If you are a member of the New York Philharmonic or the Met Orchestra you can work until you are 100, but there is an unwritten fact of life for club date players that “if you’re gray, you’re sent away.” I don’t believe the union has ever addressed this problem and it is quite difficult to go the state or federal route regarding age discrimination cases. I was doing 75 or more dates for a leader until about two or three years ago, when suddenly there were no more calls. I was told in confidence by an informed party that the leader simply wanted youthful faces in his bands, no matter the fact that these new faces had no repertoire to support them replacing some of the gray heads. With this and the dwindling of the business, one could only hope that he or she had not quit his or her day job, otherwise there would be trouble with a capital T. The union has to step in, please!
My band and I have been in continuous business for 41 years: we formed in February 1972. Most of us are in our early 60s, with the youngest member is in his late 50s. Some of us have aged better than others for various reasons.
From 1999 to 2008 we worked in Atlantic City at “Bally’s Wild, Wild West Casino” up until the market crashed in fall of 2008, when all of the casinos dropped all the bands. We were all replaced with DJs or big-screen TVs as the casino lounges and bars scrambled to become sports bars.
We had noticed that in the year prior to the market crash, the casinos were getting rid of any entertainers and bands where musicians had grey or silver hair, in spite of the fact that a couple of them were really excellent bands!
After a while, casinos began using live bands again, but they were all younger bands, mostly from south Jersey or Philadelphia, and they all were making about $100 less than the previous working bands. They were also loud and sloppily dressed.
I had approached our agent who had booked us there, asking him to submit our press kit to the new entertainment directors, as we were one of the top-drawing bands during that entire 10-year period we were booked there. I was told flat out that these entertainment directors gave the orders that they wanted no one over 30 in any of the bands!
I reported this to AFM Local 661-708 (Atlantic City) and they were aware of it, but couldn’t prove it because none of this was in writing anywhere.
Also, we were one of the few lounge bands who were filing our contracts with the local, and most of the bands working in the lounges were non-union.
Here’s another story. A corporate events planner who had been booking us a few times a year since the early 1980s told me last year: “I really won’t be booking you any more after this; your band looks ancient!”
She continued, “My clients want only 30-something bands for all their events. They don’t want to look on stage and see grandfatherly types doing the entertainment. This is not the image they want to project.”
Now granted, a couple of my band members have not aged well due to diabetes. Some hobble and walk slower because of knee or hip surgery. However, not getting hired anymore by this party planner is age discrimination plain and simple. It isn’t printed anywhere, but the clients simply give not-so-subtle hints.
Finally, if there was any one place where age discrimination was born, it was surely the record industry. In the mid-1980s, an extremely well-known New York producer at a major record label, with many big-name discoveries to his credit, had attempted to come see us twice at the Lonestar Cafe, where we occasionally performed in the city. Both times he was prevented by heavy snowstorms that hit the city. We did, however, remain in touch and he was still very interested in seeing one of our live concerts. He finally granted me a personal appointment, but tragically he died before we could meet, thus ending a long and important career. The person who took over his office at this label eventually did agree to meet with me and listen to our demo. But right off the bat, she told me I was too old to sign. I was only 37 at the time! She went on to explain that record labels would only be interested in considering artists between the ages of 19 and 25!
Age discrimination is not only alive and well in this business, it is institutionalized and widely practiced.
A few years ago, out of the blue, I got an e-mail with what I thought was an offer for a gig. The story turned out to contain a couple of cases of mistaken identity, but it also turned into an example of ageism.
I thought the e-mail was from a local musician I had known around town and who was reportedly working on a solo CD.
There were a couple of music tracks attached to the e-mail. My correspondent said I was to learn the bass lines and submit a video demo of me playing those bass lines over the drum track. There was also a phone number for me to call.
I immediately learned the music, uploaded my performance to YouTube, and sent off a reply.
The next day I called the number, which had a Los Angeles area code. I soon found out that I was actually speaking with an A&R guy for a major act. Coincidentally, this A&R guy had the same name as my local musician friend, so that was the first case of mistaken identity. The act he repped had a bass-playing singer who had difficulties playing bass and singing on some songs. So they wanted a bass player to roadie, tech and play for about a half dozen songs on the band’s upcoming stadium tour opening for another act. This A&R guy said he had heard of me and wanted to hire me. Wow – this was a chance of a lifetime.
So this guy and I talked on the phone for a while. It’s looking good. We talk about plane tickets and visas. Then he hears kids in the background and asks if I’m I sure I can do this. I say yes. He asks me if my wife is O.K. with this whole idea of going on tour. I answer, “My wife knows I’ve been playing bass for 25 years and she would never not let me do this.”
Long pause. He asks, “What do you mean 25 years?” I tell him that’s how long I’ve been playing bass. He asks how old I am. I say 41. Longer pause. “Um, dude,” he says. “This is so not going to work.”
Why not? I have all my hair (and it’s not gray), I look good on video and I look good to most of the audience. Despite all of that, I guess, the teenage fans may look at me and wonder who brought their uncle?
“Exactly,” he says. Now here comes the second case of mistaken identity in this story. He had wanted to hire a bass player he had heard of named Tim Brennan – which is my name. But he actually was thinking of a different Tim Brennan, someone younger. Someone who wasn’t me.
Sadly, I gave up without much of a fight. I mean, they had the choice to pick anyone they want. Maybe I could have taught the kids in that band something. Or at least I could have had the maturity to be reliable. But they felt the guy twice the age of the stars might not be the right image to portray.
