Pareto’s Law of Album Creation

I recently announced on Kickstarter that I would trade my art budget for the chance to record real (not digital) piano tracks. Most people will never notice the difference, but I believe the money was absolutely well spent. The difference is subtle, but an important part of album creation. Take a listen:

The first half is my original MIDI piano… which is pretty damn good, honestly. Apple put a lot of energy and engineering into their samples for Logic, but there’s just something richer about the second half. Something more authentic that most people can’t put their finger on. Something that gives me a chance to explain how Pareto’s Law applies to making an album.

What Is Pareto’s Law?

If you’re not familiar with Pareto’s Law, it’s also called the 80/20 principle and its applications vary greatly:

  • 80% of your music income comes from 20% of your fans
  • 80% of your problems come from 20% of your fans
  • 80% of your income and impressions come from 20% of the time you spent working

When I make an album, it means two specific things:

  • 80% of the album’s quality comes from 20% of the effort I put into it
  • The remaining 20% of the album’s quality takes 80% of my effort

Getting a B grade isn’t much harder than getting a C, but that A+ takes four times the effort. Make sense?

It’s the Little Things

Photo by Chris Penn

When you hear a great album, you don’t consciously perceive all the little things that make you love it so much. Sure, that guitar solo or soulful vocal is easy to pick out, but that’s actually the easy part. That’s the 80%.

Chris Penn once shared a photo from the France pavilion at Epcot. He had found an antique bicycle leaning against the wall next to an easel and painter’s supplies. It was a prop, of course, but a prop that you’d only ever pass by if you went to the restroom in that particular section of the park. 90% of Epcot’s visitors would never know it’s there, but Disney believes in Pareto’s Law. That little extra bit of atmosphere helps cement the experience in a way that canned accordion music and crepe stands never could.

It’s so easy to cut corners when producing an album; That amp modeler sounds good enough. That MIDI piano sounds good enough. And for at least nine of my own albums, my engineering ability sounds good enough.

We don’t go into this business to make B-grade art, we aim for greatness. Every time you decide not to go for that extra 20%— to get that A+ instead of a B —you’re taking away a tiny piece of your album’s greatness. Take away enough little pieces and… Well look at that, you’ve lost 20% of your album’s quality already. Pareto’s Law at work.