‘It’s about breaking down the taboos’: How the music industry woke up to mental health

It was once vastly overlooked, but progress is finally being made to support artists’ mental health, says the co-author of a new book on the subject, Rhian Jones. Here, she talks to label heads, managers and artists about what’s changing for the better

Wednesday 07 April 2021 06:30
<p>Breaking the taboos: Frank Turner is a vocal campaigner for mental health in the music industry</p>

Breaking the taboos: Frank Turner is a vocal campaigner for mental health in the music industry

When singer-songwriter Frank Turner heard that Kurt Cobain had died by suicide in 1994, he didn’t recall it being framed within a conversation about mental health. “It was an enormous event in my own life as a music fan,” he says, “and I don’t ever remember anyone talking about that with any kind of analytical frame of mind with regard to mental health. It was a lot more about the sensationalism and glamour around it, and maybe talking about drugs.” When Turner entered the music industry himself and signed an independent label deal with his band Million Dead in 2001, and subsequently struggled with substance misuse while touring, mental health still “wasn’t really a thing that got talked about,” he says. Now, Turner points out, it’s one of the main topics of discussion in the business.

The reason for this sea change in discourse is twofold. As Universal Music UK Chairman and CEO David Joseph says, it’s partly due to a shift in the way we talk about mental health in culture at large. “More and more people are talking about this – not just in the music business but in society as a whole,” he says. “It used to be very rare for mental health to be raised in a conversation with a manager or an artist. If we got told about health issues it would happen quite far down the line. Mental health was something of a no-go area between labels and managers and I think that is largely due to the stigma that used to be attached to it. But things are thankfully changing for the better.”

At the same time, there have been multiple documentaries laying out the pressures music stars can face, such as those on the late Amy Winehouse, Avicii and Lil Peep, as well as more recent releases featuring Billie Eilish, Britney Spears and Demi Lovato, while a wealth of podcasts and articles have given further air to the subject. Research backs up the anecdotal stories: many studies suggest that musicians are at a far higher risk of developing mental health issues than the general public, due in part to the unpredictable and pressurised nature of their work. The pandemic and complications arising as a result of Brexit have only exacerbated this – according to a 2021 study by charity Help Musicians, 87 per cent of 700 musicians across the UK who responded to a survey said their mental health had deteriorated over the last year. 

Additionally, like Cobain, many music stars have faced early deaths after experiencing mental ill-health. Alongside those mentioned above, they include Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington from Linkin Park, The Prodigy’s Keith Flint, Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison, Juice Wrld and Mac Miller. There’s no doubt that open conversation is helping, but the wealth of loss, as well as the education provided by the media and via research about the pressures associated with a career in music, has left fans and writers rightfully asking: what action is the music industry really taking to protect the health of the musicians with whom it works?

According to the interviews we did for this article, there’s lots of positive progress in this area.

Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit struggled with mental health issues, and took his own life in 2018

Historically, some labels and management companies have funded treatment like therapy and rehab for artists who’ve been struggling and are willing to accept help. However, generally speaking, problems would only be addressed once an artist had reached crisis point. Now, there seems to be a concerted effort to focus on prevention. Two of the three major record labels in the UK, Universal Music and Warner Music, are currently rolling out prevention-focused health support programmes.

At Universal, that takes the shape of a counselling service run by a BACP-registered counsellor. All emerging artists are offered an initial wellbeing check-in to find out what support they might require, with any help needed then funded by the label. For artists in crisis, the programme also promises to support them at the point of need. Artists leaving the label are offered a session to talk about their experience and plan what’s next, while staff get information and signposting on specific issues concerning artists’ wellbeing. The label has a confidential email address that artists can use to get in touch with the counselling team, and Universal Music UK EVP Selina Webb confirms that, as is the case for all accredited therapy, anything said to the registered counsellors is confidential.

At Warner Music UK, CEO Tony Harlow points to a similar mental health and wellbeing support programme that was launched as a pilot last year and is now being rolled out across the company. “The feedback has been incredible, with some artists and managers describing the support we provided as life-changing,” he says. “So now we’re extending the efforts, reaching out first to our new signings, so that they’re better prepared for the changes that can come from being catapulted to fame.”

Harlow also says that the company is working on putting a clause in artists’ contracts that will enable them to draw down funding for health support when they feel it’s needed, and there’s a training programme in the works to help staff spot when artists are struggling and know what to do to help. He explains: “That’s something that still doesn’t come naturally to many people. It’s about breaking down the taboos around mental health. I want our artists to feel comfortable about asking for help well before things get to a point of crisis.”

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The third major label, Sony Music UK, has a central non-recoupable fund that can be used for artist health treatment. In addition, all staff have taken part in Mind’s Mental Health at Work training, which focuses on spotting signs of poor mental health and knowing how to support others, as well as offering a general understanding of different conditions and contributing factors. Preye Crooks, Senior A&R Manager at Sony label Columbia, says that the label’s HR team has also been working on a welfare database consisting of specialised therapists, rehab centres and organisations, to give to new artists and managers who sign to the label. He adds: “We haven’t got everything sorted – this is a journey and an ongoing conversation – but I definitely think there has been a development and a real progression of efforts by the company.”

‘Musicians are at a far higher risk of developing mental health issues than the general public‘

Help Musicians, which has various support initiatives under its health and welfare arm, has had greater engagement with music companies over the last year to help fund its work for struggling musicians during the pandemic. In total, record labels, via trade body the BPI, donated over £1.3m to the charity for its coronavirus hardship fund. Help Musicians CEO James Ainscough says the support has helped open doors to further conversations, and his ambition is to “take the relationships which flourished in the crisis and turn them into long-term relationships of support.” The BPI also donated nearly £30,000 last year to mental wellbeing and addictions charity Music Support to help fund its NHS-approved Thrive app, which provides 24/7 support focused on the prevention and detection of common mental health conditions. 

