The Music Industry Needs to Wake Up and Support Artists With Mental Health Problems
It affects 60% of musicians. So why doesn't a charity set up to support them get any help at all from the industry?
Back in January, footage showed Brian Harvey - previously a member of Britain’s streetwise, popular-in-the-nineties boy band East 17 - smashing a gold record commemorating the group’s sales. “That’s what I think of your fucking music industry”, he said. “Fuck you!”
It wasn’t the first time Harvey had been in the news. Ten years ago, he ate three jacket potatoes, leaned out of his car window to be sick, and accidentally ran himself over. In 2011, he filmed enforcement officers forcing the installation of a pre-paid electric meter at his residence – after he failed to pay his bills – and put the footage on YouTube. And last year he stood outside Downing Street with a folder containing evidence of “how much money the government had stolen from him” and demanded to speak to the prime minister. “You’ll all be dancing to my single at Christmas”, were the words he reportedly said, when quizzed by police officers. All instances were covered across the broadsheets to some degree of comedic incredulity. But framed with regard to mental health in the music industry, it’s a different story.
In an interview with Labour MP Simon Danczuk for London’s talk radio LBC earlier this year, Harvey talked about the problems he’d faced over the past decade: how each Christmas he hears East 17’s “Stay Another Another Day” repeatedly played over daytime radio, for which he receives no royalties, while he’s unable to afford Christmas dinner; how, five weeks before the interview, he walked out of a hospital during discussions with medics and considered killing himself; how “we need a walk-in centre specifically designed for when, in the middle of the night, someone thinks ‘I am going to hang myself” or “‘I am going to go to a forest and jump out of a tree with a noose around my neck’” - thoughts that Brian says he’s had when “desperation takes over”.
Brian Harvey isn’t unique in being a musician who has suffered with depression. In the moving biography Somebody, Someday, we’re offered a candid insight into the difference between Robbie Williams, the tabloid star and performer, and Rob, a vulnerable human-being who suffers with the demons of addiction and depression. Angel Haze has written for Noisey about a childhood eating disorder. Eminem’s autobiography The Way I Am detailed his struggle with a depression that, at one point, left him unrecognisable, weighing in at 230 pounds. From boy band members like Blue's Lee Ryan to pop stars and rock stars like Adam Ant and Biffy Clyro and dance acts like Dro Carey, mental health is an issue which spans across the board.
Mental illness is something one in four of us will experience within our life; and, according to recent surveys, has affected around 60% of musicians. Of course, choosing to be a musician is never supposed to be easy, and it’s the struggle involved that ensures only the most determined can make a living from it. But the problem remains that the music industry as a business can often accentuate poor mental health - general stress, insomnia, unpredictable hours, as well as being a gateway to hard drugs and alcohol. Yet, the industry has little to no support network in place for those that suffer, and stars are quite often cast aside when problems begin. The Guardian report that during Danczuk’s discussions with Harvey, it became clear the East 17 member - who has suffered from depression for more than 13 years - “had been offered scant help when his life started to spiral out of control in the late 1990s”. So what options are there - if any - for musicians suffering from mental health?
For many artists the care offered through the NHS simply isn’t enough because their issues are propagated by scenarios specific to their careers. For example, touring - a lucrative part of the music industry, which rose in profits by 20% in the last year and is therefore important to any professional musician - can have a wide ranging effect on mental health and wellbeing. There’s the expected pitfalls, like being away from the crucial family, friend and home support systems needed for someone experiencing a mental health problem. But that’s not all. Jacqui Jedrzejewski, a Senior Nurse at the NHS, says touring can affect everything “from being simply drowsy and confused to affecting one's bowels, urine production, digestion and blood pressure”. Other problems can arise too, like lack of exercise, increased alcohol or drug abuse, or performance anxiety. Essentially: touring can take a serious toll on the body and mind.
“Touring is probably the hardest for me”, explains Alanna McArdle, who recently left Joanna Gruesome to focus on her mental health. Smaller bands can often tour on a limited budget and there’s rarely cash left over for a private hotel. Instead, artists sleep on friend’s floors. Alanna tells me: “I think everyone feels maybe pressured – you’re bored a lot, there’s not much to do, and you never really get to experience the places you play – so you will inevitably drink. That can be fine, but when I’m dealing with such unstable moods it can really negatively impact me. If we’re playing a small venue without a dressing room or somewhere to go to be on your own, I feel like I have to drink to feel like I can talk and not be seen as weird.”. As a result, the necessary structure needed for anyone suffering with mental health can collapse.
“It’s especially hard if there isn’t a consensus in your band about how late you’re going to stay up or if you’re going to go out”, Alanna says, stressing that sleep is an essential structural component and when you’re all dumped in one room with no time to yourself, it can be embarrassing to ask everyone to shut up and go to sleep. Even if bandmates are non-judgemental and empathetic, the general lack of education on mental health in the United Kingdom means there’s a disconnect between understanding the issue, and what’s practically needed to help someone feel okay. But a disruption in structure is just one part of the problem with touring, because when an artist doesn’t feel comfortable being away from home, there’s often a fair amount of money at stake too.
“I’ve had to cancel shows because I’m too ill to do them. And that’s maybe two grand that’s gone. There’s no compensation in the industry for these problems”, Alanna says. “[Our label] isn’t making that much money off us, and we’re not making any money. So you want to do it to make sure everyone feels proud of what they’re doing, and so it seems worth it to everyone. There’s a real guilt factor if you can’t provide that or knowing you’re losing a small label money by being like ‘I have to cancel this tour’. That was a really big anxiety I had before I left Joanna Gruesome.”
