In his new book Slacker Guide To The Music Industry, radio DJ, former musician and all-round music biz whizz Phil Taggart offers up an easily digestible guide to the ins and outs of a career as a jobbing musician.
Below, in the first of three excerpts from the book, Phil explores the notion of ‘self-care’ within music, calling upon a number of famous friends to give their advice on the pitfalls of professional musicianship, how best to avoid them, and what you can do to
Phil Taggart’s Slacker Guide To The Music Industry is out now, and comes supported by Help Musicians UK. Order it here.
The many twists and turns of making your own music your career, can have a savage impact on your wallet, on relationships and, mainly and most frequently, on your mental health. Over the last few years, it’s been refreshing to see artists come out and talk freely and with impunity about how they have suffered and how they recovered. It wasn’t too long ago that if you showed any sign of weakness at all, it felt as if you risked losing it all. Thankfully labels, managers, and friends are starting to become a little more versed in the struggles of a musician. And, in turn, are giving artists a little more quarter. It still has some way to go, but the signs are good.
Researching this chapter on mental health, I was hit by many different statistics on how musicians and artists are more likely than most to suffer with mental health issues. This got me thinking: why is this the case? Are people who are creative and have the urge to express themselves more likely to feel the weight of the world on their shoulders? Is this constant struggle to be all things to all people (PR Guru, Social Media Wizz, Songwriting Legend, Performing Master, Studious Producer, etc) in order to get your music to the next level, a constant mind-fuck?
The answer has to be ‘Yes’ to all of these things, and an even louder ‘YES’ when you are doing everything completely on your own. This means it is very important to rationalise every step of the process, to celebrate and be kind to yourself when you attain every small goal, and not to beat yourself up when a release or a gig doesn’t go as well as you hoped.
Every musician, big or small, has experienced this at some level. It’s OK to not feel great, and taking the knock-backs is part of the process. Looking after yourself, and checking how you are doing, is very important.
As I mentioned many times in this book, I used to play in a band and when that stopped, I started a record label: I’m a glutton for new project punishment. I’ve done all of these things with Generalised Anxiety Disorder which came on as a teenager. And when shit really hits the fan, it turns into full-on panic attacks. When I’m in the middle or towards the end of releasing a single or an EP, this usually steps up a gear as my own private expectations start to drive me to work too hard and put too much pressure on myself. I know that sometimes I work too hard, take on too much, and sometimes I lose the run of myself, becoming an introverted freak-out. But that’s OK.
Personally, I’ve been taking steps and managing my expectations when releasing music. And to be honest, it has been working. It is a useful skill to train your brain to stop thinking that every piece of music you release into the world is a matter of life or death.
The idea of the lazy musician, or the struggling musician, is a well-worn trope. Usually it is followed by someone saying the most annoying, and utterly ridiculous, phrase that follows artists around: ‘If you do something you love, you will never work a day in your life.’
What a steaming heap of crap!
If you work at something you love, you tend to get emotionally wrapped up in it. This means that the highs and lows you experience are profound. When you invest your own money, time, and creativity into something that you want to make your life and it doesn’t work out, it can leave you deflated. There are countless numbers of people buying a ticket to this lottery, and only a few people will win. Which is why you should enjoy all the good sides of making music.
I was stressed to the eyeballs managing my band. Yet with the benefit of hindsight, I wouldn’t change a thing about it. The love we shared and the journey of being in a band are cherished memories I’ll have forever. But, by God, did the process fuck with all of our heads. Try telling a bunch of headstrong teenagers that they won’t be the biggest band in the world.
So, in this chapter we will have some personal stories from artists on how the music industry has impacted on their mental health, and also some of the processes they used to recover. We will also hear from Help Musicians UK and Music Support for some tangible tips on looking after yourself and about the services they offer.
I don’t think enough people know that these organisations exist to help with musicians their mental health. So, if you know any musicians who are suffering and are in need of help, then please tell them about these organisations.
If that musician is you, then you should know that people, by their very nature, are mostly good and they want to help. So please don’t suffer in silence. Speak to someone and get yourself on the road to recovery.
In the mythology of music, one thing that comes up time and time again is the idea of ‘meaning it’. It’s been the currency that critical reviews have thrived on for decades, and any number of ‘best albums’ lists are filled with music made by intense people who suffered for their art, and who poured every inch of that feeling into the grooves of the record.
