Who won the Super Bowl (halftime show)?

The Super Bowl is the most-watched annual television event in the U.S.; some years, nearly half of all households watch it. And while players earn tens of thousands of dollars for a day’s work, and advertisers pay $100,000 per second for air time, the performers at the halftime show — often huge stars, like Prince or the Black-Eyed Peas — are not paid to appear.

One reason the performers agree to do this, of course, is the terrific publicity. In fact, the halftime show can have more viewers (per minute) than the Super Bowl itself. So one might wonder: how useful is this publicity? How many new listeners does it get you? Does it only help if you’re already an established performer, or does it help up-and-coming artists as well? Does it help you even if your music isn’t very, so to speak, mainstream?

Let’s look at some data from the latest Super Bowl (XLVI, if you’re counting (in Roman)). The main performer for the halftime show was Madonna, who’s been releasing music for 30 years, has released plenty of well-known (and well-loved) singles. At the time, she was about to come out with a new, persona-defining album, MDNA, her first in four years. However, Madonna pulled on stage with her several other musicians. In approximate order of decreasing seniority, there was Cee-Lo, the rapper-turned-pop-crooner; M.I.A., the electro-pop agitator; Nicki Minaj, the energetic, attention-grabbing rapper/provocateur; and LMFAO, the humorous “party rock” duo.

How did the Super Bowl halftime show affect each of these artists’ listening numbers? One way to look at this is to examine Last.fm’s listening charts for the weeks before and after the Super Bowl. (Here, for example, are Madonna’s charts for the week preceding the Super Bowl, showing number of unique Last.fm listeners for her top songs.) We can plot how her top songs do before and after the Super Bowl:


As we can see, a few things happened. First, two days before the Super Bowl, Madonna premiered a song from her new album, “Give Me All Your Luvin’;” she performed the song with Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. at the halftime show. This song had a major publicity push separately from the halftime show performance, so it’s not too surprising to see it shoot up in listeners. (In fact, it reached over 11,000 listeners even before the Super Bowl.) However, all of Madonna’s other top songs, from 1984’s “Like a Virgin” to 2005’s “Hung Up,” saw a boost in listeners after the Super Bowl, too. The songs with the biggest bumps in listeners (“Like a Prayer” and “Vogue,” each with 50% increases) are the songs that were performed in the halftime show.

What about the other performers?


Cee Lo Green saw runaway success with his 2006 song “Crazy,” as part of the group Gnarls Barkley; more recently, he’s had a lot of success with his 2010 song “F••• You” (played on the radio as “Forget You”). This song picked up slightly after the Super Bowl, but otherwise, his listenership was not largely affected. Why? This warrants further analysis. I think it’s a combination of two things: Cee Lo was not presenting any new music at the Super Bowl, but at the same time, Cee Lo has had fewer major singles, so fewer people have an easily-accessible Cee Lo song already on their computer. Compare that with Madonna: the Super Bowl may have gotten more people to listen to her new song, and in addition, many people already had Madonna songs in their music libraries, and the Super Bowl performance was a prompt to listen to those songs again.


M.I.A. had a more productive Super Bowl than Cee Lo. Like Madonna, she released a new song in the week before the Super Bowl; though this song wasn’t performed, it did see a quick rise in the week before and the week after the Super Bowl. Also, like Madonna, M.I.A.’s other top songs saw rises in the week before and the week after the Super Bowl, with a decline in listeners afterwards. It’s been a few years since M.I.A.’s last album, so maybe people who have that last album were reminded of it — and of their excitement about M.I.A. as an artist.


This idea doesn’t seem to hold for Nicki Minaj. She’s an up-and-coming musician, one who’s built buzz through many singles distributed over the Internet. She did release a new single a little after the Super Bowl, and that release met with success; however, her other songs did not see any bumps in listeners. Was this because people were less excited about her halftime performance? Or she got less of the spotlight in the show? (You could argue M.I.A. had an unfair advantage, courting controversey with a digital malfunction.)


Finally, there was LMFAO, a band with only a few singles out, but with one that’s built a fair amount of buzz. How much did they capitalize on the halftime show? As a percentage, they only got a small bump for their top song, though it’s important to note that more people are already listening to that song than any of the other artists’ songs. However, their other songs did not see a bump at all. It might be that the appeal of LMFAO is fairly specific; of Super Bowl watchers, maybe only a small fraction of those seeing the LMFAO performance were intrigued to hear more.

There are many factors involved in how an audience reacts to hearing an artist’s song; unraveling the importance of these factors requires more data than just listening figures for a few artists’ songs before and after a single event. However, looking at these numbers can suggest potential targets for larger-scale analysis. Data analysis rarely (if ever) exists in a vacuum; developing a sense of the system being studied is an important part of reaching statistically meaningful conclusions.

Notes on the data

As always, drawing conclusions from data requires a good understanding of your data, a lot of care, and good controls. Doing this is outside the scope of this blog post, but it’s important to at least mention some limitations. First, there’s the geographic issue: Last.fm is a British company, and they promote themselves most heavily there, while the Super Bowl is a primarily North American event. Last.fm certainly has lots of users in the U.S., and to analyze the effects of a primarily-American marketing event, it would be best to limit the analysis to the effects on American listeners. There’s also, as always, the issue of demographics — I would guess that Last.fm’s demographics skew younger than the overall demographics of Super Bowl listeners. (LMFAO’s numbers might be evidence to that effect.) In terms of the source of the data, Last.fm measures plays in a variety of ways, but it is probably dominated by people listening to MP3 files on their computers and by people using on-demand streaming services like Spotify. The halftime show probably has a more complicated effect on what gets played on the radio, which is another factor that can translate to album sales (and which Last.fm largely doesn’t measure). Finally, there’s the question of what data are easily available online, versus the data that Last.fm has internally but doesn’t make easily accessible. The data available online are counts of the number of unique listeners to each song in a week; the data do not tell you how many times each of these people listen to the song. These numbers are likely very different for artists with many songs (Madonna) and artists with few (LMFAO). Frequency of listening may be a useful indicator of interest in or loyalty to an artist, but these data are not available through the Web.