Attention "American Idol": Hits Are Tough to Predict

February 13, 2006

The judges on the hit reality TV show American Idol are supposed to be able to use their experience and shrewd ears to suss out the next great pop star.

But predicting which artists will top the charts and which will flop is a crapshoot, a new study suggests.

Which songs wind up getting attention has something to do with quality—a tone-deaf singer with no rhythm is unlikely to be a hit.

But because fans often influence each other, almost anything can happen, the study suggests.

To test how songs win over listeners, researchers at New York's Columbia University set up a Web site called Music Lab. More than 14,000 volunteers logged on and were able to listen to songs donated by 48 virtually unknown bands.

The researchers solicited most of the participants through a teen-interest Web site called Bolt. The listeners were required to agree to Music Lab's consent form, which made it clear that they would be taking part in an experiment.

After hearing a song the listeners could choose to download it. The researchers—Matt Salganik, Peter Dodds, and Duncan Watts—kept tabs on the number of downloads of each song.

In some experiments the researchers showed this data to listeners, so participants could see which songs were snagged the most.

When listeners could see what other people had chosen, a few songs' popularity snowballed, while other tunes languished.

Also, by separating the listeners into separate groups, or "worlds," the researchers could see if the same bands would consistently come out on top. The scientists assembled each world to ensure that the groups were similar in terms of age, location, and so on.

Though listeners in the different worlds roughly agreed on which songs were best, there was a lot of variation.

The study found that when listeners could see how often a song got downloaded, it was actually harder for researchers to predict before the experiment which songs would eventually end up on top.

Continued on Next Page >>


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