FEATURE: Dorain Gray in Headphones: Ageism in the Music Industry – and Why Artists of a ‘Certain Age’ Are Essential




Dorain Gray in Headphones



Ageism in the Music Industry – and Why Artists of a ‘Certain Age’ Are Essential


THIS is the last piece I will write…

relating to Madonna but, as she is celebrating her sixtieth birthday today; I have been thinking about age and how still, this far down the line, it is an obsession in society! Growing older is a process we all have to face and it is nothing to be fearful of. One of the reasons why Madonna springs to mind is because she is embracing her years and finding vim and vigour in her sixties – she is already embracing the new milestone and determined not to be silenced and overlooked! This piece from The Independent looks at some of the stars that are still rocking and rolling in their sixties and seventies:

But there is one area where the older woman is suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly thriving – rock music. Madonna celebrates her 60th birthday on Saturday. Kate Bush has just celebrated hers. In fact, they are the spring chickens. Suzi Quatro, 68, and Patti Smith, 71, are not just still rocking, they are still snarling. Cher at 72 pops up with a delightful cameo in the Mamma Mia! movie. The queen of soul, Aretha Franklin, is still recording at 76.

Who’d have thought it? Look back to the 1960s and there were precious few women at all in pop music, let alone older ones. In the UK, Sandie Shaw, Dusty Springfield, Marianne Faithfull and a handful of others carried the fight to the mass of male groups (the word boyband had yet to be invented)”.

It seems amazing that there are segregations and partitions depending on your age and stage of life. Radio stations, especially, brand to particular audiences. If you are a young, trendy chart star then you can go to BBC Radio 1 and all the youthful stations in the capital; you might have a better time of things, age-wise, if you are on BBC Radio 6 Music but BBC Radio 2 is for a more mature listener/musician – those who have been ignored by the younger brands. There are very few stations broad enough to play music based on merit and reputation. I wonder, when Madonna’s new album comes out, she will be in the mind of stations that cater to teens and adolescents. It seems shocking she would be sidelined and turned away because she does not fit into the demographic of a particular station – regardless of the fact she has been cranking out gold for over thirty-five years. Look at icons like Paul McCartney, Cher and Kate Bush. The first two are releasing new material very soon and you know they will be resigned to stations where their feel and tones are more comfortable with a set audience. In other words, they are not hip and cutting enough to nestle with the ‘cool’ listeners. Kate Bush, especially, has shown how one can have stamina and huge gravitas the older you get.


IN THIS PHOTO: Kate Bush during her Before the Dawn show (2014)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Her twenty-two date-run of concerts a few years back showed she has the energy and ambition of much younger artists. People were not concerned how she looked or how old she was: the reason they went was to listen to those hits and see her do what she does best! We are becoming mired in this ageist mentality where there is a distinct shelf-life of popularity and relevance. Artists do not become spent and archaic once they pass fifty, say. Madonna is launching new material soon and you can bet the material will be as edgy, raucous and sexy as anything out there. Her videos are likely to be as controversial and eye-catching as the likes of Human Nature, Erotica and Like a Prayer. It is very rare, when looking at the music press and stations, you see those more mature and middle-aged artists adorning features. Unless they are a huge name – and even then it is not a guarantee! – you struggle to see anyone past their thirties. Why do we associate the good and desired with young faces and an irrelevant coolness?! It is complex when you transition from the studio to the stage because there is a definite need for stamina and energy. A lot of ageing artists mix chat with music but there are those who have incredible endurance – as able to produce a captivating and energised show as any young artist.



The Independent’s article looked at women and how, because they live longer than men, there is that additional staying power in music:

Jonathan Morrish, a long-time senior executive at Sony record company, and now a music industry PR consultant, says: “Women generally live longer than men, so it should come as no surprise that so many as they get older seem to flourish creatively with their music and on stage. None of this is easy. I know from the many artists that I have worked with you need tenacity. So perhaps it’s the staying power they had to show at the beginning of their careers, perhaps a savvy emotional intelligence – whatever it is, I admire and welcome it. And applaud them”.

