in 2017, the industry must do more to support musicians' mental health

From Kanye West cancelling his tour and being hospitalised, to Zayn Malik and Selena Gomez speaking out about their anxiety and depression, musicians’ mental health made headlines in 2016. Having released an album inspired by his own experiences with...

by William Doyle
30 December 2016, 11:00am

In early 2015, Swedish artist Lykke Li announced via her Instagram that she was cancelling all of her upcoming shows. The text, accompanied by a glitchy, pixelated treatment of a press shot, was written in capital letters, accentuating what seemed like a cry for help and understanding. It read: "I AM UTTERLY DEVASTATED, SOMETIMES WE PUSH AND PUSH BUT THE BODY SIMPLY WON'T FOLLOW. I GAVE IT ALL I HAD, MY BODY, HEART AND SOUL. AFTER 7 YEARS OF TOURING MY HEALTH IS SCREAMING/BEGGING FOR ME TO LISTEN/HEAL/SLOW DOWN. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR UNDERSTANDING...".

At the time, Li's post felt stark and singular; it now reads as a prelude to a full-blown epidemic -- from Kanye West's publicised disintegrations and eventually hospitalisation, to Justin Bieber explaining that he can no longer meet and greet fans because the experience leaves him "drained and unhappy". And it's not just the high-profilers that are susceptible; the issue reaches all corners of our industry, from stadiums to DIY basement shows.

Having released two albums over the last three years -- one with arguably the largest independent label in the world -- I've experienced first-hand the standardised and accepted treadmill of the release-tour-release-tour cycle, and the increasing (and addictive) expectation to connect constantly and directly with fan bases through obsessive social media posting. The pressure to keep up this online presence has turned many artists into content farmers and pavlovian dopamine freaks, with little industry effort to discourage such behaviour.

While it's true that any high-pressure, competitive working environment could be a potential hotbed for mental health casualties, the irregular hours, precarious financial situations, habitual daytime alcoholism, poor diets, lack of sleep, unnecessarily scathing public scrutiny and needlessly herculean touring schedules that the music industry demands can be particularly overwhelming.

The vast majority of artists aren't flying first class and having their gear set up for them by a big crew; they're flying in at very early hours, or doing huge stretches of driving due to illogical tour routing, to arrive at a venue and get to work. In the chasms of time between soundcheck and stage, they'll drink and many smoke, before expending a lot of energy and emotion in a very loud environment for a short moment, and then packing up and repeating the process for days on end, while most likely sharing a room with the people they also shared a vehicle and venue with all day. This might be great for a week or two, but over years it isn't healthy.

For the past six years, I've followed this pattern fairly solidly; and, while I don't mean to say that there weren't frequent peaks of enjoyment and accomplishment in that time, the relentless cycle is far from a model of sustainability. There is a quite unhelpful, masculine attraction to this lifestyle -- to the idea of 'paying dues', and a passive acceptance of the damaging status quo.

Being successful and making a living from creating and performing was such a white-hot burning desire of mine since my early adulthood that I was willing to enter into almost anything to make it happen. There was a sense that the salvation one achieved in creating work could be transferred into monetising it and providing for yourself, but there were no real warning signs of what achieving that means, in terms of personal sacrifice and relinquishing of control, within the current system.

In November, I released the dream derealised, an album I made during a period of great anxiety and dissociation, with proceeds going to the mental health charity Mind. It was meant as a cathartic measure for myself, but also as a way of externalising a subject that many find difficult to talk about or express. While the music doesn't directly deal with my experience of the issues endemic in the wider industry, it has acted as springboard for me to talk about them further. It's important that artists share their experiences, as a way to inform those younger and hungrier, but the industry at large must also shoulder some responsibility for recognising and acting upon the standards it sets for its artists.

Conversations about these issues are beginning to take place. Last summer, I participated in a case study for the University of Westminster and the charity Help Musicians UK titled Can Music Make You Sick?. Of the 2,221 participants in the pilot study -- most of whom identified as professional musicians -- 71% reported suffering from panic attacks and/or high levels of anxiety, and 68.5% of respondents experienced incidences of depression. The study concluded that while artists "find solace in the production of music, the working conditions of forging a musical career are traumatic".

At Sørveiv Festival in Norway in October, I took part in a talk on 'Protecting Artists and Art' where panellists noted how rarely artists are invited to speak at these events, despite them and their audiences being the bottom line of almost all panel topics. What became clear at Sørveiv was that the mental health issue -- and many other issues the industry faces -- seems to stem from people's lack of empathy for each other's roles. The balance of representation should be addressed at the many industry events throughout the year, so that artists, PRs, labels, booking agents, and indeed audiences, understand better the demands placed on each other.

Mental health issues that are often associated with being a musician have been normalised by a culture that romanticises the lifestyles and habits of those great artists before us, of their casualties and excesses. This archaic of view of the tortured, suffering artist must end immediately. There is nothing to aspire to in this illusion.

It's hard to think of another industry that counters its abyssal lows with such prodigious highs: the mania of creativity and the accomplishment of great works of art, the unparalleled euphoria of successful live shows or festival slots, the powerful pull of collective experience and communication through music. These elements are vital to music culture, but we must find a way to pursue them while protecting the people responsible for their creation.


Text William Doyle
Photography Matt Colquhoun

mental health
William Doyle