I promise this is interesting, but it starts with a bunch of math, so be patient.
Georges Kingsley Zipf was a Harvard professor who died in 1950. His main work was in languages but he was also an accomplished statistician. His most famous discovery was regarding frequency of word occurence. In particular, he discovered that word frequency was inversely proportional at an exponential rate. He did this by examining the Brown Corpus, a collection of books which contains about one million words. The most common word in it is “the” which accounts for 7% of all the text. The 2nd most common is “of” which accounts for 3.5%. The 3rd most common word is “and” which accounted for 2.2%. The #1 spot was twice the size of the #2 spot and three times the size of the #3 spot. This trend stays the same all the way to the bottom. This phenomenon is now called Zipf’s Law.
This same distribution was also found by other researchers to hold true for size of cities in a country (For example, largest cities in the U.S. : N.Y – 8,491,079 Los Angeles – 3,928,864 Chicago -2,722,389.) It holds up rather well in other unexpected areas too. If you look for the top 50 highest grossing films of all time, the trend is almost exactly the same. A huge drop off for the first couple of films followed by a large number in the middle. This trend shows up over and over again in just about every industry.
Okay, that’s the end of the boring math part. Being #1 in an industry is way better than being #10. Lesson over. Obvious, right?
But think about effort now. It wasn’t twice as hard to make “Avatar” as it was to make “Titanic.” And even more importantly it wasn’t 10 times as difficult as making “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” The rewards for being #1 are huge compared to the slightly increased effort involving in making it.
This rule applies for sub-categories as well. If you look up the highest grossing documentaries, you’ll see the same trend (unless you agree with IMDB and consider Jackass 3D a documentary). And again, it’s just a trend. The top earning NFL players get about the same, but if you look at average salary by position you’ll see Quarterbacks making 3.8 million, but 4th ranked tight ends averaging little over 600,000.
So with this in mind, you get two options when it comes to your music. The rewards are best if you’re aiming for #1, even if it’s in a meaningful sub category. I’m sure the #1 trumpet player here in LA makes good money, but the #1 piccolo trumpeter does pretty good too. You can also make a living as the #1 Dixieland trumpeter. But you probably can’t do it as the 10th best. Now, knowing that the #1 film score composer can ask for over a million dollars per film, working as the #30 guy might still be okay. But choose carefully. The rewards are best if you can be #1.
So, what are trying to be #1 at?