Is the issue and sense of discrimination confined to female artists?! We associate the ageing men with something laddish, legendary and cheeky. We all still lust after The Rolling Stones; love a bit of Macca swagger and go nuts for the old legends who can still give us attitude, Rock and rebellion. Women, on the other hand, are subject to the critique of those who feel, when they acquire wrinkles and lines, they are destined for the scrapheap! Madonna, as many are noting, is as fresh and relevant now as she was in her twenties. She is maturing in many ways but is as feisty and creatively primal as her beginnings.

In fact, in this article from earlier in the year, she tackled ageism head-on:

"Why should only men be allowed to be adventurous, sexual, curious, and get to have all the fun until the day they leave this earth?" she asks.

"What I am going through now is ageism, with people putting me down or giving me a hard time because I date younger men or do things that are considered to be only the domain of younger women," explains Madonna.

The 59-year-old musician plans to keep fighting against ageism.

"Ten to 20 years from now, it's going to be normal," Madonna says of how she lives her life. "People are going to shut up."

The singer says that "by standing up to men" it's only a matter of time until certain behaviours won't be dubbed "ageist".

Does society still place double standards when it comes to men and women? Maybe beauty magazines and that ideal of ‘perfection’ (being young) clouds and poisons how we perceive women of a certain age. Lola Blanc, writing back in 2015 proved how many women, even in their twenties, are fearing ageism and being marginalised :

There's a part of me that's terrified to write this. I'm a singer and a songwriter, and as a female who's not yet a household name, I can't help but feel the familiar, deep-seated fear that being open about this fact will lead to my professional demise. I'm fighting it. Here goes: I'm 27.

I've felt a sense of urgency since I can remember. I can feel it now, I could feel it ten years ago, and I felt it even as a kid. It looms just ahead at every moment, threatening me with its sinister little whisper: You are getting older”.



I am in my thirties but feel, career-wise, there is a distinct cut-off point where one has to accept they might not be able to achieve their dreams. The media seems to idealise the young and look for the fresh-faced and infused. Madonna and her peers are fighting against those who view the older man/woman as culturally irrelevant and dusty. I write about ageism last year but am compelled to revise the subject given the fact, at sixty, Madonna is flying a flag for the mature woman who is as vibrant and essential as any artist out there. Everyone from P!nk, Sheryl Crow and Kylie Minogue have spoken up recently and said the same thing: they have faced ageism and judgement but they are golden as popular as ever. I feel we devalue artists who get to a certain point in their career. They are more essential than the new breed because they have proved their staying power. The business is unpredictable and it gets harder and harder to forge a long and enduring career. You need talent and strength but it takes personality and resilience to endure as long as the likes of Madonna, Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell. There is a definite split between male and female artists but I wonder whether there is another divide between new and established artists.


IN THIS PHOTO: Sheryl Crow/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Those epic stars that are still in the public eye have proved their worth and survived market trends, changes and mortality to emerge hungry and inventive. Rather than limit these artists to certain radio stations and feel they are ‘too old’ to be seen as beautiful and fashionable; learning from them and embracing their longevity should happen. The fact their new music might not be as cutting, iconic and unexpected as their classic hits is no reason to relegate them and feel they are resigned to a rather early grave. Big artists are feeling the pinch but I rarely get submissions from middle-aged and older acts. X Factor judge Nicole Scherzinger spoke of ageism and suggesting streaming is a viable outlet for artists struggling to get their music played on the radio:

“…However, while she did say that she feels it’s “harder with age” to get your songs played on the radio, she does think streaming services have offered a second chance to pop stars.

Nicole claimed: “What’s so great is that we have streaming. That is awesome because once you have a hit, streaming breaks all the boundaries of appearance and age”.

I wonder whether artists starting out in the fifties and sixties feel they are never going to be taken seriously and struggle against younger competition. The industry has always been more attracted to those bands who can kick and smash for a couple of hours; new acts who can sit on a magazine cover and have that radio-wide appeal – what happens to those who are a bit more ‘mature’?

Back to the mainstream and this article, written in 2016, brought in facts and figures to illustrate the ageism and restrictions of the charts:

This week Sia became the first woman aged over 40 to top the US charts since Madonna achieved the feat 16 years ago.

