Many of those entering their 30s, 40s, 50s and even 60s will look ahead and wonder whether it’s still worth pursuing their passion, even if it’s something they’ve never attempted in their life.
Young people are generally preoccupied with getting their educational credentials and finding a career they can sink their teeth into.
As many in their 30s and 40s will tell you, it’s easy to end up spending a decade or even two decades locked into a career only to find you don’t have the time or energy lfet to pursue anything outside of it.
So, one day you may wake up and suddenly discover you’re 35 (or 45, or 55, or 65…). What happened!?
So, is it still worth trying to become a professional musician later in life? Is it still possible?
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Music Isn’t Wasted On The Youth
Conventional wisdom says you’ve got to cram all your adventures into your 20s, or else you’ll never get around to doing any of it.
To be fair, there are a lot of responsibilities that can come with jobs, marriage, kids, a home and more as you get into your 30s and 40s.
But often, this is also met with conflicting advice like, “you’re an adult now – be responsible.”
So, which is it really, and who came up with the rules?
As it turns out, there are no rules. If you’ve never heard that before, then you’re probably breathing a sigh of relief right now.
Your parents may have been well-intentioned and even protective of you, but rest assured they didn’t get a degree in how the world works any more than you did (they don't offer that course in school).
If you’re wondering whether it’s too late to pursue a music career, honestly, it’s never too late. You might need to adjust your expectations or take a different approach (I’ll talk more about this later), but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a solid go of it.
So, first, let’s look at…
Musicians Who Made It Later In Life
The reality is that there are plenty of artists who made it in their 30s, 40, 50s and even 60s.
It’s easy to get fixated on artists like Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Ed Sheeran, or Ariana Grande, who started early, and are still growing up in front of the world (but they, too, will be entering their 30s soon).
Good news – there are exceptions to every rule, and if you didn’t know, you’d probably be surprised to learn that the following musicians made it later in their lives:
Singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow didn’t begin working on her first album until the early 90s and didn’t experience breakout success until she was 31.
Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli wasn’t signed to a label until his mid-30s.
Legendary singer-songwriter Bill Withers didn’t have a hit until he was 34, when he released his first album, which included the unforgettable “Ain’t No Sunshine” (can you honestly imagine a world without that song?).
Much celebrated Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen didn’t release his first album (which became a cult favorite) until he was 33.
And, one of my favorite examples is Ed Roland of the band Collective Soul. He was 30 when the band’s single, “Shine”, became a hit.
With many of his music collaborations ending in shambles, Roland finally made a bid on a basement demo. He was planning to sell the songs to a publishing company and wasn’t even intending to turn Collective Soul into an official touring band.
But “Shine” started spinning on the radio, and the band got signed to Atlantic Records.
And, of course there are artists that made it after they hit 40, such as Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Michael Fitzpatrick, Thelonious Monk, Sia, Charles Bradley, Louis Armstrong and others (depending on how you look at their careers).
And, though we don’t hear about this on a grand scale, there are plenty of independent successes that happened post 30 and 40 too.
The key is that you’ve got to be in it to win it, and if you don’t have any skin in the game, there’s absolutely no chance you’ll get anywhere – It might seem obvious, but it’s worth reminding yourself.
If you want to be a professional musician, you’ve got to make great music. You’ve got to show up every day and put your time in.
Take A Chance On Yourself
If you want to go places in life, you’ve got to take some risks. A music career is a serious risk (that’s what makes it exciting, mind you).
But if you’ve been committed to your personal growth, you have some advantages over teens and twentysomethings, and you should use these to further your career faster.
In entrepreneurship, there’s a saying – if there are two people, one with experience and one with money, the person with the experience will end up with the money.
You’ve got more experience, and you can leverage that!
Are there any other advantages to being older? Yes. Have a look.
You Know Who You Are
Do you remember your 20s? Do you look back on them and say, “that was time well spent”?
Many people don’t. Whether it was partying, video games, the opposite sex or some other trivial pursuit, there’s a good chance a lot of your free time got vacuumed up by something you would consider relatively empty now.
No matter, because now you know who you are. In your 20s, you may have spent a lot of time experimenting, but now that you’re 30 and up, your identity is starting to crystallize.
Science has shown that people in their 40s suffer less from identity issues. They get settled in who they are and find joy in the simple things. They stop trying to wrestle themselves to the ground in an attempt to change their core identity.
So, even if some twentysomething guitarist can outplay you now, his lack of focus could be his downfall. Remember – he’s still experimenting. He doesn’t know who he is yet and he might not fully appreciate the gift he’s been given.
Knowing who you are and being settled in your identity puts a lot of issues to rest. When you reach that point, you’re not going to be trying to please others anymore, and you’re going to be more concerned with being true to yourself, happy and fulfilled in life.
Who cares about naysayers? It doesn’t matter what your ex or your neighbor thinks. If you put in the time, you can do this.
