand that’s actually about music. What I mean by that is, when I talk about our show “Verified”, this is our number one YouTube show, it’s our flagship YouTube show. It’s essentially an artist that comes, they talk about their song, they do basically a cappella version of their song, and then we ask them specifically about each lyric, “What did you mean by this line?” Or “What inspired this line?” And “How did the beat come together?” And “Where did you record it?” And all these questions. Genius is a brand, everything we do is actually about the music. Our editorial coverage is actually about here’s the lyrics on this album and here’s what these lyrics mean.
Insanul Ahmed: Our Verified show is about here’s an artist talking about their song, how they made the song, what inspired it, what it derived from, when it was made, how it was made. I think, I was initially a little bit surprised and even a little skeptical. I was like… I wondered how the audience will respond to this because it’s true, the gossip stuff tends to get more coverage and more discussion. People like to do this, you see this on Twitter all the time and you see this on social media where everyone is talking about someone got into a fight or this guy got into some scandal. That has nothing to do with the music. That is to me is all gossip culture, it’s all celebrity culture, it has nothing to do with music. So at Genius, it’s kind of easy for us because a lot of the brands that people think of as our competitors, even places like Complex where I worked, it’s like I look at their stuff and I say, “Man, you did an interview that’s barely even about music, that barely even touches on how did this music get made, what inspires it?”.
Insanul Ahmed: Now, I think for a lot of people and for us too, if the music deals with a controversial topic or a public topic, for example, if an artist publicly has a break up with their significant other and now their new song or their new album is a heartbreak album and they are talking about how their heart got broken, well then to me it’s relevant and fair to ask an artist, “Okay, what’s up with that?” Like how does this relate to that. Or to even just write about it and say, “well this artist says this in the song and it sounds like they are talking about this which was reported on, maybe a gossip site, that they were going to court being sued by their ex or they are having this argument on Twitter with their label,” or things like that. So for us nowadays, the stuff that we do at Genius is all music-centric and music focused. It all starts from where we started, we started as a lyric website, we actually look at the lyrics and then derive our content. I think a lot of other places look at their social media feed and then derive their content, for us it’s the other way around.
Vahe Arabian: Would you say like a startup person, who wants to start in music journalism, start with still doing music lyric reviews and critics? Or, how do you think they should get in to music journalism?
Insanul Ahmed: Oh well, I don’t think, like I said, criticism is dead.
Vahe Arabian: Yeah, criticism for sure. Like in terms of reviews, I mean, more a review site or…
Insanul Ahmed: Yeah, I think if you’re a user and you’re a young person breaking in, the game is so different than the way it was when I got in. What I mean by that is, when I was a kid, I looked at it and I was like man … When I was in college and when I started working out, I was like, “Yeah, I wanna go work for those big places, I wanna be at places like Vibe, I wanna be at a place like Complex, Rolling Stone, or Billboard, and all these big names and stuff like that.” Nowadays, the value of those brands has gone down so much and even the market share that they have has gone down so much. If you’re a young person trying to break in nowadays, I think you need to establish your own brand and if your brand is big enough, the big names are gonna come calling. It’s unfortunate, but it’s true. When people look at a new person to hire and stuff, they’re looking at resumes, they go… let’s see this person’s resume… is not that great and then they see their Twitter and they’re like oh, but he’s got 20,000 Twitter followers… Oh, she’s got 25,000 Instagram followers.
Vahe Arabian: Would you say for a graduate that they will look at those factors even though they are a graduate?
Insanul Ahmed: Yeah.
Vahe Arabian: Into the industry.
Insanul Ahmed: Absolutely, that’s just sort of the reality of it. But to me it also gives a lot of power to those people because, to the young people… because there are certain people… and again, I look at theneedledrop, he’s a not a great person or I don’t really like his stuff. But he’s a good example of the pathway that he took, to now that he’s a full-time music critic, that’s his job and it pays his bills and there’s a lot of other things about him, but he’s associated with the alt right and all these other things that I’m not advocating for. But, the point I want to make about that is that you can do something independently. If you start your own YouTube channel or if you start your own Instagram feed or whatever it may be and establish yourself, there’s a chance that you can become your own entity. Because there’s kids these days, I say this all the time too, especially about social media, things like that.
Insanul Ahmed: We have a social media team. We have two people that work on it, Cam and Theresa, they’re both great. I work on the team as well of course, I manage them and I deal with some of the stuff. But the truth is, no idea that we come up with will ever be as brilliant as some high school kid sitting in class who’s bored and writes a hilarious tweet that gets 300,000 likes, or 300,000 retweets, you know what I mean?
