The Danger of 80/20

I had two ideas for a post this week.

The first was to write about payola – a topic that’s interesting, emotive, and catchy.

The second was to write about how specialization is overvalued in the music industry – a topic that’s bland-sounding, nebulous, and a little counterintuitive.

I went with second one (against my better copywriting judgment) because I just read Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America and I can’t get it out of my head.

Here’s why this nebulous idea is important:

The (Western) world is all-in on specialization because specialization seems to lead to productivity. But specialization can be more harmful than helpful.

You know the Pareto Principle (80/20 rule), right? It stipulates that 80% of results come from 20% of causes. So, if you want to be more productive, the logic goes, you should focus on the 20% of causes and you’ll generate way more results.

To make it more tangible for indie musicians:

  • You’ll build a stronger community if you focus on the 20% of your fanbase who are your biggest fans.
  • You’ll make more fans of your music if you focus on doing one social media channel really well instead of trying to be on every one.
  • You’ll improve more quickly if you focus on guitar rather than trying to learn every instrument.

These things are all true – so specialization makes sense, right?

Identify the pressure points where effort will lead to the greatest impact. Focus there. Ignore other things.

But there’s a flip side.

Overspecialization is dangerous.

Take the US healthcare system, for example. It’s totally fragmented because it’s overspecialized.

Like, let’s say you have jaw pain, so you go to a jaw specialist. They recommend you get jaw surgery. The problem is, because they’re focused on your jaw, they don’t recognize that the cause of your pain is actually misalignment in your hips.

(I’m clearly not a doctor, so that example probably sucks, but this kind of stuff is a real problem. Overspecialization makes doctors less likely to get to root issues.)

As Deanna Anderlin wrote in an insightful article you can find at, “The issue is that we can split a job into smaller parts, but we cannot split the patient into smaller parts without losing the whole view. (Specialization) applied to health care results in patients becoming bodies made of parts/organs in need of maintenance/service/cure which in turn require factories/clinics. “

I know, I’m really going down a rabbit trail here. Let’s bring it back to music.

Overspecialized indie artists lose.

To succeed as an indie musician, you have to be highly skilled. But you also have to be broadly skilled.

It’s hard to be broadly skilled.

Personally, I only want to work on what I’m good at (which is writing, maybe… it’s definitely not guitar).

But the danger in writing to the exclusion of all else is that, if I’m overspecialized – if all I can do is write lyrics / these rambling emails – I’ll fail.

Truth is, you can’t just be a great lyricist to make it as a songwriter. Yeah, that skill matters, but so does your music theory, your networking skill, your work ethic, your business savvy, and a whole host of other things.

You can’t just be a great drummer.

You can’t just be great at social media.

To make a living as an indie artist, you have to be good enough at a wide range of things and be able to see how your skills fit together as part of the big picture.

That’s a lot to figure out, and it’s one of the challenges of the democratization of the music industry.

It used to be that artists were snatched up by A&R tastemakers and quickly given a team to do all of the things they weren’t good at (marketing, for example).

Today, artists have to build their own businesses before anyone will pay to put a team around them.

So, what should you do?

Three things:

1. Try things for yourself.
A lot of artists cop out of things (like promo) that they don’t like. I get it.

But if you’re always copping out of key parts of indie artistry, you won’t know how to do key things well. That’ll make you less likely to succeed on your own, and it’ll also make it harder for you to identify and hire good teammates.

I recommend at least trying the things you need to do as an indie artist yourself. Try producing your own tracks. Try running your own ads. Try booking a tour.

You’ll fail, but at least you’ll know what you need help with.

2. Build your own team.
If you’re indie, a label won’t build you a full team to help with your music. But you can still supplement your own skills by working with other people.

It’s dangerous to be overspecialized, but it’s foolish to do everything yourself forever.

Once you’ve tried things, it’ll be easier to hire people to supplement your weaknesses. Find a producer who gets your vision. Find a promo agency you trust. Find musicians who are strong where you’re weak.

Specialization works better in connected communities.

3. Intentionally look for the big picture.
I’ve found it helpful to take a step back each quarter and evaluate a) if I still have the same goals and b) if the things I’m working on are still moving me toward my goals.

Sometimes, I’ll realize that I wasted a bunch of time doing something that didn’t actually matter. That kind of sucks, but it’s better than continuing to do the same dumb thing indefinitely.

When you zoom out, areas of overspecialization become clear.

All right, that’s about all I’ve got.

I know this email was real ramble-y and I’m not even sure it got anywhere, so thanks for bearing with me. I feel like there’s so much to this line of thinking – specialization versus well-roundedness – but it’s hard to crystallize things into a few hundred words.

Next time, I’ll listen to my better copywriting judgment and pick something catchy.

Want to build a meaningful community around your music?

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