So, lean into your established identity and use it to your advantage.
You Know That You’ve Got To Focus
A twentysomething musician might be inclined to try a variety of songwriting styles, genres, instruments and even collaborations (and, that’s on the healthier side of experimentation). After all, time is on their side, right?
As a thirtysomething or fortysomething, you know there’s no time for that.
If you’re going to become an awesome blues guitarist, you’ve got to study blues guitar exclusively.
If you want to become the lead singer of a prog rock band, then you’ve got to build your chops as a prog rock singer.
If you’re interested in becoming a jazz trumpetist, then there’s no time for orchestral music or Mariachi.
If you can focus – which you can – you can outpace those kids who are more concerned with fame, fortune, what they’re wearing and who they’re dating than with their music.
Today’s music ecosystem is saturated, and it has often been said that you need to “cut through the noise” to find your niche.
So, here’s an important observation – it takes something sharp to cut. If you focus, that will be your competitive advantage. You’ll be sharp enough to cut.
You Know What To Do
Having gained a great deal of knowledge and experience, in whatever fields you’ve been working in, you should have a broader base of life experiences you can build your music career plans on compared to a new college grad.
Hopefully, you’ve learned a thing or two about success mindset, relationships and communication, managing your finances, building support for your career and more.
To be honest, these are among the most critical skills to have as a musician. In today’s market, musical skills alone might not get you anywhere, but the ones just mentioned can.
If you can keep your cool when disaster hits, network and schmooze with the right people, keep your financial life in check and build a fan base at a grassroots level, you’re going to do a lot better than some disorganized college kid.
Navigating the music industry as a youngster can be downright overwhelming and confusing. As someone with considerably more experience, you will find yourself able to navigate the seas with greater ease.
Your next steps should be clear. So, don’t waste any more time researching them. Take them. One at a time.
Keep Your Expectations Realistic
For a variety of reasons, if you’re 40 and above, you’re probably not going to be handed a record contract. And, age isn’t the only factor.
Getting signed to a record label is hard enough for an ultra-talented and good-looking 21-year-old let alone a career woman turned musician in her 40s.
We’ve got to remember that labels are only interested in what they see as marketable acts, and that means you’ve got to have everything figured out before they even approach you – your music, your brand, your following and more.
So, don’t worry about trying to get signed, because you may never be. Instead, focus on the things that will get you signed. Then, if the opportunity presents itself, you’ll have a choice.
And, today, independent success isn’t just possible – for some, it’s the preferred way. As a fortysomething, it may be the only option available to you, so embrace it.
Now, here are the key things you should focus on in your music career:
The Music Comes First
In the music industry, business comes first. But as an independent artist just getting started, the music comes first. There would be no business without the music.
Your music is your brand. It should make a statement about who you are, what you stand for, and the difference you want to make in the world.
If you don’t have the talent or skill necessary to make great music just yet, start there. Ignore everything else and put all your attention on getting better as a musician.
If you’re able to write and make great music, then write like you’ve never written before. Record your music too.
Build Your Brand
When it comes to branding, it’s easy to get fixated on fonts, logos, colors and so forth. This is all important. But it doesn’t matter as much as your message.
The key to figuring out your brand is identifying the impact you want to have on the world.
You might want to spread the good news of the gospel.
You may want to get people to wake up to the political corruption that exists in the world.
Maybe you’d like to write music that appeals to the college party crowd.
Get clear on this now and you will never need to determine what your brand is again. Everything you do and create will be informed by the impact you want to make on the world.
If you do this well, you will build your fan base faster.
Grow Your Following
Do everything you possibly can to grow your following. With your brand established, this should prove easier. You will naturally begin attracting the kind of people who resonate with your image and message.
People often think this happens by accident. As someone in the 30+ category, you know nothing happens by accident, especially success.
So, once you’ve done the hard work of identifying and clarifying your brand, the only thing you need to do now is:
- Write music
- Release music (singles, EPs and albums)
- Distribute your music (using a service like CD Baby)
- Get radio airplay
- Play shows
- Build a website
- Build an email list
- Grow your social media following
There’s a lot of wizardry you can pull off with digital marketing these days, but unless you treat it like a full-time job (better yet, a business), you’ll be better served sticking to the basics.
Make great music. Get it out there. Grow your fan base.
It doesn’t get much simpler than that! It’s not easy, but it’s simple. That’s key.
Alternatively, you can put all your time and energy into pursuing licensing and placement deals. There's good money in this route, but it will probably take up all available time and energy.
Becoming A Professional Musician Later In Life, Final Thoughts
Yes, you can become a professional musician later in life. You may not be able to land yourself a deal with a label, but you can certainly create widespread independent success.
Don’t get distracted. Stay focused. Do the few things that make a difference in your career and ignore the rest. There’s no time to waste (and, that could just as easily go for the twentysomethings I keep referencing).
I believe in you. You can do it!