Age & experience, music & business

Last weekend I bought the Daily Mirror for the first time. And all because there was a free Prince album given away with it. And it’s not very good. But then I wasn’t really expecting it to be.

In my teens I was a huge fan of Prince. I still believe him to be about the most influential artist of his generation (even if he was the less visibly successful than some of his peers). But, most would agree he peaked in about 1987 at the age of 29. From the late seventies to the late eighties he produced a string of stunning albums, all genre-mashing, boundary-pushing, politician-scaring stuff. Here’s a radio documentary I wrote and produced about that period.

I don’t really own more than a few of his albums beyond the early nineties because he seemed to stop producing complete albums of high quality material. Some would argue that if he didn’t put out so much material (his discography hints at an incredible 24 albums released since 1990), and that if he put one out every 4 or 5 years, there may be more consistency.

I think it may be more to do with his age.

There are so many artists who set the world alight as young men or women, who never quite manage to retain that creative edge, that innovative streak. At 52, Prince is very definitely a middle aged man, and no matter how much his appearances suggest otherwise, I’m sure he’d normally prefer to curl up under a blanket with a herbal tea and a good book, than be trying to concoct an irresistible groove and pen provocative lyrics.

But Neil, I hear you cry. What about Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Marc Bolan? Surely these icons of rock and pop greatness would still be pushing the boundaries, being rebels, and railing against the establishment if they were alive today?

Nope. They’d be trotting out (admittedly very high quality) pop and blues numbers to stadium audiences like their contemporaries who were equally ground-breaking in their day (see Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney and Pete Townshend who hoped he’d “die before I get old”). Even arch-punk John Lydon is selling butter.

We all mellow with age. And while some genres of music, such as classical and jazz, value talent and experience over youthful verve, almost no musicians can keep that fire in their belly for long…

Will you be able to retain your fire?

Having said all that, I often use DJs as a good metaphor for the importance of perseverance in business. Surely DJing is the ultimate “young man’s game”? Well, having been there and done that I can definitely say that it is. But, and it’s a big but, if you think of the biggest name DJs and dance music prodcuers in the world, the ones who’ve been at the top of their game for a while now…. Who are they? Fatboy Slim? Carl Cox? Pete Tong? They’re 47, 48, and 50. Hardly young men any more.

My point is that these guys had been doing it for a long time before they became “famous”. Their age is synonymous with perseverance and experience. If you’re good enough,you have enough self-belief, and you stick around long enough, you’ll vastly increase your chances of having your “big break”. And this is comparable with business, enterprise and all creative endeavours. It’s just a case of whether you’ve got enough passion to stick with it when all around you are giving up and going for the safe option (whether that’s hanging up their headphones, or packing in the startup for a “proper” job).

You so often hear of people finally making a success of their fifth business. That’s not necessarily because the previous four businesses were rubbish. It just took them four businesses to accumulate the knowledge and experience necessary to start and run a successful one. Of course, some strike the golden formula on their first go, but most aren’t that lucky.

Just think of the band Pulp, heralded as overnight successes with their 1994 album His n’ Hers. Nobody mentioned the albums they’d been releasing for a decade before that, and the countless gigs in sweaty backrooms of pubs they’d played in order to get to that point

What have you started, and how long are you going to stick with it?

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7 thoughts on “Age & experience, music & business

  1. Or as malcom gladwell would have it 10,000 hours (or is it 100,000 can’t remember)

  2. Wise words as always Neil although I have to stick up for John Lydon on the whole “Buttergate” affair. He specifically signed up for the butter ads to give him enough cash to reform Public Image Limited, go back on the road and potentially record a new album. While he might not have the “fire” in his belly, he’s definitely got one of those magic hand warmers in his pocket.

    True creative geniuses have a fire which will never go out. Admittedly for Eric Clapton its more of a cost log fire than a raging inferno but that suits me right now. The longer these artists stick with it the larger the cross section they can appeal to.

    1. I’m not really questioning their creativity, as much as their innovation and “edge”, I think. And yes, I agree that they are certainly more likely to appeal to a more mainstream audience as they age…

  3. What about Prince’s live show? Surely that’s as much a “product” of his middle age as his albums?

    I agree with the main point though. I’m pretty certain that, if he were alive today, Jimi Hendrix would have done a charity single with Justin Bieber and the Black Eyed Peas. But the Hendrix solo live show would surely still rock bells?

    1. Re: Prince’s live shows – I’ve seen him in the last few years and he was as brilliant as he’s always been. But it was his early stuff (and his ability to lead the band on a stunning 10 minute jazz-funk jam at the drop of a hat) that was the key. Obviously he’s only ever really going to get better as a musician. I just question his ability (or desire?) to create truly innovative music any more.

      I’d love to think Hendrix would still be brilliant live. But he’d also be almost 70….

  4. Great post Neil.

    I don’t think Hendrix would have ended up like Prince, I think he and the likes of Bolan, Morrison, Vicious or Moon etc were self destructive people. They would have killed themselves within a few years if they hadn’t died the way they did. I had the fortune of spending a few evenings with Preston Ritter who toured with Hendrix – his view of Hendrix was that it was a question of when and how rather than if he was going to die young.

    As for people like Clapton, McCartney or Townsend (though incredibly talented) they never had the edge that the “dead guys” did. There are a few people that broke this rule, Brian Wilson should by all rights be dead and John Lennon should probably be alive. Brian got lucky and John not so.

    I don’t think age has much to do with it. I think it has to do with boredom, comfort and delusion. People who have success to the extent of Clapton, McCartney and Townshend are surrounded by a mass yes-people telling them everything they do is genius – a bunch of leeches that will say anything to get their cut.

    Without being too specific, I’ve sat in meetings with “A” list music and show biz celebs and felt like I’ve entered into an alternative reality with the kind of shit they come out with…everybody in awe like they’re at the sermon on the mount, when all they’ve done is suggest they should have a Myspace page.

    The point is, I think that when McCartney wrote something shit in 1969, Lennon probably said it was shit and McCartney wrote something better, now anybody who’s in the studio with him is going to tell him that any old crap is the work of a god.

    1. Maf – I agree about the self-destructive types. But if they *had* got old, they’d inevitably be middle of the road now.

      And yes, I got told by someone close to the UK’s biggest veteran rock act that they will do *anything* if there’s money involved. Sad, really. As they’ve all already got more money than they’ll ever be able to spend.

      I still think age is the key factor. You say boredom, delusion and comfort. I think they’re part of the age thing, maybe mixed with the success that got them there in the first place.

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