In the days before corporations flooded the web with elaborate ways for you to look at advertisements, people spent a lot of time on internet message boards. On the website for the early music player Winamp, a passionate group of users debated the meanings of their favorite songs on the page’s forums. Brian Adams and Michael Schiano, then students at Ohio University and Rutgers respectively, remember being caught up in a heated discussion about the song "Brick" by the alternative rock group Ben Folds Five. Was it about a love? Or was it about despair? They realized the song meant different things to different people, and SongMeanings.net was born. On March 5, 2001, they launched the website as a place where people could submit lyrics to their favorite songs, and then discuss their interpretations of those lyrics in the comments. According to Adams and Schiano, it only took a few months for the site to be inundated with die-hard music fans, many of whom migrated from the Winamp forums, sharing their most intimate feelings about songs.
“We very intentionally have always wanted to explore what the song was to each individual user as opposed to just what the artist was thinking when they wrote it,” Adams told me over the phone. In the years since they launched SongMeanings.net, which transferred to SongMeanings.com in 2013, more than a million song lyrics have been uploaded, inspiring 1,737,493 comments.
Adams and Schiano started the site very much as a hobby. Both were studying computer science in school, and at the time nothing of its kind really existed. They enlisted a cheap hosting server that, within weeks, was at capacity. The pair had to scramble to get more servers in order to handle all of the traffic.
“I actually had a buddy who worked at a internet provider, and he had a T1 line in his house, which at that time was like, you know, the shit.” Adams recalled. “And I was like ‘listen, can I throw a server or two in your rack.'”
Brian remembers flying down to Florida in order to buy memory from OfficeMax for their new closet-based servers. He said that after a few months, as traffic continued to expand beyond their capabilities, they had to ask users for donations.
“It was like a Kickstarter before Kickstarter,” Schiano recalls. “I think one dude donated like a thousand dollars. He couldn't stand SongMeanings being down.”
My first encounter with the site was in 2009. At the time I was 17 and obsessed with the song “You Are A Runner And I Am My Father's Son” by the Canadian indie band Wolf Parade, so much so that I’d decided to write a poetry assignment in school about it. I looked up the lyrics and started reading the top comment, which was from a user named brandnewownsyoux. “I think this song is about the singer having his fate already in place because of his father. Maybe figuring he is going to follow his father's footsteps down whatever path that may be. Something probably dark,” the comment said. “While the runner is a person who is going to go far in life. Maybe a friend or someone he loves. Regardless, he figures this person will be going places in life and that he will merely be watching them while he stays behind.” It was a breakthrough moment for me, when I realized the potential for layered meaning in writing. I became an ardent lurker, spending hours reading through threads about my favorite indie tracks.
Around the time that I discovered SongMeanings, the site Genius, which now advertises itself as an annotator for the entire web, had emerged under the name Rap Genius. Rap Genius translated hip-hop lyrics for people who didn’t understand what rappers were talking about, either because they didn’t get a culturally specific reference or because the lyrics were shrouded in metaphors. Unlike SongMeanings, which inspired people to write their own interpretation of lyrics, the community on Rap Genius was pretty literal; for example, the lyric “Back in the six-grade I got them bad grades / I was in love with my tutor” from the song “Neon Guts” by Lil Uzi Vert is annotated thusly: “Uzi had a tutor who used to teach him throughout sixth-grade. I’m assuming she was very attractive which turned out to be the ignition to his bad grades. He started taking a liking in her instead of his grades.” Rap Genius also started recruiting artists to hop on the site and explain exactly what they were thinking.
“I think one dude donated like a thousand dollars. He couldn’t stand SongMeanings being down.”
Smith and Schiano considered trying to make their site more literal in order to compete with Rap Genius, but they decided against it. “We kind of went down some paths of even mocking some things up and trying it out. But the more we got down that road the more we just realized that it really never was what we wanted to get out of the site,” Adams said.
SongMeanings’ scrappy effort relies almost entirely on community. Most songs are fan submitted and a small batch of moderators, typically power users of the site recruited by Adams and Schiano, fact check lyrics. Whereas Genius now operates more as a media company, having raised more than $50 million from venture capital investors, SongMeanings.com lives as an ongoing conversation.
“I remember early on when when Genius was gaining traction we reached out to a couple of artists and a lot of the artists that our audience likes, more in the indie rock and alternative scene, didn't even want verified factual songs,” Adams explained. “They felt like it took away from what they were trying to to talk about or reach their fan base with.”
Adams points to how Taylor Swift's new song “Look What You Made Me Do” fuels the drama and mystique around the pop star, while still leaving much of it up to fans’ interpretation.
“I think there's definitely something to be said for hearing what the artist was thinking. But I think it's more impactful for us to hear what the people think,” he said.
By around 2008, Schiano recalls, SongMeanings was generating 20 to 25 million pageviews each month, and they were able to generate enough ad revenue to keep it running. In 2011, the site agreed to terms with the licensed lyrics service LyricFind, protecting them against lawsuits from songwriters, who have filed suits against lyrics sites in the past for copyright infringement. In 2012, the site partnered with the music analytics platform The Echo Nest, making the site’s trove of community discussions around lyrics available on the platform.
Today, sites like Genius and AZlyrics have what appear to be a monopoly over the online lyrics space. SongMeanings still generates just over 1.3 million monthly uniques each month, according to the web analytics service Alexa, but pales in comparison to Genius, which gets over 12.5 million uniques per month, and azlyrics, which receives over 7.2 million. The site doesn’t update with the same pace as other lyrics sites, either. There are only a handful of lyrics available from albums released this year — the only Drake songs available, for example, are from his 2009 mixtape So Far Gone.
SongMeanings arrived at a critical moment on the internet, when the potential for real human connection was just being explored and before that potential became indelibly linked with profits. Looking through archived discussions on the site, it’s almost like peering into a more intimate, less cynical version of the web.
“We talk a lot about being way too early,” Schiano said. “I often wonder if we were, you know, 10 years later, would we have blown up like other sites did? We were social before social was really a thing.”