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Believe them when they say: touring is breaking musicians
And: Future Proof your Community; UMG's strategy on TikTok; Worldbuilding
It is harrowing to know that you, as a concert-goer, might be funding your favorite artists' descent into depression. However, it is a feeling we have all come to know far too well. This September, English musician Sam Fender announced the cancelation of upcoming shows to battle burnout.
“It seems completely hypocritical of me to advocate discussions on mental health and write songs about it if I don’t take time to look after my own,”
he explained in an Instagram post. Similarly, Canadian pop star Shawn Mendes announced this summer he would be scrubbing the remaining dates on his Wonder tour to heal; and, more recently, American singer and songwriter Demi Lovato alluded to their upcoming tour being their last. In a now-deleted Instagram story they wrote “I can’t do this anymore.”
“I am broken.” Only a few days after Fender’s statement, it was the turn of Mercury Prize winner Arlo Parks to take to social media to air out yet another pained admission - that she was to scrap a string of US dates and fly back to her UK home for a period of rest and recovery from working herself
“to the bone. The people around me started to get worried, but I was anxious to deliver and afraid to disappoint my fans and myself, she added. I pushed myself unhealthily, further, and harder than I should’ve.”
The reputation of live music is thoroughly tarnished. Placing the touring ecosystem in under a microscope, perhaps most telling of all is how damaging it has proven to be for the musicians’ mental stability. This is now more than an open secret, following the conversation started by Fender, Parks, Mendes, Lovato, and many more. Collectively, we have emerged from the pandemic amidst a mental health crisis to reckon with, as well as collective burnout and the realization the rat race is not worth destroying ourselves over. But why is it that touring musicians are not allowed to catch up, and are being left to spoil in our old, unsustainable ways?
Writing a song has never made me unhappy
The entertainment industry in general and the music industry in particular has a complicated history of entanglement with exploitation, addiction, and death - which does not seem coincidental. It is this problematic track record that Ian Winwood files in his book, ‘Bodies: Life and Death In Music’, published this April by Faber Faber. In it, following accounts from the likes of Foo Fighters, Green Day, Trent Reznor, and others, the music journalist scrutinizes the industry's cannibalizing nature, all the while detailing his own struggles with addiction and mental health.
It is especially haunting to hear from those who have since passed on, including Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington, and Mark Lanegan. It begs the question of whether these men would have been less likely to have been propelled to the edge if they had worked in offices, as opposed to in and out of the world’s largest stages.
Winwood’s book received the praise rightfully reserved for those who are read exactly by those who are in need of them. This is especially plain given how it was timely launched onto a world still reeling from the death of Foo Fighter’s drummer Taylor Hawkins. NME’s Mark Beaumont put it best when he wrote
“‘Bodies’ opened up a much-needed debate about the nature of the music industry as an insatiable meat grinder for creative souls with an instinct for self-destruction.”
Given the conversation currently permeating Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms, there is no denying his industry-wide callout rings true.
It is widely known that, for a myriad of reasons that range from irregular working patterns to financial worries and performance anxiety (as well as a heightened exposure to racism, sexism, and LGBTphobia), musicians are not doing well. In 2016, the UK charity Help Musicians noticed a 22% rise in the number of those seeking help for mental health issues. Upon commissioning a survey of more than 2,000 self-identified professional UK musicians, carried out by researchers at the University of Westminister, Help Musicians verified that two-thirds of them had experienced depression - three times more than the general population. Over 50% of the respondents said they found it hard to seek resources, suggesting a correlation between working in the music industry and struggling with one’s mental health, as well as seeking support. It is, according to those surveyed, the industry that is entirely at fault. In the words of the respondent and songwriter Lauren Aquilina, “writing a song has never made me unhappy… It’s the industry.”
The link between artistry and depression has been widely accepted, tolerated, and romanticized by a culture that, at best, ignores it, and, at worst, enables it. In a conversation with Zane Lowe in honor of World Mental Health Day a year ago, musician, songwriter, and producer James Blake said the industry actively discourages balance, blocking musicians from sharing their struggles.
“If we do, then the likelihood is that it will make it uncomfortable for somebody (...), whether it’s a manager, an agent, or a label (...), because at a certain point in our careers it can grind us to a whole and stop us from actually making everybody money.”
The road will kill you
The million-dollar question is, then; if James Blake was openly denouncing how the music industry drives artists to the brink in 2021, why is everything worse in 2022?
And how is it that in a post-pandemic world in which we are all apparently choosing life over work musicians are getting left behind, forced to trudge along an outdated and out-proven model of endless, breakdown-inducing, and sometimes deathly grind?
The truth is that for musicians, especially those just starting out, the need to tour is greater than ever. This is due to money matters which we will delve into in the next article in this series. At present, the TL;DR version is as follows; touring is one of the last sure-fire money-making avenues for musicians. Supposedly, at least. Besides, there is the need for musicians to chase what industry journalist Eamonn Forde calls the “audience algorithm.” In the current year, if you are not constantly churning yourself out as consumable content, the likelihood is that you will be forgotten by the public. Hence, perhaps more than ever before, acts feel coerced into displaying themselves non-stop by embarking on never-ending tours - especially in a time in which there is what feels like an eternity of lockdown stillness to make up for.
Touring has always been a grueling ordeal. At the cusp of the world-changing lockdowns, The Guardian’s Jim Farber penned a piece tackling the then-phenomenon of older musicians ditching the road, as, that year, even before live music stopped altogether, veteran acts such as Ozzy Osbourne and Madonna were letting it all go. The toll touring takes on one’s body and mind is one that does not necessarily relate to age, though. As Farber quotes, in the much-loved music documentary ‘The Last Waltz’, about The Band’s final 1976 concert, bandleader Robbie Robertson faces the camera and says, simply: “the road will kill you.” He was thirty-three then.
