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How healthy is the live music industry?

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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Positivity and burn-out

Last month I did a guest lecture at Tampere University of Applied Sciences for students of music management. I started with research into positive psychology and how it can help musicians and people in the music business. In the music business we all follow our passion: We like what we do, we do what we like. We have a very positive attitude towards our work.

Many people dream of being a musician or working in the music business. As an agent, I feel privileged to do the work I do and the great musicians I work with. When working as musician or when working in the music business, you realise that you are privileged. You feel very positive about your work. With all the positivity present, it’s often hard to admit that there are moments when you don’t like your work, or some aspects that go with your work. You think that it’s temporary, and you continue, even if you feel less positive.

You once loved the work you do, and you don’t understand what’s bothering you now. All the people around you love what they do. They wouldn’t understand, so you can’t talk about the discomfort you feel. You feel fatigue but you go on, even if it costs you lots of energy.

After having sleep problems for weeks or months, you still think that it’s temporary, that good night’s sleep will cure everything. Only when physical pain is added, you start to realise that it’s time to visit your GP. Many GPs, however, look only at the physical problems: For GPs it’s difficult to realise that passion for your work can cause a burn-out, and that even famous musicians can have a burn-out.

This is something I have experienced myself and seen happening around me again and again.

During the lecture we ended talking a lot about burning out and being overworked. Smiling doesn’t offer a way out of it; nor does just keeping going or waiting for a good night’s sleep. When you burn out, you don’t have the energy for positivity or passion.

It’s important to find the right treatment. It always starts with taking some rest. In the second step you add some physical exercise. You have to learn to know and to trust yourself again. At the third step you cautiously start working again. Each step needs to be accompanied by a GP, coach or psychologist. As a psychologist and coach who’s familiar with musicians and the music business, I can help you with that.

Preventing a burn-out is even better. A friend in the music business told me that his laziness prevented him becoming overworked. He always made time for doing nothing. For musicians, and everyone working with musicians, it’s important to realise that you need time off, time to relax, time to do nothing, time to get bored. Your mind needs to unwind.

A regular walk in the countryside does exactly that. Yoga and meditation help, too. Take that time off as seriously as any other appointment in your calendar. You need it even more in situations when you think you are too busy.

I go to the office by bicycle and take a quiet road, even if it’s a detour. Cycling twice a day, for 20 minutes through a quiet area of the city with many trees, helps me to unwind. What’s you favourite way to unwind your mind?


Hilde Spille is a senior agent at Paperclip Agency in the Netherlands and the founder of Compass for Creatives, which offers mental coaching and ‘burn-out treatment’ for musicians.

Putting musicians in the picture

Again and again you hear from musicians that they feel they have been screwed by the music business – much like Sinead O’Connor published on Facebook in August. If you listen to all the complaints you might think that everyone working in the music business is a crook. That’s of course far from the truth. Whilst all those people who make up the business team of a musician (manager, agent, A&R manager) have their own financial interests in the success of the musician, who is defending the interests of the musician?

The only independent adviser for a musician is his or her lawyer. In some countries you have musicians’ unions that offer similar services but in general, the music business doesn’t meet the needs of musicians needing non-legal, independent advice. Three years ago I started a blog Compass for Creatives to fill this gap. This blog provides free empowerment advice to musicians in order to help them strengthen their position.

The blog has received more than 150,000 views so far. When musicians feel screwed by the business, it’s either because they really have been, or because they wrongly believe they have been. The latter is often caused by a lack of understanding of how the music business works. In both cases, empowerment offers a solution.

Even if most of us aren’t crooks, there are ‘sharks’ operating in the music business. We have all heard the stories about promoters selling a band to a venue and keeping 50% of the fee for him or herself, or when the band doesn’t get paid because they accepted drugs from the promoter that were allegedly worth the amount of the fee.

Empowerment can help musicians in two ways. Firstly, empowering musicians makes them more aware of what power they have and that helps them develop the strength of personality needed to deal with people. Secondly, they become more alert of everything that’s going on around them. Therefore, they will hopefully realise that they are getting screwed by a business partner quite early, maybe even in time to prevent it. Empowered musicians are also better equipped to defend their own interests when they were unable to prevent getting screwed in the first place.

Musicians need to know that the fee is dependent on the ticket sales. They don’t have to know all the details, but they do need to know the basics in order to set out the direction the whole team is heading.

When musicians wrongly feel they’ve been screwed, it’s often because they don’t understand how the music business works. And the music business has a long tradition of preventing musicians from understanding how the industry works. Two years ago, I participated in a panel at Go-North in Inverness, Scotland, that explained how the international music business works. One of my co-panelists, that worked at a major record company, mentioned openly that she prefers young musicians, aged 20 or less, because they don’t yet have their own opinion and don’t know how the business works.

There are also musicians who don’t want to be informed. Sinead O’Connor admits in the Facebook discussion mentioned above, that she wants to make music and leave the business side to others. But empowered musicians are able to lead their business team. Musicians need to know that the fee is dependent on the ticket sales. They don’t have to know all the details, but they do need to know the basics in order to set out the direction the whole team is heading. It’s not only about their career, it’s about their life too!

As a European agent I prefer to work with informed musicians. In September 2001, I celebrated my 20th anniversary at Paperclip Agency. I work as the European agent and Dutch promoter for bands from all over the world. Acts on my roster include(d) John Watts (from Fischer-Z), I Muvrini, Balkan Beat Box, Chloe Charles, and many others.

In Compass for Creatives, I combine my experience in the live music business with my master’s degree in cultural psychology and my interest in personal management. As part of my blog, I offer online workshops as well as individual coaching. I’m regularly invited to guest lecturer at universities and colleges on the topic of music management.

Everything at Compass for Creatives is about the empowerment of artists. Inspired by research from the McKinsey Institute into the ‘secret’ of the successful women who made it to the Fortunes500, I developed five empowerment tools for musicians. These five tools have proven very useful in coaching both male and female musicians. Right now, the second edition of the ‘Online Workshop 5 Empowerment Tools For Musicians – Learn in 6 weeks how to move from insecurity to an upward spiral towards success’ is running. The first edition attracted plenty of enthusiastic feedback, including: “This workshop engages the ‘higher’ forms of business. It’s more a personal development rather than a ‘how to’ workshop yet it connects directly to business. Would I recommend it? Definitely!” The third workshop starts 16 November.