Dublin’s Robert O’Connor is a singer/songwriter and occasional journalist, whose new single, ‘You Found Me’, is out now. Robert has written a guest post for us about musicians and mental health. His new single “You Found Me” is out now. You can find out more about Robert O’Connor and his music from his official website.
Musicians being depressed is not a new phenomenon – but with the recent suicides of Avicii and Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchinson – there’s a sense that performing artists aren’t coping under the pressure that’s placed on them in an increasingly demanding industry.
We might think that a musician’s hyper-awareness of their emotions is their greatest tool – how else would we have got songs like Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back To Black’, Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Go Your Own Way’, or even ABBA’s ‘The Winner Takes It All’? That ability to tap-into the saddest moments in their lives and put it into the kind of three minute pop song that could only ever come from real-life experience is the stuff of any record company executive’s dreams. You could say, depression is a lucrative business in the music industry.
It doesn’t help that the likes of Kurt Cobain, or more recently Lana Del Rey, romanticise the stereotype of the depressed artiste. In possibly her most infamous interview, Del Rey, now 32, told The Guardian in 2014 that she “wished she was dead already”, suggesting that dying young was somehow glamourous. The New York-born singer cited the tragic Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain as her inspirations. In the same interview she described her life as a singer/songwriter as “one f**ked-up movie” and said that she desperately wanted to “stop doing everything”.
The desire to drop-out of what was once their dream career was a feeling shared by mega-successful DJ and producer Avicii, who tragically took his own life aged just 28 last month. The Swedish superstar played over 800 shows during his relatively short career – and in ‘True Stories’, a documentary aired six months before his death, the ‘Wake Me Up’ hit-maker was heard telling his management that the touring lifestyle would kill him – but he was pressured to carry on regardless. Avicii, real name Tim Bergling, sensationally quit touring in 2016, but at that point the damage was done – by then he had suffered acute pancreatitis and was forced to have his gall bladder removed – in part due to overconsumption of alcohol, which the shy star said he relied on to boost his confidence before performing. In a devastating statement following his death, Avicii’s family said: “He couldn’t do it anymore, he wanted rest”.
The problem with the life of a musician, even with those not experiencing the monumental success of someone like Avicii, is that it’s difficult to define when you’re working and when you’re not. If you’re an independent, self-managed artist, as many are, the journey to the top requires sacrifice – your personal relationships suffer, your romantic endeavours fall by the wayside, because success in the music industry requires the kind of laser focus that only a small few can master. According to Dr. George Musgrave, a lecturer at the University of Westminster and Goldsmiths, it’s the “precarious, unstable, damaging nature of the work that they do that’s really the differentiator between anxiety in an artist and that in any other professional”. Musgrave conducted a survey of over 2,000 musicians which asked one basic question: “What does it feel like to be a musician today?”
The results of the survey were startling. Published in the study “Can Music Make You Sick?”, it was revealed that 69 per cent of artists reported experiencing depression, 71 per cent experienced anxiety, and worryingly, 53 per cent found it difficult to find help. While those working as an accountant, a teacher or an IT professional might be able to assess their self-worth based on their salary, it’s not possible for a musician to do the same. An up-and-coming artist could be working around the clock, submitting their music to radio stations, blogs, influencers, traditional print media and gig promoters, a task where the worst outcome is an empty inbox and the best is “coverage” to help you find a few new fans willing to stream your latest single. With Spotify paying just a fraction of a cent per stream of a song, the ability to make the big bucks – or just keep paying the bills – is a reality that would make even the most confident creator feel anxious. “It creates this existential crisis at the heart of being a musician surrounding the idea of value and worth”, Musgrave told UK independent label AWAL (Artists Without a Label). While your friends with more traditional professions might have a fair idea of where they’ll be in ten years’ time – the trajectory of a musician’s life is much less predictable.
The uncertainty of what’s to come might be considered an exciting prospect if you’re going-on 15 years in the same job, in the same building, in the same town – but to a musician it’s that very uncertainty that’s the catalyst for their anxiety. Add-in an increased amount of late nights – from performing gigs night-in, night-out, to alcohol fuelled after-parties, and then throw in the temptation – and often requirement – to attend the opening of an envelope at any number of events per week, all in a desperate bid to stay relevant. It’s the sort of lifestyle that you can only maintain for so long.
Worst of all, there’s the stigma of mental health issues that remains a reality, particularly for artists in the public eye. Record executives have been known to tell their stars they need to shed the fat to improve their outward appearance – a sensitive situation the likes of Kesha and Kelly Clarkson have found themselves in – but who’s checking for the arguably more important mental wellbeing of their money-making music-makers? Do we need more A-listers to come out in force and talk openly about their struggles in an industry that thinks nothing of photo-shopping out anything it doesn’t want us to see?
One thing is for certain – the current musical landscape, where the audience’s attention-span is shorter than ever, and the demand for fresh content is at an all-time high thanks to technology and our ever-growing expectations, there’s more pressure on artists than ever to create, promote, deliver, rinse and repeat. The days of an album every three years cycle are over – if you’re already established, there’s the worry of taking a break in case some newcomer fills your shoes, and if you’re on the way up, there’s the concern that you might just be on the verge of something wonderful with your next single.
We often envy artists for their luxe lifestyles, the awards that are lavished upon the them, and maybe even sometimes for their above-average abilities, but it’s not an easy ride – there’s no secret door in, and if we’re to use Avicii as an example, death might be the only way out.