I turned 45 years old a few months ago. Although I still feel more or less the same as I did 20 years ago, and as far as I know I’m still in good health, the truth is that with each passing year, my chances of becoming the next Justin Bieber decline. Not that my chances of becoming the next Justin Bieber were ever very good. But each passing year, I am forced to come to terms with the fact that my dream of becoming a teen heartthrob/pop star are slowly diminishing.
Jokes and sarcasm aside. Just like you, I’m getting older each passing day, each passing month and each passing year. Let’s talk about what it’s like getting older in the music business and how our age affects our role within the music industry.
First, let’s be honest with ourselves. Becoming a rock or pop star at any age is a one in a million sort of endeavor. The odds of “making it” in the music business arguably get harder as you get older, but it’s not really easy or likely (statistically speaking) at any age. Most musicians don’t become as famous as Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift at any age, and the odds are even more against you as you get older.
So, although the mainstream music business is arguably a very youth and looks oriented business. Most artists never become mainstream at all anyway. Most artists will remain in the realm of “indie” artist throughout their careers. According to my research, only about .4 percent of artists make it into the “mainstream”.
That’s the bad news I guess you could say. But it’s also sort of liberating when you think about it. Screw the mainstream music business is what I’ve always said. Actually, I’ve never said that, but I’m going to start saying it, because, the reality is although “making it” in the music business was always a long shot with the odds stacked against us, making a career out of music isn’t, and it’s something we can do at any age. in many ways it actually gets easier and more likely the older you get and there’s new data coming out that suggests it’s never been a better time to be an “indie” artist.
The Advantage Of Age
The reason age is advantageous in terms of building an “indie” music career is because building a viable music career takes time. Let’s take something like licensing. Licensing, although a competitive industry, is still a totally viable way of making money with your music. The main obstacle in terms of building up income with something like licensing is time. It takes time to create music. It takes time to network and build contacts. It takes time to build up a revenue stream from music that’s sustainable. It can take years to build up a licensing catalog to the point where it generates a sustainable revenue stream and as the years accumulate, you will of course be getting older. I think most musicians who fail to make it in something like licensing, simply give up too soon.
The good news is that, for the most part, no one really cares how old you are when it comes to something like music licensing. No one has ever asked my age when screening my tracks and to the best of my knowledge no one really cares.
Age is also an advantage in terms of simply getting better at the craft of writing and playing music. It takes time to learn and master an instrument. It takes time to excel at songwriting and composition. There’s really no end to growth in either of these endeavors. I feel like I get better at songwriting with each passing year. I have more life experience to draw from. I have more to write about. I have more to say. The same is true in terms of my skill as a guitar player. I continue to improve each year and I feel like I’m playing much better now than I ever have because I’m continually racking up more and more hours as a guitar player.
Also, depending on what style of music you play, age isn’t necessarily a factor in terms of playing music live. For example, I’m really into jambands, blues and jazz, in addition to songwriting. These genres are much less age-centric than mainstream pop and rock. There are plenty of thirty, forty and fifty somethings and beyond, playing live in these genres. Of course, having time and youth on your side never hurts. It’s arguably easier to deal with the stress and overall lifestyle of pursuing a live music career when you’re younger. But don’t discount the wisdom and maturity that comes with age.
In many ways I’m grateful I didn’t go further as a performing musician when I was younger, because I don’t think I was mature enough in my twenties and early thirties to deal with the lifestyle in a healthy way. In retrospect, I could have easily fallen into a very unhealthy lifestyle in terms of things like alcohol and sleep deprivation had I had more “success” when I was younger. Thank God I didn’t.
With age comes experience and wisdom. And although I’m not currently touring, I still perform live an average of once a week and I always make it home at a reasonable time and manage to get in a full nights sleep and wake up refreshed and hydrated, bright eyed and bushy tailed.
My buddy Chuck Hughes from the Hillbilly Hellcats (see previous podcast here) didn’t start touring until he was 45, my age now. Now in his 60s, Chuck was able to carve out a great indie career both touring and licensing his music, and he didn’t even get started touring extensively until he was 45!
One of my favorite guitarists, from one my favorite bands, Nels Cline of Wilco, is 63 years old. Nels didn’t join Wilco until 2004, when he was 48! The music business is filled with examples like this, if you know where to look.
Focus On Building A Career
One of the reasons I’ve focused so extensively on things like licensing and simply becoming a better musician and songwriter, is that I want to focus on things I can control. I don’t need the added pressure of worrying about getting too old hanging over me. It’s hard enough creating a viable music career as it is, without worrying about something that’s inevitable and completely out of my control.
The bottom line: Don’t let something as natural and inevitable as aging deter you from pursuing and doing what you love. I’m a big believer that having things in your life that you’re passionate and fired up about will actually keep you younger and more youthful longer. There’s absolutely no reason to stop doing something like creating and performing music just because you reach a certain age.
It might be too late to become the next Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift, but it’s never too late to keep doing what you love. If you’re still alive, you can still make music.