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How healthy is the live music industry?

Hilde Spille of Paper Clip Agency in Holland writes about the very real stresses and strains encountered by workers in the live music business

17 Jan 2019

Hilde Spille

Music is magic. We are all very lucky to be able to make our living by working in the live music business. Friends and family envy us for the work we do, for the passion, fun and success associated with live concerts.

For musicians though, it is certainly not always about passion, fun and success. In the last two years, several sets of research have pointed out the mental health problems associated with musicians, such as depression and anxiety disorders; alcohol- and drug-related problems; and financial precarity. When I talk to artists about what causes them the most stress, they always mention touring. During a tour they can’t just give into ‘not feeling very well.’ Musicians have to give their absolute best, night after night, and can’t let their fans down by not performing or by performing badly. The show must go on, as David Grohl demonstrated in 2016, when he delivered full-on performances despite a broken and plastered leg. But, whilst talking about physical problems is difficult for musicians, talking about mental problems is that much harder.

When I look at agents, promoters and talent buyers, we don’t have any problems like that, right? No matter which of my colleagues I ask, we are always doing “fine,” or “great.” We are very busy and we love it. We work with passion and have so much fun, always ready to discover the next superstar. That is also my automatic reaction when asked how I am doing. I currently work as agent and promoter on tours for some great artists, like I Muvrini, Pussy Riot, Sass Jordan, and Huun-Huur-Tu. I have also worked, for 17 years, as talent buyer for the boutique festival Conincx Pop.

Talking about problems, let alone mental problems, is difficult for all of us in the live music business. According to a recent study of promoters by ticketing outlet and events guide Skiddle, more than 80% of the study’s participants report that they suffer consistent levels of stress, anxiety and depression. 47% said working in music led to a constant feeling of anxiety and sadness. For 38%, the work causes problems in relationships with partners or spouses. So I can only conclude that most of us are not doing that well after all.

“I hope that, with a bit of courage, we will all be able to talk more openly about our mental challenges”

Still, no one is talking about it. We wear the ‘passion, fun and success’ mask even though we are suffering from anxiety and/or depression. The whole live music business is built on trust, in a very competitive atmosphere. At a symposium at the University of Groningen in September on gender quota at festivals, Doctor Kristin McGee pointed out that the live music business is a very neo-liberal and macho business. We all fight for our survival and illness is seen as weakness, which we are ashamed to show.

If you give it a second thought, it sounds pretty disturbing. We trust people who show us the common ‘passion, fun and success’-mask, while we do not trust people who honestly tell us that they are suffering from anxiety or depression, and how they are dealing with it. It can happen to all of us. Wouldn’t it be logical to start trusting people who are honest and authentic, instead of always showing the reassuring mask? It would certainly help promote some necessary cultural changes in the present extreme difficulties in the music business regarding diversity in gender and ethnicity.

Before I started in the music business, I got an MA in psychology. With this background, I started a blog – Compass for Creatives – about the mental challenges facing artists. Very interesting in this context is the research concerning shame that was carried out by Professor Doctor Bené Brown. Shame plays an important role in keeping everyone wearing the ‘passion, fun and success’-mask. One way to break the shame, according to Brown, is talking about it, and knowing that you are not the only one. She says, you don’t need to be a hero; you just need a bit of courage.

I want to start showing some courage by confessing that I am recovering from being overworked, close to burnout. Fortunately, writing the Compass for Creatives blog helped me to recognise this in time. While in the past, musicians formed my target group for coaching and training, I am broadening it to include everyone in the live music business. And I hope that, with a bit of courage, we will all be able to talk more openly about our mental challenges, without fear of being punished.


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