Low pay, late nights, no holidays: the glamour of a career in music
New research is looking at the harsh conditions of the music industry, and its impact on the mental health of those trying to make a living in the business
Selena Gomez: the singer cancelled a tour because of depression. Photograph: Don Arnold/Wireimage/Getty
Rebecca Taylor of Slow Club: “The toll it takes on your mind is the worst bit. You’re constantly feeling like a burden.” Photograph: Laura McCluskey
Benga: “My bipolar was brought on by drugs, and the schizophrenia was the result of excessive touring.” Photograph: Joseph Okpako/WireImage/Getty
Sally Gross: “When I first suggested looking at the link between musicians and mental health issues, I was told it was a non-topic, but I’d seen for myself that it exists.” Photograph: Dom Agius
Dr Juliet Bressan: “Musicians have an added disadvantage because they work in venues that have alcohol in them, and they’re paid in alcohol, especially bands who have regular gigs in pubs”
James Vincent McMorrow: “When you’re touring it’s the greatest party in the world. Until it turns into the worst party in the world – quickly.”
Avicii: in 2016 he announced his decision to quit touring for a more balanced life. “To me it was something I had to do for my health.” Photograph: Pedro Fiúza/NurPhoto via Getty
Mull over the discussions in the music industry in 2016, and a theme begins to emerge. Artists who left us too soon. The sensitivities around radio support for domestic artists. The difficulties for women in the business. Talented bands who are left with no choice but to throw in the towel. Even social media trolling falls into this thread. So what’s the common thread? It’s that the music business is an unforgiving environment, and those aiming to make a living within its tough confines need a thick skin.
To anyone working in the music industry this is a given; but it can be more difficult to convince those outside of the industry, particularly government and funding agencies. That’s why in the UK, mental health charity Help Musicians is undertaking a study to see what the facts are among its anecdotal evidence.
“When I first suggested looking at the link between musicians and mental health issues, I was told it was a non-topic, but I’d seen for myself that it exists,” says Sally Gross. She is a co-researcher on the study, programme director of the music business management MA at the University of Westminster, and a former manager of Adamski and William Orbit, among others. “There’s so much talk about the positives of music and how good it can be used to express yourself, but I wanted to think, what about the other side, when people spend so much time and effort and self discipline, and are being told all the time they need to believe in themselves, and it often results in anxiety, stress and depression.”
There are a number of clear links between music and mental health. First, as suggested by Gross – and demonstrated in recent weeks by Dublin-based First Fortnight, an Irish arts therapy organisation that has just completed its sixth awareness and arts festival – music is a form of expression and a positive influence. Second, people who are “emotionally aware” are typically attracted to the arts. But the research from Gross and her academic partner Dr George Musgrave aims to isolate and probe a third dynamic: the effect of the music business on mental health. Put simply, if the music industry had a dedicated team of counsellors, how popular would this service be, and what would bring musicians to them?
The first phase of the research, unveiled last November, aimed to quantify the issue, and the results were clear: these hypothetical counsellors would be run off their feet. Of the 2,211 respondents, the majority of whom were under 35, 71 per cent had experienced anxiety and 62 per cent had experienced depression, compared to 19 per cent of the general population. (There are caveats to the research, as there is a self-selection with taking the survey and self-diagnosis of their condition.) The qualitative phase, due to be published in the coming weeks, digs deeper with 30 in-depth interviews with musicians, from concert pianist James Rhodes to William Doyle, best known as the Mercury Music Prize-nominated act East India Youth.
“There are observable and measurable difficulties to working in music which can cause anxiety, depression, addiction and other mental health issues,” Gross says. “Performance anxiety is an example, and a large aspect is that it’s a night job so it’s difficult to maintain relationships or retain a family life, similar to shift work. There’s no security, it’s not well paid, and you’re not able to take time off from it. All these things are a recipe for disaster.”
Gross characterises the music industry as a “hypercompetitive market” that’s also economically challenging. Yet at the same time, musicians are told “we’re responsible for ‘living our dream’. The X Factor is a perfect example – no one tells singers more often that they should believe in themselves and follow their dream. These competition shows that have exploded in the last decade have entered our consciousness, to such an extent that you judge yourself by whether you’re winning. But there are also variables that come into play – like financial support and luck – and these factors are more important now than ever.”
These issues were found to be universal across genres, though classical musicians have added pressure as the dedication required is higher and the competition more fierce. This was reinforced by a separate 2013 study in the US, which showed the number of music students has steadily increased over the past 30 years though the number of openings in orchestras is declining.
Gross’s research also found that even when musicians hit the big time, they have to handle another set of pressures, such as intensive tours, higher expectations, fear of losing their place, the blow of a bad review and trolling on social media – not everyone has James Blunt’s ability to turn it to their advantage.