And, sadly, they’re also full of records made by people who didn’t live to see their music feature on ‘best of’ lists.
Music can take a serious toll, and one of the easiest traps you can fall into is to believe that a happy, well-adjusted person can’t make great music.
‘Musicians are creative people and, generally speaking, creative people by nature are usually in tune with their feelings and emotions, as creativity is the artistic expression of feeling.’
Michael McCullagh is a writer and musician, also known as Son of the Hound. He previously played in a band called Colenso Parade, featuring a fantastically gifted and beautiful bassist (me). For him, it can be so easy to lose sight of the reality of the situation, in pursuit of some elusive goal of success.
‘Like a lot of pursuits, you’ll find yourself competing and comparing yourself to those who are working toward the same goal as yourself. What inevitably follows is a smoke-and-mirrors game that’s damaging to everyone: keep a cool front on the socials, make it appear that every gig was seminal, that I have my shit together, that I am a professional who knows what they are doing. In doing that, you are unintentionally alienating yourself from others who are probably suffering the same existential crisis when it feels like everything is amounting to nothing.’
This competitive streak in musicians is pretty easy to relate to. Throughout this book, we’ve heard so many people talk about the uphill struggle to ‘make it’ in the industry. In simplistic terms, there’s only so much money or attention to go around and, if someone is listening to my record, then they’re not listening to yours.
So musicians struggle to make the most out of every opportunity, striving to push themselves as hard as they can. And they hope that every difficult step along the way brings them slightly closer to success, usually at someone else’s expense. This is a world where someone else’s downfall might well be your opportunity. It isn’t pretty, but in many cases, that’s the reality.
Except it doesn’t have to be like that. And for Mercury Prize-nominated songwriter Nadine Shah, you can set your own terms in this race for the prize.
‘Music is not a competition. You need to go at your own pace, and only you can decide what success is to you, and not be guided by someone else’s definition. To me, success was accomplishing an instrument well enough so that I could finally compose my own songs, and to record and release an album. I achieved that, and have to remind myself often that I did it: I achieved what I set out to do. Now everything since is just a beautiful bonus.’
This is one of the healthiest ways to approach being a working musician. Obviously you have to put food on the table, and you’re going to need money to do that. But in almost all cases, most musicians don’t start making music purely for the money (although almost all musicians enjoy seeing the money come in, because they’re only human, after all).
Being realistic, looking after yourself in a practical way, and setting achievable goals is one sure- fire way to keep yourself healthy, and it has the added side-effect of keeping you focussed. Take it one step at a time, and you can be sure you’re doing it right.
This is easier said than done, obviously. In 2016, Help Musicians UK conducted a study into whether or not music was making people sick. The results are, quite frankly, shocking. They’re also not entirely surprising.
Out of the 2,211 people who took part in the study, 71 percent believed they’d experienced panic attacks and high levels of anxiety. And 68 percent felt they were suffering from depression.
A big part of this came down to the poor working conditions that most musicians find themselves in. It’s hard to sustain yourself as a jobbing musician. So when you’re constantly having stress about where the next cash influx to your bank account is coming from, it has a serious impact on you. But, perhaps more worryingly, as a working musician you can expect to continually put yourself in an environment that is absolutely not conductive to a good, well-balanced mental outlook – pubs and clubs.
‘For a lot of people during their formative years as a musician, it’s a heinous and yet completely acceptable practice to be paid in beer,’ explains Michael McCullagh. ‘Break that down to its basest form: you are providing a service with a skill that you’ve worked incredibly hard to master, in exchange for a drug that is a depressant. There’s nothing rock n’roll about it, you’re poisoning your body and your mind, and it’s a long descent from there. That is a broken system. If you’re being paid in beer, the promoter isn’t doing the job.’
We’ve already heard about promoters who will throw in a crate of cheap beers as your backstage rider. And when you’re a struggling musician on the road, this frequently is no bad thing. Let’s be honest, many people enjoy a drink. And if you’re responsible, it can be managed and controlled. But if you’re in a different venue every night, and you’re making your way through a crate of beer every night, and you’re not eating or drinking anything else, then you’re on a difficult road. So it’s vitally important to keep an eye on how you approach the environments you’re going to find yourself in, as Nadine Shah reveals.
