Recently, CNN reported on a curious trend in the world of rock’n’roll: not only are indie rockers charting high on the Billboard 200, they’re doing it (gasp!) in their 30s.
Which got us wondering: why aren’t more indie artists making it in their 30s (or making it into their 30s)?
“Before I Get Old: Success for Late-Blooming Bands,” profiles three acts — the National, the Hold Steady, and Spoon — all of whom are comprised of men old enough to have little Biebers at home. The core members of each group have playing together since the 1990s, but none of the them achieved much commercial success until the latter half of the 2000s. Today, CNN reports, these bands are performing at major venues worldwide and their albums are reaching the high rungs of the Billboard 200 (The National’s latest album, High Violet, debuted at No. 3 in May.)
Making it past 30 is apparently an unusual feat for any rock band: Since the 1950s, “only a small percentage of rockers have made it past age 30 with their ‘it’ factor intact,” the article states. Today, however, “late-blooming” success stories like the National, the Hold Steady and Spoon are “redefining what’s possible in a rock ‘n’ roll career.”
The story goes on to point out that these late-bloomers have a few other things in common: they’re all on indie labels, and they credit their slow-building success — at least in part — to fan-driven promotion online and the ability to make their music digitally available to a wider audience.
We’ve said for a decade that the future of music has everything to do with artists’ access to the tools of media. It does our hearts good to see these bands turning heads after years of hard work. What struck us about the article, though, was not so much the concept of late-blooming success for indie bands as the assertion that it’s still an unusual feat.
Going the indie route may once have meant toiling in obscurity, but clearly that’s changing. The increasing democratization of media has created unprecedented opportunities for all kinds of musicians — be they indie, major, or totally unaffiliated — to reach potential audiences without interference from gatekeepers of middlemen. The field is undoubtedly more crowded, but there are fewer artificial barriers between artist and listener. In the past decade, indie acts have made great strides in areas traditionally dominated by mainstream, major-label artists: gigs at big venues and festivals, TV appearances, songs on movie and videogame soundtracks, and of course, the Billboard charts.
But will they be able to translate this newfound attention into long, healthy careers down the road?
It’s too soon to say whether the career trajectories of the National, et al., will prove to be the exception or the rule for indie rockers. Many veterans of the ‘80s and ’90s indie era have aged remarkably well. Artists like Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Wilco, the Flaming Lips, Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, Cat Power and Le Tigre, not to mention FMC pals Ian MacKaye, Ted Leo and the Indigo Girls — just to name a few — are still connecting with new fans, releasing critically-acclaimed records and selling out shows well into their thirties, forties and fifties. (It’s worth noting that, like the bands profiled in the CNN article, most of these artists didn’t receive much mainstream recognition until relatively late in their careers.)
But even among long-lived indie acts, relatively few have managed to make their music a permanent, full-time career. Their stories are still largely the exception, not the rule. For every one that “made it,” dozens fell by the wayside prematurely.
Of course, there are any number of reasons for a band not to make it, and obviously we can’t speculate about why [insert name of totally killer ‘80s post-punk band here] released one record and disappeared off the face of the earth.
But we can point to some serious underlying inequities that, even today, make it extraordinarily difficult for bands to succeed into their thirties, no matter how good or popular or critically respected they are, and no matter how badly they want to.
For example, health insurance. Earlier this year, an FMC survey of 1,450 working musicians found that nearly one in three are living without health insurance. It may not seem like such a big deal to young punks in their teens and twenties (many of whom are lucky enough to be covered under their parents’ plans), but by the time musicians enter their thirties, they have to start thinking seriously about their health, their families and their futures — which, if they’re part of the unlucky third without insurance, could mean ditiching the band in favor of a more secure and sustainable way to make a living.
Critics like to joke around about “dad rock,” especially when it comes to the classic, accessible sounds of certain bands. Unfortunately, real dad-rockers may be an endangered species. When faced with the financial responsibilities of parenthood, musicians may be forced to choose between being a dad — or mom! — and being a rocker. Maybe someday America’s musical parents won’t have to make that choice.
If you’re a musician without health insurance, we encourage you to check out FMC’s Health Insurance Navigation Tool (HINT) — a FREE program that helps musicians understand their health insurance options. HINT doesn’t sell or recommend insurance but it does provide high-quality information to musicians on a case-by-case, state-by state basis. All you have to do is head to the HINT website to schedule a phone appointment with one of our health insurance experts (who are also musicians). They’ll even call you on their dime. Remember, it’s 100 percent free and completely confidential.
Programs like HINT are our way of giving back to the music community. If you think that’s awesome, please consider making a donation to Future of Music Coalition — if not for us, than for the sake of rockin’ parents everywhere.