Over the past few years the general population have been faced with an increasing number of mental health challenges. Everything from the aftermath of COVID-19 and Brexit, to the climate and cost of living crises have added to the stressors of everyday life. However, research shows that those working in the music industry are more prone to mental health problems, and are up to three times more likely to suffer from clinical depression.
Joe Hastings, head of Music Minds Matter – the sister charity of Help Musicians, providing free 24/7 mental health support for this working in the UK music industry – reports a 200% increase in those seeking support over the past two years. Even prior to the pandemic, a 2019 study by Swedish platform Record Union highlighted that 73% of independent musicians struggle with mental illness, which rises to 80% when considering only those between the ages of 18-25.
This may seem surprising to those on the outside looking in. The romanticisation of working in music often means that the struggles of those within it can be overlooked or misunderstood. A 2022 independent survey carried out by Music Support reveals that 84% of people looking for help within the music industry would prefer help from someone with industry experience.
George Levers, head of service development and delivery at Music Support, is on the front lines, supporting people with addiction and mental health challenges. She leads the charity’s helpline and email service, which is predominantly run by people who have lived experience of both working in the music industry and their own mental health challenges.
“When somebody calls our helpline, we understand the industry that they’re coming from. And that’s really important to musicians and people that come from the music industry,” she explains. “I’ve had people that called and said, ‘I’ve had some therapy, but to be honest with you the therapist spent more time talking about how amazing it must be to work in the music industry, than actually what was going on for me.’”
There are a vast range of compounding factors that increase the risk of mental health challenges to those working in the music industry: work overload, work underload, pressure to gain and maintain success, racism, sexism, homophobia, discrimination, performance anxiety, band dynamics, pressure from labels, lack of autonomy, social media toxicity and job insecurity, to name only a few.
“It can be complicated, but common contributing factors include poor working conditions, lack of recognition and unstable working patterns, all of which are likely to make it more difficult for people working in music to manage their mental health and wellbeing,” says Hastings. “Compounding these issues over recent times are external pressures such as the pandemic, Brexit regulations and the cost-of-living crisis, all of which have put the music industry under incredible strain, and those working within it.”
In the aftermath of the pandemic, challenges to the touring sector in particular, have multiplied. “When COVID happened the music industry was decimated,” says Levers. “People found other jobs, and when the music industry opened its doors again, it went from famine to feast. The people that were left needed to make up that income again, and so they went back into the touring life and became utterly exhausted and overwhelmed.”
Psychotherapist and ex-booking agent, Tamsin Embleton, established the Music Industry Therapy Collective (MITC), and studies the psychological impact of touring. She released an expansive new book, Touring And Mental Health: The Music Industry Manual, earlier this year.
“Performing is often thought of as eustress, so good stress; you get a lot from it and it feels restorative in some ways. But it’s very draining and the cortisol levels can be really high, meaning that you’re going to crash after you perform and probably going to feel quite drained the next day,” she explains. “On tour you might have another show, so your baseline stress level’s already elevated when you wake up; essentially that’s how stress accumulates. When people are trying to save costs after COVID and Brexit, it’s really hard for mid-level artists to break even, so they’re going to cram as much as they can in.”
High stress and lack of self care – through separation from familiar people, places and routines – form a difficult combination for touring artists and crew to contend with, meaning that they often find themselves struggling to reacclimatise – sometimes long after returning home.
“Excess is built in,” says Embleton. “And if you’re trying to manage these elevated stress states in your body and the crash that comes after, then you’re going to try and soften the blow, or maintain the high that you’ve got from the stage, which might feel so rewarding and deeply important that it’s hard to let go of.”
Although mental health issues are being talked about and de-stigmatised more regularly, Levers believes that addiction still carries a heavy stigma, and is also exacerbated by life on the road. “Addiction is a chronic disease which affects some people more than others. It can be genetic – you are 40% more likely to have addiction issues if you have a parent that has addiction issues,” she says. “Drugs and alcohol are normalised in the music industry, they have been for decades. People on tour are surrounded by people getting high and drinking, and then they go home and continue drinking their two bottles of wine a night and they’re like, ‘Actually, nobody else around me is doing this. There’s something not quite right here.’”
