Research shows that musicians are three times more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression than people in other jobs. Sadly, mental health issues have been overwhelmingly prevalent in the music industry at least since the second half of the 20th century. But why? And what can be done about it?
Mental health issues in the music industry are undeniable. According to a study made by two University of Westminster lecturers, 70% and 68.5% of musicians reported suffering from, respectively, depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, different research has reached the same conclusions. According to a Record Union study, 73% of independent musicians struggle with mental illness and only 19% are happy with working conditions in the music industry. To make matters worse, both studies were published before the pandemic (which certainly didn’t make things easier for professional musicians).
On the other hand, music is known to have a positive effect on mental health. Playing and listening to music can stimulate the brain and improve mood. Music is also associated with improved quality of life and frequently used as a form of therapy. As a music fan, you probably don’t need any of these studies to know that music is good for you; but if listening to music is so beneficial for our mental health, why are the people making music having such a hard time?
That is, in a nutshell, the question I will be trying to answer in this article. While not all things are black-and-white in this debate, there are some clear parallels between the way the music industry works and the mental-health impact it has on musicians. It’s only by recognizing and raising awareness of these issues that we can, collectively, change things for the better.
Live fast, die young: why are musicians more likely to suffer from mental health issues?
Research has shown that there’s a conclusive link between conditions such as depression and anxiety and the music industry. However, most music fans didn’t need this research at all to know that mental health issues are prevalent in music. After all, they have been more than accustomed to seeing some of their favorite stars die young.
Kurt Cobain is perhaps the most famous example, but the music industry’s death toll is seemingly neverending and continues to grow. There’s the 27 Club, Avicii, Chester Bennington, Lil Peep, and many, many more. The causes of death range from suicide to overdose, but they’re all intrinsically connected to mental health and the music industry.
It would be impossible to recognize and exhaust all of the reasons why musicians struggle with mental health more than people in other jobs. However, I believe these are some of the most significant:
There are systemic issues in the music industry
As far as I know, there’s no reason to believe that a professional farmer is more or less happy than an amateur farmer. And yet, there seems to be a connection between being a professional musician and mental health struggles.
In this University of Denver study, researchers looked at how transitioning from amateur to professional musician can harm one’s mental health. They concluded that amateur musicians are “happier” (meaning they’re less affected by mental health conditions such as anxiety) because they’re not as exposed to the systemic problems that are characteristic of the music industry.
The University of Denver researchers have found that the competitiveness of the music industry is one of the main causes behind its mental health crisis. There are so many people trying to make it and so few spots available that it’s impossible not to think of the music industry as a hub for disillusionment. It’s the kind of place where failing is the norm, where only a few can consider themselves to be victors, and where lifelong dreams are left at the mercy of mindless audiences, record labels, and music executives. And I’m not even considering the role of rising music trends, unfair copyright laws, or music industry scams in all of this!
The music industry is also different in the way it works because it depends on luck. It’s a chaotic business, in which the output one derives from his or her hard work is seldom equivalent to one’s actual hard work. In other words, you can remain penniless after releasing 5 carefully crafted albums over 10 years, but you can also make a million-dollar hit on top of a $30 beat in just a few hours. This bizarre reward system is almost exclusive to music. In most industries, people who work more tend to get paid more. It’s no wonder musicians feel frustrated, wronged, and lost most of the time.
Finally, the music industry is deeply stressful because it’s ever-demanding even for the few artists who make it. It’s one thing to have a hit song playing on the radio, and another to have two hit songs playing on the radio. Instead of getting relief from their fame, hit artists are pressured by fans and music executives to work even harder; if they stop for one minute, another younger, brighter, better artist will come to take their place.
Touring is a disastrous recipe for mental health
If being a musician is hard for one’s mental health, being a touring musician can be downright disastrous. Research has shown that touring professionals are at a higher risk for mental health issues, with a whopping 39.4% demonstrating high scores for suicidality. Burnout, exhaustion, and anxiety are some of the forces behind this regrettable phenomenon.
Like most things in the music industry, touring is glamorized. People think it’s about having fun with your bandmates, traveling the world, and making lots of money. Unfortunately, all touring musicians know that reality is hardly as enticing. Fun with friends gives way to fighting and stingy disputes, traveling becomes an unbearable day-to-day activity, and money is usually nowhere to be seen, with many musicians even struggling to afford to tour.
Spending months going from one city to another, sleeping in the car or in miserable hotels, waiting for hours on end on dark backstages, and eating poorly is not the best recipe for mental health. Add up the considerable stress of performing live in front of an audience and it’s easy to see why so many musician suicides and overdoses happen during touring.
Musicians are alienated from society
Being a musician is weird. The job of a musician requires him or her to spend months on end away from society (creating, for example, new songs or a new live show) and then, out of a sudden, come to the public to perform in front of a bunch of strangers. This is but one of the many ways in which being a musician can be alienating.
Popularized by Karl Marx as a term to describe “the process whereby the worker is made to feel foreign to the products of his/her own labor,” alienation is seldom a good thing. In music, alienation happens when musicians feel like they’re left on their own, are poorly compensated (or blatantly ignored) for their work, and live as though they don’t belong to the real world.
The music industry is again to blame for this issue, which can only have dire consequences for a person’s mental health. However, it’s part of a broader, society-wide problem. How common is it, for example, for people to snub music work as “not work, but passion,” or to assume that “making music is not a real job” because it’s such a pleasureful activity? As you can imagine, this doesn’t do much good for musicians (especially if they’re trying to be financially compensated for their hard work).