All of this progress largely pertains to the recorded music business, but what about the live industry? Being on tour is a particularly tough lifestyle that can contribute to the development and exacerbation of health issues due to heavy workload, travel, lack of sleep and access to healthy food, the adrenaline highs of performing and lows that can follow, widespread availability of alcohol and drugs, and the general lack of stability that being away from friends, family and home comforts can cause. While the pandemic has delivered a huge financial blow to the live music business, tour manager Suzi Green, who has worked with acts including Marina Diamandis, Placebo and PJ Harvey, says it’s also given the individuals working within it pause to reflect on healthier practices.

Over the last year, Green has set up an online support group for touring crew and artists which has grown to around 800 members worldwide. Through weekly Zoom chats, they talk about the struggles they are experiencing as a result of the pandemic, and how to navigate a return to work when it happens. In those conversations, health is a “massive priority”, says Green, who adds that the challenge will be in maintaining any healthy self-care habits developed over the last year once touring starts back up again. “The reality is, you get out on tour and every minute gets filled if you’re not careful, so it’s about how we are going to translate self-care into what may end up being really quite intense schedules.”

In an effort to counter that, Green has developed a mental health charter that she’ll be asking those working in touring teams to sign up to when there’s a definite return date on the horizon. Points include aiming for a reasonable routing that offers artists and teams an appropriate number of non-travel days off in between shows, in order to rest and recuperate; an aim to include trained mental health first aiders within crew; and a promise to support colleagues who are in recovery from addiction issues.

Pre-pandemic, music agent Russell Lewis Warby from agency WME, who has worked with bands including Nirvana, Foo Fighters and The Strokes, noticed that mental health and addictions charity Music Support had a presence at festivals, offering a space where staff and artists could access counselling. He’d like to see that taken further across the business so that it’s always easy to access counselling, group therapy and companionship in various environments for those in recovery from addiction. “How do you find that when you’re moving around, or just in a very fast-moving industry that’s very demanding, where you don’t eat properly, you don’t sleep properly, you don’t exercise, and you work very long hours?” he says. “There’s a lot of stress and anxiety and people suffer from clinical depression caused by the circumstances.”

‘You’re working in a very fast-moving industry that’s very demanding, where you don’t eat properly, you don’t sleep properly, you don’t exercise, and you work very long hours’

Beyond touring, those we spoke to said that gaps in resources and unhealthy practices are risk factors, citing social media as a particular hazard. UMG’s Joseph points to a potentially destructive focus in the business on artists having to build up their social media following before companies will consider working with them, which can have a negative impact on both mental health and creativity. “Having a huge social media following shouldn’t be a prerequisite of being signed, and having to immerse yourself in social media shouldn’t automatically come with the territory of being a musician,” he says. “It’s a very dangerous place to play in if you don’t understand the issues and the negatives around it.”

This is an issue Frank Turner has grappled with as an artist. He now uses social media as a broadcast rather than a conversational platform. “In my experience, probably the single worst aspect of the life of an artist is dealing with social media, which I think is a mental health catastrophe,” he explains. “There is a difficulty anyway in being an artist because you put your fragile creations out into the world necessarily for public judgement – that is the game – but there is something about Twitter in particular which turbo-fuels the process and makes it so much more antagonising.”

While there is help available through charities like Help Musicians and Music Support for artists who can’t get funding for health treatment via management companies or labels, they are naturally limited in their capacity. Turner says he has friends who have had “mixed experiences” of using these services; some have positive stories, while others weren’t able to get the help they needed. It’s well known that mental health services are vastly underfunded within the NHS, making it potentially difficult for that to be an option, too. Music manager Rob Harrison, who works with artists Erin Bloomer and TS Graye and has a wellness fund for those signed to his label Listen Generously, also points to a lack of specialised help. “There are not enough practitioners in the healing professions who specialise in supporting artists,” he says. “Many of the demands that artists face are unique to the music industry and, accordingly, they require specialist help. It seems that lots of people best placed to offer that, like music executives, burn out or get disillusioned and leave the industry.”

Singer and songwriter Lauren Aquilina would like to see the kind of support programme that’s being offered at Universal and Warner made available for all musicians, including songwriters, producers and session musicians, many of whom aren’t signed to labels. (The DIY artist sector has been on a continual growth trajectory over recent years, with artists who release music without labels counting for an estimated 5.1 per cent share of global recorded music revenue in 2020, according to Midia Research.) 

She explains: “As a creative in the music industry, most of us aren’t part of a company or a team or anything, we’re just doing our own thing. So when you’re first learning everything, you don’t really have that concrete support network explaining how things work to you or what you should look out for. It would be great if there was some entity whose sole purpose was to offer that support and guidance to young creatives who are still learning.”

Years & Years and MNEK manager Martha Kinn, who set up a health and wellbeing department at her company YMU Music, points out that label artists might not feel comfortable taking up mental health services directly from the companies they are working with, due to “fearing repercussions” of being considered a “risky investment” (although Webb says that so far, artists have been happy to reach out through Universal). Instead, Kinn says she’d like to see more investment in educating staff and funding charities like Music Support and Help Musicians. 

Ultimately, the latter’s CEO Ainscough concludes that the key to progress is for the various different companies and individuals working in music, many of whom have different agendas, to collaborate on this collective issue. “There is no one in the music industry who will have the solution, and there is no one piece of work that’s the only piece of work that’s necessary. Everybody’s trying things and I think the more we can share ideas and share experiences and learn from each other, the quicker we’ll work out what the most important things are.”

Rhian Jones is the co-author of Sound Advice, a new health-focused career guide for musicians, out now

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