Wet Leg, Sam Fender, Arlo Parks: are the days of industry burn-out finally over?

Numerous acts have pulled shows citing mental health issues – is the talent finally able to stand up for itself and say enough is enough?

The country is awash with Beckham spirit. Turning up at some ungodly hour of the night decked out in your most stylish public fineries, to hurry-up-and-wait for 10 hours or more, surviving on pasties, snacks and caffeinated uppers, convening with crowds, happily taking selfies, dealing politely with press, TV and facile hero worship and gazing longingly at wondrous city landmarks you won’t get to visit. And all in anticipation of one all-too-brief communion at the end of the day before collapsing exhausted or raising a private toast or two too many.

While we applaud our footballing heroes for enduring such hardships for a day, let’s spare a thought for our touring musicians, expected to do much the same sort of thing for months of touring on end, albeit indoors and not constantly strafed by newscopters. For decades, talking about the strains of a lifestyle that so many can only dream of was considered as ungrateful as a lottery winner complaining that they couldn’t fit such a big cardboard cheque into their house. But a tide has turned and, with mental health becoming a priority in music and the arts, numerous artists have been making the decision to put their welfare first and postpone shows until they’re mentally fit to play them.

Arlo Parks
Arlo Parks performs live in July 2022. Credit: Rune Hellestad- Corbis/ Corbis via Getty Images.

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“I am broken and I really need to step out, go home and take care of myself,” Arlo Parks announced on social media last week, as she cancelled a portion of her US tour as her mental health had “deteriorated to a debilitating place”. Days earlier, Sam Fender had pulled three US headline shows, a series of Florence + The Machine supports and Life Is Beautiful festival, stating “I’ve neglected myself for over a year now and haven’t dealt with things that have deeply affected me… The state of my wellbeing is starting to affect everything I do, including my performances…It is impossible to do this work on myself while on the road and it’s exhausting feigning happiness and wellness for the sake of the business.”

The same week Wet Leg apologised for missing shows in Denver and New Mexico amid “many big cries” because “it all got a bit on top of us and we just couldn’t quite manage to get back on that plane…Our mental and physical health are such easy things to overlook when everything is so exciting and so busy, you barely have a moment to check in with yourself.” And Disclosure’s Howard Lawrence pulled out of the dance duo’s Australian tour claiming that after “touring almost constantly for well over a decade now” he’d “always struggled with the intensity, jet lag, lack of routine and being away from my friends.”

It’s easy, waking at dawn to man a fire station, put in enough hours to afford to power your lathe or dredge out 600 words on a DMA’s record, to lack sympathy for the tribulations one must suffer in order to travel the world garnering untold adulation and creative fulfilment. But it’s also easy to play down those stresses. “I’ve been on the road on and off for the last 18 months, filling every spare second in between and working myself to the bone,” Parks wrote, and her descriptions of feeling “anxious to deliver and afraid to disappoint my fans” until she “pushed myself unhealthily, further and harder than I should’ve” chime with many tales of music industry burn-out I’ve heard. Just last week, a noughties rocker told me about the years of anxiety he endured because, even after two number one albums, he was still intensely determined not to fuck up the next move, and wishes he’d just enjoyed it all instead.

Wet Leg
Wet Leg CREDIT: Roberto Ricciuti

That sort of pressure – from the industry but also the artist themselves, so often aware of their good fortune to be doing this at all and naturally driven to put in every ounce of work necessary to reach ever rising goals – often works to the detriment of acts’ longevity, and their music. On endless tours tempers fray, addictions develop, insecurities crack open, homelessness becomes pure agony. If you’ve ever been relieved to get home after a week on the lash in Magaluf with a crew, imagine it dragged on in a perpetual cycle of hangover and happy hour for eighteen months. With a six-hour drive each morning, liberally peppered with explosive flatulence, thrown in.

So much time on the road also means that second albums and creative decisions are rushed, divisions and disagreements emerge. And this is all spurred on by an industry pushing harder and harder for continual fan engagement, hungry for fresh story angles to sell and with a limited shelf life to milk dry. Greater demands, lessened rewards… Brexit’s sunlit uplands have already hit music, and it was always going to have to be the artists that demanded the requisite me-time to avoid mass meltdowns across the industry to rival October’s direct debit day.

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Frustrating as it is for ticket-holders, everybody wins from such self-imposed breaks in the end. Shows are rescheduled, and better for the rest. Artists feel more in control, their focus more on their music and performance than their net ticket take. Burn-out is avoided, meaning longer, happier, more productive careers. And a clear message is sent to the industry as a whole; that artists need to be nurtured, not exploited. The days of wringing out an act until they’re a bloodless husk need to end, and it starts – right here – with the talent standing up for itself.

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