Essentially, though, musicians feel alienated because the day-to-day of a musician is nothing like the day-to-day of a doctor, taxi driver, street cleaner, and so forth. While most professionals are engaging with society through their work, musicians are kept apart from it. Successful artists are “caged” in backstages and private mansions to hide from their fans, record engineers spend a lifetime working underpaid freelance gigs to make ends meet, and bedroom producers can easily spend days without leaving their bedrooms. To create, we believe, artists must be excluded from society. But does it really have to work like that?
Music romanticizes substance abuse (and other really negative things)
Being a musician is extremely hard. But isn’t it also super cool? Musicians get to set trends, sleep with beautiful men and women, take drugs while on the clock, and live that rock-and-roll lifestyle most people can only fantasize about. Unfortunately, though, the romanticization of the musician lifestyle happens to be one of the most important causes behind the music industry’s mental health crisis.
Substance abuse is exceptionally common among musicians for a few reasons. There are, for example, links between drug use and creativity. Nevertheless, I believe that many musicians take drugs mainly because they believe musicians are supposed to take drugs and it has effectively become the defacto standard in many circles. From ’60s Flower Power to ’90s Rave all the way to Trap music, drugs have been at the center of many established music movements. Naturally, all of this music-inspired drug-taking is not good for mental health.
But music romanticizations aren’t exclusive to drugs. Awful things such as gang violence and suicide itself are also commonly romanticized. Consider, for example, Emo music. While its take on mental health issues can help artists and listeners heal and connect, it also gives way to the idea (even if inadvertently) that being unhappy and being cool is kind of the same thing.
The very same type of perverse logic is applied when a famous artist dies young and becomes a legend. Suddenly, some may distort the idea and instead of considering it a tragedy, they start seeing it as the perfect finale to an artist’s career. It’s not a terrible scourge of society we all must work on, some people wrongly believe, but the laudable final FU of a real hero to such a cruel world. It’s no coincidence that Lil Peep got his first Billboard number-one spot shortly after his tragic death.
Musicians have too much or too little exposure
One of the cruelest things about the music industry is that, in a way, musicians generally have either way too much or way too little exposure. Successful artists make money by releasing and performing music, but their mental health is affected by the relentless pressure of fans, record labels, managers, other musicians, and the media.
On the other side of the spectrum, struggling artists are mentally affected by repeated failures, insecurity, financial problems, exhausting underpaid work, and the widespread belief that choosing a career in music is the same as “not growing up.”
This is not the fundamental cause of mental health issues in music, but it helps to explain why the music industry’s mental health crisis involves everybody, from Adele and Ed Sheeran to your favorite local band.
Is the music industry’s mental health crisis getting worse?
There is no conclusive data to support the statement that the music industry’s mental health crisis is getting worse. However, it’s safe to assume that things haven’t gotten better for musicians after COVID. After all, the majority of studies cited in this article were published before 2020.
While we wait for up-to-date research to shed new light on the subject, let’s take a not-so-wild guess and assume that mental health in the music industry is getting worse. That’s scary, considering how bad things already are. But can we make something about it?
Mental health and the music industry – what can be done to make things better?
To truly change things for the better in the music industry, a revolutionary, systemic change is necessary. Systemic change involves not only reshaping the music industry but also all the things in society that have a negative impact on both the mental health and well-being of musicians. It involves rethinking mindsets, listening habits, copyright laws, streaming platforms, artist compensation, public support for the arts, and so forth.
That’s overwhelming! But the good news is that we can all make a difference, little by little, by doing our part in helping others and—in the case of musicians—ourselves. Luckily, there are ways of changing and interfering with systems, even when they are very, very complicated (a concept that the late Donella Meadows calls leverage points).
So, what can be done to make things better?
What can fans do to make things better?
- Support organizations and campaigns helping musicians who battle mental health issues. These include Music Minds Matter, Silence the Shame, The Musicians’ Union, Music Support, Key Changes, and The Musicians’ Mental Health Month (just to name a few).
- Raise awareness of the fact music work is real work, not something musicians do for fun. This can be as simple as convincing your stubborn friends that making music is hard and takes time.
- Stop romanticizing drug use, violence, suicide, and other awful things in music. A great song about suicide is just a great song, but an artist committing suicide is never great.
- Be patient with the musicians you like (and the ones you don’t like too). Musicians are human, and they’re not immune to criticism. Some fans forget about this, especially when dealing with artists they don’t enjoy.
What can musicians do to make things better?
- Get help. Like most battles, the battle against mental illness is best fought with someone by your side. Never be ashamed to ask for help, be it from mental health organizations, other musicians, or friends and family.
- Don’t push yourself too hard. Music is your passion, and it’s okay to work hard for it. But never push yourself over the limit: if there’s one thing that’s more important than your music project, that’s your mental health!
- Fight for systemic change in the music industry. Support other local artists, campaign against bad working conditions, and think of ways in which the industry could change for the better.
- Value yourself. Even when record labels, fans, and the music media don’t.
Making big sacrifices for the love of music sounds like a beautiful idea, but it’s not. Music is important, but there are things way more important out there—including your mental well-being. Tackling the systemic issues affecting the music industry and causing so many professionals to struggle isn’t easy, but starts with accepting that there’s a mental health crisis in the music business.
If we all get together and follow the same goal, we can start building a better world for musicians, music fans, and everybody in between.