Trying To Cheat Time

I saw a post online this week that caught my attention. It said something like:

‘Female singers needed for an exciting project, aged 18-26. If you need to lie about your age, that’s no problem as long as we can agree on it’.

‘Great!’ I thought. I know a few fantastic singers who I would pass this on to… No. I changed my mind. I am tired of pretending or lying about age as a female musician. I wouldn’t wish that on any of my friends and I don’t want to perpetuate it. I’m not pointing fingers at the person who made the post; almost every pop gig I’ve ever done had to involve some kind of pretence that my age was a lot lower than it was. And I wasn’t even ‘old’ anyway!

So here it is. I am 33. And a half. I am fortunate that now I have a job where I can embrace my actual age, be proud of the way I’ve got to where I am and not panic that some music biz hipster who decides the ‘look’ of an artist won’t hire me because of two numbers that go with who I am. As an editor of a drum magazine I feel like I’m now on the other side of the business and I feel comfortable enough to say that it is a topic that has worried me for a long time.

I’ve heard from male musicians who say that age is a problem for them too. And we’ve all had the gigs that we were excluded from because we were male/female/didn’t have long enough blonde hair or weren’t 6 feet tall. Music is a crazy industry and unless you’re in certain genres of music that don’t care about aesthetics, you are bound to come up against discrimination for something. We deal with it, it makes us tougher and we head on to the next audition. In this, I’m just posting from my perspective as a female musician because that’s what I know but I appreciate that it’s not only female musicians who experience this.

I’ve been told I look younger than I am (perhaps because I’ve been pretending I was 24 for the last 8 years) so lying was never a problem. I didn’t feel comfortable doing it but I still did it anyway because otherwise, for the sake of a number, I was excluded from a job opportunity. But here’s some news – at less than 24 I wasn’t as accomplished at drums as I am now! I didn’t have so much experience of playing with artists in front of huge crowds. I was a bit nervous, a bit naive and I probably got quite star struck back then. Now I don’t, so what good will being 21 be to me or the person hiring a band? I can be made up, dressed or lit to look 18 or 80 so really, is there any point in lying anymore? And honestly, are you really trying to tell me that those female artists in the charts are all in their 20s too? Come on! It takes years to get your sh*t together enough to write good songs, master your instrument and be a grounded human too.

Part two of this may or may not be linked to the age issue for some people but for me, it was. Nearly every age ‘cut off’ point for commercial music that I have auditioned for has been 26. Is it a coincidence that female musicians often haven’t had children at that age? At the age of 30 I began panicking. I was still needing to bend the truth about my age so how could I even contemplate starting a family? And then if I did, I’d have to take a break for several months, lose out on auditions, possibly lose contacts and tours and definitely lose out on those commercial gigs that I relied on. After that, how would I even get back into the same work, if that was what I wanted to do? I thought about what else I could do instead – it’s not ideal to make a career change at the same time as having children. The other alternative was pretending to be in my 20s until I was perhaps nearing 40. A) that was a ridiculous prospect and B) I was worried I would have sacrificed the chance of a family for the sake of a playing career that may or may not have got where I wanted it to go.

I’ve been a session musician for ten years and I definitely didn’t get in to it for anything less than wanting to play with massive artists on huge tours and make records that would be known everywhere. As a woman, there is a definite age restriction on this, unless you manage to find a way around it and have people to support you.

At the extreme money end of the scale, Beyonce made it look unrealistically easy but there are female musicians who have genuinely combined their jobs with their family successfully. For the level of work that I was at with sessions, and as a drummer, it would have involved deciding to stop work as I had known it though. When does the point come where you have to decide? Do you have to choose? Do people realise too late and then have regrets?

Nature is the way it is – women are the ones who carry the unborn child. Fathers who are musicians have a difficult time too, having to be away from their families for long periods of time. Some things can’t be changed but we can at least acknowledge them. I felt I couldn’t talk about it with anyone before; it feels like the final taboo of being a female musician but I’m not worried now. I take inspiration from drummer Crissy Lee who had to be made up to look old enough to play in Frank Skinner’s house band for his TV show – she was in her 60s and looked too good to play the part of an ‘old’ lady. So however high those numbers are that go with you, music keeps you young.

1 Comment

  1. Totally agree with everything you’ve said here Gemma. Especially the part about being better the older you get. It’s so true! I was 26 when I started my degree in drums. Definitely seen as too old for the commercial side of the industry. Doesn’t mean we can’t do it though! It’s very frustrating. Still, I make a living as a drummer in different ways now. I do wonder how things could have been different. I started playing live in 1990! Barely any known female drummers then. Sheila E and Cindy Blackman being the most famous at the time.