Vahe Arabian: Yeah.
Insanul Ahmed: All these professional brands and all these people spending all their time trying to do it, all this curated feed, and meanwhile there’s some teenager just doing it kind of on the whim. That’s what I mean, if you go that way, there’s the chance that it can work out. I think, it’s worth pursuing it that way, where you have to establish your own brand. The challenges of all writers and all artists is to find your own voice, so you have to go out there and strike out on your own. Nowadays, the idea of I’m gonna get a staff job and work at a place like Rolling Stone, work at a place like… even a place like a GQ or really long time established brands, that stuff is drying up by the day. Media everyone knows is in a …
Vahe Arabian: Rolling Stone even recently got sold, I think, the publication recently got sold, so it just shows that they’re not as… the brand isn’t about the leverage in someone’s career.
Insanul Ahmed: Yeah, all that’s …
Vahe Arabian: That’s the only thing.
Insanul Ahmed: All that stuff is gone. So nowadays, you can strike out on your own and go make your own thing, and you can make your own brand and be your own thing. So that’s the thing I’ll tell young people is that if they want to break in, if they want to start doing that, go make your own voice, go make your own noise. We’re in a world now where it’s not quite a mertocracy, but it’s enough where, I’m sorry “not a meritocracy”, but we are in a world where you might get noticed and you might be able to make your own thing, and maybe, maybe not enough to make a full time living out of it, but enough where you can get paid for being yourself. For being the person you wanted to be and not have to have a boss, not have to go and be an intern, and get coffee like I did, or do all those things. Maybe there’s a way around it. I’m not sure if that’s what’s gonna happen, but what I do know for sure is that there are fewer and fewer worthy media jobs left to get. Fighting for those roles seems like a sort of zero sum game because you might get the job at Rolling Stone that you always wanted, but who knows Rolling Stone, is it gonna still be here in five years? Maybe it will maybe it won’t, I don’t know, you know?
Vahe Arabian: Yeah, I totally relate. I guess until those new starters get to the point where you are, where you can actually access well known music artists, what are some of the sources of truth that they can access for them to be credible, to be seen credible, where can they find the information around artists until they get to the point where they can actually, directly interview and get those inside actual names?
Insanul Ahmed: Well if you want access to an artist, you can get it and the places not to start with … It’s okay, its fine, I still dream of this too, I’ve been in the game for years, I still haven’t gotten the interview, I’m waiting for my Kanye interview. I’m waiting for my Jay Z interview, I still haven’t gotten those. But that’s not where it starts. If you’re a young kid looking to start, go find a young artist who’s looking to start, who you think has the potential to be a big star. This is the same thing that happened to me, again, when, like I said … Look, I always dreamed of interviewing someone like a Jay Z or a Kanye, I haven’t gotten those interviews yet. But when I started out, and this is when I was in Complex and stuff, I saw artists like Kendrick Lamar.
Insanul Ahmed: In 2011, I was like this guy’s music is amazing, he’s gonna be a big star. I saw artists like Wiz Khalifa in 2010, and I was like, this guy’s gonna be a big star. I saw people like J. Cole, people like The Weeknd, people, just so many artists that I was like, these guys are gonna be stars. This is my favorite music, I wanna talk to these guys. And yeah, you’re right, it’s hard to go and be some kid publishing somewhere on your own blog and try to get the biggest artist in the world, but you don’t have to get the biggest artist in the world, you just have to get the next biggest artist in the world. The artist who’s on the same level or just maybe a level removed from you.
Insanul Ahmed: So now I’m at the point where, yes I’m an established writer, I’ve been in the game for a long time, I have my own reputation, people know me, but again when I was lesser known, I was interviewing the guys who were once lesser known – like a Kendrick Lamar, like a J. Cole, like a ASAP Rocky. Now, those guys are international stars, and there’s young kids who are dreaming like, “Oh man, if I could just get an interview with Kendrick Lamar,” and maybe it’s a high school kid, like the way I was looking at it and saying, “That’s who I really want to interview.” They might never get a Kendrick interview, just like I never got my Jay Z interview. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t interview the next Kendrick Lamar, the next Jay Z, the next artist who’s coming up. So I always say, I always try to find the next artist, the young artists who are blowing up.
