I just came across an ad in the local classifieds for a cover band seeking a bass player. One of the criteria in the ad is that the age of the player be preferably between 20-35 years old. Here is the ad in question: Click here
Now I do have to admit that my age (over this limit) was partially responsible for my recoiling at that stipulation, but thankfully I’m blessed with as many gigs as I can handle as a family man who also works. But while I’m not in need of this or any other advertised gig, I couldn’t help but ponder this odd age-limit preference in light of the musicians I know – both locally and across North America – who are invariably over 35 and just hitting their stride musically. Many are well beyond this relatively young age and settling into an incredibly potent phase of their career where they barely hit a bum note or sing a flat phrase. So this notion of cover band members needing to be “young” is an interesting and somewhat bewildering phenomenon – until you inspect it a bit more closely.
First of all, it must be pointed out that the musicians who placed this ad seem to be drawing the mistaken parallel between age and image. They assume that all musicians over 35 are sporting socks with sandals, company windbreakers from the day job, chunky white jogging sneakers, and bifocals. They fear the sticky pick holder on the guitar, the clip-on tuner, the music stand with cheat notes, the drink holder, and so on. In other words, they don’t want an “uncool” player increasing the chances of the young girls abandoning the bar after the second set. After all, the prevailing fear is that young girls won’t stick around if their “dads” are on stage. And if the band members are hovering around 40 or older, they could technically be the parents of the staggering Sourpuss consumers who hold each other’s hair back as they pound the pavement with puke outside the gig. You don’t want to be messing with this demographic. They are the very yardstick by which you should be measuring the worth of your band.
All sarcasm aside, the point I’m trying to make is that younger musicians don’t necessarily want to avoid their over-35 counterparts as such. They’d just rather someone who doesn’t hold the potential of affecting the worth of the band in the fickle market – even if the player is only half as good as the older musician. This seems to come down to priorities. Yes, these cover bands enjoy playing and being tight musically. But their main goal is to not offend the bar owners by having a low turnout or minimal crowd retention. So regardless of proficiency level, the younger player is preferable to the older one in this context. Such is the way in the soulless world of bars and cover bands. Not always, but a lot.
So why isn’t this the case for high profile touring acts such as Sheryl Crow and Paul McCartney who use musicians in their mid-40s or older as their supporting players? The answer is somewhat simple: cultivated talent and maturity. Now I know a few musicians in their early ‘20s who are mature for their age and can play very well. But this is not generally the norm. It takes many years to both hone your chops and conduct yourself in a mature manner with other players. So the big acts prefer to have seasoned talent with easy-going personalities. They can’t afford to sacrifice talent for image where it matters most. The touring act needs to run smoothly and sound great. And this takes experience.
Of course the elephant in the room with all of this is, as I mentioned before, image. The cover band is scared to death to come across as their old man’s shed band. These young guys have a picture in their head of what the average older weekend warrior musician looks like, and they’d just as soon avoid it at any cost. But herein is the crux of the matter: many musicians in their mid-30s and beyond DO fit the description that the cover band is trying to avoid. As one matures, the level of care put into image is often sacrificed for comfort, practicality, and just plain laziness at times. You often have a day job, you probably have kids that drain you of energy, and your wife would probably laugh you back into your pleated khakis if she caught you venturing out with a pair of Chucks and skinny jeans. So you give up. But you still hope someone wants you in a band. You see the ad and get excited. Then you read the “over-35” part of the ad. You’re crestfallen. You grab a donut and flick on the TV. Fuck it, life’s too short to care about image. It’s all about the music, you tell yourself. But it’s Friday night, and you aren’t gigging. Welcome to the world of the aging local musician.
What I’m getting at is this: part of having your act together IS caring about how you look. I mentioned that talent and maturity are why the big touring acts like to have seasoned vets in their bands. But if you look closely at these musicians you’ll see what else they invariably have: style. They are savvy enough to know that they will not get hired if they show up to an audition wearing golf clothes. Too often as we musicians get into our 30’s and beyond, we slowly but surely let the “show” aspect of the music die within us as we give way to whatever is easiest or most convenient. As we age, the shirt gets untucked, the waist size broadens, and the guitar slowly starts to rest on the belly as our postures bend. With the kids and the day job it just seems too hard to stay in shape and compete with the younger musicians. But take a look at the guys in the touring acts; they might be hovering at the 50 or 60 mark, but they are very conscious of how they look. From any more than 20 feet away you often can’t even guess their age. Now I’m not saying a few pounds here and there should be the deciding factor on getting a gig; but if you’re being leveraged against another player because of your age, and you want the job, being in even half-decent shape will invariably give you an edge. This might sound shallow, but live music is show business and has to be treated that way – even at a local level. We can learn something from our national touring act counterparts.
Of course, this whole thing comes down to your level of concern. Many musicians approaching their 40’s couldn’t give a rat’s ass about image, and that’s totally valid. Your house-sized shed is stockpiled with the best gear available (due to the day job), and the guys you played with in your 20’s now come over on Thursday nights to get away from the house and sneak in some beers and joints. Music for them has become merely a way to get away from reality. I respect that. But if you’re an aging professional musician who’s wondering why the phone has stopped ringing, take a look at yourself and what you can be doing to dispel the notion that “over-35” automatically excludes you from being in a band. Then call up that number and tell them you just turned 34.