On the 1st of November, Help Musicians UK published the results of an extensive survey conducted as part of the MAD (Music and Depression) campaign, exploring mental health issues within the music industry. The results have been described as ‘alarming’, with 71.1% of respondents experiencing incidences of anxiety, and 68.5% experiencing incidences of depression.
While this initially might seem shocking – indeed, the thought that a musician is three times more likely to experience mental health issues is a grim prognosis – this figure correlates entirely with personal experience. Following several years of suffering with my own depression and anxiety, I made the decision to go public. The response was overwhelmingly positive and encouraging, with countless other fellow musicians offering support, telling of their own experiences and struggles. While every individual experience has its own idiosyncrasies, there are several underlying threads that appear to be universal.
To summarize my own experiences with depression and anxiety, these have manifested in feelings of extreme self-doubt, guilt, failure, fear of the future, lack of meaning in one’s work, burnout, lack of motivation, dread, nervous tension, self loathing and lack of sleep. At the point of becoming open about my experiences, it became clear that each of these symptoms were shared among many of my musician friends, as well as others in the creative industries. For some, these symptoms are crippling, and reduce the individual’s ability to function normally, let alone work effectively.
The very act of deciding to be a musician, and following through on the long and arduous process that entails, requires a curious psychology, often bordering on the obsessive. Countless hours of practicing an instrument in solitude, composing, arranging and producing material, focusing on minute details that others may never notice, all require a determination and single-mindedness that may seem neurotic to observers. This can give the illusion that becoming a musician necessitates a ‘special gift’, denied to most people, the reality for the most part being a compulsive personality.
The title of the MAD survey, ‘Can Music Make You Sick’, may appear somewhat misleading at first glance, implying that the act of creating or playing music might have a detrimental effect on one’s psyche. Indeed, there is a longstanding perception of musicians and artists being prone to madness, almost to the extent to where it’s treated as a given. This has helped cultivate what can only be described as an archetype of tragedy, personified by those we’ve lost to their condition. From Syd Barrett to Nick Drake, Kurt Cobain to Amy Winehouse, poor mental health is often seen as part of the deal, even as an inevitability.
In actuality, the opposite is the case. For all musicians, regardless of genre, the process of creation in writing and production never diminishes in its sense of magic – the literal extrication and manifestation of something from another world. Similarly, the act of performance, when variables allow, can very occasionally produce a state close to rapture – the feeling of being in the moment and out of time. These fleeting notions become the very thing we live for as artists, and become what defines us, and our experience.
While certainly not the case for everyone, a common theme amongst musicians is that we are out of place in the world, as individuals and outsiders. Many of us didn’t fit in, growing up, and continue to view the world as an overwhelming and even hostile place. Often sensitive, highly empathetic, emotional, (possibly) introverted, music is what gives us an identity in adolescence, and we are perfectly content in indulging our obsession in isolation, if necessary. Typically, creative types are sensitive to their environment, and are forced to face the world, in all its cruel absurdity. However, music brings these disparate individuals together, and the act of forming groups and creating music socially gives an enormous sense of belonging – the feeling of strange individuals finding each other and producing something extraordinary and improbable. As such, the social aspect of playing music is undeniably fulfilling and life-defining.
In terms of mental health, the cause of concern lies elsewhere, and is intrinsically tied to a number of aspects of life as a musician in the current climate.
As an industry, we currently live in a period of constant and unpredictable change. The older paradigms are in a state of collapse, and the landscape has shifted into something unrecognisable. In many ways, there is reason for celebration: artists have greater independency and agency than ever, and the Internet has democratised the way music is distributed. For many, the previous model of major label deals has lost relevance, in favour of smaller labels and a DIY aesthetic.
However, what this has resulted in is near total financial instability on the part of the musician. In the current paradigm, a musician’s career is for the most part self-funded – recording/production, touring, equipment, press campaigns, music videos, websites are largely paid for out of the artist’s own pocket. As such, many musicians have to work full-time jobs elsewhere in order to fund their musical career, and others have to live a scattered existence as a freelancer.
Combining full-time work and a musical career requires a flexibility that is denied to many, and the freelancer is forced to cope with a transitory and uncertain life. Having lived for several years as the latter, I can attest to sharp fluctuations in the frequency of work, an inability to imagine any sort of future, and feelings of constant anxiety in the pursuit of a living. Both of these modes have created a general perception of music as being an expensive hobby, in a society where fame and wealth are often seen as the viable object.