Insanul Ahmed: Even earlier this year, I think a good example. One of my co-workers, he was the first one in the office who was telling us about this artist XXXTentacion. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him, he’s quite a controversial figure. But it was just an example of, he was one of the younger people on staff, and he was like, “I think this guy’s music is going to blow up,” and I was like “If you say so”, I didn’t fully see the vision, but was like, “Cool, let’s interview him, if his stuff is blowing up, talk to him.” We did an interview with him and now that dude, we did it back in early this year in February, and it wasn’t that big a deal when we did it but then it kind of blew up and now that artist is a bigger deal and now getting an interview with him is like, “Oh wow, you got an interview with XXX?” But back then he was nobody, nobody was trying to interview him, so when we got him it was,”Oh, you want to interview me? Sure I’ll do it.” You know what I mean? So artists’ fortunes change over time and I would tell young people to find the young artist that you like, find the next thing that’s going to blow up, and you know what you want too.
Insanul Ahmed: That’s the other thing to me too, this goes back to again, like I said, when I was in high school, I remember liking a lot of music and looking at it and saying, “Man, I wish there was a different type of artist that there’s a lane that exists and no one could fill it of a conscious guy who had dope beats but could rap well and had a little bit of street cred but not really,” and then Kanye West comes out and is exactly that guy. Totally fills that lane and becomes this big star. So if you’re a young kid and you’re like, “I like the music that’s out now but I know what’s missing, I want to hear someone do this,” and then someone comes out and actually does that, go find that guy, go interview that guy or that girl. That’s what you gotta go do.
Vahe Arabian: Yeah, would it be even worth specializing in a specific genre? Like is that worth doing or do you think you have to just to be broad and just try to find the next artist you think is going to be best? I almost think as a writer you want to do something that you like or you’re passionate about because that’s going to strengthen what you write about. What are your thoughts about that?
Insanul Ahmed: Well to your point, I think it’s all about the passion. I mean, let your gut guide you and don’t do something, especially when you’re young, you don’t have to do it for the sort of business or because your boss is making you do it. You’ve got to follow your passion. So I mean, for me, rap has always been my passion. I have a passion for music overall, but rap specifically. So that’s the path that I chose. That’s not the path for everyone. Everyone has their own thing.
Insanul Ahmed: But overall, I would say nowadays one of the trends that I’ve seen in music and what I’ve seen with music just the way it’s become, it’s become more playlist oriented, so music is becoming increasingly genreless. Not entirely genreless. It always irritates me when an artist says don’t call me a genre, there’s no genre, and then it’s like “oh yeah, dude. I know what genre you belong in”. You’re just an R&B artist or you’re just a rapper, I know what you are. But overall, I think increasingly there are fewer and fewer and the lines are way more blurred than they have ever been in terms of what genre is anything. All of music as a whole has been infected by a sort of the virus of hip hop music. But then again, at the same time, pop music especially has been sort of the undercurrent of it comes from dance and EDM, and there’s a lot more mixing, and R&B, and hip hop the lines have become very blurred. Every rapper wants to be a singer, every singer is a rapper, all these kinds of things are going back and forth. So yeah I mean, I don’t think it has to be rigid like the way it was for me when I came up, but I think the thing to stick to is whatever as a young person you’re passionate about and you feel strongly about.
Vahe Arabian: You said that, as I was just hearing a bit of your other podcast that you did last year, you called yourself a trend spotter, given that we’re on that point now, how do you go about finding trends?
Insanul Ahmed: Ah, that’s a good question. The thing about trends I’ll always say is it’s three makes a trend. I think a lot of people always reach where they notice one thing happen, like they have one big thing happen, and then they see two other minor things and it’s a trend. That’s not a trend. A trend is when three things happen, that’s a trend. So a good example of this to me was, I worked on a piece earlier this year that I edited about the rise of Latin track. You know to me, I had one example everyone knew, this summer everybody heard “Despacito”.
Vahe Arabian: Of course.
Insanul Ahmed: The bestselling Latin song of maybe of all time. That’s a big record and that’s cool, okay. And then I noticed along the way that there was another song that was pretty big but not quite as big is, “Mi Gente” from J Balvin, and this is actually a couple months ago actually, before the Beyoncé remix actually happened, when I think that got it on a lot more people’s radar. But these are two big, Spanish language songs that were charting in the U.S, that’s like a trend, that’s the starting of a trend but to me that’s not enough, you gotta get the third thing, right?
