By Tamara Gal-On

I have a lot to say on longevity and sustainability – so this is going to be a series of articles.  If you love making music and you want it to be your living, there are certain things that will help and some things that won’t if you want to retire from the business at a grand old age – or even keep on going like the Chuck Berry of your generation.

I can (and will) write you a warm and fuzzy article about aspects of this – with stories and tools to help you be true to your artistic vision, outlining ways to help you surround yourself with good people because both of those things are important – but today is not that day.  This is not that article.

What article is this then?  This is the one where we look at the music business, long and hard, and we say – I will not be another casualty.  It’s that article.

I do like to provide you with the Cliff notes to my articles because I can go long, I have lots to say, remember; so if you’re pressed and only have time to read one part read the next 3 lines.  Or slide on down to the tl;dr at the end.

Here’s the most important part.  For a long career in music – first and foremost,

Protect your Mental Health.

It’s not very glamorous is it?  It doesn’t even look as if it’s related to the industry at all.  But it is.  Let me explain.  Musicians appear to be significantly more likely to suffer mental illness than the average person – so are the findings of the Can Music Make you Sick report – Part 1 and Part 2.  68% of musicians reported experiencing some experience of anxiety, panic or depression during their career.  (Versus 25% as a national average across the population of the UK).  That’s more people experiencing mental health problems in the industry than people not suffering from them over the course of a career.  Think about that.

Then think about this.

This state of affairs is not because – creative people who are [insert overused and groundless stereotype about dramatic, unstable genius types] attracted to the music business in disproportionate numbers.

This is not because the music business is awash with drugs and alcohol.  (Yes, there can be plenty of them about and they definitely don’t help if mental health is already an issue for an artist – but ask any experienced tour manager, 20 something musicians may worship at the altar of Jack Daniels but most artists and band in their thirties plus have tour bus cupboards full of water and tea.)

This is not because everyone in the industry is a shark.

This is not OK.

Also – This is not beyond fixing.  And people are starting to talk seriously about Health and Safety for the music business.  All power to the change makers.

Until their talk and work gains real traction: what can we do to keep you off the music business casualty list?

In the colourful world of neuro-linguistic programming (I’m a coach, I get to frolic in a happy playground of neuroscience, linguistic subtleties and boundary creation on a daily basis) the saying goes – a pinch of pre-framing is worth a kilo of re-framing.  In other words – set expectations from the outset.  Telling people in advance how you work well, where your boundaries are and what you are and are not willing to do to earn your money, is a lot easier than waiting til you’re (figuratively) broken then trying to negotiate those things around expectations that grew out of your earlier compliance.

For example – It’s harder to have a conversation that starts – “I know I’ve been fine with xyz for the last three years and you’ve all come to accept that I’ll just suck it up but…”  than it is to say,

“Before we even go on our first tour, I need to say that I can’t in good faith agree to tour for more than a month at a time without a week’s break in between because I know I’m going to end up burning out, or getting panic attacks and having to cancel gigs.  So it’s only responsible of me to say so upfront.”

I get it.  In some part of some people’s brain – maybe yours – this conversation sounds like it could create the wrong impression with the powers that be in your career.  However, I contend that protecting your mental health is the first consideration in creating a long lasting career in the music industry of today.  Not saying yes to everyone with unreasonable expectations of your labour and energy reserves.  Because if you don’t, what happens is – you suffer for it.  And they move on to the next keen newcomer with not sense of self preservation.

We don’t expect people who do dangerous jobs to embark upon them without protections  – miners get hard hats, road repair workers get high visibility jackets.  It’s harder to see what you need to protect yourself from in the music business.  But a good start is saying no when people ask too much and taking a break or asking for help when you need to and not soldiering on when you know you’re not OK, are the basics of protection for musicians and other music industry folk.

I still get it.  You’re an indie or a newly signed artist or you are a music industry freelancer and you want to make a good impression on people who could make or break your career. Or maybe you’re an experienced artist but you still don’t want to create bad blood with your team, eat into a hypothetical bottom line or be seen as difficult.  But it is literally your blood – your cortisol stress levels, your over-production of adrenaline to cope with too much of the things that deplete you every day for weeks at a stretch – that are at risk if you don’t.

Being able to have conversations where you set firm boundaries requires at least 3 things.

1) Knowledge of yourself – knowing where your boundaries and automatic deal breakers lie. What drains you the most in your working music life?  Being an indie who’s isolated?  Being a successful but introverted artist who hates meet and greets?  Being expected to keep night owl hours when really you’re a morning lark?  Take some time to think about this.  Write stuff down.