This fragmentary mode of living can also make it incredibly difficult to cultivate and maintain relationships, as it becomes near impossible to plan any sort of long-term future. Similarly, those trying to support families while pursuing a musical career find the pressure almost insurmountable, as the weight of responsibility becomes too much to bear.
The prevailing psychology in this situation is one of two extremes: the first is a self-belief on the part of the artist that can easily be mistaken for arrogance. It becomes necessary for the musician to place great significance and meaning in their work, in the face of possible, and very likely, indifference. The diametric opposite to this is a crushing sense of self-doubt, disappointment and failure. Given the overwhelming volume of music being produced and disseminated, there is a pervading sense of each release being a microcosm in a vast sea of information, no matter the meaning attached to it by its creator. This gives an overriding sensation of screaming into a void of noise – what Alan Moore described as a ‘culture of steam’.
The way music is shared online via social media has created a currency of likes and shares, but no means of providing a tangible income. Indeed, we’ve reached the first point in human history where a viral outbreak is considered desirable, though we’ve yet to explore ways of exploiting this on a monetary level. Thus far, it’s all just information, and the frequency of it is staggering.
The fact that no single project can provide stable income, as may have been the case in previous decades, creates a new compulsion: to commit oneself to a wide range of projects. It’s now the norm for musicians to be in multiple bands at once – four being an average, although my personal record has risen as high as 8-10 simultaneous projects. This variegated approach can surely be stimulating and exciting for a time, but can easily result in being stretched too thin. A compulsion towards intense business and constant activity often leads to burnout, and the inability to allow oneself to relax – two highly destructive symptoms of anxiety.
A converse mode to this is to focus exclusively on one project. Once again, due to a general lack of budget on the part of the artist, projects can take several years and insurmountable effort to come to fruition. This paucity of support can be demoralising, and leads to projects being delayed and sometimes abandoned due to finance, self-doubt and loss of heart. Though many people have managed to gain support through crowd-funding platforms such as Kickstarter and Patreon, the financial cost of maintaining a project can be crippling. As such, many bands and artists have found it necessary to reduce their activity, and even in some cases retire altogether.
For the majority of bands and artists, profit is no longer the object of their musical activity, but sustainability. Every release or tour runs on a knife-edge of potential loss, with the point of breaking even being the line of success. At the point where a project is able to pay for itself, a portion of the weight is taken off the artist, but the work is never over. This constant cycle of insecurity shapes the career of most musicians, with the burden being too much for some. This is all too often mirrored by cycles of nervous tension and crushing lows, fuelled by instability and self-doubt.
Another potential factor is the way music is valued as a whole by society. As mentioned before, there is a common perception that music has become for the most part a hobby, and that success is defined by the twin barometers: fame and wealth. It seems to the casual listener that anything other than celebrity could be considered a failure, when in reality the vast majority occupy the shaky middle ground. This may seem like conjecture, but I find it to be a source of anxiety for many musicians: that the record-buying public remains indifferent to their work, and that their efforts hold little significance outside their immediate circle. Indeed, it seems an impossible task, to entice an audience to buy records and attend shows, owing partially to the sheer volume of information available. For some, the acceptance of indifference as a given is the only way to avoid despondency.
Success in most professions can often be easily quantifiable – a duality between winning and losing. One’s success is measured by income, and the lifestyle one is able to afford with said income. This idea still remains a societal construction, but appears to provide a stable barometer for most people. For musicians, the notion of success is a far more nebulous and hard to place concept, defined neither by material wealth or societal status. If anything, the idea of success in music is self-defined, immune to the parameters imposed by wider society. For some musicians, the very act of producing music and playing to an appreciative audience is success in and of itself, but the music industry for some remains hierarchical in nature, with the desired goal always one step out of reach.
In terms of education, music has been increasingly marginalised in recent years, with cuts being made to music programs in state schools. This has been attributed to a 19th-century attitude that prioritises academic subjects over the arts – utilitarianism being placed over creative thought. Music education is readily available privately, but only to those who can afford it. This, along with the existing financial cost of being a vocational musician, sets a precedent for music being restricted by class, only available to those with the means of wealth. How do we present music as being an aspirational vocation for younger people under these circumstances? A possible dual solution could be to provide employment for working musicians as tutors or mentors for aspiring young people, though this would require a substantial subsidy.