Insanul Ahmed: I waited until, that’s kind of the idea in the back of my head, I didn’t see a place for it to work, and then a friend of mine played me an artist named Bad Bunny, who is, although he’s not as popular in the U.S, but he’s a huge artist in the Latin world. He’s a Puerto Rican Latin track artist, then I looked into him and I started looking into that scene and I say, “Wait, now there’s enough juice,” now we have three artists, we have a huge song from a legend, Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi for “Despacito”, we have another big hit with J Balvin and his song “Mi Gente”, and there’s another artist, Bad Bunny, and underneath Bad Bunny there’s Ozuna and there’s other guys in this scene, and I was like, okay now you have something.
Insanul Ahmed: So one of the things about trend spotting always is, you’ve got to find at least three artists or three songs, to make something a trend. That’s to me is the easiest way. A lot of times when people will tell you a trend, and they’ll name you like … I was having this thing in the office we were like, “Oh, it’s a trend of afrobeats,” and I was like… because you know Drake did it and Wiz Kid, and this other person, and I was like “yeah but Wiz Kid is only famous for doing a Drake song, and Drake already did it so basically you don’t have three songs, you have one song, you just have Drake.” And that’s not a trend, you just have one big artist doing one big thing, is not a trend. If you have three artists doing a trend, even if they’re three midsize artists, then you have a trend. So to me I’m a very strong proponent of the rule of threes where you don’t have a trend if you don’t have at least three people.
Vahe Arabian: That’s a great piece of advice, I really like how you explained it as well. So thanks man.
Insanul Ahmed: Yeah, no doubt.
Vahe Arabian: In saying that, you’ve covered some of the trends now, and built the landscape for this seed. But can elaborate a bit more about what the music climate is and what, and I know you talked about a lot of the artists trying to create their own platforms, but can you summarize it, in a view of what you think the current climate is with the artists? And the music scene.
Insanul Ahmed: I’d say the current climate is pretty exciting. I’m 31 years old and I always assumed that by the time I got over 30, the older I got, and I know this to be true. The older you get the further removed you are from the center. Because to me music in general is a youth oriented thing, it’s from, people from ages 15 to 25 is like the prime time of loving music and being so into it. And the older you get the less and less kind of enthused you are and sort of jaded, and kind of disinterested you become. But I’m 31 and I’m still super excited all the time for the music that’s coming out, So the overall thing, I think the most important conversation that’s happening in music right now, that effects all music across the platform, is streaming.
Insanul Ahmed: We’re into what they call it has been dubbed the streaming wars, I don’t think it’s much of a war, but okay it’s called the streaming wars. Last year was, I think the first year in, since 1999 or something, where the music industry actually grew their revenue. Almost all of that growth in revenue was attributed to the growth in streaming. So what’s happening and the debates and the conversation that are happening around streaming is where it’s at. And again, going back to my point about young kids, the Generation Z and the Millennial generation, all those I think they make up 70% of the Spotify audience, they make up a large streaming of the streaming audience, whether it’s Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, or Pandora, or whatever, Sound Cloud, whatever you’re using. So to me the new wave for everything is happening on streaming.
Insanul Ahmed: This goes back to my earlier point about music becoming a bit more genreless. It’s because we’re not quite in the album era anymore, we’re in the playlist era, where people are making playlists and they’re consuming music that way. And that is why you can have a playlist that has a certain vibe but can cross various genres. That’s what this goes back to my point, this is kind of why it’s genreless, is you make a playlist and you might have a dance song with a hip hop song with a pop song with a rock kind of song, and it can all kind of just live together in one place. Something like that wasn’t really possible, it was possible, but not quite the way it is now, and it’s not easily accessible. So what’s happening on the streaming side is to me very exciting, it’s what I always dreamed of. Which is hopefully we’ll get to the point where you can just inject music into your veins, which is what I’m looking forward too.
Insanul Ahmed: Again, it goes back to a lot of my older friends will tell me it’s not like buying CDs and I’m like I don’t want to buy CDs, I don’t want to go wait on a line. I want to hear the music right now, this very second. Streaming, it’s weird to me because I didn’t really grow up buying music, I bought some music, but I mostly grew up downloading music but nowadays, especially because I’m older and I’m less interested, I don’t have the patience or the time to maintain what was once a vast and very immaculate MP3 library where I titled all the songs specifically, and made sure all the credits were correct, and did all this stuff where it’s just like I’m just like who the hell cares. Just give me the song, oh it’s there, okay cool… one click it’s on my phone, press play, let’s go. That’s where music is right now, that’s the battle that’s happening, and streaming… it’s not the complete picture of what the streaming economy isn’t quite here yet, but we’re getting so close. I think by the end of 2018 we’ll be 100% there. Right now, it only feels like we’re maybe 30-40% of the way there. It’s very clear who the big players are, who’s got the most at stake, and how things are shaping up.
