For explicating the rap canon, then moving on to everything else. When they started Rap Genius in 2009, its founders just wanted to meet Cam’ron. Now their goal is to “explain everything,” says former lawyer Mahbod Moghadam, who set up the site with fellow Ivy Leaguers Tom Lehman, an engineer, and Ilan Zechory, a Google project manager. Rap Genius crowdsources annotations of rap lyrics–deciphering slang, unpacking references–creating a vast canon of industry knowledge. Last October, RapGenius scored a controversial, high-profile, and awesome investment of $15 million from Silicon Valley venture firm Andreesen Horowitz. It has since expanded its focus beyond the rap genre to explicate pop songs, legal decisions, even the Bible.
For turning constant product improvements into annual revenues of nearly $1 billion. In the last year, Spotify has delivered new or revamped apps for the iPhone, iPad, Android, and even Kindle Fire, all aimed at improving usability and shareability (streaming radio, for instance, is now available for free on all the mobile apps). Spotify has also launched service in Germany, Australia, and New Zealand. While the company has been cagy with its usage numbers, last summer it announced that the number of paying users had increased by a million during the previous six months. In December, Spotify announced the coming launch of Collection,a music discovery engine, and Follow, which lets you track the music listening of friends and celebrities.
For putting the best of 1970s FM and 1980s MTV into the service used most by neophyte music listeners. Although it is still not as influential as radio in discovering new talent, a Nielsen survey released in August revealed that more teens listen to music on YouTube than on radio, CD, or even iTunes. The company partnered with Dell last year to stream four of the country’s largest music festivals–Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits, and the New Orleans Jazz Fest–live online, free to users.
For making great movies out of great concerts. The concert film is a genre as old as rock and roll, but thanks to Pulse, it’s been revived in a big, multi-dimensional way. Pulse produced Part of Me, about Katy Perry’s California Dreams worldwide tour, and LCD Soundsystem: Shut Up and Play the Hits, about the now-legendary band’s final show. Last summer, they signed up Bjork and David Attenborough to make a documentary for the BBC about the evolution of music. Pulse also dominates in the more conventional genre of the music video, having produced videos for Usher’s “Climax” and Coldplay’s “Paradise,” VMA nominees both.
For banding together thousands of indie labels (from SubPop to Tommy Boy) to represent them with the strength of a big label. In 2012, Merlin won two key lawsuits on behalf of its members: against Limewire in late February (the first time an independent label had reached a settlement with a peer-to-peer platform), and against Sirius in April, following victories against XM radio and Grooveshark in the years before. Merlin isn’t trying to destroy the streaming music industry; it just wants artists to get paid. Merlin CEO Charles Caldas has spoken out in favor of Spotify and others in what he’s called the “legitimate digital market,” which he praises for giving both customers and artists what they want.
For manufacturing visually, sonically, and experientially stunning shows for Jay-Z, the Black Keys, Madonna, Arcade Fire, and more, giving us a reason to see them live. Moment Factory’s visibility exploded after the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show and subsequent collaboration with Madonna on her MDNA tour. In July, Atlantic City hired it to create a living memorial to the history of the boardwalk, which took the form of 3D projections that made Boardwalk Hall pulsate, crumble, and reform, with a spectacular soundtrack to match. This year, you can see Moment Factory’s work on the Bon Jovi world tour.
For taking a hipster music festival and growing it into a lifestyle brand–including a cruise ship–without losing its cool. The festival expanded to two weekends in 2012, which some worried would dilute the concentrated thereness that makes music festivals worth going to in the first place. But no, according to Pollstar; the two weekends together grossed $47.3 million, more than doubling the previous year’s record take of $23 million. Goldenvoice, the promoter behind Coachella, extended the brand’s influence onto the high seas, launching a cruise in December with acts including Hot Chip, Sleigh Bells, and former LCD Soundsystem frontman-slash-DJ James Murphy.
For developing an online streaming service that turns everyone into an audiophile, with playlists tuned to your mood. Songza builds on Pandora’s Music Genome project, which broke down music into its essential characteristics and crated an algorithm to serve up an online radio station tailored to your preferences. Instead of an algorithm, Songza employs real people who know about music to make playlists for people who don’t. From June to August of last year, the site added two million new users, and boasts a 50% retention rate since its founding in September 2011. A Songza iPad app launched in June reached a million downloads in just 10 days.
For building a platform where artists can play live shows and interact with their fans over the web. StageIt is the brainchild of Evan Lowenstein, formerly of ’90s pop duo Evan & Jaron, who noticed that the rise of social media was doing a lot to bring fans closer to artists but nothing to bring artists closer to fans. StageIt creates a virtual venue where artists can perform live shows for their fans over the Internet, setting their own date, length, and ticket price. The music industry has started to take notice: In January, StageIt signed a deal with Warner Music Nashville for a monthly series called “Live From Music Row.”
For creating the Space, a multimedia experiment that brings the age of vinyl into the digital age. When famed radio DJ John Peel died in 2004, he left behind a legendary record collection, meticulously (though inscrutably) organized. The BBC documented the collection and put it up online with an innovative interface that let users virtually riffle through the records, pull them off shelves, examine them, and set them to play. The Space was launched as a six-month pilot program in May 2012, was extended for an additional six months, and is now scheduled to stay online through the end of March 2013.