Modern life is rubbish, as a wise Britpop band once told us. At least, it can be, if digital noise, work pressures and an always-on lifestyle start to get on top of you, or if you’re not receiving good enough support for your mental-health needs.
The music industry certainly isn’t the only sector where these issues exist, but it’s a good thing that they’re being talked about more often at industry conferences: breaking down the stigma around discussing wellbeing and mental health.
A panel at AIM’s Indie-Con conference in London today was the latest example. Speakers included Fiona McGugan from the MMF; Jeryl Wilton from Infectious PR; Clarisse Quinn from ATC Management; Sam Parker from Music Support; and Rachel Jepson from Counselling for Musicians. Nathan Barley Phillips from Basick Records moderated.
Parker began by talking about Music Support‘s round-the-clock helpline, used by managers, artists and label / live-crew staff, often in a point of crisis. It has a network of mental-health professionals that it can tap into to guide callers to the best source of help, be that rehab, psychiatric assessment or something else. It also runs safe, alcohol-free “semi-therapeutic zones” backstage at music festivals, and runs workshops and training.
Jepson, meanwhile, is a trained counsellor who’s also writing a book about mental health for musicians and the music industry, and sees a “massive need” for more support within this industry: these issues affect a wide range of people at every level.
McGugan talked about the pressures that are at work here. “Financial instability is probably one of the leading causation factors for difficulties in mental health,” she said. “As an industry thats’ pretty widespread. We have a lot of financial instability in this business. A lot of people’s livelihoods essentially rely on the artist and their wellbeing, and that can be a hell of a lot of pressure on the artists.”
“My upbringing was a bingo board of mental health problems,” she continued, talking about her own experience being diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and noting that managers are often the people who have to support artists as issues emerge. “It can be really difficult to understand what that person’s going through if you haven’t gone through it yourself.” So the MMF is trying to help managers to do that.
Quinn talked about the duties of a manager to not just look after an artist’s professional career, but to look after their wellbeing.
“You have to think about your own mental health… if you can’t look after yourself, you can’t in turn look after your artists,” she said. “There’s a fine line between supporting and being able to point in the right direction, and turning into some kind of mother, counsellor, relative… I think boundaries are one of the most important things you can set early on with your artists. It just helps to clarify that line. You can give too much, and that ultimately probably leads to resentment on both sides.”
The challenge is recognising a crisis, and to be able to put the work aside and prioritise an artist’s wellbeing. “My artists can feel they’re on a bit of a bandwagon and don’t see where it ends,” she said. Tactics include scheduling in ‘decompression time’ – for example, a month off after an artist returns from a tour of the US.
But making sure you as the manager eat, exercise and have ‘off-phone’ time is key too. “I’m strict: at evenings and weekends I don’t get calls from my artists. They know now to respect that!” she said. “And vice versa: I don’t call them.”
Parker talked about the role of family background: she grew up in a family where she was the “emotional thermostat” supporting and mediating between her parents. “I’ve been hothoused in this. So what do I do when I enter the music industry? I go and work as an artist manager! Because I’m really good at it!” she laughed.
“I worked with Razorlight for five years. That pushed all of my buttons, and at times was awful. Absolutely awful. And that isn’t one person’s fault. We come from a family of origin and then we choose our family of choice. And what do we do? We set up the same f***ing dynamic!. That’s just human nature… But it is unsustainable, and then if you add in late nights, booze, drugs, ramping up at the end of the day when your body is trying to say it’s time to go to bed…”
This was a key point: the music industry dynamic “flies in the face of our bodily rhythms… everything is hyper-aroused, it’s a buzz, it’s a thrill. And doing that every night on tour, or when you’re out scouting for bands, it’s very hard not to get on that bandwagon, that train,” said Parker.
Jepson noted that there are different mental-health issues that go with the different levels of success within the music industry. “Some of the musicians that I work with are struggling to make it,” she said. “There’s so much pressure for struggling musicians, and it is 24 hours a day. Some of them have a day job and then they get home and do their music job, sending stuff out, promoting themselves,” she said.
“Then if you’re on tour, there are so many issues that can go with that. You’re not with your friends, your family. You can have a history of issues and you’re not getting support with that… you could have substance problems. There’s definitely themes: the same kind of themes come up: making it, pressure, success. Have I made it or not?”