Vahe Arabian: I just want to say this is completely opposite side of hardcore music fads in terms of people who still buy vinyls, I’m not sure if that’s still the case in America.
Insanul Ahmed: Oh yeah, people do buy vinyls in the U.S and I don’t think they are hardcore music fans. I think they’re pretentious douche bags. It irritates me to no end. One of my favorite stats I ever read about vinyl is that 50% of the people who buy vinyl don’t own a vinyl player. They can’t even play the record. So don’t tell me you’re a music fan because you bought it, you’re only a music fan if you play the music and listen to it. The best way and the easiest way and the most accessible way to listen to music to engage with the sound of the music is on streaming, not on vinyl. So I don’t want to hear about vinyl, it drives me crazy.
Vahe Arabian: That’s very strong opinion, I appreciate that. You know how you spoke about the current climate of music, how do you think Genius and the other media publishers are playing part of that and streaming?
Insanul Ahmed: Well streaming’s a big part. Actually, I didn’t even get a chance to talk about this and I did want to mention it too. When I first came to Genius my initial job was not dealing with social or with editorial. The first thing I came on to do is work on what we call the fact track project. A fact track is if you go on Spotify, and if you go on basically any big hit song on Spotify, and I don’t know if you’ve used this, if you have an iPhone, I don’t know internationally, I’m not sure how it plays. I think we’re in most countries, but not Japan for some reason.
Vahe Arabian: Right.
Insanul Ahmed: But if you go on Spotify and you press play on a song, you’ll see the lyrics pop up on the screen, with little facts, it’s kind of like the Pop-up video show from the 90’s, I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember that.
Vahe Arabian: I haven’t that seen that to be honest, I’ll look that up for sure.
Insanul Ahmed: Well listen, if you have Spotify and you have an iPhone, it’ll definitely show up. Internationally the rules are a little bit muddier but, that’s the initial product that I came on to work on and that was what I worked on for most of last year, writing fact tracks. When you press play on the song the lyrics pop up on the screen and facts that, this is what I was writing, facts about the song or about the artist or about the lyrics themselves, play on the screen with it. To me, I mean, the first time I saw the product when I was interviewing for the position, I was like do I want to work at this place Genius, what’ve they got going on, let’s see what it is, and they showed me that and I saw it and I was like, wow, I need to work here because that’s cool. That to me is one of the most innovative things that has happened in music consumption.
Insanul Ahmed: Our CEO Tom was talking about this not that long ago and he made a good point, he said in the 80’s and 90’s or whatever, they introduced the CD Walkman, the Discman, right? The display is a little thing that says what track you’re on, it doesn’t give you the name of the track, it gave you the number, and it gave you how much time had elapsed and how much time was left, right? That was the little thing that was on it. Then came the iPod and the first iPod had the actual name of the song, the name of the artist, it had how much time had elapsed and how much time was left. Then came the iPod Color and everyone’s phones and things like that and it got to the point where it had the cover of the album, it had the name of the song, the name of the artist, how much time was elapsed, that was all there was to it.
Insanul Ahmed: Since then there hasn’t really been an update to the display of music while you’re consuming it. And really fact tracks, and this is not an exaggeration, is really the first innovation in that. So when you go on Spotify, you’ll still see the name of the song, you see the name of the artist, you see how much time has elapsed and how much time is left, and you see the album cover, but then it flips and you start to see the lyrics along with the song, and then you start to read facts along with the song. And that’s just ..It’s a unique musical experience that you cannot have anywhere else. If you go listen to Apple, Apple Music, or Title, Pandora, Spotify, none of them have that product with them. Genius is powering that. Now, Genius would love to power it for every music streaming service, and hopefully we can do that one day. But yeah, I mean, that’s the kind of thing where it’s like there’s so much more opportunity to me and to Genius of places to insert knowledge, places to bring people information about the music that they love, and streaming is going to enable that.
