Getting to old to rockn roll? How to overcome Age Discrimination in the Music Business!
by Bobby Borg
Bobby Borg is the author of: The Musician’s Handbook: A Practical Guide To Understanding The Music Business. He is a Music Business Consultant, Author and Musician.
is a sensitive and real issue in our society. After a certain age you can’t become a police officer, join the military, or become a flight attendant. In the music business, artists often find it difficult to get a record deal after age 25, and after that big break, it’s even difficult for the established artist to sustain a career into their later years. As ridiculous as these rules may or may not be, you can always find success in the industry as long as you’re open minded, proactive, and creative in finding new ways to survive and thrive.
Sign With A Major?
Major labels make up the majority of commercial recordings sold in the United States. As of this writing, the five largest record companies (or five majors) are Sony, Universal, BMG, EMI, and WEA. Each major is also part of larger corporations that run a system of distribution channels, regional offices, international divisions, and other music business companies. Therefore, bottom line profits and corporate reporting are of primary concern and reps most typically seek younger more “commercially viable” artists who can theoretically ensure a faster return on their investment. Additionally, the benefit of seeking younger acts is that if successful, they could potentially reap a return on the label’s investment for several years to come. “It’s a young man’s game,” said one A&R representative who wishes to remain anonymous. “We look for artists from age 15 to 25. It may seen harsh, but it doesn’t makes sense to invest in an older race horse when you can get the younger thoroughbred crossing the winner’s line for years to come.”
Unless a dramatic shift takes place in the industry in the next few years (which is very possible – more on this later), then seeking a major label deal may obviously not be the wisest focus for more adult artists: plain and simple.
2) Go Independent
Independent record companies (also called indies) are usually not owned or controlled by the majors, and are generally distributed by smaller regional distributors. With less overhead and investment risk, indies are more open to signing less mainstream and perhaps more adult artists than the major record companies. Said one indie rep in a recent music connection A&R poll conducted in 2003, “We tend to stay away from age discrimination. I look to the music first and people who have maturity and a strong business sense. Of course they must still have a marketable image even when they’re older-but it’s the professional performer who keep their health and image a priority and can convince the masses they’re younger than their
years. If they have talent and look the part, then who cares how old they are.”
Indies may not just be more open to signing more adult artists, but also older “brands” or “genres” of music. Indies are known to be the sanctuary (literally) for veteran artists who were once successful and no longer can find a home with the majors. Case in point, Sanctuary records (formerly CMJ) made a name for themselves by signing several of the hard rock bands that were once very popular in the 1980s. Surely, labels like Sanctuary aren’t trying to market to the masses nor do they have the budgets, but by signing artists who still have a modest (albeit dwindling) fan base and who are still willing to get out on the road and tour, a potential profit can be made for all parties involved.
3) Do It Yourself (DIY)
If you’re still not having much luck with getting a record deal after several years of trying, then perhaps you’re long over do for taking a more proactive approach and resorting to a DIY (do it yourself) method. A situation where you can make all of your own business decisions and you don’t have to let the record companies or any one else dictate what you can and cannot do or be, whether it be age or anything else. Home recording equipment has become more accessable than it was in the recent past and the number of opportunities to manufacture and sell your own CDs are plentiful. Create a buzz! Build a following. You may even make a decent living.
Singer/songwriter Ani DeFranco is the classic example of someone who by-passed the record companies altogether by starting her own label out of her parent’s garage in 1990. She was only twenty years old then when she launched Righteous Babe Records. And at the time of this writing-at age 34, sales of her albums are still known to reach up to 30,000 copies per month. This brings the old saying to mind “You ever notice how fast firewood burns when you cut and then chop it yourself?”
Though Defranco is a rare example, it shows what you can accomplish over time when you take the initiative yourself. So get busy!
4) Show Them You’re Unstoppable
Another advantage to taking the DIY approach is that it may ultimately promote that coveted record label deal after all. In a recent issue of Music Connection magazine, A&R Pete Giberga of Epic records explained that when an act brings a list of accomplishments [record sales, airplay, song placements, and fan base] to the negotiation table, they can ask for concessions and get premiums for all the hard work they did. Some bands may even be able to get joint venture deals with higher royalty rates-something that was impossible in the recent past. But more importantly, doors may be opening for the older and more proactive DIY artist.