Through her role at Music Support, Levers helps people to access treatment, and thanks to a new initiative with The Christopher Meredith Foundation – named in memory of the late festival director and agent – has the funding to grow existing provisions to offer counselling, psychotherapy and residential addiction treatment. She believes it is critical to urge those who relapse to ask for further assistance: “We don’t want people to think that we won’t support you again if you relapse. We’re here for you for the whole journey, because we know relapse is very common.”
It takes a lot of time and money to develop an artist’s career to the point of profit. As a result financial instability is rife within the music industry. Anneliese Harmon, General Manager of the Music Managers Forum (MMF), believes that financial stress underpins the increasing psychological difficulty. “The real problem, when it comes down to it, is financial pressure. When you don’t have money and you’re worried about how you’re going to keep your electricity on, or you’re working at Tesco during the day and in the studio at night, getting three hours of sleep; that causes mental health issues.” This becomes even more difficult for managers, whose roles has expanded considerably in the digital era, and are still expected to make their living from a 20% commission. “If the artist is broke, the manager gets 20% of broke. So the manager is normally suffering more than the artist, is the reality.”
She believes the biggest risk factor for artist managers is their mental health. They share many of the same stressors as their clients, but additionally shield the artist from the impact of criticism from labels and other partners, with little to no job security – as an artist they’ve helped build from the ground up could fire them, or even quit their own career at any time.
“The manager cannot protect an artist if they are not taken care of,” says Harmon. “So the first line of defence is making sure the managers are mentally sound and have their finances together, and are able to do the job that they need to do to facilitate the artist to spread their art – which is the ultimate reason we do this.”
In this digitally-driven culture, social media followers and streaming figures have become integral to artists seeking investment. It is rare to find interest from labels and managers without a pre-existing fanbase. Not only is this incredibly expensive and time consuming for those at the beginning of their career, but it means artists are expected to regularly expose themselves to social media and the toxicity that comes with that.
“We get a lot of people that reach out for support that are affected by social media. The toxicity around trolling, but also the pressure of followers, likes, engagement, because it seems to be the only thing that people care about anymore,” says Levers. “It’s really anxiety inducing for many people. There are lots of people now that call the helpline who are like, ‘My mental health has deteriorated so much because of social media, I can’t cope.’”
Harmon, author of The MMF’s Digital Burnout Report, believes social media adds to the pressure for artists to always be on. “We live in a world right now where if you don’t post everyday you’ll be forgotten about.” She attributes comparison with others as a major factor driving this pressure, “There’s always somebody else that does it better than you. Then you start doubting yourself and start questioning yourself, and that all leads to insecurity, depression and mental health issues.”
Embleton adds that the closeness of contact with fans may also be problematic to the wellbeing of artists: “I think we give fans an awful lot of control by having that direct contact, and I wonder whether that ends up.” As social media platforms seem unavoidable for the time-being, she advises those using them regularly to do so mindfully. “We know that spending loads of time online is going to deteriorate your mental health, so maybe curate who is on your feed, really think carefully about who you mute and what you’re absorbing there. And also, does it have to be quite as regular as people say? Or is that their anxiety?” In her view artists should, where possible, distance themselves from social media feeds by centring themselves back in their creative process.
Even for those artists who do manage to ‘make it’, there is an immense pressure to maintain that success. Harmon reports hearing from artists who felt the responsibility not only to deliver a record that would profit for themselves, but keep their entire record label – and their roster – afloat. Embleton points to the psychological effects that come with the lack of autonomy when an artist’s team expands in order to manage the growing workload.
“Artists who start to become more and more successful have bigger teams who take a lot of responsibility away from them, which we assume is helpful,” she says. “But what that does is reduces your autonomy, which is part of why you might see more adolescent behaviours on the road. All you’ve got to control are one or two things, so they increase in importance; ‘I will only drink this water that you collect by hand from a mountain’. Things become acutely important. We kind of create little entitled people.”
Then there is the need to come to terms with the knowledge that the majority of artists, even successful ones, have a shelf life. “In the early stages the fantasy is that you’ll make it and then you’ll maintain it and that’ll be done,” says Embleton. “But when you get there you realise that, ‘Fuck, I’ve got to continually be interesting and relevant for this to continue.’ I think that’s a conflict that’s very difficult to resolve.”
