A High Cost: How the biz is fighting back against mental illness
People in every profession and walk of life struggle with maintaining a healthy mind, and in an increasingly fast-paced and over-stimulated world, problems including anxiety, depression, insomnia, addiction and burn-out affect all corners of society.
According to the World Health Organisation, one in four people will be affected by mental illness at some point in their lives. Tragically, almost 800,000 lives are lost to suicide each year, equating to one death every 40 seconds. Mental health-related issues, then, are certainly not unique to the live music industry. However, many of the factors that contribute to problems – such as intense stimulation, irregular sleeping patterns, substance abuse, high pressure and loneliness – are often encountered by those within it.
The “competitive, turbulent and stressful” nature of the live entertainment industry, as well as “long working hours, poor boundaries between social and work life, and easy access to drink and drugs” pose many challenges to those working within it, says agent-turned-psychotherapist Tamsin Embleton.
The pressure to gain and maintain success at one end, and job precarity and financial pressures for those starting out in the industry, or working in low-level backstage positions, at the other, can also increase the risk of harmful behaviours.
The specific demands and pressures thrown up by touring present further challenges to those working at all levels and in all sectors of the industry. “Live performers often have issues with loneliness,” states Association for Electronic Music (AFEM) regional manager Tristan Hunt, referencing the abrupt emotional comedown experienced after performing to a fan-filled venue.
“Acts can also struggle with the demands of performing multiple times in a short period, or experience things like performance anxiety,” continues Hunt. “This is combined with access to substances to alleviate those pressures.”
A recent study into musicians’ mental health, carried out by Swedish digital music distributor Record Union, revealed that 73% of artists surveyed had suffered from mental health issues. Those working behind the scenes face similar issues, too. “Artists normally have management and a support network, but the people around them are under immense strain, too,” Andy Franks, co-founder of mental health charity Music Support, tells IQ.
“The doors always have to open, and the show always has to go on. There’s an incredible amount of pressure and euphoria, and when it’s over there’s quite a void in your life,” says Franks.
“Once shared, the problem gets smaller”
A rising awareness
Conversations surrounding wellbeing within the industry have cropped up more and more in recent years. The tragic, high-profile suicide of Avicii, real name Tim Bergling, in 2018, and the death of Prodigy frontman Keith Flint earlier this year, shocked and saddened many and thrust mental wellbeing into the spotlight.
Backstage, professionals attending the ILMC Production Meeting (IPM) in March spoke of the “sad reality” of losing friends and colleagues to suicide, discussing ways in which working conditions could be altered to prioritise the welfare of staff.
Support has sprung up in a variety of forms, from documents detailing modes of best practice, to scientific study into the mechanisms of a healthy mind, and music industry specific helplines to offer a friendly and knowledgeable voice to those in need.
Lina Ugrinovska, international booker at Macedonia-based Password Production, was public about a 2016 burn out. “When I shared my own story, and every step of the way afterwards, I realised that talking about it really does makes a big difference,” she says, “I’m really pleased to see that many initiatives and support centres have been built, and personal stories have been shared.”
Perceived stigma around mental health can often prevent individuals from speaking out, accentuating feelings of isolation and exacerbating the severity of issues. “Once shared, the problem gets smaller,” says Ugrinovska, who began her own initiative, Mental Health Care in the Music Industry, last year. Since then, she has been an advocate for mental health at international conferences across Europe and also formed part of the first decentralised Ni9ht H3lps workshop in Prague.
However, in Ugrinovska’s native Macedonia, as well as the rest of the Balkan region, she says there is “nothing” to support music industry professionals struggling with mental health issues. “The market here is really small and so is the number of people involved in the industry, but we are also facing the same struggles and people do not know who they can turn to,” says Ugrinovska.
The focus on mental health in panel discussions, expert talks and workshops at major industry conferences and events is a good step towards disseminating information about available services, as well as normalising and destigmatising the taboo. “People are hungry for information [about mental health and wellbeing], and they are also keen to find out about it in a slightly more dynamic way,” says Jenni Cochrane, co-founder of Getahead, a 24-hour “festival of the head.”
Fusing education and entertainment, Get Ahead shines the spotlight on employee wellbeing, informs people of where to get help, and celebrates life, according to Cochrane. “There’s no real understanding of the damage mental health issues are having on musicians and other staff, too,” she states, “but collectively, we are all becoming more in tune with it.”
“Peer support is an incredible thing”
Raising awareness and stimulating conversation is one way of removing stigma and encouraging people to voice their struggles. However, complex specificities continue to govern the culture of silence in many parts of the industry, as Lori Rubinstein, executive director of US-based Behind the Scenes Foundation, explains.
“People who are used to being on tour are not used to speaking out – they are the ones who solve the problems,” states Rubinstein, whose foundation provides grants to production workers unable to work due to illness or injury. Being on the road, says the Behind the Scenes executive, means individuals are away from family and friends and often working in a temporary team of colleagues who are unlikely to pick up on changes in behaviour.
The transitory and highly specific nature of touring also complicates the establishment of a relationship with a regular therapist, or other medical professional, who may be sensitive to the situation at hand. To combat these issues, some music industry professionals have taken matters into their own hands.
Music Support came about from the desire to create a service that was “fine-tuned” to the needs of those in the music business, says co-founder Franks. Having suffered personally from addiction issues and finding himself “at a loss” as to how to tackle it, he wanted to prevent others from having the same experience.
The 24/7 helpline offers industry-specific advice and guidance for music industry professionals struggling with mental illness and points them in the direction of appropriate medical help. The initiative has set up backstage areas known as “safe tents” at major music festivals across the UK, including Download, Reading and Leeds Festivals and British Summer Time in Hyde Park, to offer people an “escape” and a space to get some respite and information.