Said James-Foster-Levy A&R 143/Warner Bros. Records. “I’ve definitely seen more successfully DIY acts today than at any other time, and that promotes label attention. The problems the industry experienced last year [with the illegal downloading] opened the door for more mature artists. Acts that may have been making records and selling a fair amount, but weren’t on a major label.”
Taking this development one step further, older artists whose compositions target an older demographic audience, may become even more attractive to record labels in the not to far future. Adds Virginie L. Parant, attorney with Artist Law Group, “I think labels are beginning to realize that the ‘over thirty crowd’ is a desirable market: Not only do they have higher levels of disposable income, but they also are less likely to participate in unauthorized file sharing over the Internet. One can only hope A&R departments will come to recognize older artists and more mature forms of music as viable alternatives to teen pop and other teen-oriented genres.” So rejoice. The music industry may not be in as bad a shape as you thought.
5) Reinvent Yourself
If you’ve been pursuing a career in music for several years now and still feel that you’ve exhausted every available option under the sun, nothing seems to be working for you and no one seems to be interested in anything you do… then perhaps the real problem is that you’re still trying to appeal to a demographic audience that is far younger than your years. Rather than waste more time and valuable energy continuing to do the same over and over, why not reinvent yourself and focus on a genre of music with a more sophisticated demographic audience. It’s not about abandoning your original dreams or succumbing to this prejudice, it’s about looking at age and image in the music business and using your acquired wisdom and experience to re-brand yourself to find new audiences. Even more established artists must continually re-invent themselves and evolve throughout their years.
Sting’s career is stronger than ever after trading in his punk hair-due and new wave songs with the Police for a more sophisticated look and jazz influenced style on his solo albums. Eric Clapton transformed his career from the raw electric sounding style of Cream over 25 years ago, to his mature by-focal look and elegant musical style today. Madonna-the mother of reinvention herself has unarguably sustained a long-term career by reinventing herself over again. From the boy-toy look and bubble gum pop in the early part of her career to a more maternal goth look and evolved sound of Ray of Light. Surely, these artists have resources to make transformation process easier than the rest of us. But the truth is, there are no lifetime guarantees for any artist in this business. To paraphrase theorist Charles Darwin, it’s not necessarily the strongest of species that survive, it’s those most adaptable to change.
Taking the concept of re-invention one step further, artists may even find great purpose in diversifying to more “behind the scenes” work. Composing for other artists, scoring for motion pictures and even writing for video games. These avenues are less restrictive of age discrimination and note that the financial rewards can be substantial. Danny Elfman of Oingo Boingo diversified his life from touring rock star to movie composer finding success on recent films like Big Fish. Aimee Mann, best Known for her work with Till Tuesday, became more involved with film music with her acclaimed work in Magnolia. Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo found much success scoring music for film and TV with projects such as Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and Rugrats.
Korn, with two platinum records to their credits and no sign of their careers slowing down, took precautionary steps to ensure longevity in their careers by starting their own record label, called Elementree Records, distributed by Reprise/Warner, in 1997. According to author Leah Furman’s book “Korn” Life In The Pit,” the majority of the group members now had families to support and could not risk relying solely on the success of their next CD. They also didn’t want to spend as much time out on the road and away from their families as they had in the past. People grow up and their lives and responsibilities change. And so do dreams. The band Orgy, Elementree’s first signing, sold over 500,000 copies with their release “Candyass.” Though Korn’s musical career is still going as strong as ever, they certainly have the mind-set for long-term success in the music business. Niccolo Machiavelli in his famous book The Prince said it this way: “One who adapts his policy to times prospers.”
7) Side Step It
Another potential alternative for creating longevity in the music business is to side step out of the more creative realm of the music and investigate more “business-related” careers that are typically less restrictive of age. These possibilities may include: Personal management, business management, music publicity, musical equipment design and manufacturing, music supervision, music education, studio proprietorship, or starting your own music licensing company (to name a few).
Derek Sivers, founder and president of CD Baby; one of the largest music-related companies on the Web, once said, “As a Berkeley graduate and devoted musician first and foremost, who ever thought I would be spending my days in the music distribution business. But I love it.” R&B singer Pebbles stepped into the more business side of the music industry when she went on to form Savvy records and created the Atlanta Georgia group TLC. She also guided the group as their personal manager for many years.
