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Vilfredo Pareto

The 80/20 rule and what it means for the music industry


This guy, with his tremendous beard, may help you find out where you are going wrong in the music biz.

A slightly obscure one this, but something called 'the Pareto Principle' piqued my interest today. Now, I simply love things that allow me to drop the phrase 'piqued my interest' casually into sentences, so I just had to find the nearest hip Apple product immediately and type a blog post about the aforementioned principle so that you, dear reader, could be subjected to the phrase.

If you are still with me, and your own interest has been piqued, and you don't by this point think I am a complete knob, I shall explain all.

The Pareto Principle is named after an Italian statistician called Vilfredo Pareto (see picture above). He had an interest in fascism (which we'll leave to one side), but more importantly for the purposes of this article, he also had an interest in income distribution. In 1906, his research in this area led to him discovering that in Italy, 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the population. After doing further research, he discovered that this split held up in other countries too - it didn't matter whether he was looking at Ireland, Belgium or France, roughly 20% per cent of dudes always ended up with 80% of the land. (Plus ca change.)

This 80/20 split was quickly discovered to exist in a whole load of other fields too. Be it in business, economics, sociology or even health and safety, it seemed that in a large number of instances, 80% of consequences stemmed from 20% of the causes. This phenomemon became known as the "80/20 rule" - examples of it in action include 20% of a company's staff driving 80% its profits; 20% of products in a shop generating 80% of the sales; 20% of a site's content generating 80% of the visits; and with regard to the health and safety example mentioned earlier, it would appear from my very non-scientific trawl of the internet that 20% of hazards cause 80% of the accidents.

Now, somewhat predictably, this got me thinking: what about the music biz?

Now, I'm no statistician, but I'd hazard a guess that some form of an 80/20 rule is also in operation when it comes to the music industry. I'd happily argue that of all the music released every year, 20% is decent and 80% is pants. But leaving my taste in music to one side, I reckon that the 80/20 rule probably crops up all over the place when it comes to the actual business of selling music. Perhaps 20% of all the artists on iTunes are responsible for 80% of the sales. Maybe 20% of an artist's fans purchase 80% of their gig tickets. Perhaps 20% of a band's tracks are the ones that generate 80% of their airplay.

The above is all back-of-a-fag packet conjecture, but, simply by considering my own attempts to inflict my music on others over the past few years, I know that I've seen something like the 80/20 rule in operation. Looking back at what I spent on promo, I have noticed spending money on certain activities generated far more sales than dosh spent on others; I can see that a certain proportion of my Facebook fans are responsible for the majority of the engagement on my fan page; I know that certain songs of mine are listened to much more on Last FM than others; I know that during the years I've spent recording, I've probably spent far more time on songs that didn't make it onto albums than the ones that did.

Now, I've never gone so far as to calculate percentages regarding the above, but I wouldn't be surprised if there was some sort of 80/20 rule in operation. But regardless of the exact distribution, there is arguably an important lesson for musicians to learn from the concept of the 80/20 rule in general and it's this: you are probably wasting your time and money (80% of it?) on loads of stuff that is not working, and not concentrating as much as you should on the stuff that is yielding results. Or, perhaps you are focusing too much on an area of music which generally doesn't make anyone any money (increasingly, CD sales) and ignoring an area that still does (getting your music licensed for films). 

My point is that it can't hurt to take a step back and look at where you are doing to promote your music, identify the bits that are and aren't working, and to focus on the good stuff. It's ridiculously easy to get so wrapped up in the business of making and selling music that you don't look at anything objectively, and the 80/20 rule may prove good little nudge in the direction of thinking about music promo in a more businesslike way. This businesslike approach may not be very rock and roll, but consider this: we independent musicians are often our own record labels, managers, publicists, radio pluggers, data collectors, web designers and tea boys these days. And what does this mean? We are effectively all running small businesses. So, sadly, being businesslike becomes essential, and just maybe, the 80/20 rule can help in that regard.

You can always throw the TV out of the hotel window after working out the percentage of time you spend dossing anyway.

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