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Why performance pressures put a strain on musicians’ mental health

Why performance pressures put a strain on musicians’ mental health

January 11
09:40 2019

Whenever some well-known musician comes forward with the story of their depression or anxiety — or when one is found dead through suicide — somewhere, always, the same question is asked: how could someone making a success of the thing they had always wanted to do end up in such a state?

“I’m not going to moan about the trials of success. You know as well as I do how awful that looks in print. Therein lies a huge chunk of the problem,” says Alex Kapranos, frontman of Franz Ferdinand. “If we take this group of depressives, put them in a room every night with free access to limitless amounts of depressants, f*** with their sleeping patterns, make them sit around with no stimulation for 23 hours of the day and on that 24th hour [on stage] they will overload their systems with stimulus and adrenalin, I wonder what will happen after a few weeks?”

Kapranos is taking a deliberately reductive view there. Like the vast majority of musicians, he spent years without the free access to drugs and alcohol, without the ennui of world tours. He knows well that for the vast majority of musicians, it’s not the disconnect between the rock star on the stage and the person off it that creates problems — it’s the very fact of trying to survive, especially in a financially denuded industry.

The famous victims of mental illness are just the ones who break the surface. The musicians who end up in the headlines after killing themselves — a list that in the past two years includes Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Swedish electronic dance music star Avicii — are those whose fame is great enough for their final act to be noticed. Lower down the commercial scale, it’s hard in a different way but with fewer people to notice.

American singer-songwriter Sarah Beth Tomberlin is aware of those pressures. Despite a critically acclaimed debut album in 2017, on the day we spoke she was back in her day job in Louisville, Kentucky, having only just returned from a tour. “There’s an instability in making this your job: finding a balance when you’re pushing your body and mind to their limit when you’re touring and in a new city every day and only there for a couple of hours,” she says. “It’s very hard on your body and brain and your relationships. If you’re not in a constant community, it’s hard to reach out. There aren’t resources because you’re gone all the time.”

Franz Ferdinand lead singer Alex Kapranos backstage while on tour in 2006 © Jane Flanagan/Eyevine

The touring musician, in this account, is akin to the business traveller — but with the cheapest motel (or a fan’s sofa) standing in for the Marriott, the cramped tour van replacing the rented Lexus, the stale sandwiches backstage taking the place of dinner on expenses, and the budget airline in place of business class. And then doing that for months of every year and earning almost nothing from it.

The charity Help Musicians UK surveyed several hundred players in different genres — classical, jazz, folk, pop — in 2014, and found that 67 per cent of them had suffered depression or other psychological problems. “Our research shows that musicians are up to three times more likely to experience issues with depression and anxiety than the general population,” says Joe Hastings, the charity’s head of health and welfare. “We did focus groups and targeted one-to-one conversations. What was really evident is that there’s a precariousness within the industry. People regularly experience that, where they’re on the edge of things becoming challenging for them in terms of managing their day-to-day life, their personal finances, their family, their health.”

While Help Musicians UK offers counselling and therapy to musicians who need it, there are other organisations and individuals making efforts to address musicians’ problems pre-emptively. Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music has appointed Sara Ascenso, who has studied the subject for several years, as its first lecturer in musicians’ health and wellbeing.

Ascenso observes that research suggests classical musicians register as having a high sense of meaning — having purpose and a sense of serving something larger than the self — and that their work and their selves become entwined. “Musicians often mention that because their profession is such a central element to their identity, it can be hard to dissociate their sense of self from their work identity. As a result, it can be hard to dissociate the value attributed to their performances — that naturally will oscillate in quality — from their evaluation of their self-worth.”

Franz Ferdinand bassist Bob Hardy © Jane Flanagan/Eyevine

That happens in rock music too, with musicians often expected not only to play, but also to write, to be a personality, for their lives to embody their work. “Once being an artist becomes your day-to-day, then stuff like pain just becomes material, and fear becomes performance, and anxiety becomes confidence,” Matty Healy of the hugely successful British band The 1975 told me in 2015. “I remember tweeting at one point, ‘Who the f*** is Matt Healy?’ Because I’d read about myself all the time. And it’s the cliché of starting to lose your sense of self.”

Healy had been discussing an incident where he broke down on stage in Boston in the midst of two years of constant touring — during which he went from being barely known to being discussed on American TV gossip shows. “I’d become such a parody of myself. That was my reality: all I did, 250 shows in a year. The only people I was surrounded by were adoring fans. I’d started to lose my connection between art and reality.” He was lucky: the band cancelled shows, enough to get him back on his feet in the short term (though the band’s latest album was recorded in the wake of him seeking treatment for heroin addiction, suggesting that didn’t address long-term problems).

For many musicians, especially those in bands, cancelling gigs when they feel like they can’t carry on isn’t an option — their bandmates, their crew, their managers and their promoters depend on them turning up if they are to make a living. It’s not the same as one person in an office calling in sick. And it doesn’t help that the industry’s short-termist approach means that few people have an incentive to deal with problems so long as the artist is turning up to shows and recording sessions.

“People in the industry are terrified of addressing it,” Kapranos says. “It’s a macho industry and the denial of mental health issues that has always accompanied machismo is the norm. For the most part, managers and labels push their acts as far as they can with no support beyond a proverbial crossing of the fingers. Major labels are much worse. Especially American ones. A real jock attitude. The model is: ‘Push them, push them, push them — ah, they’ve broken. Which one’s next?’ ”

Alex Kapranos greeted by the press backstage © Jane Flanagan/Eyevine

The problem, though, is who has the duty of care. The vast majority of musicians are self-employed. The ones with record deals aren’t employed by the labels — they are contracted to supply a service. As Joe Hastings of Help Musicians UK notes, members of orchestras usually have an employment contract that provides a little more security. But no one in a small-time rock band does. And for those people, recording for an indie label, all the people they’re working with face the same problems.

“You’re dealing with human beings,” says Stephen Bass, co-founder of the indie label Moshi Moshi, which has released records by Florence + the Machine, Hot Chip and Disclosure, among many others. “Perhaps as a smaller label, you’re more aware of it. The artists don’t necessarily come to you for help, but you have to be aware of their issues and you have to deal with them — you might have to cancel a tour because someone needs to look after themselves rather than go on the road. But we’re a very small company — three people. We have our own struggles to keep going. We’re not well equipped to deal with anything like that.”

As Tomberlin puts it: “PR people, booking agents, label people — all these people are in this weird realm where there’s no textbook for how any of these conversations go; there are no actual rules for what people should do. We place all these people in this weird bubble where we have no help and no resources.” She adds: “It’s gonna get messy and it’s gonna get scary.”

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