Music Careers and Mental Health

Music as an ‘industry’ has had its unhealthy side for a long time: both self-loathing and callous profiteering are so commonplace that they’re a film cliché. Manufactured pop artists get worked to near-death. Earnest bands work themselves to near-death. What is it about the music industry that lends itself to burnout?

This question is only more topical this year in the light of high-profile suicides such as Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, both of whom struggled with long-term depression. Many commentators, Russell Brand included, look at these deaths in the context of the already-high male suicide rate in the West; similarly, 1 in 4 of us, whatever our profession, will experience some mental health difficulty at some time. There is a larger conversation at play that is not exclusive to artists.

However, there is the fact of the higher depression/anxiety statistics amongst artistic types, musicians in particular. Help Musicians UK found in a 2015 survey that well over 60% of musicians have suffered from psychological issues. Some wonder (perhaps controversially) whether a propensity for mental health struggles is in a way part of the personality profile ‘package’ that comes with artistic creativity, deeply felt empathy and so on. But even if this is true, it’s foolish to ignore the reality that external, aggravating factors – such as constant insecurity of living – make things worse for artists in particular.

Entering this discussion requires a recognition that every person’s experience is different. Cornell and Bennington, for instance, did not struggle with financial insecurity. However, when a famous figure commits suicide, or whenever a small or middleweight band speaks out about their struggles, external factors are always relevant. On the whole, the industrialisation of music – the transition from artist to travelling salesman – creates a brutal bottleneck for psychological issues.

A Lack of Community

Touring, typically a non-negotiable part of the musician’s experience, seems to be the biggest factor. Most musicians want to perform, and touring is still held up, rightly or wrongly, as the primary way to make money. But touring has a cost: that same Help Musicians UK survey reported that 68% of musicians regularly experienced loneliness and alienation from family and friends; 62% said they had experienced relationship difficulties as a result of their career.

On one hand, Instagram makes touring look like an adventure – and it has its high points, no doubt – but it’s essentially one long experience of transit. A friend on tour with Michael Kiwanuka commented there was no time to experience or engage with the places they were travelling through. Hours in coaches, vans or trains. Hours setting up and waiting for maybe one hour of performance per day. Poor quality sleep. Far too many reasons to over-drink. And, most importantly, no friends and family: no grounding. Plenty of musicians find it just too much to handle long term: the compounded years of stress and disconnect take their toll. ‘Success’ is no reliever of stress, either: millionaire heartthrob Zayn Malik reportedly left the biggest boyband in the world because four years of traversing the globe had become too much; auteur success story Tyler, the Creator recently released a single with the hard-to-miss lyric “I am the loneliest man alive”.

On the other hand, for a great deal of artists it’s real life that’s the problem: live performance can be such an adrenaline-pumping rush that touring feels worth the chore, and coming home sparks a kind of ‘post-performance depression’. A contrite Willis Earl Beal said his touring-heightened arrogance, and bad attitude with each domestic ‘comedown’, contributed to the collapse of his marriage; Kate Nash, Everything Everything, and plenty of others have talked about their sense of alienation from everyday existence. One way or another, relationships suffer; but unless you’re Aphex Twin or Radiohead, you don’t get to negotiate the terms of touring.

Then there’s the need to be constantly ‘ON’ and promoting yourself (familiar to any freelancer), the emotional rollercoaster of criticism, and the aforementioned financial insecurity. Are these just facts of life for those who have the supposed ‘luxury’ to pursue a career in music? Or is it okay to suggest that some musicians ‘stray from the path’, for the sake of their own wellbeing?

All Or Nothing?

While I don’t have the answer, right here and now, to fix the music industry or alleviate the pressures of touring (you’ll be disappointed to hear) – I do see signs of change. For a start, music and mental health is a public conversation now. Top-tier pop artists Lady Gaga, Adele and One Direction have spoken about their anxieties and difficulties within the industry. Michael Angelakos (aka Passion Pit) recently announced he’s continuing to make music, but not selling it, saying the music industry “does nothing to promote the health required in order to promote the work it sells.

There is, increasingly, a ‘successful’ middleweight group too: those who’ve found an appreciative audience of a few thousand people and make the most of that relationship. Maybe too much is made of technology like Patreon, but it does suggest musicians can make something of a living from different mechanisms other than just touring; with a bit of internet savvy, artists can score TV slots for their music, collect royalties from YouTube, sell merch, or crowd-fund their next projects. I think it was Amanda Palmer who said that with 15,000 devoted fans (ie fans who show up and buy your stuff) you can have a full-time career. That’s a lot of fans, which you probably can’t get without money and PR, but it’s a good attitude change: The X-Factor and the other financial behemoths of the industry want you to think success is an all-or-nothing, fame-or-oblivion type deal. Aggressive expansion isn’t the only option.

I don’t want bands to stop touring – experiencing live music is precious. Even just the simple pleasure of watching great musicians do what they do is a kind of sacred, life-giving thing. But we can’t put that above the mental well being of the musicians stuck in the entertainment complex.

If you’ve any experience of these issues – as a musician or otherwise – we’d love to hear from you, below, or through

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