I’m finding more and more that what stops songwriters from finishing songs isn’t a lack of good ideas but a misdirection of songwriting focus. Based on the comments I receive, musicians are spending more time on tasks that do little to move the song closer to completion.
For example, if you just spent 15 minutes on the kick drum sound but don’t have a single completed verse, you’re not really writing a song at all. If you just spent half an hour practicing a guitar riff when your chorus needs a melody, you’re another 30 minutes away from actually doing any real songwriting.
The 80/20 Rule
An Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, observed that 80% of the income in Italy (and every country he subsequently studied) was received by 20% of the population. Over the years, many noticed that the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule, could be applied to just about everything: 80% of the world’s money is in the hands of 20% of the people, 80% of the nurturing support and satisfaction you receive comes from about 20% of the people you know, 80% of your success comes from 20% of the things you do.
As a musician, you’re self-employed. You don’t get paid for every hour you work. You are paid on outcomes. The 80/20 rule applies to you, your money, and your songwriting. By applying more of your time to the 20% of musical activities that really makes a difference, you have the potential to double your income and double your time off. If you can double your value, then you can double your income. How? By identifying the things you do that contribute the greatest value to yourself and your songwriting.
A perfect hint to what should be important to you as a songwriter lies in copyright law. When it comes to a song, what’s essentially protected is the lyrics and the melody. That riff you just wrote is pretty cool, but it’s not in the top 20%. That snare drum you just mixed is slammin’, but is it really a priority? It might be if you’re an engineer. But not if you’re a songwriter. And definitely not if you’re mixing a snare that doesn’t yet have a song!
If you just apply the 80/20 Rule to your songwriting, you can resolve to spend more of your time doing more of the things that contribute the greatest value to you. Write more lyrics and melodies. Even the chord progression isn’t the most important thing you should be focusing on. Of course it helps to write melodies to a chord progression, so spend only 5 minutes writing one or better yet, go steal one like every other great songwriter has. Then spend an hour writing a melody and an hour writing lyrics. For every 5 minutes you spend on the sound of your demo, spend at least an hour on the lyrics and melody.
Chord progressions can be reharmonized. The production can be remixed. The drums can be programmed by 10 different great programmers and the guitar riff can have 10 different iterations. But what’s going to get you closer to finishing a song isn’t the snare or guitar, it’s the lyrics and the melody.
I get a lot of demos from people with stellar production and crappy songs. But once in a while I get a demo that doesn’t sound like it was recorded within 30 light years of the Record Plant but the song still stands on its own two feet. That’s the great songwriter.
You can even use the 80/20 rule to figure out what songs you should be working on. If you’re like most songwriters, you’re working on more than one song at a time. Pick two out of the 10 songs you have that are the best and finish them. Pick two out of the 10 that have been sitting on your list for over 6 months, finish writing them, and get them off your list. Pick two out of 10 that have no chance of being made into anything memorable and ditch them.
The 80/20 rule is fractal. You can apply it to your entire song catalog and you can apply it to a single song. You can apply it to what you should be doing and what you shouldn’t be doing. The point is this. If you’re having trouble finish songs, then maybe it’s time to take a good look at where you spend most of your time and make some adjustments. After all, you would like double the quantity AND the quality of your songs, wouldn’t you?