We left it on good terms. He even listened to a couple of demos I gave him of friends’ bands.
A little after that I saw that this group appeared on a late night show and they had a fill-in guy playing bass. The comments on the YouTube video were questioning why the singer himself wasn’t playing bass as usual. But many of the girls thought the fill-in bass player was cute. I guess sales for the band may not have been great if the fill-in bassist had been me – a guy with experience lines around his eyes and about ten pounds overweight.
It’s sad but true: in rock, if the audience is young, the musicians have to be young.
It is true that in the club date field most people get hired less as they get older and finally stop getting hired at all. There is an old joke in the business called “The Life of a Club Date Musician” that goes something like this:
Who is Joe?
Let’s try using Joe.
I must have Joe.
Are you sure you want Joe?
Who is Joe?
I don’t know what the union can do about this. It may just be a sad fact of life. Perhaps the union/music industry needs to do an educational campaign to make people realize that older musicians can still be vital and exciting performers. Perhaps they could get some “old codgers” to make ads, like Mick Jagger or Bruce Springsteen!
Aaron Minsky (a k a Von Cello)
As one of the young guys, I think it’s more of an honor to play with the gray musicians. There seems to be this inherent wisdom they all possess that makes sharing a performance with them a total. If I ever become a bandleader, the first people I’ll call are the old guys, not the young ones.
I am one of the guys whose hair has gone gray and I need reading glasses to see music on a gig. However, I do color my hair and I often wear contacts because I also understand this issue from the leader’s or salesman’s perspective.
A bride and groom in their 20s don’t want to see a gray-haired band. Therefore, having gray-haired musicians means that the leader will potentially book less work. Of course, booking less work means the leader makes less money, but it also means less work for the musicians that he hires. Selling a band is not an easy business. Not only does the band have to sound good and have a vast repertoire, but it also has to look right for the role they’re playing.
A lot of the selling of a band is the visual appeal. Unfortunately, it’s an indisputable fact that a bandleader will book less work if his female vocalist weighs 400 pounds or if his guitarist is a midget or if his keyboard player has gray hair.
I don’t think the union would say that it’s unfair for a Broadway show or a movie not to hire very talented actors or singers or dancers simply because they didn’t look right for the part. It’s really no different in the club date field.
I’m 76 and play tuba and bass (string and electric). My main repertoire is early 20th century jazz. I’ve been doing this in New York since I was in my 30s. I’m 6 foot 3, weigh 190 pounds, stand erect, and have no visible signs of aging except being mostly bald with gray hair and some goofy spots on my hands (O.K., maybe a wrinkle or 2 on my face!).
I first ran into age discrimination about 15 years ago (yep, when I was in my early 60s) at a mall where I had led a brass quintet for many years bringing in Santa. Most of the players were around my age, maybe a bit younger. The mall manager told the agent to get younger musicians.
It happened again three years ago, also playing for Santa, at a retail establishment in Manhattan. Again, the manager told the agent to get a younger band.
This happened again last year. An agent, who had previously seen me perform, told the bandleader that I was too old to do a gig – even though the leader said that I was the most qualified guy he knew to do the job.
Years ago, when I was doing a lot of work in the club date field, many guys wore wigs to look younger. I was already quite short of hair, but my wife wouldn’t allow me to wear a piece (good for her!). I got out of that part of the business before I felt any age discrimination. What has helped me considerably is the fact that I’m playing a style of music where it’s O.K. to be old – it’s almost a badge of honor.
I don’t think there’s a heck of a lot that can be done to offset the fear that an older musician can’t play or will turn off an audience. Of course, it’s always different if the performer is famous. Betty White is celebrated for her age. So was Art Linkletter. I bet Bucky Pizzarelli doesn’t have agents or management say he’s too old.
P.S. I ran into the ageism thing again recently. I was replaced by a 25-year-old bass player, who left the premises before the gig started because his grandfather got sick. No attempt to cover himself. Take that, age discrimination!
In 2003, several women in their 50s were removed from the sub lists at a Broadway show by the conductor. Many of us had been subbing there regularly for many years. We felt that everyone had always been happy with the job we had done. In sections where there were multiple chairs, we had been hired frequently to play lead. We had been hired to do entire vacations.
At the time, none of us realized that it was part of a pattern; each of us thought something had happened with us personally, as it tends to do on Broadway, and you never know what it was.
But over time, as we talked to each other, we discovered several of us had been deleted at once.
We complained to the union. There was an investigation that involved statements from each of us, but not much written evidence turned up. The decision was ultimately made that if we grieved it, we might lose, and Local 802 felt that losing would be worse than letting it go because it would give the conductor the message that he could get away with it. We were all deeply unhappy with the decision to drop the case. But there it stands.
I should add that no younger women were taken off the lists, and some of them were by all accounts not up to the job. Also, no men were removed, old or young. It was a very clear demographic.
Age discrimination impacts both men and women, of course. But I have especially noticed on Broadway that men continue working in their 50s, while very few women do. There seems to be a “too old” group that women find themselves in at a younger age than men. If you were to look around a few pits, you’d find the average age for men vs. women to be quite different. So not only are older female subs in an even more precarious position than subs in general tend to be, they also are less likely to be hired in the first place.
If you’ve suffered age discrimination and want to know how fight it, click here to learn more or e-mail Allegro@Local802afm.org. This article is from the February 2013 issue of Allegro, the magazine of the New York City musicians’ union (AFM Local 802). See www.Local802afm.org for more background.