Mental health and music

CW: Mental health, suicide

The music industry is well known for its highs and lows. Despite this, so many people seem to flock to the business. I became acutely aware of the toll that music can take on mental health last summer, sat behind the bins of a pub in Leeds, having a full-on panic attack following the worst show I’d ever played. 35 degree heat, tight timetables, financial pressures, a lack of sleep and a terrible diet had caught up to me and I was ready to give up. It took a 1am phone call from my girlfriend just to convince me to play the last date of the tour.

That was the effect of a week-long tour. I can only imagine the sheer horror that accompanies ones that last months, or even years. The lack of a permanent home, stress of organising everything, the sheer cost and the feeling of motionlessness despite this is devastating. Every night is completely different whilst painfully the same. The DIY scene is a gruelling fight against feelings of apathy, the professional scene a precarious world of expectations and isolation. In both, the financial cost and emotional toll of touring and recording is significant.

Whilst some bands thrive off of this environment, others view it as a necessary evil. I remember Beach Slang frontman James Alex telling me how he couldn’t imagine not touring, whilst Foxing frontman Conor Murphy spoke of his tiredness and how he longed to be home. Cambridge rockers Lonely the Brave’s original frontman, David Jakes, left the band due to the strain of touring, telling Kerrang that he would have loved to just make music in the studio. It only gets harder as bands get bigger: tours get longer, venues bigger, the pressures greater and the control over your own schedule gets less and less. Days go from getting to the city one is playing in, hanging about for a bit, soundchecking and playing to a full diary with press events, acoustic sessions, album signings and all manner more. To those struggling with anxiety and depression, this intense and endless cycle can be ruinous.

In the wake of the tragic news of Keith Flint’s suicide, many have been talking about the need for mental health support for musicians. This dialogue comes painfully late and should have been in our minds after the deaths of Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell, if not earlier. Support networks exist, but are either painfully underfunded or not to a satisfactory standard (as highlighted by Punk Talks’ alleged extensive breaches of confidentiality in relation to Pinegrove).

There is then the added difficulty of the marketability of mental health issues in the music scene, at least in the eyes of labels. Press releases love to lay bare the struggles of the songwriters, how each and every release is catharsis relating to mental health, as though what you will hear is the healing process. Too commonly, such statements will ignore the fact that the mental health issues grappled with are still present, or the toll which making the album had on the artist. It doesn’t matter to major labels, it’s a selling point. A carved up slab of the human condition, placed in a glass box and yours for £10 or a Spotify subscription. There’s a dark glamour given to poor mental health and musicians’ work whilst battling with it. Modern Baseball’s final album, Holy Ghost, was promoted on the basis that the band had fought with depression and anxiety throughout it; footage of frontman Brendan Lukens crying as he tracked vocals was held up as emotive evidence of the monument to healing the album embodied. People ignore the fact that a year later the band broke up due to the toll the cycle had taken on the mental health of Lukens and his co-frontman Jake Ewald.

That’s not to say openness about mental health isn’t something to strive towards. As with many of my opinionated rants I have authored for these pages in the past couple of years, it is the role of labels and marketing departments I oppose. The insincere usage of mental health to promote a release, whilst simultaneously drowning artists in pressure to succeed and dropping them at a moment’s notice if they don’t deliver the goods, demonstrates how little labels care about the wellbeing of those on their roster. It must be for bands and fans to lead the change, with genuine and candid discussions of these issues. True catharsis without focus group-informed intermediaries.

Music and mental health are uncomfortable bedfellows, but they need not be so. Support, care and recognition: the things musicians fight to gain for their art should not be something they also have to fight to gain for themselves.

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October 2021
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