These examples are nothing to sneeze at. Sure, side stepping or changing gears may not be what you originally set out to do with your musical career, but let’s face it-if you can be successful and still be in the entertainment business-more power to you!
8) Find Your Fountain Of Youth
We’ve all seen the infamous ads: In Reader’s Digest’s November 2003 issue, the headline read, “The New Pill That Can End Aging.” Good House keeping magazine recently featured an article titled, ” Zap 10 years gone: Amazing Ways To Erase Wrinkles.” And People magazine shares its “Nip and Tuck Secrets of The Stars.” Whatever, beauty secrets, potions, and formulas you may prescribe to, you can bet that looking well is an important part of your career and is one way to take-on age discrimination head on.
Singer Kylie Monogue, who had a hit in 1987 with the Little Eva’s song “Loco Motion” only to disappear for several years, recently made a comeback in 2002 as an older woman looking fitter and trimmer than ever with her hit song “Can’t Get You Outta’ My Head”-she even was the spokesperson for Bailey’s Fitness Gyms and ran a series of sexy commercials. In an interview on Carson Dailey’s show in 2003, singer Shery’ll Crow expressed her good fortune and gratitude that people were still interested in her career being that she had just turned age 40. The audience responded with cheers and whistles of lustful approval. Motown legend Tina Turner got away with showing off her legs and looking and acting sexy into her 50s with her video Private Dancer which aired all over MTV years back. And finally, long-timer Cher, from her scantly clad video “Turn Back Time” to her present day appearances on TV and films, is the ultimate example of an artist who never seems to age.
Surely these stars have the money to care for their looks with the most extreme measures available today. However, why not try a simple gym membership and healthy diet for starts? Oh-and don’t forget, “Lying about one’s age is a time honored
tradition in Hollywood, “Jokes producer Sam Brown. “From theater, movie and TV to records, remember, birth certificates are not a prerequisite to getting signed to any record label.”
9) Build A Loyal Fan Base
So, you’d rather not change a thing about yourself or your music and prefer to hang on to the past? Well then, you’d better build a strong and extremely loyal fan base that will continue to support you for several years to come.
Artists such as Journey, Styx, Poison, Warrant, Great White, Vince Neil, Slaughter, and Quiet Riot are all artists who have stuck with the “very same formula” as they did back in their hay day, and interestingly, are all still touring and making a modest living doing so to this day. Surely, these bands have shown very little development over the years and are somewhat living in the past (perhaps you’ve even denounced these bands with a chuckle wishing they’d all just throw in the towel along with the tight pants and eye liner). But don’t be so quick to judge. From a purely business perspective, these bands have actually done something incredibly right! By relentlessly hitting the road and performing live before audiences around the country, interviewing with radio stations and the press, visiting record stores, and making a special effort to connect with their fans, these bands were all able to successfully built a grass roots following and “brand” name in their day that was so powerful they are able to continue their careers today far beyond current trends and the support of their major record labels.
Personal manager and booking agent Chris Arnstein, who has worked with Bad English, Bret Michaels and Journey confirms, “If you’re smart and lucky enough to develop a substantial customer base by making every effort to connect with your audience one fan at a time, you can almost bet on a career in music through touring for several years to come. Loyal fans will grow old with you; that’s long after you’re label drops you and the next generation of consumers is brainwashed to believe you’re no longer cool.”
10) Hang With The In-Crowd
Sometimes, survival in the youth-conscious world of the music business may mean aligning yourself with more hip or current artists. Singer/songwriter Liz Phair, who was regularly mentioned in the industry alongside more adult artists such as Sarah McLachlan recently aligned herself with the hit producer team The Matrix on her latest release self titled Liz Phair and is now mentioned alongside younger artists such as Michele Branch, Avril Lavigne and Hilary Duff. Veteran guitarists Carlos Santana collaborated with the modern sounds of singer Rob Thomas on Santana’s Super Natural album earning Santana a Grammy nomination and award for the first time in his career. Burt Bacharach, who turned 70 years old in 1998, received rave reviews when he teamed up with the much younger Elvis Costello and wrote and recorded the album Painted By Memory. Music critic Stephen Thomas called the resulting collaboration “timeless.” And finally, it can be argued that the Queen of pop herself-Madonna-cleverly choose to partner with pop princess Britney Spears on the song Me Against The Music on Britney’s In The Zone album in order to keep in touch with a new and younger generation of pop listeners- that’s not to mention the infamous kiss between the two artists on the MTV awards in 2003; creating a great deal of publicity.
