Working in the music industry is a tough slog.

We roller coaster between extreme adrenaline highs and crashing lows. The line between ‘real life’ and ‘work’ is blurred at best, non-existent more often than not.

Food and sleep are grabbed whenever there’s a chance; time for family, friends and ourselves is rare; we live out of suitcases and the free booze, smokes, drugs and late nights lose their glamour pretty quickly. Financial instability plagues every sector.

We are emotionally and spiritually invested in our work – be it the band, the company, the artist, the tour – and our stumbles are constantly on display, weighed in on by our peers and the public. There’s always someone whose success is greater; more downloads, more views, more followers, more stars, more tickets sold, and it’s easy to dwell in the negative self-talk that we’ve come to accept as part of being overachievers and perfectionists. 

Music is our lives, our love and our family. And we wouldn’t change it for the world.

During BIGSOUND last week, I found myself at the Mental Health Summit – a closed-door event run by Support Act, the only Australian charity to bring crisis relief services to people working in our community.

The Mental Health Summit brought together the top minds in the industry to workshop proactive, industry-specific approaches to the terrifying rate of mental illness and suicide among artists, roadies and people working in and around Australia’s music industry. We discussed (at times heatedly debated) the pros and cons of an app, a music industry helpline, the need for mental health ‘first aid’ training for those in direct contact with artists.

What we kept coming back to wasn’t so much the product itself, but who we were targeting; who was actually going to be inclined to use these services?

I was at a festival recently, interviewing a young artist who, I realised during our conversation, was heavily intoxicated and agitated. We cut the camera, and he continued to speak to me one on one about what he was going through emotionally.

Concerned for his mental state, I looked for his manager, or someone at the festival I could turn to for guidance. Unable to find anyone and confused as to what was appropriate, I put it out of my mind. Shortly afterwards, he got into a fight and was ejected from the festival, shutting down the entire artist area.

I raised this at the summit: as media, we’re privy to some very intense conversations with musicians which can often unveil deeper issues. Who should we speak to? Legally, can we reveal what was being said off the record? Who is in a position of responsibility to help to care for an artist’s wellbeing?

Speaking to a friend, she reinforced the idea that musicians most likely aren’t going to have a bad comedown at 4am and pick up a mental health app or dial Lifeline for help.

Instead, maybe, they’ll speak to their bandmates, their manager or tour manager.

These are the people we need to further involve and equip with the skills to support an artist in the middle of a breakdown and have a clear course of action so they can receive the help they need.

Last October, Entertainment Assist and Victoria University’s College of Art ran a study of 2,904 respondents working in the Australian entertainment sector. It found that, compared to the general population, we experience:

  • More than double the rate of suicide attempts
  • 10x the rate of moderate to severe anxiety symptoms
  • 5x the rate of depression symptoms
  • 2-3x the rate of suicide ideation

They also found that a staggering 25% of performing artists and over 50% of roadies have attempted or considered suicide. Over a third of performing artists and 25% of other industry workers reported mental health problems. None of the roadies surveyed had sought help. (Scroll to the bottom for more statistics).

Maybe it’s because the idea of the tortured artist is romanticised. Maybe it’s because the macho attitudes of road crew are still upheld. Maybe it’s because to be seen as killing it, we need to be killing ourselves night and day. Maybe it’s because we don’t want to be the one seen as breaking.

We talk about the industry as family; we’ve lost enough brothers and sisters.

Yes, asking R U OK? starts the conversation, but it’s not an ongoing solution to a snowballing problem. We need to unite to build multiple approaches to support good mental health at all levels of the industry, and realise that there’s no one blanket solution to cover such a diverse community.

Creative minds are unique; we feel intensely, deeply, with our entire beings. It’s why we do what we do. It’s how art is born.

Please, look after yourselves, look out for one another, and be ready to jump in together if you see one of us going under.

If you or someone else needs support in a crisis situation please contact LIFELINE on 13 11 14.

More contacts and resources:

Support Act

The Music Manager’s Guide To Mental Health

Entertainment Assist

Other supports can be found at www.ruok.org.au/findhelp

A Note From Jeff Crabtree

People who depend on creative thinking for their livelihood face an unusual set of stresses. They depend on the next really great idea, and frequently they start the day not knowing where the next great idea is coming from. The big difficulty is that there’s a lot riding on them – there are huge economic consequences if the second album doesn’t live up to expectations, or if the tour doesn’t sell out, and that doesn’t include the personal impact of the fickle nature of what sells or doesn’t sell.

There are specific human qualities that creative professionals need to be able to engage with at a high level. One of them is fluid thinking – which is being able to make unique associations between things that other people don’t. Another one is skinlessness – the quality of taking in more sensory information. Another one is the need to take risks – in order to build a set of new experiences and new memories to draw on. These qualities are a crucial part of what highly creative people are doing – sometimes without being able to articulate it clearly – and it enables them to imagine and produce the music we all want to hear. The problem is that these amazing qualities have down sides that can be managed.

People with amazing imaginations, who use fluid thinking to make new music, are also far more vulnerable to anxiety because that same imagination can run wild on all the negative possibilities. People who are skinless are also subject to being overwhelmed by everything that’s going on around them in a way that most of us aren’t. The need to take

The need to take risks can express itself in making choices that ultimately can become destructive – even though that wasn’t what they were trying to do.

Part of being a performer is that you have an ability to step onto the stage knowing that you have something the world needs – ie. this song, this moment. The feeling of that is like a drug. It’s amazing. The downside of that same ability is that as soon as you step off the stage your sense of identity kind of crashes – and you can be plagued by self-doubt, and of course all you can think of is everything that went wrong.

The creative life is like a cycle between highs and lows. It’s not a balanced equation. Most people do better on a balanced life but creative people need to swing between the highs and lows in such a way that they use those highs and lows to make great music. All too frequently though this exposes them to the risk of becoming depressed if they never learn how to manage those highs and lows. The truth is this kind of life of highs and lows can really be managed well, but sadly a lot of highly creative people never learn how to, and they begin to feel as if their lives are on some kind of uncontrollable roller coaster – and then they begin to believe that dysfunction is just normal for an artist, or they start

The truth is, this kind of life of highs and lows can really be managed well, but sadly, a lot of highly creative people never learn how to, and they begin to feel as if their lives are on some kind of uncontrollable roller coaster – and then they begin to believe that dysfunction is just normal for an artist, or they start self-medicating. The list goes on.

Add to that picture the fact that a life in music has a lot of uncertainty. At all levels of the industry – musicians need to develop a kind of mental flexibility to be able to navigate safely through a landscape that is full of economic uncertainty – at the same time as being full of the most amazing rewards (and these are not just financial).
There is something quite extraordinary about being able to make something out of nothing and be able to perform in front of people, and just to be able to change the way they feel, even for one night, that’s an extraordinary thing.

Jeff is the co-author of Living With A Creative Mind, the co-director of Zebra Collective and a multi-award winning songwriter and producer.