Where Do You Turn When the Music Industry Skews Your Mental Health?
After several years spent working in the Dutch music industry, I came down with the same depressive symptoms as many of my colleagues.
Illustraties door Sander Ettema
This article originally appeared on Noisey Netherlands.
Working in the music industry is crazy. You get to watch bands, drink beer for free, go to festivals and parties, sleep in fancy hotels, and spend a lot of time backstage. And you get paid for all of it. But having worked as a press promoter for years, I started getting burnt out at the beginning of the year. I quickly discovered that there's little dialogue about mental health in the industry.
Every profession features people who complain of becoming burnt out. According to the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics, one out of seven employees is involved in a formal complaint about their workload. Compared to other industries, the music industry is unique in some aspects—the line between your personal life and your work is scarcely there, for a start. Your office is often located on festival grounds, inside a music venue, or on a tour bus, which also means the bar is never far away. It makes your work fun, interesting, and dynamic, but it can also lead to an excess of incentives.
I collapsed this year. Literally. It was a combination of causes and reasons that led me to this point: The heavy workload, the urge to prove myself, and—on top of all that—a particularly nasty experience with gossiping, power games, and adult bullying within the industry. In hindsight, it was no surprise: There were earlier moments where I'd thought I couldn't handle it anymore, but when I actually collapsed, it was extremely frustrating.
One night, I woke up crying so hard that my shoulders were shaking. It felt like I was under a tremendous rock and I couldn't escape. I was afraid that I'd have a heart attack, so I called my mother and my general practitioner. The diagnosis was swift—I was burnt out. After being absent from theoffice for a week, I decided to stop all my projects due to health issues. It was the hardest thing I'd ever had to do. After studying music management, cultivating twelve years of experience in the industry, and working hard on my own business for the last three years, I put everything at stake.
It was obvious that I needed to stop and step back from everything, but at that moment it only plunged me deeper into depression. Fortunately, my peers were more understanding than I'd expected. I received lots of private messages of support and love from my colleagues. It seemed that people were able to empathize with my situation because many of them had experienced the same symptoms as me, more or less.
My Facebook timeline is made up of hardworking colleagues who do great things. Their victories are shared, of course: A sold-out headlining show, an album gone platinum, a radio hit, successful foreign tours, promotion, a fixed contract, a trillion club gigs, a positive review of a new record, endless views on YouTube. I also shared my work successes with the rest of the world, but when your mental health feels askew, this constant deluge of information can be paralyzing. There's always someone who does it better than you. If you're representing a band and they sell out some shows, someone else will sell out an entire club tour. For every four-star review you get, someone else will have ten five-star ones.
Frank Kimenai, founder of the successful Amsterdam-based agency Lexicon Bookings, can relate to this. "The root of this [tendency to compare] lies [in] how artists are introduced into the market. Nothing ever goes wrong; bad news doesn't exist," he says. "The moment my mental health [started to decline], I started looking at other [industry colleagues], whereas I would normally focus on my own strengths. It makes you set unrealistic goals that you can never reach, which makes you feel even worse. It's a downwards spiral in our industry, and it's very hard to escape from."
In the music industry, nothing is more important than your network. Booking agents, programmers, press promoters, managers, journalists, and musicians—none of them can exist without the rest. In order to do your job well, you need to know the right people and they need to be willing to help you. To cultivate that network, you need to show your face at festivals, parties, network meetings, and shows. Going to Eurosonic Noorderslag, a renowned showcase festival in the Netherlands, one time won't mean you automatically have a foot in the door. Moreover, it's important to the artist you're working with that you're always present. This takes up a lot of time, says Kimenai. "In the first few years especially, you're all-in without taking a worthwhile vacation. Seeing festivals and tours as a kind of vacation is dangerous. You're always on, and you hardly ever can take the time to relax," he explains.
