(Slightly) Older Artists (Slowly) Reclaim A Foothold At Top 40

by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming

In late March 1996, the average age of an artist on Airplay Monitor’s Mainstream Top 40 chart was 27.1-years-old.
By the same week in 2004, the average age was 25.9-years-old.
And for the same week in 2006, the average age was 26.9.
The difference of a year or so may seem minor, but the stats say a lot about the state of Top 40, the music business, and particularly whether there’s room for adults to make records for adults. And they’re all indices that are again shifting, at least a little.

The stats say a lot about the state of Top 40, the music business, and particularly whether there’s room for adults to make records for adults.

Consider this related stat: In 1996, there were 14 songs on the Mainstream Top 40 chart by artists 30 or over, six of whom were women. In 2004, there were only six over-30 artists and three females. This year, we’re back up to 11 songs by over 30 artists, but only one of them by a female artist known to be over 30.
In 1996 Top 40 as a format was slowly emerging from several years’ hibernation in many markets. The format was more driven by pop/rock bands and singer-songwriters, including acts that had been making records for the better part of a decade (or more).
There were indeed prodigies on the charts in 1996. There was 15-year-old Monica, 17-year-old Brandy, and 21-year-old Alanis Morissette. But there was also 35-year-old Sam Llanas of the BoDeans, 34-year-olds Melissa Etheridge and Jann Arden, and Tracey Thorn, the 33-year-old lead singer of Everything But The Girl.
By the time Everything But The Girl’s “Missing” became an American hit, that group had been having hits in the U.K. for nearly 12 years. The BoDeans had been around for more than a decade. Both acts’ presence on a major label, of course, spoke to a much different time in the music industry when a band was still allowed 10 years on a major label (or two) to finally write their hit song.
But some relatively new acts to the major label world were also led by singers in their late 20s or early 30s, just because that was how long it took many acts to make it. Darius Rucker of Hootie & the Blowfish, Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, and John Popper of Blues Traveler were all 29. Collective Soul’s Ed Roland was 32. Oasis’ Liam Gallagher was 33.
Even then, the landscape was changing, and not just because the teen pop boom was a year away. Morissette’s wise-beyond-her-years songwriting didn’t go unnoticed by the A&R world. And the following year, after the three members of Hanson, ages 11-to-16, showed the uncanny ability to make records that recalled an era when none of them had been born, a new A&R model started to take shape, in which a younger act with the ability to write or sound older became a particularly prized signing.
It was also around that time that one began to sense a change in A&R guys’ attitudes about age-particularly with female artists. Potential new signings were often dismissed with, “Yeah, but she’s almost 30,” That this would be a problem came as a surprise to somebody who’d gone through adolescence with Linda Ronstadt (28 at the time of “You’re No Good”), Suzi Quatro (28 by “Stumblin’ In”), Pat Benatar (26 when “Heartbreaker” became a hit), Quarterflash’s Rindy Ross (30 for “Harden My Heart”) or Heart. (Nancy Wilson was 22, but Ann was 26 when “Magic Man” broke.)
Then there was Toni Basil. Some biographies at the time put her at 32 when “Mickey” became an American hit in late 1982. Now, most currently available Web sources say she would have been 39. But it hardly mattered. Basil held her own in a cheerleaders’ outfit, even next to a squadron of high schoolers. Her success on MTV–the eventual scourge of less photogenic artists–proved it. And nobody would have said that “Mickey” didn’t appeal to teenagers.
(A word about ages becomes necessary here: they’re usually based on a combination of Internet searches and the Joel Whitburn/Record Research chart books. In a small number of cases, it was necessary to search newspaper databases or hunt down ages through other sources. Because the issue of age is so touchy, I almost always went with the younger age–except in a few cases where I felt there was definitive data for the older choice. And because age was so touchy, there were some cases where the competing info on birthdays differed by as much as 12 years. When the act was a band, I went by the age of the lead singer. If there was no obvious leader, the ages of the members were averaged.)
Fast forward now to the early ’00s: the teen pop boom of the late ’90s had already helped thin the hitmaking ranks of Lilith-era singer/songwriters. When teen pop faded and the call went out for acts with “more substance,” it was often met by younger acts who had the sound of older singer/songwriters, but whose lyrics were sometimes about who-liked-who-in-high-school.
And it was around this time two years ago that teen pop had its best year since 1999, with comebacks for Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson, and breakthroughs for 16-year-old Hilary Duff (and, a few months later, 13-year-old JoJo). And on the “don’t call it teen pop” front, Avril Lavigne was charting with her second project at 19.
The only 30-plus women on the charts were No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani, Sheryl Crow (then fighting a lengthy battle for acceptance at Top 40 with each new song) and Janet Jackson. And Jackson’s current single, “Just A Little While,” was in the process of mid-charting in the wake of her “wardrobe malfunction,” cynically dismissed by many as a desperate attempt to stay relevant by somebody who was all of 37 at the time.
If you missed a ’90s artist, chances are there was a younger artist filling the niche, with veteran artists often exiled to the role of co-writer or producer. If you wanted to hear a Goo Goo Dolls record at Mainstream Top 40 that year, Johnny Rzenzik could produce it, but it had to be performed by Ryan Cabrera. Bowling For Soup was filling in for Barenaked Ladies. Even Harry Connick, Jr., and Diana Krall–remarkably young and photogenic at the time of their breakthroughs–were succeeded as neo-standards bearers by Michael Buble and Norah Jones. And the U.K.’s answer to Norah Jones, Katie Melua, was even younger.
You couldn’t blame an A&R person for signing prodigious talent. Who, faced with the vocal ability of a Joss Stone, for instance, would walk away? Anybody who had told a younger act to wait for a few years, as Barry Gordy once did with the Supremes, would have just lost them to another label. Who, for that matter, would have begrudged a Justin Timberlake, Pink, or Usher a chance to mature into the artists they became?
Well, for one thing, Timberlake, Pink, and Usher all had at least a few years of making less ambitious records and allowing their writing to mature. They weren’t expected to fill the slots for records-by-adults-for-adults until they stepped up and showed they could. And even though Hot AC audiences liked Avril Lavigne, Michelle Branch, and Vanessa Carlton, losing the older singer/songwriters took away a level of adult lyrical relatability. And it also left Hot AC, which had only recently learned to break its own records, dependent on Top 40 again. And while no artist holds on to their hitmaking power forever, it was still galling to think that new acts not only had to be under 30 now–they had to be under 20.
So it’s encouraging, if only for balance reasons, to see the median age rising on the Mainstream Top 40 chart with 34-year-old Mary J. Blige at No. 1. (A few weeks earlier, Gwen Stefani would have been on the chart with her. A few weeks later, she would have been joined by 36-year-old Mariah Carey.) At the other end, there was 16-year-old Chris Brown, 17-year-old Teddy Geiger, and 18-year-old Rihanna.
The most notable breakthrough though was 35-year-old Daniel Powter. His success, along with that of James Blunt (29 or 32, depending on the source), might not have been possible two years ago. Even if their ages hadn’t been an issue, there weren’t many records like “Bad Day” or “You’re Beautiful” doing well at Top 40 two years ago.
Meanwhile, the success of Carey and Blige is proof once again that it’s never impossible to reinvent yourself with the right song. But it would take 30-year-old KT Tunstall crossing from Hot AC to Top 40 to prove that a female newcomer could do what Blunt or Powter did. And as a longtime Tunstall fan, I’d be hesitant to give her age if it hadn’t already appeared in an R&R interview. But as with Pat Benatar in the early ’80s, much of Tunstall’s appeal for me stems from being an adult -not a teenager.
As with so many other things at Top 40, it comes down to the ability to maintain a balance and take advantage of all the available hit. The success of Powter and Blunt is a positive. A Top 40 chart dominated by AC ballads would not be. Top 40, in particular, has always needed a mix of songs for the ages and reaction records for right now. We know that a 22-year-old can supply the former and a 32-year-old can come up with the latter. But only if those songs get a fair shot in front of programmers in the first place.

