By Sophie Jamieson
Remember those talent shows that grouped contestants into 'girls', ‘boys’, ‘groups’ and 'over 25s’? The idea that a 26 year-old is somehow lucky to be given a microphone is deeply embedded within my consciousness. I’ve been trained to see someone in their mid to late 20s as an underdog: someone on the cusp of being past their sell-by date. At age 14 I distinctly remember understanding that a woman’s peak — artistic or otherwise — was at 24 years-old.
I entered the music industry at 22, but it was too early for me. I had no idea what I wanted. I fell into it, songwriting at university as an escape from my obsessive and self-punishing tendencies. After graduation, I continued gigging to allow myself to recover from the ordeal I put myself through while studying. I carried on because it seemed to make sense and people seemed to be listening. But I wasn’t emotionally ready, I didn’t know what the rest of the world held, and I didn’t really have much to say.
Now 29, I’m writing music again. These last 5 years I’ve spent living away from the industry, growing up and out of that eager-to-please, apologetic singer-songwriter to understand that this is what I actually want to do. I’ve spent my late 20s acutely aware that the choices I’ve been making would decide what my 30s would look like, professionally and financially. And those all-defining 30s can appear to be the last important years of a woman’s life.
During my years away from music, I worked across London’s cocktail bars, struggling to muster the energy needed to apply to those other more ‘respectable’ professions. The pressure increased. I searched for a job that would please my mother but everything seemed to loom like my own death sentence, and I gave up. I loved bartending, but then the question started to become: how old is too old to stand behind a bar? At what point will my knees start to give in after a 10 hour shift? Who will want a 40 year-old woman serving their drinks?
When I started writing music again at 28, it felt like a lifeline. 30 loomed like a deadline for having my shit together and I would need to redo my whole 20s to meet that goal. I grabbed onto writing, and clung on for dear life. It’s been a year-and-a-half and for the first time in my life I feel at peace with my choice to pursue music. I have a lot to say. There is so much I want to explore, to think and write about — and so many ways to do it.
However as a woman, I’m about 10 years too late. Judging by the world around me, I need to do most of my work in the next 5 years as 35 seems to be the unofficial cut-off point for the majority of female artists. When making her comeback aged 38, P!nk said she was “given the sit down” and told “they don’t play girls over 35 on Top 40 radio… unless you’re Beyoncé”. I may not be aiming for the Top 40, but I feel as though I’m pushing it to start again at 30 years-old. The pressure comes not only from my 14 year-old self (laughing at my daring to attempt this, so deep into the 'over-25s' category) but from the plethora of young and very young faces representing the most popular music. Active and successful female musicians over 40 are the exception. Dedicated though I am to this path, where is the evidence that I have any chance of a long-standing and financially viable career?
To reach those near-unattainable heights, I will need to work hard enough to be not only the exception, but completely exceptional. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with working hard - but I’m starting to feel exhausted just thinking about the battle uphill I will face in 7 or 8 years time.
The musicians that were my peers during my naive glory days at 23 are now 3 - 5 albums in, playing multiple-hundred or thousand venues, bandied across the radio, heading the record labels I covet. In their late 20s to early 30s they are safe: well-engrained into the scene. Just preparing to record my debut which will release when I’m 30, I am worried. I have a lot to prove and little time to do it in. Every record will have to deliver for the years lost. Every record will have to be good enough to quell the questions of what I was wasting my 20’s doing when I should have been here. I will need to regain trust in my ability and the world I try to create, twice as fast, so I have some kind of foothold within this industry before my age really starts to set me loose.
It has become a habit of mine to google every new artist I discover: stalking their Wikipedia to analyse the timeline of their success. How old were they when their first album was released? How long between records? At what age did they quit their day job? I try to find some semblance of my own journey in anybody else’s, some evidence that I may see the fruits of all this energy and emotion spent. For if I commit to this now, I am betting on myself. I’m investing time and money that I can only invest once. And I have already started researching my next career, years in advance — for I know the odds are not in my favour.
I am woefully under-qualified to write an extended piece about ageism within the music industry, and there are endless examples and case studies I could drawn on if I were to make this a dissertation. Instead, this is a personal reflection of a profound fear that I hold. The pressure to complete a whole career within 10 years weighs heavy. The knowledge that as my voice matures, as my ideas develop, as I have more to write about and to give, I will simultaneously be working harder against the system to be heard and valued.
But I will not step into my 30s in fear. If I’m going to do this, I have to as though nothing can hold me back. Madonna relayed the music industry’s message: “Do not age. Because to age is a sin. You will be criticised. You will be vilified. And you will definitely not be played on the radio”. But ageing was the best thing that ever happened to my music, and the only thing I know for sure will continue to improve it. So I’m taking a breath, and diving in. Wish me luck.
Best Before was written by musician Sophie Jamieson specially for Babywoman Records in a bid for artists to speak up about thoughts, opinions and share their stories in the the hope that other artists feel less alone. Listen to Sophie's music here.