Robbie Williams - Candy
BBC Radio 1 refused to add the UK #1 song Candy by Robbie Williams (born 1974) to their playlist. The upbeat pop track released in 2012 was the lead single from the ninth album of the singer who has worldwide album sales of 70 million. Radio 1 personality Nick Grimshaw said Williams was "not relevant" to the station's target demographic. An angry Williams called Grimshaw a "bastard" for making the comment.
I'm not aware of US radio programmers admitting to age discrimination but it's likely that age is taken into account when considering what to add to playlists. Age based radio programming decisions don't just affect older artists. One Direction and Justin Bieber who appeal to tweens and teens typically don't get a lot of radio play in the US either. However that's not due to their age. It's due to their music not fitting pop radio's target advertising demographic of approximately 18-30. Candy did fit that format but was rejected solely due to the singer's age.
Lowering Listener Ages
BBC Radio 1 in the UK has an average listener age of 32, higher than the 15-29 year olds the station was designed to serve. They've been attempting to lower the average age partly by having younger presenters and partly by not playing older artists. According to the Daily Mail:
Nick Grimshaw's Radio 1 breakfast show has lost nearly a million listeners since he took over from Chris Moyles...Grimshaw appointment to the top slot came as Radio 1 bosses shuffled the presenter talent in order to secure a younger demographic...The BBC said it now had its highest proportion of 15-24s for two and a half years: 'While the audience is smaller. it is more focused on a younger demographic.'
My first thought when I heard this is executives should be glad anyone is still listening to the radio considering the newer options people have like YouTube/VEVO, streaming and Internet radio. It seems odd to have a policy to drive away older listeners, considering that many people in their 30's and 40's enjoy top 40 music. And it's not just pop acts that will be hurt by this based on an article from the BBC:
The station's music policy chief Nigel Harding has also said rock groups Green Day and Muse may have outgrown the station...Muse..."are approaching a crossroads" - their last single was the first one not playlisted by Radio 1 in a decade..."The door remains open to them but we'll have to think carefully about their next album."
Muse formed in 1994 and Green Day in 1987. Green Day's frontman Billie Joe Armstrong is 42 while Matt Bellamy from Muse is 36.
Arguments For and Against Playing Older Artists
Arguments can be made for and against radio programmers discriminating based on age. Listeners will enjoy songs because they think they're good regardless of who the artists behind them are. Radio 1 is making the assumption that older artists won't appeal to their target audience at all.
Yet age didn't stop Robbie Williams from having a UK #1. It also didn't stop 35 year old R&B singer John Legend from having a worldwide smash with All of Me, which crossed over to pop stations. The song was his first #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and peaked at #2 in the UK. Jennifer Lopez had a US and UK #1 with the electronic dance track On the Floor in 2011 when she was 40, although the song did feature the youngerPitbull. In 1998, Cher had the world's best selling single Believe at the age of 52. Hit potential should be the main determining factor in what does and doesn't get played.
However, some DJs have said they would rather support younger artists. If someone is still making music at 40, it's because they're already well established. Many of the acts that might have trouble getting play on pop or urban stations can still get played on formats like adult contemporary, easy listening, active rock, mainstream rock and urban AC. They have fanbases already and can sell albums and singles, and tour based on their name alone. Bruce Springsteen, Celine Dion, Madonna, Mariah Carey, Prince, Cyndi Lauper, Muse, Green Day and Robbie Williams won't disappear into irrelevancy because certain radio formats won't play them. The older successful artists should step aside and give the youngsters their time to shine.
Younger artists need the support of pop, urban and alternative stations more. Newcomers are trying to build fanbases and establish themselves. Even acts with 5 or 6 years of career success under their belts are still dependent on radio to solidify fan support and become properly established, so they can become the classic artists of the future. Then they'll be expected to step aside in favor of a new generation.
So, there's the merit based argument that songs which have the potential to be hits should get played regardless of whether the singer is 15 or 50. Limiting who can get played to those in their late teens to mid 30's at most seems incredibly unfair.
On the other hand, pop, urban, and alternative radio stations can only spin so many songs. Perhaps it's best if most of those spins go to newer or less established artists, so they have a shot at having career longevity as well. If they don't get enough support, they may not be around long enough to make 9 albums like Robbie Williams was able to do.
Radio playlists have narrowed in recent years as time spent listening to the radio has declined. Since people don't listen to the radio very often repetition isn't a problem. Programmers pick a narrow list of favorite songs that appeal to the largest number of people in the demographics their advertisers want to target. It's better if younger artists get most of those spins rather than sharing them with older established artists. These older acts are getting lots of play on classics, classic rock, and adult contemporary stations anyway.
It's surprising that Radio 1 is somewhat open about the fact they discriminate even if they never go so far as to say someone is too old. But they're a public entity supported by license fees rather than advertising, so they may have to be more open about how they operate. But their openness brings up an interesting question about fairness versus supporting a new generation of artists. And like it or not, with some singers now releasing albums in their 50's and 60's, it may be asking a lot for stations targeting younger demographics to play their music.