New Music: Older Women

Maybe when you get older you become more innately conservative. You want to hold on more to what you know you like. Bruce Springsteen rather than Miley Cyrus, Queen rather than Lana del Rey.

I was lucky enough to be able to see Kate Bush in her final rehearsal before her current series of performances. In the queue outside, the overwhelming feature was the age profile of the audience - predominantly women, and men, with lines on their face. The 40, 50 and 60 age group. It got me thinking. Had this audience been Kate Bush aficionados all their lives? Do older people stick with artists they liked decades ago? And if so, how does a woman with 'lines in her face*' in particular find out about new music, and come to love it?

My parents, before the musical buzz of the 60s which-changed-everything-as-we-know-it, were dedicated to Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Shirley Bassey. It was all relatively simple - the music of choice for most of the population was romance, nostalgia, dance, rhythm, melody. The bands of the 60s and 70s were a mystery to them, although my mother, eventually, became a convert to The Beatles. But her musical taste never really changed. It was mired in the past, in a search for continuity, tied to memories of her youth, before the world broke apart through the war.

Yet my brother and I, and our friends, growing up during faster times, saw music as representing rebellion, sexuality, rejection of the norm; demanding bad behaviour. When musical taste was as much a demonstration of your lifestyle as it was about the music that you liked, your favourite band had to align with your choice of drugs and way of dressing to be truly accepted.

What changed with the generation of the 60s and 70s was that the supply of new, popular music increased over the airwaves (Top of the Pops started in 1964, BBC Radio 1 in 1967), and the decision about what to like and not like became much more complex. It depended upon a combination of the top 50, the music which was played on TV and radio, the bands which came to play in your hometown and the music which was the choice of your immediate group.

The link between lifestyle and music has, of course, become the bedrock of a multi-million pound music marketing industry. Yet the real change agent, which ushered in eclecticism and increased accessibility to music of all types was the introduction of digital, leading to a vastly increased potential to engage with different genres of popular music.

So has this revolution in choice and accessibility been reflected in the listening habits of women over 45 years old? I recently carried out a snap survey to find out whether these changed as they got older, and if so, how. With 74% of adults between 45 and 64 listened to music in their free time, making it the third most popular leisure activity ** are the women in that group listening to the same artists over and over again, or making headway into new and different popular music genres?

One woman said 'Still with Bowie and The Stones. And the Eagles. And I'm so pleased my kids know that stuff as well as Taylor Swift and Katy Perry'. Another respondent spoke of only trying out new music because of her daughter's recommendations. And with the increasingly private nature of musical listening through iPods and iPhones, each of them felt somehow cut off from music as a communal experience, and found it more difficult to engage with new music. 'I stopped with Morrissey' and 'Fairport Convention is still my main love' were other comments.

Of course the essential in finding new music is using online. And how many women over 45 spend a lot of time online in their leisure time? The Oxford Internet Survey of 2013 showed that while 71% of employed people use the internet to listen to music, only 32% of retired people do so.

This may be the key to why women over 45 are sticking with a relatively small number of artists. Maybe they just aren't going to the places where new music is widely available. This female age group are avid social networkers in terms of family and friends, but maybe don't have the digital music habit in the same way that younger people do? Yet a pleasant evening can be spent on iTunes sampling different sorts of music before buying. YouTube takes you on a long journey from your first music video to other artists in small, self-selecting steps. Spotify will deliver you lists of streamed music for you to choose from, and Jango, my current favourite, crosscuts different genres and artists until you are sure to find one you like. An American station, Flower Power, focuses on 60s, 70s and 80s playlists - streamable over the web. Groovy or awesome?

Maybe when you get older you become more innately conservative. You want to hold on more to what you know you like. Bruce Springsteen rather than Miley Cyrus, Queen rather than Lana del Rey. And yet what joy there is in discovering new music which gains a place in your heart - maybe Amy Winehouse singing To Know Him is to Love Him - demonstrating her enormous talent, vulnerability and dissolution; Jimmy Scott with Nothing Compares to You - a new interpretation, to me, of that wonderful 1990s classic; Pink Martini - bliss! All discovered through a mix of live performance and online.

I guess the picture is a mixed one, a transitional one. After a lifetime of listening to different artists, my aim is to cherry pick online. I have less patience in listening to tracks which I don't like, even if they are from my favourite artist. And I welcome the personalisation trend which enables me to find music which I should like based on my past decisions. But does that mean I am being less adventurous as I move off radio and onto online? Am I actually not so far from my parents with their enduring love of Sinatra? Plus ça change!

With thanks to Fiona, Gilly, Karen and Shelagh

* Leonard Cohen Lady Midnight

** ONC Social Trends 2009/10

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