Insanul Ahmed: Because now you have something that people are used to it being a static thing, it’s just a picture of the album cover, the cover doesn’t move, never changes, it’s just that. Well why does it have to be that? One of things that I do miss from the vinyl era, the CD era, all those things, I remember as a kid, buying CDs and reading the liner notes. Liner notes were cool. I remember buying “The Eminem Show” and in the liner were hand… it wasn’t actually hand written but it looked like his handwriting, the lyrics to the album…to all the songs. It had the credits. It had where the song was made. All this other information. And now, its 2017, there’s more information than ever before, we have more access to it, and yet when it comes to music where it seems like people can’t get the access.
Insanul Ahmed: It frustrates me, even Spotify I think isn’t great at this, it frustrates me that I can go on Spotify and listen to every Eminem song, but it won’t tell me who produced the song. You can’t even look, you can’t, there’s no way to find it. Unless you go and watch one of the fact tracks, and we always make sure to put this in there, this song is produced by such and such person. That’s the kind of stuff that I think the future of streaming is really going to get more innovative and more creative and give us more information. Genius is very much, we’re very adamant at trying to be at the forefront of that, trying to bring you what we call music intelligence, music knowledge to the forefront because people are consuming music, there’s no doubt about that.
Vahe Arabian: How do you make sure the fact tracks are discoverable on Genius?
Insanul Ahmed: Well actually, fact tracks, they play automatically if you have Spotify. You know like I was saying before, a lot of the fact tracks are based on if you go to the original lyric page and go to the annotations that the users and the community wrote, a lot of those facts are from there. But again, we have a product, like we said, we have a website that not everyone knows how to navigate, not everyone knows how to discover. Now, we’ve taken that information that our community has put together, our loyal great community, and then we flip that into a fact track on Spotify, that’s now being professionally curated by an actual writer and editors who are cleaning it up and making it presentable.
Insanul Ahmed: Now, we have Spotify playing it automatically for users so they don’t even have to click anything, it just shows up for them and now that information all that knowledge, that was once buried deep on our site, is now being just sort of spoon fed to the perfect audience, who wants to consume this. Because… hey, look if you’re listening to the song, why wouldn’t you want to know what the exact lyrics are, why wouldn’t you want to know more about the artist, more about how it was produced, more about where it was made. That’s who wants to hear about it, right?
Vahe Arabian: Yeah. Is Spotify giving more weighting, the fact that you’re adding these fact tracks onto the songs?
Insanul Ahmed: No, not really. Because the way it works for us is, we tend to do the fact tracks on the most popular songs anyway, right?
Vahe Arabian: Right.
Insanul Ahmed: If a new Taylor Swift song comes out, a new Eminem album comes out, if a Post Malone song is blowing up, that song is getting a fact track. That’s why I say we’re at the point now, and this wasn’t true last year, but now we’re at the point anytime a big hit song is out, we have to do it. And we’re actually contractually obligated with Spotify, I mean, it’s part of our contract. We have to do some power some of their biggest playlists, like Rap Caviar and Today’s Top Hits. So those are their two biggest playlists, so if it’s a big hit song, it’s probably going to be on that playlist, and if it’s on that playlist, we definitely wrote a fact track or we’re going to write the fact track, it’s only a matter of time.
Insanul Ahmed: So yeah, our focus for that has always been to doing the most popular songs and then in the meanwhile building a back catalog of classic songs, but classic songs tend to be the most popular song. People are always going to want to listen to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”, people are always going to want to listen to the Rolling Stones, or the Beatles, and things like that. So the back catalog is also a part of that.
Vahe Arabian: I mean, it’s interesting though, if you guys are focusing on the most popular songs and classics, but then for new journalists, it’s more perfect to focus on the upcoming, wouldn’t it be better for them to do fact tracks for them? That way that can help give leverage to those artists, and potentially even give more weight on Spotify and those other streaming sites?
Insanul Ahmed: No, not really. Number one – our… you talk about young journalists, I mean, the Spotify product is made exclusively in house at Genius, we don’t do freelancers, it’s only the people on staff. That’s not an opportunity for any young journalists really, we’ve hired some people but it’s more for an established writer. We do cover young and emerging artists too. But they have to get their views up, so if the views are big … Again, this is what I was saying before, the thing that I was saying about young journalists trying to come up, I say “hey, look make your own thing, you can blow up”. That’s also true of young artists coming up. There’s kids who are blowing up right now, there’s a kid Tay K or guys like YBN Nahmir who are shooting videos on YouTube or making songs on Sound Cloud, and they’re blowing up. Not overnight exactly, but in a couple of months, they go from all of a sudden no one knows who they are and three months later they have a few million views.