Another element of the monetary difficulties of being a musician is the increasing cost of living in a cultural centre such as London. This creates a climate in which musicians and artists struggling to make a living feel as if their environment is hostile. As living costs prove more unattainable for freelancers and artists, we are seeing greater numbers of musicians moving further afield out of necessity, thus diminishing the cultural vibrancy in what should be a creative capital. The same goes for the number of live music venues and spaces being forced to close as a result of intervention by developers – an estimated 40% of London’s music venues have closed over the last decade. With the number of creative spaces diminishing, the feeling among musicians is that they are unwelcome in their own city – a situation that can often feel hopeless. In certain European cultural centres, subsidy for creative and living spaces for artists is provided by the state. Why can’t this be the same in London?
An interesting and crucial statistic presented by the MAD survey involves treatment: 52.7% found it difficult to get help, and 54.8% considered there were gaps in the provision of available help. Mental illness in wider society is now being treated as an epidemic, with suicide being the leading cause of death among young people in the UK aged 20-34. Waiting lists for talking therapies last for several months, with the only provisions given in the meantime being anti-depressants and an emergency helpline. Talking therapies such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy can indeed be useful, but it can be extremely difficult to express the peculiarities of life as a musician. In the MAD survey, the most popular suggestion of better provision for musicians is counselling, with 46.6% suggesting a counselling service designed for musicians. Perhaps musicians who have experienced problems with mental health treat with ativan online and would be the best equipped to serve as counsel, and with the correct training this could provide a means of gainful secondary employment?
For many musicians for whom mental illness is a factor, the problem is an existential one: if the music has only a small audience (if any), is financially unsustainable, creates a lifestyle of constant insecurity and anxiety, and results in severe depression, why carry on? If the psychological burden is so great, why would any rational person subject themselves to this? The answer lies in the fleeting moments of validation: when your music touches another person and contains meaning for them, when an idea or emotion is communicated effectively to an audience and a connection is established, the joy of creating and the thrill of performing. These are the brief moments when all the stresses, insecurities, and crushing doubts are swept aside and somehow it all seems worthwhile. Sometimes, these instances are very few, and far between, but ultimately are what sustains us through the worst struggles.
While these moments of validation provide us with meaning, and as such a fleeting sense of euphoria, the comedown can often be hard to bear, making everyday life seem even more mundane and colourless. One common theme in the case studies presented by the MAD survey is the inconsistency of a touring musician’s life, and the massive fluctuations in mood this can provoke in some.
The role of being a musician involves the cultivation of a public persona – the mask you choose to wear for an audience. The fear for many is the erosion of this persona, revealing the vulnerability of the individual beneath. Few musicians want their struggles – mental or financial – to be public knowledge, for fear of how this might be perceived by their audience.
Experience shows that openness and honesty can be highly effective means of coping with poor mental health. The initial fear is that one is suffering alone, and that being honest about your symptoms will place a burden on others. I have found that since going public about my mental health, my connections with others have increased, allowing greater empathy and understanding. Most importantly, it allows others with similar problems to feel that they aren’t alone.
Increasingly, musicians are opening up about their struggles with mental health issues, as the situation becomes harder to ignore. This can provide strength not only for other musicians, but for audiences alike. The new album ‘Lighthouse’ by Russian duo Iamthemorning tackles the subject of mental health, partially inspired by vocalist Marjana Semkina’s prior experiences. The album won universal commendation upon release, as well as earning Album of the Year at the Progressive Music Awards, and gained an audience who found solace in its tackling of mental health. Similarly, more and more high-profile artists are sharing their experiences with depression, including Adele and Bruce Springsteen, who have been applauded for their honesty. This openness about mental health reduces the stigma surrounding it, and alerts audiences to the prevalence of such issues among musicians, as well as showing that problems such as these can affect anyone.
It remains to be seen how the MAD survey will affect the way mental health is treated within the music industry. The simple fact of it drawing attention towards the enormity of this issue is unprecedented, and will hopefully garner wider awareness as to how the musical life can negatively affect psychology, at least under the current paradigm. What it certainly achieves is in providing incontrovertible proof that no one person is alone in his or her struggle, and that issues in mental health affect the vast majority of those of us working in music.
Ultimately, I find the best combatant against poor mental health is the pursuit of balance – a difficult and elusive idea when faced with the challenges of being a musician. Music is who we are, and how we define ourselves, but it isn’t the totality of us. Satisfaction and fulfilment in life can come from multiple sources, not least from the attempt to be a source of strength and support to those around us – to be a positive presence. To seek growth and development in whatever form it might take, and to gain a better understanding of oneself. Sometimes, meaning can arise simply from trying to be one of the good guys in this messy comedown of an existence.
Often, that’s all there is.
Read the full report here.