“When successful people come out talking about problems like life on the road and being away from their families, they seem to get a lot less sympathy. People think, what do they have to complain about, but musicians around the world share the same problem.”
Classical musicians again have an added pressure: once they earn tenure in an orchestra, they have few options but to hold on to it at all costs; another US study found that the average length of service is 12 to 19 years, depending on the instrument.
“One person I was talking to was telling me she was having such bad panic attacks that she couldn’t play her instrument,” says Gross. “Her doctor gave her beta blockers but that only worked for a while, and she felt like she couldn’t tell anybody because she was terrified of losing her place.”
It’s a familiar situation to Dr Juliet Bressan, the president of Performing Arts Medicine Ireland, who has specialised in treating musicians for 10 years.
“I’ve also found that there’s a lot of bullying in orchestras, whether it’s from a conductor or a fellow musician,” she says. She points out that if you are in a major orchestra, “you can’t walk out of it and say, I didn’t like sitting there with the first violins because they’re mean to me. You’re snookered. What else are you going to do?”
Indeed, many of the findings in the research ring true in Ireland, or are indeed exacerbated by a wider margin between supply and demand. “There’s also a much higher rate of alcohol misuse in Ireland and musicians are just as likely to be in that excess,” says Bressan. “They have an added disadvantage because they work in venues that have alcohol in them, and they’re paid in alcohol, especially bands who have regular gigs in pubs. And then it leads down a path of using other drugs, especially as you don’t necessarily have to get up at 9am.
“The Irish Government is investing in the arts but not the health and wellbeing of their artists. Music is still seen as a folk art, something we pick up at home and go on to do professionally. It doesn’t take into account the conditions that musicians are faced with. In Germany they acknowledge it. Hanover has a school of performing arts, and they have a whole faculty of performing arts medicine. It’s a bigger country so there’s more resource there, and they can be given that specialist support.”
Gross points out there is no magic bullet solution. “It’s a complex issue and there are lots of points of responsibility. But we need to start a conversation of what we want our industry to look like. In the same way that society hit back when the pressures of the fashion industry led to eating disorders and body dysmorphia in models, and the Oscars ignored diversity, we have to say that it’s not okay for this unhealthy relationship to be maintained unquestioned.”
In 2012, Bressan organised a one-off conference on performing arts medicine in Galway, and says the appetite is there for specialised health support for musicians, even if the funding is not. Sally Gross is in early discussions with the Music Managers Forum around the issues that musicians face, while Help Musicians UK use her research to inform its strategy, to to be released in spring. It's already shaping up to call for a "coalition of like-minded music industry organiations" according to its director, Richard Robinson. Meanwhile its work continues, most notably with its first regional outreach programme in Northern Ireland, which has a £150,000 (€170,000) budget this year for support services. Quite Great PR – which counts heavyweights such as Stevie Wonder, Daniel O’Donnell and Kiss among its clients – has introduced a musicians’ therapy service to help newer artists. In an industry as precarious this, they’ll need all the help they can get.
Musicians on why the industry is bad for your health
Pop starlet-turned-actress Selena Gomez has been open about her issues with anxiety and depression, citing it as the reason for cancelling a European tour including a Dublin date in November. The issues are a side effect of lupus, exacerbated by the glare of the spotlight. “There were a few months where I was a little depressed, where I wouldn’t leave [the house] as much,” she said in 2014. “I think I drove myself crazy for a little bit. It was just easier to say, ‘Hey, do you mind running to the grocery store and picking some stuff up, I don’t want to get photographed.’”
James Vincent McMorrow
McMorrow is one of a number of musicians who has given up booze in order to lay off the all-too-available temptation. “When you’re touring, it’s the greatest party in the world. Until it turns into the worst party in the world – quickly,” he said in 2014.
Superstar DJ Tim Bergling aka Avicii has paid a price for his fame: the touring life led him to suffering from acute pancreatitis, partly due to excessive drinking. In 2016, announced his decision to quit touring for a more balanced life. “To me it was something I had to do for my health,” Bergling said. “The scene was not for me. I’m more of an introverted person. It was always very hard for me. I took on board too much negative energy, I think.”
Rebecca Taylor, Slow Club
For Rebecca Taylor of Slow Club, the financial stress is the aspect that occupies her. “The toll it takes on your mind is the worst bit. You’re constantly feeling like a burden, constantly feeling you’re not pulling your weight. It’s a low-income job. You can do it, but it’s a compromise. What a lot of people take for granted – the security of a wage, a pension, and anything around it, like a holiday – you just can’t have that.”
In 2015, dubstep pioneer Benga revealed that he’d been sectioned the previous year as a result of bipolar order and schizophrenia, and cited the touring lifestyle as a cause. “My bipolar was brought on by drugs and the schizophrenia was the result of excessive touring,” the Magnetic Man member tweeted. “I don’t want sympathy but to raise awareness. Because if I had help early the damage could have been controlled.”