Insanul Ahmed: When those people get on that radar and they’re on our editorial radar, and they’re on our staff’s, just a staff of people that are just obsessed with music and looking for the next hottest thing always. Once that stuff gets on our radar, we’re going to cover that stuff any way. We like to bring artists, there’s a lot of artists that we’ve brought in to for our show Verified. Again, this is the same thing that I’m telling young kids they can do, we do it on our site too, where we bring in a young artist like a Chewpy Red or a Scar Lord or guys who aren’t big stars yet, but we like this one song and I see it’s blowing up on Sound Cloud, I see it’s blowing up on YouTube, let’s do video with them, let’s see how it goes. A lot of times those videos for us do better than the established stars who you might already know or you might have heard of already. But some of these kids, who you’re like who is this guy, this kid’s doing… you know putting numbers on the board. So, what you’re saying doesn’t exactly apply to fact tracks.
Vahe Arabian: Thanks for clarifying that. I guess it’s really good to know. I’d like to wrap in terms of really getting a feeling of your day to day responsibilities as Senior Executive Editor. And also if you could conclude with some tips on growing a loyal audience, both in terms of a publication and your own audience, if that’s possible.
Insanul Ahmed: Yeah, for sure. My day to day. I just got this Executive Editor role a few months ago, so I’m stepping into it, getting used to the ebbs and flows of it. I think, I’m trying to focus less on the day to day things and trying to be a little bit more involved in sort of the big picture ideas. Overall, I think one of my most important roles, and this I think is more for someone who is more established the way I am in an organization, is just facilitating communication. We’re a small team at Genius, but we’re a growing team, and we increasingly have more people. We have a design team, we have a tech team, we have an expanding video team, we have a community team, and they’re all small teams. They all have mostly four or five people, with the exception of video, which has about I think ten or twelve. Every department has their own little thing and we’re at the point where we’re growing as a company and we’re growing as a staff, but at that time it’s extra important to facilitate communications between many different departments to make sure everyone’s on the same page and everything clicks the way it’s supposed too.
Insanul Ahmed: So yeah, even in my day to day I spend a lot of time dealing with the video team trying to assist them. Trying to help with the sales team, making sure our branded stuff is on point, and the real thing, my focus on that stuff is to make sure I find what’s important for my team on the social side, the editorial side, and getting the information from the other teams and bringing it to them and making sure everyone is on the same page. That’s a lot of what my focus is, outside of just like editorial strategy, social strategy, that I think comes with anyone who’s in the position that I’m in.
Vahe Arabian: Does that make you happy, does it motivate you doing that aspect of the job?
Insanul Ahmed: Yeah you know, it’s fun. To be honest I’m more motivated and more enthusiastic about the strategy stuff. Because I always get excited, with just, I have an idea. I like having ideas. I love when it’s like let’s try thing and see if it works. I love when we say let’s do this feature and then we do it, and we put it up, and the audience loves it. Or I say “hey, lets write this tweet or write this post” and then I see it blowing up on the site, I see the audience reacting to it. I see that’s the stuff that really excites me and motivates me.
Insanul Ahmed: The thing I was saying about the communication stuff is, I think, a by-product of anyone who’s in a managerial role. I think it’s important, I think it’s essential, in fact, to relay the information between, and be sort of a liaison between many groups of people. Especially because for me, I have the team that I manage they’re a little bit younger than I am, and they’re a little bit green to the game. I’ve been working in this business a long time, and I sort of I think I have a better understanding of the ebbs and flows, and a better understanding of what can and can’t be done, and where you can assert yourself, and where you just have to accept the lay of the land. So I think that’s the kind of stuff, that it’s a new skill, and I like learning new things, so that’s kind of exciting, but it’s not something that I feel 100% adept, you know I don’t think… I’m still growing into that is what I mean. I don’t think I’m great at that quite yet.
Vahe Arabian: I understand. Just a bit more on the social side of your day to day, what are you more involved in in terms of the strategy? Or audience development.
Insanul Ahmed: Audience development is a good point. To go back to your earlier point about growing a loyal audience. That’s something that I’ve been really really honing in on on the social side. I’ve always been involved in social but never like this. I want to say, involved in social, I mean I like to maintain my own Twitter presence, I use Facebook and Instagram, things like that because that’s I just kind of have them to have them, and I like to consume them too. But Twitter is the one that I personally like to use a lot. I consider that a part of my voice and sort of my professional voice and all that. But for us on the social side when I look at the strategy and I look at the stuff that we do, the thing that we’re always trying to drill down, and this is a different type of communication that we try to have with the audience.
