The man-versus-machine debate is never-ending. But how well does raw data assess something as whimsically human as musical expression?
Online music services, which use data to decipher your preferences, would say: very well, thank you. And for the Grammy Awards, they put their data to the test.
"We are truly data driven," said Steve Savoca, Spotify's head of content. "That's just raw data. We're not manipulating...it's really just reflecting the interests of our users."
Shazam, the app that can name a song by listening to it, based its predictions on the number of times users pulled out their phones to help them figure out the details of a song.
Will Mills, Shazam's director of music, called that action one of the clearest signs of intent out there. Its data held up last year: The New York Times dubbed the service the most successful crowd-sourced digital predictor of the awards, as it correctly identified three of the four winners of the top categories.
"We've got the heavyweight belt," Mills said.
iHeartRadio, an online radio service owned by terrestrial radio giant Clear Channel, decided not to go the route of play volume but rather custom-station creation. It's when a listener creates a station based on artist name, which Chris Williams, senior vice president of programming, said helps clarify intent from influences such as radio play or marketing. "That was a good measure of passion," he said.
Slacker, an online radio service that focuses on the marriage of data and old-school programming, examined its internal "engagement quotient" to determine how deeply fans engage with a given track, which looks at seven positive and negative factors like how often the song is hearted, banned, skipped, and shared. While EQ data is certainly useful in representing the tastes of a very large group of music fans, "anticipating what the panel of Grammy voters will do falls less to what music fans en masse like and more to anticipating what the panel will do based on historical precedent," said Mat Bates, senior program director.
"The songs that have the highest engagement and consensus don't always win out at the Grammys. That's how Justin Bieber didn't win Best New Artist," he said.
In most of the big four categories, Slacker's head (data) and heart (editorial expertise) were in sync, except for Album of the Year. In that round, two Slacker picks were offered, one by machine and another by man -- in this case, Bates himself, predicting with the consideration of historical importance too.
Beats Music sells its heavy human-touch approach as giving it an edge -- unlike all its online competitors, it claims -- in picking your music because it's a "service, not a server." The new subscription service didn't make specific predictions in general categories, but its global head of editorial and programming, Scott Plagenhoef, did post some thoughts about the general-category awards on the company's blog. We adopted those picks, so to speak, here too.
CNET compiled the various services' predictions in the top four categories of award: Record of the Year (awarded for a single's performers and producers), Album of the Year, Song of the Year, (awarded for a single's songwriters), and Best New Artist. And the nominees are...
Record of the Year
Beats Music: Lorde - "Royals"
iHeartRadio: Imagine Dragons - "Radioactive," followed closely by Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines"
Shazam: Robin Thicke - "Blurred Lines"
Slacker: Lorde - "Royals"
Spotify: Imagine Dragons - "Radioactive"
The Grammy went to: Daft Punk - "Get Lucky"
So the winner is: Nobody.
Album of the Year
iHeartRadio: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - "The Heist"
Shazam: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - "The Heist"
Slacker (machine): Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - "The Heist"
Slacker (man): Kendrick Lamar- "Good Kid, M.A.A.D City"
Spotify: Macklemore & Ryan Lews - "The Heist"
The Grammy went to: Daft Punk - "Random Access Memories"
So the winner is: Nobody. Again.
Song of the Year
Beats Music: Lorde - "Royals" or Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - "Same Love"
iHeart Radio: Katy Perry - "Roar," which was neck-and-neck with "Locked Out of Heaven" by Bruno Mars
Shazam - Pink - "Just Give Me a Reason"
Slacker: Lorde - "Royals"
Spotify: Pink - "Just Give Me a Reason"
The Grammy went to: Lorde - "Royals"
So the winner is: Slacker Radio. Humanity won out in the one big race that was wide open. Slacker and Beats, the two services that let humans exert an editorial influence over the picks, correctly identified the Song of the Year winner. Since Slacker bet on Lorde alone, where Beats had a safety net with two picks, we're giving the win to Slacker.
Best New Artist
Beats Music: Kacey Musgraves or Ed Sheeran
iHeartRadio: Kendrick Lamar
Shazam: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Slacker: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Spotify: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
The Grammy went to: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
So the winner is: Everybody, almost. More than half the field figured that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis were on track to win based on their huge volume of online interest.
Ever seen a bicycle race in which half the peloton goes down? On Grammy night, it looks like the winner among the online music services may be Slacker, for being the only outfit to get two category winners right. With Daft Punk throwing everyone for a loop in two main categories, and half the field picking heavily favored Macklemore in the final one, Slacker stumbled across the finish line by picking "Royals" and only "Royals" for Song of the Year, the only race that lacked consensus on a frontrunner. Congrats, Slacker, take a minute to enjoy your victory before heading to the medical tent with the rest of your competitors. Everybody has a few scrapes and bruises from this one.
Updated at 12:15 a.m. PT January 27 with Grammy winners.