On Songwriting: The 80/20 Rule

I’ve never been good at math. I quit my calculus class with Mr. Wensloff to join the show choir. Had I paid more attention, I would’ve learned this lesson sooner. In fact, you probably already know it. 

Have you ever heard of the Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule? Here is the basic rundown and why you should remember it. 

The Pareto principle states that about 80 percent of output comes from roughly 20 percent of input. And this is applies to many situations. For example, let’s say you’ve got 100 tomato seeds and you plant them this summer. The vast majority (80 percent) of your harvest will likely come from only about 20 seeds.

After a few summers, smart gardeners begin to look at the types of seeds that seem to produce the most. They ask, what variety are they? Did I water these more? Did I plant them at a different depth? Did they receive more sunlight? By asking these questions they can adjust their future input—how and where they plant, how much water, etc.—on the most important tasks which will likely produce even more tomatoes.

Why is this important to you as a songwriter? 

For one, it sets a realistic expectation. If you write 100 songs, only 20 will likely do anything—whether that’s praise from listeners or earning income. If you release an album of 10 songs expect people to really like only two, and about 80 percent of your earnings will come from those two. 

Now, after you’ve released music for a while and you want to play the numbers game (which isn’t for everyone), act like the smart gardener with the tomatoes. Put the songs that perform well under a microscope and analyze why they might have done well. Some of the reasons are serendipitous, sure. But some might not be. Are there common threads? Maybe the songs that perform better are the ones of you singing in a higher register. Maybe the 20 percent of your work everyone seems to like are breakup songs. 

Use this information however you see fit. I like to picture a Venn diagram. I’m constantly trying to find the overlap between what I feel compelled to do as a songwriter and artist, and what will give me the best chance of providing for my family.