Insanul Ahmed: What I mean by that is our brand, is not about, as I was stressing earlier, our brand is not about gossip, beefs, feuds, all this nonsense. That’s not what we’re about. We’re about music, and if you can read it on our Twitter, on our bio, on our Instagram bio, we say music intelligence. That’s one of the things that I’ve been trying to really drill down with our team and with our just entire social strategy, that’s what really separates us from everyone else. Everyone will say Happy Birthday, it’s Drake’s birthday, Happy Birthday, Drake. Everyone is going to say Eminem’s album is coming out. Everyone tweets that, everyone covers that, right?
Insanul Ahmed: What we do and what we’re all about, and what separates us, is we try to bring a knowledge, musical angle to that. It’s not enough to just, and we still do some of that stuff, just like “hey, the Eminem album is coming out”, but we try to draw out okay, what is the music angle, where is the knowledge angle. Okay… yeah…There’s a new ad for his site that’s true, I mean, it’s a new ad for his album, but hey that ad actually has a reference to this lyric from this song. Hey, this is the anniversary of this album, but this album… did you know that the credits were written like this. Or did you know that this song samples this other classic song. Things like that. That’s what we’re always trying to do, is drive home the idea of music knowledge beyond just a surface level.
Vahe Arabian: Understood! What are some of the tips, in terms of growing, if there is a starting person in the industry, what are some tips for growing a loyal audience?
Insanul Ahmed: I would say the first thing you should do if you’re, especially a young person, you should write out what your vision is. What are you actually about? Where do you see your brand or your voice, what is it about? It’s a difficult question to ask yourself. I think a lot of people look for a lot of young people they don’t really know. Which I understand. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to be.
Vahe Arabian: Definitely.
Insanul Ahmed: But you can look at people and say, I like this person and I want to be like this person, whoever you admire. That’s a good place to start but… and I think when you start doing it and you start actually getting in the mix, you’ll see what you’re good at, what you’re bad at, what you’re comfortable with. But… so I would say starting out you’ve got to do it but you have to get to the point where you have enough examples to make a decision what it is you’re trying to be about. And then trying to drill that idea by maintaining a sense of consistency.
Insanul Ahmed: Even for me, this is something I’ll say on the personal side. I’ve had Twitter a long time, I’ve had Twitter since 2009, I love using Twitter, I tweet all the time, but for the most part for many years my Twitter was mostly, the main thing I talked about was rap music. Here’s whose album is coming out, basically an extension of my job. That was the stuff I would talk about, this artist was coming out and I like other things so maybe I’ll talk about the NBA finals or the Oscars, or whatever is going on at the time, right?
Insanul Ahmed: But then last year increasingly during the election and then definitely after the election, I realized I have a platform and I don’t have a ton of followers, but I’ve got some and I’m not going to use it on talking about music anymore. Since then I’ve completely changed it and the only thing I ever tweet about now is politics, politics, politics. And basically anti Trump every single day, all day, every day. I wake up in the morning and I’m furious all the time. I’m not the only one, I think a lot of people have done a similar thing.
Vahe Arabian: No generals in the sandbox but yeah.
Insanul Ahmed: I mean that’s the kind of thing where, it’s funny because since then, I’ve actually increased my number of followers and a lot of my long time followers and friends see me and are like we appreciate what you’re doing on your social, you’re keeping us informed and you’re really on top of the news and we appreciate that. I think that’s a very high compliment for me, especially because that’s not what my main job is, it’s not even my job. I do that essentially almost as a hobby although it’s a very unhealthy hobby, at least for my blood pressure.
Insanul Ahmed: So again, I kind of changed what my brand was about but I maintained a level of consistency about a specific issue, is what I’m known for, I might delve into other things, but you got to be known for something. What are you the best at? What are you all about? You have to pick something; it can’t be I’m about everything. No one can be about everything, then you’re about nothing.
Vahe Arabian: That’s 100%. Because there’s so much you can talk about, even besides politics. Even in the music scene, I’m sure there’s a lot of artists and a lot of angles you can take in a perspective. I think that’s a really good way to end the note. I want to thank you for joining us on the podcast, really appreciate it.
Insanul Ahmed: Oh, for sure. Thank you for having me I had a nice time.
Vahe Arabian: Thank you very much. This was a State of Digital Publishing podcast episode one, it’s Insanul Ahmed from Genius. Thank you very much.