Surviving or thriving? Mental Health And The Music Industry

A musician from the British rock scene of the 1990s had a life-changing experience. One moment he was playing to European stadium crowds, and almost the next he was homeless. A tale like this, of a musician’s journey to the heady heights of top-flight playing followed by a diagnosis of bipolar disorder – which was exacerbated by becoming homeless – is not as uncommon a story as it might seem. Music is an insecure business at the best of times, what with opportunities to play and earn a living wage open to only a choice few. The majority of musicians are only getting by, or breaking even, and financial insecurity of this kind can and does have a deleterious effect on their mental health.

So as Mental Health Awareness Week fast approaches, it’s a good time for us all to take a pause from our workaday lives to consider a health issue that continues to blight modern society.

The singer, songwriter and player labours tirelessly, wrapped up in their craft, often getting lost in it and sometimes – owing to lack of support, financial or otherwise – can scarcely think of anything else. Call it focus if you like, call it a passion, but single-mindedness like this can often have a corrosive effect on the mental health of our music makers, and if they’re not very careful, they can sometimes wind up in a lightless, isolated place. Alone and lost. And, if money is hard to come by despite all their best efforts to make it, problems are worsened.

Chris Sheehan, director of Karousel Music – a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting a better environment for songwriters and artists – says that when he was a musician, he got to a point where he couldn’t handle the pressure of not knowing how he was going to get money out of a cashpoint or how he was going to pay off bills. “Eventually it became a mental health issue for me,” he says, “because the more in debt I got, the more tired I got. My morale began to drop.” As well as his work as a solo artist, Chris worked with Mark Brydon of Moloko and was in the Bench Connection with Matt Deighton. “If you’d told me years ago that I’d be sat at a desk emailing and making phone calls until two in the morning, seven days a week, I wouldn’t have believed you. Because I’m a singer-songwriter. That’s what I always was.”

But what he does now takes just as much heart. Being a musician is one thing, but recent industry reality has dictated that the artist now also has to be business-minded to promote his or her work. And this is where the trouble can start. The reason many musicians stop making music is because it is often the only thing that makes them happy, but without funding or exposure, it can send the artist into a dark place of vanishing morale out of which it can be very difficult to climb. Sheehan learned this the hard way, which is why Karousel Music came into being.

Another organisation doing its utmost to look after the welfare of British musicians – and for whom Chris also works – is Help Musicians UK which will be 100 years old in 2021. It helps existing music professionals who have hit a crisis in their lives, each year helping over 2,000 individual musicians make ends meet while catering to any mental health or financial issues that may arise as they build their careers.

Ethical gigs like the ones put on by Karousel must also become a necessity for the profession to survive, the question of a musician’s welfare and well-being of paramount importance; Karousel admirably gives 100% of profits back to artists and curates gigs, choosing artists at a certain point in their careers, focusing also on artists who are over 35. The idea is that if you take care of the setting, the payment and the creation of a career path, you improve the collective mental wellbeing of musicians. And it works, with no one else in London showcasing talent in this way.

Songwriters are able, after many years, to distil what they mean. Therefore, they get better as they get older. As they age, they need looking after, but altruism is rare. “You’ve got to get to these musicians before the industry damages them too much. We want to fund genuinely great, but lost acts,” says Sheehan. He is also aiming to get a grant off the ground via Karousel for artists over 35 who have slipped through the net owing in part to investment not being there for artist development.

Musicians will do anything for anyone, but the one thing they don’t do is raise money for themselves, and pauperising themselves serves only to negatively affect their mental health. Today, musicians are expected to do things for free, exposure being the promoter’s carrot to tempt them to perform, but Help Musicians UK and Karousel have accepted a responsibility of care and independently of each other are doing their utmost to ensure that artist exploitation is negated, because they know only too well of the dark places in which artists can find themselves.

And the musician I mentioned at the start? He survived. He got the mental healthcare he needed as well as crucial support from Help Musicians UK. He came back from the brink. Being able to play his music had helped improve his mental health. It’d reduced symptoms of his depression, his stress, and had helped him regain control of his life.

But of late we have taken the musicians among us for granted and really, we ought not to because these are the people who have written the score to our lives, and having loved and lost to their songs, we must hope that the profession is protected so that future generations can also benefit from their gift.

Jason Holmes