11) Cover The Recent Hits
Under a provision in copyright law called compulsory licensing, as soon as an author/owner of a composition records an original composition for the first time on phono-record, and (2) it’s distributed for commercial sale to the public, (3) anyone can license it as long as the lyric or melodic content is not dramatically changed or modified. Older artists can essentially attract the attention of a whole new generation of fans by covering more current and hip stars. Case in point – long time show singer Tom Jones had a hit collaboration with the Art of Noise a while back when covering the hit song “Kiss,” written by Prince. Jones received the attention of a completely new and younger audience. Country legend Johnny Cash recently covered the techno hero Trent Reznor’s song Hurt earning him a great deal of notoriety. Cash’s video for “hurt” was nominated in 2003 for best video of the year, male video of the year, best direction in a video, best art direction, best editing, and winner best cinematography in a video. Not bad! And note: it works in reverse. Younger to middle aging artists can look to covering the classic hits in an effort to win a more sophisticated audience.
12) Be Honest With Yourself?
A wise quote from a Yogi Master read, “Be really honest, with yourself, and nothing will ever betray you.” Perhaps you’re getting tired of working odd day jobs and waiting for that big break when all your friends are now buying houses and starting families? Perhaps being broke and living off of your girl friend well into your 40s for “just one more year is not really the way to go about life? And perhaps it really is time to stop squeezing into those tight pair of leather pants and trying to pen that rock 80s hit and forget about a career in music altogether. Though, this is an extremely touchy subject for all artists to come to terms with, it may be important to stand outside yourselves for a moment and ask, is this what I really should be doing with my life? There’s no point in feeling defeated. It may actually be a huge catharsis in your life. Perhaps there is a whole new part of yourself waiting to be discovered that you have never been open to searching. Just keep the old expression in mind: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Perhaps you really are ready for a life change?
13) Rock Till Your Drop
Even successful artists have to deal with the issue of: Just WHEN is too old too old. Bands like the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, and Kiss are just a few examples of successful artists who appear that they’re going to be around forever. But society both worships and pokes fun at them all the time. Certainly these artists could all retire in that proverbial villa in Spain never to be heard from again-but they proudly keep on putting themselves out into the public eye. From movie soundtracks, to major tours, to records, to DVD sets … these artists aren’t going away any time soon. They’re rockin’ till they’re droppin. Says front man Steven Tyler: “I don’t buy into the idea that you’re not supposed to rock & roll after a certain date. Maybe I should be in Bellevue, but I’m just having a good time.” Stones Guitarist Keith Richards puts it this way, “This business isn’t just for teenage kids’ This is a man’s job, and it’s a life-long job. And if there’s a sucker to ever prove it, I hope to be that sucker.”
14) Remember Why You Started
Last, but definitely not least: Always remember why you got started in this business in the first place… Music! Right? Remember .. it’s all about the music! The greatest and most legendary musicians that serve as our inspirations didn’t get involved in the business simply because they’re looking to cash in. In fact, to most, music is akin to a fever that never goes away. It’s an addiction. A need to express one’s self. Regardless of your age or career position, it’s important for musicians to understand that their passion for music is already their success. They’ve found something that gives them true meaning; and that’s something that many people don’t find till late in life or sometimes not all. Make sure to hold on to this emotion. Don’t let your love for music be contingent upon getting a deal, being wealthy, or selling millions of records. That’s only the icing on the cake. Always remember that you choose music for your life because you loved it first and foremost. This way, whether you’re performing before 5 people in a coffee house, or 30,000 in a stadium, you’ll feel blessed by the gift of music forever.
By Bobby Borg ” 2004 – All Rights Reserved
** Good points made by Bobby! We like to hear some female perspective here. Don’t be shy to comment!