Help Musicians talks mental health and the music industry (interview)


Earlier this week, UK charity Help Musicians announced that it was launching the Music Minds Matter initiative to support musicians dealing with mental health issues.

The organisation is putting in £100,000 – and setting up a fundraising campaign to raise the same again – to help towards the running of a 24-hour helpline that will launch later this year.

Music Ally spoke to CEO Richard Robinson about the initiative, as well as the risks of an “always on” culture in music and why mental health has to stay at the top of the agenda and not just become a transient cause du jour.

What was the background to Music Minds Matter?

“Back in 2015, Help Musicians commissioned the first global academic research into musicians and mental health – and this was done in conjunction with the University of Westminster and MusicTank.

That academic report was also, in itself, triggered by our own health and welfare survey earlier in 2015 , which looked at the whole gamut of health issues in the music industry.

It was very obvious that mental health was a growing issue. The organisation at the time discussed ways of trying to end the stigma by trying to get more musicians and those in the industry to come forward and talk about the challenges.

Phase one was the study that we did ourselves. This highlighted the fact that musicians are three times more likely to suffer from mental health issues, depression or anxiety than other professions.

When we published the initial campaign, which was called Musicians And Depression – or MAD –  what we were trying to do was shock a few people by saying it was time that music lovers understood the scourge of mental health issues amongst musicians.

The MAD campaign launched in April 2016 at The Great Escape festival in Brighton and was all about trying to get as much publicity as possible around musicians and mental health, using the statistical analysis that we had from this academic study to help it take root.

It has certainly done that. More and more musicians are coming forward and admitting that they have suffered from or struggled with mental health issues – as well as alcoholism or addiction.”

Is it in part about changing the dangerous narrative around music that has existed for years whereby the notion of the “tortured genius” in music has become deified?

“There is that notion of the tortured creative genius and it is still very evident in the music industry in 2017. The other issue, on a grassroots level, is the idea of being a musician being a proper job.

It is about how you connect those two issues – that issue of the tortured creative genius and the fact that being a musician is a bona fide profession that people need to take seriously and that needs to have the same breaks as every other profession on the planet.

There is, of course, the 27 Club [famous acts who die at the age of 27], but there are also are those who are below the radar who are affected by these issues.

We are getting calls from grassroots artists who are just making their first records [who are having problems]. It is a question of how we treat all musicians at all levels to give them the respect they deserve and treat them with the same courtesy – and to give them the same service – as every other vocation. That is where the idea of the 24/7 mental health line came from.

If you’re a DJ or musician, the time that you’re most likely to be suffering from this issue is when you have left the stage and find that buzz has gone.”

Help Musicians

Why did you decide on this method of fundraising as a way to get additional funds?

“We have a specific fund which we unveiled for £100,000. We believe that will help fund a mental health service in the UK 24/7 – and we are in advanced discussions on helping that to take shape.

But we want it to be sustainable and we want it to be gold standard. More important than that, we want to make sure that the service we launch tackles all the streams that run parallel to mental health. We can only do that with an increased investment.”

Is there a risk of this just absolving the government of any responsibility here?

“We are a non-governmental organisation and we are staunchly independent in terms of the fact that we have never received governmental funding – or even music industry funding. We are 100% independent and all our money come from musicians.

This is a vocational issue. Extra funding to the NHS in terms of mental health is 100% a requirement for the whole of the UK population. All that we can do is work with organisations like UK Music to make sure that the government keeps mental health on the agenda and it doesn’t just become a cause célèbre.”

Is the culture of “always on” in the music industry creating a dangerous climate for mental health as there is no respite for musicians?

“The rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle is often glamorised and that goes hand in hand with that notion of the tortured genius. This organisation exists for anyone whose income comes from music or the music industry. That can be anyone aged 18+.

This is not all about fame, sex, drugs or rock ‘n’ roll. We get people phoning up who are homeless musicians. We get people phoning up who are about to be kicked out of their flat. Or people who are unable to perform due to injuries or illness. We also support retired musicians.

We are not pointing a finger at the music industry and telling them they have a duty of care over these individuals and that this is their problem. We are not saying that.

What we have got to ensure it is that individuals in the music industry – be they artists or those behind the scenes –  understand that that a 24/7 lifestyle and always being on the go is going to have a negative effect on your health as well as your mental health.”

Is this a topic that musicians are comfortable talking about yet?

“For us it has been a challenge to get music industry role models to come forward and talk openly about mental health. It was even more difficult in America.

It is one of the reasons why we went public in this manner as we wanted as many people as possible to come forward to create this safety net of understanding and to create this network of role models who can talk about their own experiences. It goes beyond the music industry; it goes across the whole creative sector.”

Is there a risk this becomes the cause du jour and gets forgotten about quickly?

“Yes, it has the potential to become a cause célèbre. This is so linked to the tragic losses of fantastic, creative talent [recently] that we are now at the “enough is enough” stage.

The famous musicians who go public on this need to be the torch bearers for younger musicians who are having exactly the same issues. We have to be leading the charge and […] also ensuring that our responses are long lasting, sustainable and not just a flash in the pan.”

Read Music Ally’s previous coverage of wellbeing in the music industry:
Staying healthy in the music industry’s 24-7 culture – FastForward panel
How can we prioritise mental health in the music industry? – AIM panel

Eamonn Forde

Read More: Analysis News
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