It’s all an incredibly difficult balancing act to manage. And the increasing emphasis on mental health in the media can be somewhat of a double-edged sword. “A lot of people started coming out and saying ‘I have mental health problems’. But then some people were talking about it when they had a record release, and it seemed to me like ‘are you saying this because you’ll get some extra press?’” considers Harmon. “If you’re vulnerable in any way or you’re going through anything, people will watch all your stories. That creates a lot of press. Sometimes it becomes something that you don’t even realise consciously that you’re doing, because artists like attention. Think about when things are talked about and make sure it comes from an authentic place.”
While it’s important to de-stigmatise and spread awareness, it can sometimes feel as though mental health issues are becoming glamorised – which can lead to the pathology of appropriate emotional responses. Levers suggests that issues arise when these emotional states become prolonged, severe or complex. “Some anxiety is helpful, we need that to survive,” she says. “Someone might say ‘I’m really anxious about this job interview I’ve got.’ Ok, that’s a normal level of anxiety. But if someone says to you, ‘I’m so anxious about this job interview, I’ve basically not been eating and I’ve developed a ritual around checking the taps 50 times before I go to bed’ – then we know that’s going into slightly more complex territory.” In these instances it is important to reach out for support.
On the morning I speak to Embleton she tells me that members of the MITC are delivering a talk at an insurance conference. They have been invited to encourage empathy for artists from those who insure touring, by helping them to understand the stress of life on the road. She’s heard that insurers are finding disclosures about mental health issues that artists have made on social media and in interviews, which is affecting the way that tours are insured.
“So we’ve got this pressure from PRs and labels and press, to say ‘What’s your mental health struggle?’ As if it’s a USP,” she says. “And people are talking about it – sometimes from a place of and now I’m better and I can reflect on it – but at other times they’re talking from it while they’re still trying to figure out what the fuck’s going on and how to get better. It might invite personal disclosures from fans, which can be distressing. It can feel like a lot of pressure and responsibility. But then there might be this additional effect later on, in that does that then make you less insurable? Which I don’t think anyone is really considering at the moment.”
Embleton implores artists to think carefully about what they feel comfortable sharing via press and social media. “How will it be in ten years time if somebody asks you about it in an interview?” she wonders. Those struggling are encouraged to reach out to a confidential service or a trusted friend or family member, and to consider that public disclosures are permanent and leave the artist incredibly vulnerable.
According to the World Health Organisation, more than 700,000 people die by suicide every year – that’s one person every 40 seconds. There are links between suicide and those suffering from mental health and addiction issues, while many suicides happen impulsively due to life stresses such as financial problems. Suicide rates are also high amongst groups who experience discrimination. This summer, Music Support carried out a study of the wellbeing of artists and crew at festivals across the UK; 18% said that they have experienced suicidal thoughts.
“If you are somebody who ideates around suicide, talk about it,” urges Levers. “If you feel like somebody is struggling, ask them, ask them what’s going on. If you feel like somebody could be contemplating suicide, ask them if they are suicidal. There is no evidence to suggest that asking someone if they are suicidal is going to make them more likely to do it – in fact it’s probably going to make them less likely to do it, because they’ll be talking about it.”
As awareness of the music industry’s mental health challenges proliferates, so does the ever expanding range of charities and initiatives seeking to help. There are the aforementioned organisations (Help Musicians, Music Support, Music Industry Therapist Collective and Music Managers Forum), peer support groups such as The Back Lounge run by tour manager Suzi Green, and it’s always worth speaking to your local GP. All of these encourage people in the music industry to reach out whenever things begin to feel too much, and will endeavour to offer support, or signpost to a service that can
“Reaching out and asking for help – I know that sounds really obvious, but that’s really difficult for a lot of people, especially for men. And that’s why we try to reduce the stigma around mental health and addiction,” says Levers. “A massive thing for human beings is connection. If we’re not connected to people that’s when our mental health starts deteriorating.”
Music Minds Matter (Open 24/7) // Website
0808 802 8008
Music Support (Open Monday-Friday, 9:00am-17:00pm, except for Bank Holidays) // Website
0800 030 6789
Samaritans (Open 24/7) // Website
Help Musicians // Website
Music Industry Therapist Collective // Website
Music Managers Forum // Website
PRS Members Fund // Website
Royal Society of Musicians // Website
Musicians Union // Website
The Back Lounge // Website
Back Up Tech // Website
Stage Hand // Website
Words: Grant Brydon
Inset Photo Credit: Belinda Enthoven for Music Support
Main Photo: Lesley Mensah