“There’s a myth, not just in our industry or our country, it’s a global myth, that mental illness is a weakness, that it attacks a certain type of person,” said McGugan. “It’s great to see how full this room is [at the conference]… this is the beginning of changing that dialogue and changing that conversation. It’s not coming from one particular place or person. It’s this global movement understanding that this needs to be an open conversation. People who have stories should be able to share them.”
There has been a reticence in some quarters for people to seek support, in case they are viewed as ‘damaged goods’ and suffer in their career – for example losing a label deal.
“In the football industry they screen players and monitor their social media and try to pick out any issues, and that can affect a deal. That’s such dangerous territory. We should be able to openly talk about these things without it having an adverse effect,” said McGugan. “It would be really sad for this business if things went that way.”
Wilton said that his PR company has seen managers reluctant to share details about artists’ mental-health issues in the past. “It’s only now that some of our clients, the managers, are open to talking to us about it,” he said. “There is an anxiety that if we say someone’s struggling with their mental health, the label’s not going to want to do the next single, or the next album won’t get as much budget.”
Quinn said that things are changing. “We’re hearing artists be more honest about why they’re pulling tours. Especially hearing it from men is inspiring to see, and people’s reactions: the fans are so understanding,” she said.
How can a manager have the conversation with an artist about their lifestyle, and the impact it might be having on their mental health? “It can be really difficult to have a conversation with somebody who doesn’t want to change,” said Parker. “If somebody has an environmental trigger that causes an addiction to something – substances, a behaviour, sex, whatever it is – it’s up to them whether they decide that’s a problem for them or not. We as outsiders may see that’s a problem, but we have to be really careful about that… It’s a difficult conversation to have.”
Which is not to say it should be avoided: Music Support has run workshops on how to hold those conversations with suitable tact. “You push too hard, and you’ll get told to do one. So it’s tough,” said Parker.
Jepson returned to the theme of pressure to get to a certain level or hit certain targets. “You might be an A&R person who’s had to scout and look for bands and you’re not getting the level of bands you used to. There’s pressure there… you’re looking for validation,” she said. “And when you get it, it feels good and exciting… This industry more than any other relies on that validation. You’re relying on the affirmation of others all the time.”
Phillips talked about his experience: his mother died from cancer, his best friend killed himself, and his business was struggling. “Those three things were the trigger for me: it just all went downhill. So what can we do from an industry perspective to prioritise wellness in our day-to-day, or spotting these things early on in people: friends and colleagues?” he said.
“It’s so important as an industry that we become more preventative than reactive,” said McGugan. “Most of the problems boil down to two factors: success or failure. And you need to be prepared for everything that comes with success: ego inflation, access to drugs, travel… but you also need to be prepared for everything that comes with failure. And in order to be more preventative we have to be better at education. We have to be better at talking to artists about those other ‘soft’ issues that come with success or failure. And prepare, prepare, prepare… I think people need to feel more equipped.”
She suggested that every company (or tour) should have a designated ‘mental-health first-aider’ who’s prepared for a crisis, but also available to talk when people need support that isn’t yet a crisis.
Wilton had a similar tale to Phillips about deaths of friends and family allied with business challenges sending him into a tailspin. “The only way I was able to hold it all together was to really learn how to prioritise my time,” he said. “It’s really important to learn, especially in this industry of people-pleasing, of learning how to say ‘no’. How to set boundaries.”
Quinn talked about young people starting in the industry, with her own first job being for a “tyrant” who made her feel that she should feel lucky to have the job, rather than speak out about problems. “That’s really dangerous,” she said. “Looking out for the people who are starting out and making sure they understand where their job starts and where it ends is really key… And with management and artists, the boundaries is probably the most important lesson I’ve learned recently. Not giving too much of yourself.”
Parker agreed with McGugan. “It’s bubbling up in the western world’s consciousness, that the more people that say – like the MeToo thing – when people come out and say ‘this happened to me’ suddenly you’ve got a support network,” she said. “Let’s have a space, and let’s have our community take care of each other instead of shooting one another down.”
The session ended with a discussion about wellbeing for tour crews, which Parker thinks has been sorely neglected. Music Support and the MMF are working on a guide for tour managers, to help them treat crew better and to give them the right support.