2) Having the resources (internal or external) to actually get the words out, to tell the people who need to know that you are saying no, or laying a boundary. You will go this far – but no further.

3) A place to feel and be safe away from the demands of the business.

Coming by all three of these things is not necessarily easy. Not for big stars (we see the blowback when big stars cancel tours, we also see the angst many of them suffer for letting fans and their crews/teams down).  Not for artists on indie labels, who know that if they’re not generating income, it can impact the entire label. Not for anyone who has tried to maintain personal relationships whilst not being at home for the better part of a year. It is doable though.

And it has to be done, it has to, because the alternative is not having a long career.  Or any career in music any more.  Quitting.  Burning out. Or worse.

I know this doesn’t always feel easy.  But now, thanks the survey of over 2,000 musicians by Sally Anne Gross and Dr. George Musgrave you have the weight of academic research behind you, you have the appearance of numerous new musician’s mental health initiatives – be they dedicated helplines, or charities dedicated to supporting musician’s mental health to back you up.   Mental health is increasingly becoming a topic at music conferences.  It is a remiss or lacking label or management team who are not listening to their artists when they raise these concerns these days.

Let me be clear.  If someone with power over your career, can listen to you express genuine concerns about your mental health, and brush them aside, you are not safe in their hands.  Here is what you do.

  1. Short term. Get yourself to a place where you can be upset about it and get help for what is going on for you, safely. Do what you need to do to express your anger/fear/frustration/disappointment/devastation. Talk, find someone sympathetic who will listen.  If if feels like there is no-one you know – that’s what the helplines are for.
  2. Medium term. Create a plan to get out of the situation/that person’s orbit.  No matter how long your medium term plans seems it might take to implement and in particular no matter how disruptive to your life it looks, no matter what is said to you to make you reverse your position, unless it’s cast iron proof they are going to take your mental health concerns seriously, stick to your plan to get to safety.  This may involve lawyers.  That is no small thing.  But you deserve to be supported properly for the very hard work you are expected to do.
  3. Long term. Ensure that anyone who is in a position of power – beside or over you – has your best interests at heart.  Ask them questions like, in the event of things becoming too much, for me, for others in this band, business, what happens?    Do research into how they’ve handled people with similar challenges before.  Ask them directly.  If people won’t talk about this, they might not be safe to work with.

This may sound drastic, I don’t want to be alarmist but you are working in an industry that has a proven record, even in countries as supportive to their musicians as Norway, of creating conditions that lead to poor mental health outcomes at higher rates (the levels in Norway run along very similar lines to the UK) than are seen in the average profession.

I also realise people talk as if there are precious few opportunities in the music industry these days and if you aren’t willing to pay in blood to make that one and only chance you will ever have stick you won’t succeed.  That there is only likely to be one chance and you mustn’t blow it.  This is 100% untrue.  There are more opportunities than ever.

I believe we create our own reality.

And I believe confirmation bias is very real too.  What if rather than navigating the music industry with a belief that you will at some point get ripped off, or to succeed you will have to pay a high price perhaps with your health, instead you decided that you will triumph through taking care of yourself and ensuring that those around you do to?  What if you decide you’ll only work with those people who care that you thrive?  What if you started to look for stories of people who have never signed to a label but are making six figures in the industry?  What if you look for stories about people who walked away when it was wrong and came back and got a second chance?  What if you look for the people who are navigating the music business on their own terms?

What if,  right now in your career you set out to manage yourself and your career as if you were the most precious commodity, a once in a life time talent, a rare gem?  What would your career decisions look like?  What would you say no to?

What if as soon as you saw signs of not coping, you asked for help?  What if you made sure you and those you care about in the industry know what classic signs are of stress, overwhelm, depression and anxiety?  Or you note down what the signs have been for you in the past, so you don’t ignore them if they show signs of returning?  I have read some amazingly frank interviews with artists about their mental health crashes and one unifying theme is – I had no idea what was happening to me.  As someone who had her first panic attack at 14 (and her last at 28, 18 years ago – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy rules!) I can attest to the fact, having no clue what’s going on with you, makes it feel ten times worse.  Also it can feel more difficult to ask for help.  But now, wonderfully, help is there. Good help, understanding help, industry specific help.  Use the helplines.  Talk to people.  We can be open about this more and more now.

What stopped and still stops artists and overworked industry execs asking for what they need?  Well, good old fashioned social stigma around mental illness was and still is as good a silencing tool as any, right?  Which is why it’s better to lay groundwork for this fight before you need it. Preparing and protecting yourself is so much easier than trying to pick up the pieces afterwards.