With her hit Cheap Thrills, Adelaide’s Sia is breaking the glass ceiling for women over 40 (she turns 41 in December) as radio and the pop charts are dominated by females in their teens or 20s.

Artists over 40, especially women, face difficulties trying to compete on today’s pop charts and commercial radio playlists.

A look at the 100 most played songs on Australian radio last year is a sobering indication of this ageism against women.

Paul McCartney, now 74, was the oldest act by far, but he merely performed on the number one hit Four Five Seconds, with Kanye West and Rihanna handling the vocals.

The next oldest was French dance producer David Guetta, 47, when his song Hey Mama was a hit last year, but again the vocals came from Nicki Minaj.

The most-played oldest acts on Australian radio last year were all men: rapper Nelly (41), Robin Thicke (39), Kanye West (39), John Legend (37), Diplo (37) and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine (37) joining him.

The most-played women on Australian radio last year? Taylor Swift (26), Ellie Goulding (29), Rihanna (28), Meghan Trainor (22), Selena Gomez (24) and Adele (28), and, of course, Sia (40)”.

Tina Arena, in the same article, reacted to Madonna’s assumptions regarding music and radio – when you are out of your twenties then you are passed aside and replaced:

Madonna is absolutely right. Totally,” Arena told News Corp last year. “It affects a lot of women. It shouldn’t just be young women on radio. Women in their 40s have philosophical things to say that need to be heard.

“The music industry or radio doesn’t see it as viable and I think that’s a huge mistake. I think there’s a real generation of people that are ignored. I’m just doing what a 40-plus woman in the music industry would be doing. I’m doing my job. My job is to write a record that hopefully women of my age and younger will be bothered to listen to.

“I still believe people like to listen to new music, no matter their age, especially if it talks to them and their lives”.

There is a lot of pressure around body image and a certain sexiness. Is a man or woman in their fifties going to be viewed as desirable and cover-worthy?! Many music videos are using sex and youth to sell; younger generations are spending less time with the established pioneers and obsessed with what is funky and trending. Those icons like Madonna have opened doors and changed the industry. They have managed to push music as far as it has come and has added so much through the years. The fact these stars have contributed so much does not guarantee them continued success and celebration. Many say the middle-aged and older stars are not producing music as good and inspiring as when they were young. That is a subject measure and I feel artists need to not only embrace their age but accept that a certain sound is not suitable at a certain point. The Pop legends of old cannot keep that same sound as they did in the 1970s and 1980s – they need to move with the times but that does not mean they are bad or inferior. Artists coming through, of a particular age, are scared of being ignored right from the off. If there is more pressure and discrimination placed on the shoulder of women; it seems new artists, regardless of age, have to work so much harder (than younger peers) to get heard. Streaming services go some way but artists depend on radio, journalists and fans to get their work out there.

Age is such a stupid barrier that needs to come down. We are not seeing music as an equal market and judging people in terms of merit. More and more, artists past the age of twenty or thirty have to accept that they are going to be consigned to a certain radio station or seen as past-it. These attitudes are killing careers and causing divisions. If the iconic artists we all grew up around prove anything is they have more endurance and meaning than any young artist on the current scene. These newcomers are unlikely to survive for years and have that same allure and memorability. It is probably wise to look at the sixty-year-old Madonna as proof of a star who is ageing but does not see age as a barrier – she is filling Instagram with birthday snaps and is determined to kick against those who query her contemporary value. In this article; Madonna shared her opinions regarding age as a ‘sin’:

I mean, who made those rules? Who says? I’m going to keep fighting it,” she said.

“10 to 20 years from now, it’s going to be normal. People are going to shut up”.

The Pop Queen is still on the throne thirty-six years after her debut single and will continue to rule for decades to come – even death cannot dethrone her! We need to get out of the ageism trap and stop putting people into certain brackets. Women, especially, in music have a hard time getting focus and respect when they start to age. If we keep pushing wonderful artists aside based on their age then we risk making the industry a much poorer, divided…



AND depressing place.