The music industry is also home to lots of freelancers who don't have sick leave and who can't simply "take a day off". When you're in bed with the stomach flu, you're still expected to reply to emails. Cinderella Schaap, owner of Professional Independent Music Promotion (PIMP), says she feels a lot of pressure even when she needs a day of rest. "It's hard to satisfy people. It's hardly ever good enough, and everyone assumes [your work] can always be better and done more often," she says. "It puts you under a lot of pressure, because you feel like you're never done with your work."
Your personal life and your work life frequently overlap. Alcohol consumption is rampant in the industry, and people don't shy away from drug use. Not everyone partakes, but the temptation is nonetheless present. It's a socially acceptable form of escapism, and it can be an indicator that someone's mental wellbeing is shaky. Using drugs to stay up on your work, or drinking to socialize more fluidly with your colleagues are both easy solutions. In the music world, it's part of the culture, which means that the general stress threshold before someone feels compelled to grab the bottle is very low. The boundary between use and abuse is often difficult to recognize, and it's a problem that applies to both musicians and professionals.
Because free time and working hours frequently cross over, the ratio between the amount of hours worked and the actual compensation for them is completely skewed, Kimenai says. "A lot of loyalty is expected from you, and you can really feel that loyalty too," he explains. "You want to be at every event and prefer not to say 'no' to the people you work with or like." It's love for the music, the profession, and the artist that makes you pursue this line of work, and it's why you remain so loyal to the business. If it's a question of love, surely the work is satisfying, right? The so-called secondary conditions and perks are fantastic: You're paid to listen to music, be at shows and festivals, and work with peers who are just as enthusiastic as you. Your name is always on the guest list, and you rarely have to pay for food or drinks.
But, Kimenai all of that stops when the ratio of work to compensation for that work becomes off-kilter. "Someone once gave me this example, and I found it so enlightening: A brain surgeon receives tremendous gratitude from the patient and their family, and the surgeon probably does their job with the feeling of having a certain mission, but we don't expect them to do it at a bargain price."
Schaap agrees. "When I worked for a record label, there was relatively little appreciation for the press people, both [with respect to] compensation and to the 'good job!' pat on the back [that everyone wants]. I think it's a bit better now, but I still find that the valuation—especially with the money—doesn't equate the time and energy you put into projects."
These days, you can study music industry at school. In addition to the musical side of it, you'll also study the business aspects of the profession. Curious to see to what extent mental health is included in the curriculum, I contacted Rob van der Veeknen, the academic studies coordinator of the Music Industry Professional program at Herman Brood Academy.
"We have a course called 'Career Development,' which is about knowing where your boundaries lie, and how you handle your physical and mental health," van der Veeken explains. "In this course, we try to prepare our students for the [realities of the] field as much as we possibly can. For example, we tell them they'll have to say 'yes' a lot at the beginning [of their careers], and how you can be a bit more discriminating with the things you agree to do later. Each class has a coach who acts as a trusted person and, of course, we also have an absentee coordinator who's in contact with the students. If someone doesn't show up [for a class, that's an indicator that it's not going well [for them]." Nowadays, freshly trained professionals are supported, guided, and aware of the pressure that awaits them in the music industry. It's a hopeful sign for the future.
But what about the professionals who are already in the field? Where can they find help? The topic seems new, but and it's one that only started to be discussed a few years ago. Our colleagues from Noisey in the UK have already made a guide, and the Music Managers Forum UK published a Music Manager's Guide to Mental Health. In the Netherlands, I see little discussion on the subject. There's no seminars at Noorderslag, and when I had a breakdown myself, I had no idea where to turn. It's important that we start talking more about burnouts within the music industry. Combined with the lack of available support, the poor visibility of these complaints is dangerous for professionals and artists alike. Once we start paying more attention, we might be able to lessen the stigma associated with mental health. In the end, a healthier industry is a more sustainable one.
Lisa Gritter is an Amsterdam-based writer. You can find her at her website, right here.