By Tara McClinchey
Prejudices based on age pervades our society, and Ottawa’s music industry is not immune. In a scene that has been entrenched within a culture fixated on its youth, musicians and music enthusiasts at any age have their own unique experiences of ageism—and we’re ready to talk about it.
Ottawa’s music scene is growing, with talent from a diverse range of music, racial, religious, gender, and socio-economic backgrounds. Their experiences of ageism are likely just as diverse, with some common grievances amongst older and younger performers. How can we get musicians at different life stages to understand each other when there is so much diversity within each stage? How can live music venues, promoters, and agents help to create environments that are inclusive of all ages? This is where the conversation needs to start.
As part of Assembly, Arboretum Festival’s series of music-focused panel discussions, I’ll be leading a discussion on ageism in music. The event, “ALL AGES: facing ageism in music”, will bring together young, emerging artists and established artists to talk about the professional roadblocks and cultural biases that they’ve encountered.
Comparing experiences of older and younger musicians and music enthusiasts is difficult when you don’t know how to define different life stages. In their introduction to , editors Paul Hodkinson and Andy Bennett talk about the influence ‘emerging adulthood’ has had on our conceptualisation of youth culture. The boundary between adolescence and adulthood is now blurred as adulthood commitments are increasingly delayed and often balanced with their participation in the music scene. It is common now to see people putting off getting married, having children, buying homes, and settling into their careers until an unspecified time later in life. Parents, professionals, and homeowners continue to participate in a scene they’ve been involved in since they were teenagers.
Within this changing environment, Ottawa’s music scene should be blossoming with participants of all ages. But ageism has yet to be overcome, especially, I would argue, at the extreme ends of the age spectrum. For musicians of popular music who have transitioned to adulthood, ageism exists in the push for them to stay relevant to younger audiences within a youth-dominated culture. For older music enthusiasts, it’s in a venue’s lack of seating or adequate space, the limited space to park their cars after driving from a suburb, or other missing aspects that would help these cater to older audiences.
For musicians who haven’t yet transitioned to adulthood, ageism is rank and nearly invisible due to its normalisation. Within a culture that favours the youth, it’s hard to imagine that they have any experiences with ageism—but some do. There is often a power dynamic that exists between young performers and their management, bookers, and event organisers. Their lack of experience makes them vulnerable to underpayment for their work. They may not be taken seriously by the well-seasoned professionals. If they are underage, they may be shut out from performing at licensed venues and events where many bands get their start. They might also be given limited opportunities to network.
We are having this conversation on ageism and inclusivity in the music industry at the right time. Ottawa’s music scene has been thriving more than ever, enriched by artists with diverse backgrounds. We risk compromising this momentum by not challenging our non-inclusive behaviours, or traditional definitions of youth and youth culture.
The panel “ALL AGES: facing ageism in music” takes place Wednesday, August 17 at 12:30pm, at Bar Robo. It is $10 or free to all delegates and artist pass holders for Arboretum.
This event is part of Arboretum’s Assembly series of talks, workshops, and get-togethers.