‘I consider being a musician a proper job, but it’s unlike any other job I’ve ever experienced. In what other professional environment would you be encouraged to drink on the job or to fulfil a task drunk? None.’
When you consider it as starkly as that, it no longer seems entirely reasonable to plough your way through a crate-load of beer every night – just because it’s there. And make no mistake, it’ll be tempting: waiting for soundchecks to finish, marshalling your energy as you wait to go on, sitting around doing nothing. There’s plenty of opportunity to succumb to temptation. But just keep reminding yourself, this all adds up and it’s part of a wider picture.
As Nadine tells us, this is your job, and whatever venue you’re appearing in, that is your office.
‘The hours are unpredictable and antisocial, the time spent away from home, the adrenaline highs and lows of performing, the effect of social media, and being constantly judged; all these factors contribute to a pretty unhealthy work life. And it doesn’t just switch off. You don’t just leave the office and forget about work. It’s constant.’
On top of this, for most of us, a ‘normal job’ doesn’t come with the added pressure of friends and family looking at you and wondering, ‘When are they going to stop chasing a dream, and focus on more important things?’
Music is a career, and it has provided many with full-time employment, from the people involved in chasing up music copyright, or negotiating the minute details of record contracts, to the struggling manager trying to convince a member of an out-of-control metal band to behave themselves and make it through an airport without causing an international incident. They’re all careers, and you can make a living from them.
On the other hand, if you’re planning on working in a bank or on a construction site, then ‘luck’ doesn’t play quite as much a role as it tends to in the entertainment industry. And this can be a real problem when you’re working all the hours of the day on something you love and believe in, but seeing very little return on your investment, while you watch the bills start to pile up. For concerned friends and relatives, it can frequently feel like they are watching someone they care about throwing their future away in pursuit of something that doesn’t seem likely to happen.
A relatively new addition to all this pressure is the world of social media. People are expected to live two lives now, and both come with their own set of problems. You might be struggling away, doing your best to just break even, but you’ll still feel compelled to try convincing the world that you’re living your best life, having a great time all the time, and just rolling around in your own success.
For Michael McCullagh, this illusory life has made things much more complicated.
‘Social media is not real. Just remember that, because if you don’t you will go demented. Be honest on it. If you’re honest to who you are, potential fans will draw toward you organically. You won’t have to jump through hoops and play the game to try and trick people into getting on board your hype train.’
At the same time, if you make an impact at all, other people are going to start talking about you. And that can come with its own set of particular problems.
For many musicians, the act of creating can be quite solitary, and can involve a process and meaning that is intimate and private to them. And it can be hard when the profound statement they have tentatively released into the world is utterly misunderstood by people nowhere near as invested in it as they are.
In this case, as Nadine Shah suggests, it’s not always a good idea to read your own press.
‘I don’t constantly Google myself. That can be super damaging. I don’t need to know what everybody thinks about me all of the time. If I get good reviews, my management will send them on to me to see. The negative comments are never constructive; they’re just scathing and pointless. It’s also worth mentioning that you need to accept that not everyone is going to like you and that’s totally fine. It’s personal preference, and I’m sure there’s plenty artists whose music you don’t like, that’s just how it goes.’
But when someone is calling you out on the internet, and you’re at a low ebb, feeling the pressure from a number of different sources, it’s not always that easy to just shrug it off and carry on.
Help is at hand, however. Rather than suffering in silence, and taking all this burden on your own shoulders, there are people and organisations you can reach out to. Matt Thomas is the co-founder and trustee of Music Support, a charity which has been able to help plenty of people along this journey. And for him, one of the first steps to getting help is acknowledging there’s a problem, something that isn’t quite as hard as it used to be.
‘Mental health has become so much more recognised and validated. It’s still often cloaked in “well- being,” which is fine; and the buzzwords are “anxiety” and “depression” (when there’s so much more to mental health, although these seem to be the cornerstones). But in general having mental health issues is more and more seen in the same light as having something like diabetes, which needs daily treatment and awareness.’
Rather than just offering general advice, Music Support is made up of people who have been through this process themselves, and they can relate to the difficulties a musician will face on a daily basis.
‘Music Support is founded and run by people just like you, who have been through their own major struggles, and they understand what it’s like, particularly in the context of the music industry. There’s no judgment, only empathy. Please don’t carry the load alone anymore.’