However prophetic, science backs up Robertson’s statement. In May of this year, the Swinburne University of Technology surveyed 1,300 people working in live music, including musicians, songwriters, production crew, managers, producers, and performing artists. The grim results showed that more than half of the respondents had experienced suicidal thoughts - nearly five more times than the general Australian population. One in ten had acted upon them. These factors were, of course, exacerbated by the pandemic, a time in which more than 47% of the respondents lost their job, and 61% said it affected their feeling of belonging to the music industry. All of these pressure points are now rising to the surface, echoed in the confessions of Arlo Parks, Sam Fender, Shawn Mendes, and many, many more.
If they are telling you they are broken, believe them
Fortunately, we live in an era in which, for better or for worse, we are privy to our favorite artist’s utmost personal admittances if they choose to share them. Whereas in 1976 audiences would have been left to their own devices to read into Robbie Robertson’s passing statement (which they would have to watch ‘The Last Waltz’ to witness), nowadays, thanks to social media, artists big and small are only a couple of clicks away from letting us into their own private reality and urging us to act upon it.
The first step is being taken already - not by any industry leaders, but by the artists themselves. In an interview with Consequence, which published an editorial on the topic just last week, clinical psychologist Ezra Feinberg notes that these admissions can lead to a chain reaction. A person’s insight into themselves, after all, can be a catalyst for others’ self-reflection. “Maybe it starts with something dramatic like canceling a tour,” he argues. Tamsin Embleton, director of the Music Industry Therapy Collective (MITC) echoes his words, observing that tour cancellations “may galvanize others who are struggling to do the same.”
Testimonies from critical darlings like Parks and household names like Mendes and Lovato expose ugly fissures in live music’s shining veneer. As the cracks become harder and harder to ignore, the industry will have no choice but to mend itself if it doesn’t want to inevitably break. And, as the conversation becomes mainstream (some will say it already has), all artists’ voices may be heard, understood, and respected.
New experiences emerge, which can be classified as attempts at curbing the current touring ecosystem’s many perils. However, most of these seem reserved for those rich and powerful enough to do so. Such is the case of city-specific residencies, a model being successfully tested by Harry Styles’ Madison Square Garden stint and LCD Soundsystem’s month-long Brooklyn appearances. There is also the growing number of acts fleeing to and staying in Vegas, Elvis Presley-style. And, of course, there is the increasingly real avenue of virtual alternatives to traditional touring. We will be delving deeper into what these alternatives entail further down the line.
For now, organizations like Help Musicians are ensuring all musicians - including the kind which could never realistically embark on a residency, for instance - do not get left behind. In 2017, they launched Music Minds Matter, a free helpline providing advice, information, resources, and professional and clinical services catered towards musicians in need. Another source of support is Music Support, founded a year earlier by a group of music industry veterans, focusing particularly on addiction.
And what can we do, as we watch the current live music sector crash and burn? According to Winwood, if we want to see change, we listen - genuinely. For The Collective founder Courtney Grimes, the process is underway. “Mental health has become way less stigmatized in these circles,” she notes, also in Consequence. But one dash at the comment section on the article’s Instagram post proves public smirch exists still, as one commenter reacted by typing out “‘poor rich people 😢’.” Baltimore rapper JPEGMafia was quick to respond, posting
“this is why people shit on yall. When u say shit like this ur just being dismissive and trivializing peoples mental health.”
As it stands, the public’s empathy might be one of the biggest hurdles standing in the way of an industry-wide fix, which will be neither quick nor easy.
Even those who have the sensitivity of looking deeper into these issues might feel inclined to mindlessly applaud these gestures of self-care, whilst internally boiling at scrapped evening plans. But it is crucial to reflect further on what is happening and to question our desire to see touring musicians as perfectly oiled entertainment machines, capable of sustaining any working conditions necessary, as if their celebrity, big or small, has made them grow past human. As Winwood puts it,
“If an artist has risen to a point where people know their name, they are already tough, they’re already resilient. So if they are telling you they are broken, believe them.”
Future-proof your community (Angela Jin)
“What would happen if you stepped away from your community? … Ok, it is a stinky thought experiment. It’s still a very good question to ask yourself, especially if you hold any responsibility in your community. The best communities inspire passionate members, resulting in stronger senses of responsibility. It is often unbelievably difficult to think about letting go of that responsibility.”
Lucian Grainge On UMG’s Ability to Monetize TikTok and Other New Platforms: ‘I Have Seen This Movie Before, I Know the Ending’ (Dylan Smith)
“When you look at what the funnel that TikTok has, when you look at the billions of views, the rate at which the company has grown…I think there’s – we will fight and determine how our artists get paid and when they get paid in the same way that we have done throughout the industry for many, many, many years. I have seen this movie before, I know the ending.”
Dirt: Worldbuilding, Pt. 1 (Terry Nguyen)
“There’s a risk to enlarging a world beyond necessity. This hypothetical realm reminds me of the planet Mars: aesthetically potent and potentially habitable, but devoid of any humanity. The "human component” is often tethered to a central character, who is the stand-in for the audience to experience a designated world. People don’t need to explore every minutiae to feel immersed in a world, though certain details might need to be charted out.”
It has been a while since strangeness struck a chord with me like this. Although Marina Herlop is a classically trained vocalist, pianist and composer, the Catalan artist sheds any pretense of convention on 'Pripyat', her third record, released this May on cult label PAN. Her music is profoundly exciting, emotional, and singular, filled with intricate trickery and surprises at every turn.