Three questions with the same answer:
Story #1: For a couple years I played as a sideman in a band that’d made a pretty good name for itself in “indie” circles after more than a decade of national touring. While we were on one of those tours, they were simultaneously shopping a new album to labels and contemplating a name change.
I asked them, why the hell would you change your name (and a cool name, at that) after spending so much time building a reputation and following?
Story #2: I once opened an email from a Portland musician who was starting to have some success nationally, and the email was basically an apology to his fanbase for lying about his age. Turns out, he was actually 5 or 6 years older than he’d let on. He had a career outside of music. His life wasn’t all rock-n-roll glitz and glamor like he’d wanted us to believe.
I asked myself, why lie about a handful of years?
Story #3: I heard about a band that recently had a major (MAJOR) hit after two decades of releasing music. The band was consciously trying to avoid drawing too much attention to their back catalog or their career prior to hitting it big.
I thought to myself, why — if you suddenly have millions of new fans — wouldn’t you encourage them to stream or buy the best stuff from your previous records too?
I think the answer to all three of these questions is: the artists (and the managers, publicists, or labels they worked with) assumed — correctly or not — that age isn’t an asset in this industry; that audiences want freshness (if not youth); and that acknowledging you’ve been in the trenches for so long might somehow tarnish a prospective fan’s impression of you.
What’s in a number!?
Oh, I’ve never heard of you, but you’ve put out 6 records already? You must be old news!
Oh, You’re making pop music in your mid-30’s? Ewwww.
Oh, it’s so much easier to promote an up-and-coming band. Less baggage!
Like, we’re all supposed to be fully-realized artists by age 18? Debut at #1? Never have any missteps or mere brushes with success? I call bullshit.
In all three of the cases above, I didn’t blame the artists. I felt bad for them. They were just dealing with a very real (or at least really perceived) pressure often placed on musicians to be young — and if not young, new.
But let’s deal with real life for a second.
Real life, where most people don’t hit it big on their first try.
Real life, where everyone ages, and sometimes for the better.
Real life, where diligence, productivity, and passion can yield results in the long run.
Why should it be any different in the music world?
Here’s the silver lining: it’s not different (under sane circumstances); you really can be young, old, new, seasoned, whatever. You can be YOU, and still find success — IF you define success as something that sustains you, pays the bills, and connects with audiences.
Sure, if you want to be a teen-targeted pop star who sells out Madison Square Garden, you better get famous young. But if you’re making music for a more mature audience, it doesn’t matter how old you are, or how far back your career reaches, or how many albums you’ve put out.
Don’t invest your soul or your art in something that only pays dividends to the young and new. Everyone eventually is neither of those things.
Youth-obsession is a sickness in our culture. It’s a black hole that swallows our time, money, passions, relationships, health,… and it often pays nothing back but anxiety and self-contempt.
As far as your music career goes though, there’s a cure!
- Every year at Folk Alliance International I’m reminded that a whole economy exists around house-concerts and listening rooms where audiences pay good money to listen to older artists (some of them relatively obscure) perform their songs. It feels so freeing, inspiring, community-oriented — especially because the music is kickass — to be in a musical space where age is not a barrier to success. No matter what genre you perform, there’s probably a similar community out there for you. Find it. Join it. Nurture it. It will nurture you back as you develop your talents, go gray in the beard, and change the ways you interact with your audience year after year.
- With streaming platforms, music releases no longer have a shelf-life since there’s no such thing as shelf space. This also means there’s less focus on the “end-cap” mentality of pushing whatever is newest. My automatically-generated Discover Weekly playlists on Spotify contain just as many catalog songs as they do new releases, meaning old songs can continually be served to new listeners. They never get stale! Also, Perrin Lamb and Craig Cardiff, two CD Baby artists who’ve seen big things happen through Spotify playlisting, have both had their biggest playlist successes with songs that’d already been out for years. And when an artist like that finds success, their new fans DO go back and listen to other previous releases. That means a deeper connection, more loyal fans, and more streaming revenue.
- And as for changing your name, or hiding your history, in order to appear shiny and new — okay, maybe you’re one in a thousand bands who takes that approach and has a big win. But the other 999 bands are now left traveling the same road they were already on, only without the benefit of whatever fanbase, press quotes, touring history, and catalog was associated with the old band name. If you have a crappy or confusing band name, change it right away. If your name suits you but you’re just worried the magic has worn off, dig in instead. Stick with the name, the fans, the “journey” (self help alert!). Keep putting out better and better music. Just like your actual name, hopefully the band name that you kept over the long haul comes to represent something that improved with age.
At least that’s my opinion. Do you disagree? What’s your experience been like as a musician when it comes to age or “newness?” I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.