Music Support aren’t the only organisation recognising the problems artists face. In December 2017, Help Musicians UK launched a round-the-clock mental health service and support line, ‘Music Minds Matter,’ for people working in music at any level, not just high-profile artists. Through extensive research, they have been able to highlight a wide spectrum of issues that are likely to affect musicians, and are working towards providing support and resources. Here is a quick link to the site for more information – https://www.musicmindsmatter.org.uk/
If you’ve decided to make a go of it as a full-time musician, it’s likely that you’re a certain kind of person. You’ll be driven by a creative urge, something that burns inside you and compels you to express yourself in a particular way. You’re most likely the kind of person who can’t see how anyone could be satisfied behind a desk, and you’ll have a restless imagination that will likely take you to some incredible places.
At the same time, there’s a largely likelihood that you’ll be hugely self-critical, and you will have to get used to existing in an environment of constant criticism. A lot of this criticism will come from your peers, and that’ll feed into your competitive drive.
You’ll almost certainly not have much in the way of cash, and will be forced to either slum it, or work several jobs at once, just to get by. And as your peers seem to sail by you on a wave of success that somehow seems elusive to you, there’s every possibility you’ll not feel like you’re in a position to reach out for help from anyone. You won’t be the first person to feel like this, and sadly, you won’t be the last.
Help Musicians know this, and they’re continuing to work hard to make it a thing of the past.
They launched Music Minds Matter in response to their research and, in partnership with the music industry, they have committed to long-term support for those in the music community with mental health challenges. They have trained support staff who can listen to you confidentially at any time of the day or night, and they’re able to offer emotional support, advice, and information, even pointing you in the right direction for other specialist services, including debt and legal advice, as well as access to Help Musicians UK grants.
Help Musicians UK health and welfare grants offer financial support for a wide variety of circumstances, whether that’s help during a crisis, disability, long-term illness or retirement. They also have specialist schemes, like the Musicians’ Hearing Health Scheme, which gives people working in music affordable access to specialist hearing assessments and bespoke hearing protection. The Emerging Musicians Health scheme offers grants towards the cost of health care (psychological or physical) if a performance-related condition interrupts music studies or getting started in the music industry.
This hasn’t quite eradicated mental health issues altogether, but it is a massive step in the right direction, and Help Musicians are aware that there’s still plenty of work to be done. Across the industry, meanwhile, there is an immense amount of work being done by other organisations to address mental health issues among musicians. For example, the Music Managers Form (MMF) has produced a ‘Music Managers Guide To Mental Health’, Music Support, a charity supporting people in music with mental health and addiction issues, has launched a Safe Tents initiative at festivals, and Help Musicians UK is working with the British Association of Performing Arts Medicine (BAPAM), amongst others, to look at the pathways of support for people across the industry.
Crucially, musicians themselves have started to acknowledge that they need to change things on their own level. A few years ago, it wouldn’t have been too common to hear musicians talking to each other about their own mental health struggles, but there’s been a shift in recent times. People at all levels seem more open to communicating with each other, and that openness might just be the key in encouraging people who really need support to reach out for help.
What all this amounts to is a climate in which you will still face incredible hurdles, but there’s a whole group of people who are in a position to give you support to reach your goal in the most painless way possible.
For Matt Thomas of Music Support, you just need to talk.
‘Firstly, don’t give up. You are not alone. There’s so many people who have been through exactly what you’re going through, and would be so happy to help. They are just a phone call away, and if you can’t face that, you can send a note through the website. Sometimes even taking that first step can feel like a massive relief. Don’t forget you are not committing to anything by getting in contact.’
Through it all, just remind yourself that you’re not alone.
I’ll leave you with the words of Michael McCullagh, who will – in turn – leave you with the words of the late, great Joe Strummer.
‘You can desire to be great and still maintain a sense of solidarity. It’s better for everyone’s head. As Joe Strummer said, “Without people, you’re nothing.”’
For help and advice on mental health:
- ‘Am I depressed?‘ – Help and advice on mental health and what to do next
- Help Musicians UK – Around the clock mental health support and advice for musicians
- Music Support Org – Help and support for musicians struggling with alcoholism, addiction, or mental health issues
- YOUNG MINDS – The voice for young people’s health and wellbeing
- CALM – The Campaign Against Living Miserably for young men
- Time To Change – Let’s end mental health discrimination
- The Samaritans – Confidential support 24 hours a day