4 replies
  1. Brian Chin
    Brian Chin says:

    I would add, Sean, that even the teens who are speed-dialing for hours every week to vote for American Idol are not automatically gravitating to teen contestants; the competitors who are reaching the final rounds have most often been near the upper-20s age limit, in fact.
    Now that’s sure different than when it seemed that the flawed and obviously immature vocals of a Lisa-Lisa or the early Mary J. were like a coded message to the young, and Anita Baker and Vanessa Williams got 86-ed from youth-oriented playlists.
    Me, I’ll be very happy when the new K.T. Oslin shows up, 40-plus on her first hit, with a cultural landmark of a record, on the order of “80s Ladies.”

  2. sonny valentine
    sonny valentine says:

    There’s never anything new in the radio biz. Ok, maybe the rebirth of a lot of “mature” artists now re-branding themselves for the TOP 40-ers who’ve moved onto AC radio.
    But mainstream Top 40 radio has had a difficult time by nitching themselves into sooooo much hip-hop. At best they became 18-24 stations that kids and moms could no longer enjoy together (remember when that used to be one of the “perks” of the format?).
    Top 40 has always needed to present exciting new artists (warm ‘em up for the rest of the formats!). Recently, they’ve also needed “buffer” songs to balance the format. Maybe enough labels finally listened and gave PD’s the above!And maybe the PD’s realized they needed the Powters and the Blunts. Yay! Top 40 is already sounding better….

  3. Mike McDowell/Blitz Magazine
    Mike McDowell/Blitz Magazine says:

    It seems a shame that all of the accomplishments that the late 1970s new wave/punk movement made towards eradicating any sort of arbitrary generation gap or cultural divide have long since dissipated.
    Commercial radio seems bent on fueling an “us versus them” mentality, based on the dubious barrier of age. In other words, since the post-Blank Generation has no viable musical identiy of its own, it seems more fitting to the powers behind that ailing medium to manufacture an identity for them, rather than letting those impressionable young ears study the legendary masters in order to develop their own artistic vision.
    Put another way, it’s the only way they can coerce the youngsters into buying that schlock. Little wonder so many of them have no reservations about pirating tracks from the internet.
    As a Vietnam era colleague once observed, “There is still a generation gap. We’re on the other side of it now. And we’re STILL RIGHT!!!”
    Keep up the great work, Professor Ross! As we both know, it’s not easy being the lone voice in the wilderness.

  4. Jeff Scheckner
    Jeff Scheckner says:

    Great article but it didn’t answer a few questions I think the readers would find most interesting: what were the average ages on the hitmakers at earlier time periods? What happened between 1955 and 1957 when MOR gave way to r & r. How about 1963 to 1965 when the British Invasion, and Motown replaced girl groups and Brill Building songs. How about the mid-1970’s when a lot of artists like Fleetwood Mac, Steve Miller Band and other were finally having hits>?


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