You have to protect your mental health because…

  • Unless you are one of the lucky few who has amazing support – and sometimes even if you do – if you don’t participate in actively protecting your mental health – no-one is going to be able do it for you. Only you can know what’s triggering for your anxiety, what’s exhausting or too demanding or not supportive enough.  Only you know what’s crushing or toxic to you.

Exercise:  Make a list.
How do you work best?
What vision are you working towards that keeps you on a track for longevity?
Is it something as clear as no more than x months a year touring?
Is it slow touring?
Is it a 2 year album cycle?
What are the parameters for you remaining a shiny happy musician?
What is your most basic self care regime?
Even on a tour bus?
What do you have waiting for you to help you land safely back at home when you come back from tour?

Conversely – make another list.
What are the signs that you aren’t coping?
What do you stop doing?
If you realise you aren’t thriving, who do you tell first?
Do you have a go to support person?
Family – friend – industry bestie?
Could you do with one?

Start as you mean to go on.  You may be a happy as a clam right now.  Let’s keep it that way, OK?

What makes the music business so tough is that every aspect of it is precarious.  See the Can Music make you Sick? research for more information. It’s financially precarious, artists’ deep sense of their identity and their music being inextricably linked means it’s emotionally precarious and the working conditions, demanding that so many artists be away from home for such long periods means that it renders home life and personal relationships precarious too.

The antidote to precarity, is resilience.  To maintain a long career in music, you need to become a resilience fiend.

Key tools in encouraging and enjoying resilience

  1. Know yourself.  Your boundaries.  Your limits.  Your must haves for good mental health.  Your deal breakers.  Your danger zones.  [Common danger zones – On tour.  Testing conditions can lead to negative mental health outcomes.  Just home off tour – relative isolation, lack of post performance dopamine or lack of structured schedule can lead to challenges.]
  2. Become a ninja at radical self-care.  On the road and off.  In big ways and small.  Meditating (walking/swimming/showering or journaling meditation all count – meditation apps are cool too).  Exercising – yes, hauling gear is exercise but what about other muscle groups? Eating as well as you can.  (By the way sugar (including all the sugar in every kind of alcohol) is a depressive).  Taking vitamins.  Managing stage fright with compassion not self-criticism. Mitigating the effects of disrupted sleep.  If you’re an introvert – getting enough good alone or quiet time.  Treats and rewards for taking care of yourself.  Grounding morning rituals, taking yourself on Artists Dates (See the Artists’ Way, Julia  Cameron)  Keeping up with home, friends and family – with a routine, with a group WhatsApp. Yes you have an amazing job or career, yes you are blessed, but pretending that’s enough to make up for the physical and emotional demands of touring or working in this business, is not going to work long term.
  3. Don’t let yourself become isolated from people who care about you.  When on tour or in a studio in far flung places.  Pre-framing here is so useful again – I won’t be able to be in contact much but I can do this – xyz.  Then deliberately under-promise and over-deliver on what you say you can do.
  4. Work out a bounce back strategy for when you get triggered or knocked down.  Know what is likely to trigger you and what you can do to come back as quickly as possible.  Share how to help you with those around you.  Ask them what they need. Classic trigger situations: bad review, bad representation in the press, a gig goes wrong, writers block, a festival turns you down.  Be clear what is most likely to send you into a tailspin and work out what it takes to get you to bounce back.  A shoulder to cry on?  Punch bag to vent with physically. Bounce back playlist to listen to?  A massage.  A combination of several things.  Tapping is great for removing the emotional hot button nature of getting triggered.
  5. Learn to say no – No, I don’t want another take away, I need fresh vegetables.  No I won’t tour for 4 months straight.  No I won’t promise to produce an album a year.   Learn where and what your No’s are and be willing to defend them.  And if you can’t say no, find someone who, without burning bridges for you that don’t need burning, can say no for you. Firmly.
  6. Listen to your intuition.  From informing decisions about who to work with and what projects to pursue to what to prioritise with your self care, intuition is one of your most powerful allies and tools.  Self care and intuition are a match made in heaven.  Let your intuition guide you.

Tl;dr If you want a long career in the music industry – take steps now to protect your investment of time, energy and creative input.  Protect your greatest asset, protect You. Specifically protect your mental health.  Until you get the right team around you who will protect you from the more outrageous demands of this very demanding industry, learn your limits and defend them like your life depends on it because truthfully, it does.  We’ve all experienced the heartache of losing a talent too soon because their life in music got to be too much.  I never want that to be you.  Learn to say no and mean it. Learn to say it again when the industry tries to talk you out of it.  Know that there aren’t a finite number of times you can ask for help.  Allow yourself to use a Musicians’ Helpline if you need it.  Let your intuition have the last word.  Protect your mental health.