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Dance Music and Drugs Are Long Overdue a Healthier Relationship

Tom Usher

Industry heads offer up their thoughts on how our approaches to sesh culture and its toll on mental health need to change.

Some say music is food for the soul. For others – and in particular those who listen to dance music and any of its offshoot genres – it’s part and parcel of getting smashed. Where previous generations had their Summer of Love, we have meme accounts like Humans of the Sesh. From pre-drinks and lines of coke before the rave, to pills on the dancefloor, to melting with ket and some tinnies at the after party, we’re living in the ‘Ketflix and Pills’ generation.

Right now, indulging on a night out is visibly more commonplace than ever before; even if you’re not involved, it’s there on your Instagram, your friend’s story, your Facebook page. What these memes fail to show, however, is the very real damage drugs, and the dance music lifestyle they’ve become inextricably linked with, can do to your mental health. Sure, boshing a few pills once a year might not hurt you in the long-run. But what about those who cane it every weekend, from the straight-through-crew, to the DJs who service the tunes night after night – often jetting around the globe without little more than a break. Clearly, there’s an impact on the latter and their mental and physical health, as evidenced mostly recently by Avicii who took a break from touring after being diagnosed with pancreatitis from excessive drinking.

In specific relation to musicians, a 2016 study called ‘Can Music Make You Sick?’ by Help Musicians UK – led by Sally Anne Grosse and Dr George Musgrave – reported some staggering facts. Of all the musicians they surveyed, 71 percent experience anxiety while 53 percent found it difficult to find mental help. There’s obviously a myriad of reasons behind these figures, but with specific relation to dance music and the recent tragedy of Avicii, it’s hard to look past the creeping normalisation of drug culture as something that’s starting to take its toll.

This year, at the International Music Summit, industry professionals will be discussing the issue of mental health in the music industry. Ahead of that, I spoke to four of the speakers for their advice on what needs to change in relation to dance music and the drug culture that is as much a part of its life as it might also be the lead into later mental health problems. Here’s what they had to say:

Kelly Money – Vice President of management company Little Empire Music

Some artists feel they need to have a few drinks to have the confidence to perform, or the confidence to even socialise - there’s a real pressure to be perceived in a certain way. More worryingly, when artists are feeling drained from too much travel and lack of sleep, they often feel they need alcohol or drugs to get them through the next gig. And it’s not just recreational drugs that are an issue, artists can start to over-use sleeping tablets or pain killers to help combat the effects of jet lag or a disrupted sleep schedule.

I think drug use has become socially and culturally acceptable, and in fact somewhat encouraged and applauded: it feels like a completely normal and almost expected part of the dance music scene. It could be seen that the industry is not taking the issue seriously or taking responsibility for the negative effects of drug use. The normalisation and humour surrounding drug use can potentially make the people experiencing subsequent mental health issues feel “different” and less likely to admit there’s a problem.

How we combat this problem is a very difficult question. The environment dance music artists are working in – and the social pressures within it – are not going to change any time soon. But I do feel that people working in a professional capacity for the artist have a duty of care to protect their health and wellbeing. A regular dialogue about ways to promote a healthy balanced lifestyle is important, as well as taking measures to reduce the stresses that can lead to increased consumption of drugs or alcohol. Education for managers and tour managers is important in order for people to recognise when there might be a problem, and we need guidance on how to deal with it. There’s a real perception among artists that everyone is burning the candle at both ends and they’re all doing fine, but honestly I haven’t worked with many artists who have been completely unaffected by the excessiveness of the touring lifestyle.

Mark Lawrence – Chief Executive, Association for Electronic Music

Mental health is a society issue and one that is currently weighing heavily on men. While our genre continues – frustratingly to be male heavy, we will see a correlation in mental health issues. What's unique about dance music is the amount of travel, isolation and switching from adrenalin highs to absolute lows in short spaces of time. In most genres a band supports each other, tours, takes time off, then goes to the studio for months with musicians and producers. In our genre, there is rarely a long ‘off’ and there is rarely a team.

I worked in banking for 10 years and saw many people with many forms of addiction so I don’t think the problems are unique to our genre. It’s simply that our genre is the number one genre with the biggest stars and biggest audience, so all eyes are on us, which is why it’s critical that we work together to provide information, education and solutions to fans and professionals everywhere to stay healthy and maintain balance. As a young genre, you could also argue we have reached the point of openness quicker than most.

Blaise James – Co-founder of mental health and wellness event Remedy State

I grew up in America, so I have an outside perspective on European culture. That said, I’ve spent loads of time in Europe in the last five years or so; living in London and traveling across Berlin, Barcelona, Amsterdam and Ibiza. One of the things I noticed was that – especially in the cities with harsher climates like London, Berlin and Amsterdam – drug culture seems much more deeply embedded in the overall way of life [in Europe]. Not coincidentally, those cities are also some of the most important hubs for music and creativity in the world. I am not suggesting that there is a cause-and-effect relationship there, but my theory is that both things are driven by the fact that there is little else to do during the cold winters and long nights.

You don’t want the music to be overshadowed by the drug culture, and that’s what’s happening to an extent. For me personally, it was as simple as realising that if I wanted to be able to DJ for the rest of my life, I’d have to start taking care of myself in order to stay in the race. When music is your profession or career, and the club is your office, I think you have to condition yourself if you want to last. The kids at the shows are going out a few times a week and letting loose, but we live this. You can’t party like that all the time and not expect it’s going to have an effect on you.

Christine Brown – Director Of External Affairs at charity Help Musicians UK

There may be specific reasons why people in dance music suffer from mental health issues as opposed to other genres – there are the unsociable hours, finding it really hard to get into a routine, which leads people to use drugs to stay awake; there's the strain it puts on your relationships with your family and friends; and there's how unpredictable a music career can be in terms of success. For those that aren’t global stars, there are money worries too. Female DJ’s have also talked about the unsafe environment for women specifically, and the sexual harassment and discrimination they face. Issues like that would lead to wider mental health issues.

Events like Remedy State look at everything from nutrition, to mental health, to exercise, so it’s a range of things that are all important to focus on. With Avicii, which was obviously a tragedy, there were many factors and it’s tricky to say what more could’ve been done. But it does throw up the questions of ‘Who was responsible? Who was providing support?’ I think people do have a duty of care to those with mental health issues, both high profile and non high profile, and it has come out of our study that a lot people don’t know where to go when they need help, which is why we provide our service.

I think there’s been a long-running idea in music of the ‘tortured genius’: someone who needs to take drugs and drink alcohol to be a rockstar. And we’ve seen many many tragedies over the years as a result of that, but I do feel like the stigma around mental health is being challenged. I think Ben Pearce coming out on Facebook a few years back discussing his mental health issues really opened the conversation up in the dance music scene, and I think the more people that talk openly about it the less stigma there will be attached to it.

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If you or someone you know have been struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide, the Samaritans in the UK can be contacted seven days a week, at any time, on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.