The money problem extends further. The Working Musicians Report found more than half of musicians earn under £20,000 a year and small bands often hold down second jobs and take time off work to tour. Mental health can be unpredictable - “you can’t just shelve your problems because you have two weeks on tour” - and if an artist comes home from what their employer perceives to be a “two week holiday”, yet feels too uncomfortable to make it into work, it can be embarrassing and worrying to ask for more time off. “It’s hard enough to have to admit to taking time off for mental health anyway”, Alanna says, echoing a statement more than likely felt by anyone suffering with a mental illness, and when you’re in a band it can be more difficult; regular people won’t understand. They see being in a band as a choice - which, sure, is correct - and touring as a natural, fun component in that career decision - meaning “it [can be] difficult to understand why [someone] wouldn’t enjoy going on holiday and getting paid for it”. But no one chooses to have a mental illness, and when the band you’re in isn’t making much money and you need a secondary backup job, yet don’t have the monetary back-up or sick-pay from full-time work, the anxiety that arises from taking time off can increase tenfold. There’s simply no safety cushion to fall on. It’s the same for any freelancer industry.
Even the employers who are compassionate to mental health issues can often find it difficult to understand the problems that come alongside being on tour. Alanna tells me “In any entertainment industry – where people are in the public eye – there [are] lots of pressures that are not easily understood by the people who idolize famous singers… [people] think they must be having an amazing time”. It’s an issue that extends beyond the workplace and to your standard therapists too, with Alanna describing one particular visit to a therapist as feeling “like I was convincing this woman that my problems were stemming from a valid reason”. “I had to explain touring to her… [with other therapists] I basically gloss over it now”.
For smaller working musicians - whether they’re in a band like Joanna Gruesome, playing on TV soundtracks, or working as a session guitarist - finance can be one of the main sources of stress. Help Musicians UK - formely the Musician's Benevolent Fund - is a charity that was founded almost 100 years ago, and deals with everything from “a little bit of stress to serious psychotic disorders. Substance abuse. Anything that might affect a musician's career”. Their strapline - “backing musicians throughout their careers” - is an onpoint description of what they do.
When I meet with Help Musician’s Director of Giving, Susan Dolton, she tells me the charity has, essentially, been set up to combat some of the problems Alanna’s been describing. They can help in a dramatic way - “paying for any bills, any medical treatment [a musician] may need, and trying to get them back to work as quickly as possible”. Help Musicians can’t go into detail about the musicians they have helped because of confidentiality, but Susan offered a current example of a 40 year-old musician who has suffered a stroke, who the charity are currently offering continuing care. I ask Alanna if she’s heard about their charity before and she tells me that she hasn’t - yet would have definitely used the service if she’d known about it. That’s one of the things Help Musicians are currently trying to do. They want to raise awareness and become an information hub and resource for working musicians.
However, despite the charity’s benevolence, the British Phonographic Industry provides them with no monetary support - which leads us back to Brian Harvey. If the music industry makes money from artists, should they have an obligation to also help those musicians when they’re in need of support?
“When you start releasing music you learn about various things like PRS and PPL (essentially: the way British musicians make money from royalties) – and I feel like [this charity and issues surrounding mental health] should be something people also find out about [when they sign to a label]. It should be something record labels talk about when they start negotiating contracts,” explains Alanna.
“The hospitality and pastoral care aspect of the music industry is more focused on getting people the drugs that they want and everything on their rider and a nice hotel – rather than some support when you’ve been on tour for two years straight and you’ve lost contact with your family, or something like that. It doesn’t seem to be a major priority”.
Before anything can happen, the general attitudes regarding mental health need to change. “Some people still think that depression is trivial and not a genuine health condition. They’re wrong. Depression is a real illness with real symptoms, and it’s not a sign of weakness or something you can ‘snap out of’ by ‘pulling yourself together’” - the NHS write on their website. Stigmatisation in particular is something that affects the dance music world, where it’s seen almost as a given that DJs go out all the time, take drugs, and party late through the night. Speaking in an article on DJ Broadcast, DJ Jeremy P. Caulfield thinks the image of the troubled DJ could have a detrimental impact on an artist’s career stating “the legitimate side of dance music, where it has moved to now, i.e. big money and business, has grown and any sign of weakness is deemed to be bad.”
But there have been some breakthroughs in changing attitudes toward mental health in music. In a recent feature in The Observer, Kendrick Lamar said he experienced depression as a teenager and again, after releasing good kid, m.A.A.d city. Talking about the origin of his name in Pitchfork, ILoveMakonnen stated “I was very depressed and very angry and I just had to bring myself out of all of that. So: iLoveMakonnen”. The War on Drugs recent album was written while Adam Granduciel beat back crippling anxiety and isolation.
Mental health is a vast issue which affects a lot of people. Even more so than before, it’s a topic that’s wide out in the open - with celebrities, musicians, politicians all getting involved and helping to raise awareness. But while that awareness continues to be raised, monetary support needs to follow suit. As the aforementioned Labour MP Simon Danczuk said in his interview with Rochdale News: "The music industry is still asleep to the problem and I think too many people fall back on a romantic view of mental health. They romanticise the struggles of people like Ian Curtis, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse. But the reality is there’s nothing romantic about mental health and we need to clear away the ignorance around this problem.”
You can find Ryan Bassil on Twitter: @RyanBassil
Visit the Help Musicians UK website here.