The spaces also host Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings for those struggling with addiction on the road.
“Peer support is an incredible thing,” says Franks. “We don’t necessarily have all the solutions but we can let people know that this is not something they have to suffer alone.”
Offering a clinical perspective is the Music Industry Therapist Collective, a group of psychotherapists and counsellors with a background in the industry. The collective, based in London and Los Angeles, works in person and online with individuals and bands, as well as offering workshops and group therapy. The collective is also working on a best practice guide, the Touring and Mental Health manual, to tackle issues including performance anxiety; relationship difficulties; addiction; stress and burn-out; trauma; and post-tour depression.
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Avicii’s family launches mental health foundation
The family of Swedish DJ and producer Avicii, real name Tim Bergling, has set up the Tim Bergling Foundation in his honour, raising money and awareness for mental health-related issues and suicide prevention.
The new foundation will focus predominantly on mental health and suicide prevention. It also hopes to address issues such as climate change, development assistance and conservation.
“Tim wanted to make a difference,” states Bergling’s family. “Starting a foundation in his name is our way to honour his memory and continue to act in his spirit.”
Avicii died of an apparent suicide in 2018, at the age of 28. The DJ had retired from touring two years previously, stating he had “too little time left for the life of the real person behind the artist” to continue.
Following his death, Avicii’s family described the dance music superstar as “an over-achieving perfectionist who travelled and worked hard at a pace that led to extreme stress.”
“Tim wanted to make a difference. Starting a foundation in his name is our way to honour his memory and continue to act in his spirit”
Family members referenced the DJ’s ongoing “struggles with thoughts about meaning, life, happiness”, saying “he could go on no longer.”
Discussing mental health at Futures Forum in March, Tristan Hunt from the Association for Electronic Music (AFEM), referenced the deaths of Bergling and of Prodigy frontman Keith Flint, who took his own life on 4 March. Hunt said the deaths were an indication of an industry- and society-wide problem.
“Across the industry, the majority of the deaths have been male – they have been high profile but also very representative,” said Hunt. “This is a serious and complex issue that we need to figure out going forward.”
Bergling was a dominant figure in the electronic dance music (EDM) scene, bringing dance music to arenas, breaking attendance records around the world and becoming the sixth-highest paid DJ in the world in 2015.
In 2012, Avicii donated the proceeds of a 27-date tour to the charity Feeding America. He also supported the Swedish aid organisation Radiojälpen and campaigns against human trafficking and gang violence.
Live business mourns the Prodigy’s Keith Flint
The future of the Prodigy’s live career is unclear following the death of their longtime frontman, Keith Flint, earlier today.
Flint, 49, was found at his home in Great Dunnow, Essex, this morning, after police became concerned for the singer’s welfare. Prodigy bandmate Liam Howlett later revealed Flint had taken his own life.
Flint’s death brings to an end a nearly 30-year career as the Prodigy’s charismatic frontman, originally as a dancer, then, from 1996’s the Fat of the Land – which spawned two number-one singles, in the form of ‘Firestarter’ and ‘Breathe’ – onwards, as the band’s main vocalist.
Born in 1969 in Redbridge, east London, Flint moved to Braintree, in neighbouring Essex, as a teenager. He met Howlett at a rave in Braintree in 1989, and joined forces with him professionally shortly after, with Flint and dancer friend Leeroy Thornhill providing Howlett’s music with a visual focal point on stage.
Following the critically acclaimed Experience (1992) and Music for the Jilted Generation (1994) – which, alongside releases by the likes of the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim, helped usher in the rise of the big beat genre of electronic music in the UK – the Keith Flint-fronted Prodigy went stratospheric in 1996–97, supporting Oasis at their legendary Knebworth shows and headlining Glastonbury 1997.
Glastonbury Festival’s Emily Eavis describes their performance at Glasto – the first dance act to headline the festival – as a “huge, unforgettable moment”:
We are so saddened to hear about the passing of Keith Flint. He’s played here so many times with the Prodigy and was booked for 2019. What an incredible frontman. Here’s a clip from ‘97 when they were the first dance band to headline Glastonbury – a huge, unforgettable moment. pic.twitter.com/9fxKBonfVa
— Emily Eavis (@emilyeavis) March 4, 2019
The band went on unofficial hiatus until 2004, when they released their fourth studio album, Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, and resumed touring in earnest.
The Prodigy recently returned from Australia, where their No Tourists arena tour played venues in Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, with a US leg planned for May and a string of European festival dates after.
Several festival promoters tell IQ it is unclear whether the band will fulfil their touring obligations as a tribute to Flint (according to Eavis, the Prodigy were also booked for Glastonbury 2019). A statement from Finland’s Provinssi, where the Prodigy are booked to perform in June, says it is unable to comment until it receives more information from the band and their representatives; events including Estéreo Picnic in Colombia, Snowbombing in Austria, Doctor Music Festival in Spain, SW4 in the UK and Pstereo in Norway have expressed similar sentiments.
After the loss of Keith Flint, a legend of our scene, we'd like to send our condolences to his friends, family & fans. We're processing the passing of one of the most important & iconic figures of the scene & we'll be providing an update as soon as we can.
RIP Keith Flint. pic.twitter.com/RyiYtmRcja
— SW4 Festival (@southwest4) March 4, 2019
The group, and Flint in particular, were especially popular in the Balkans and eastern Europe. A statement from Serbia’s Exit festival, where the Prodigy were almost a house band, says: “We lost a dear friend today and it is not easy to describe how this news was taken, not just in Exit, but in Serbia and the Balkans in general. There is simply so much history between us to even begin telling it.
“Keith was a true pioneer, innovator and a legend. He was one of us, a dance warrior who made so many feel energised and powerful. His chanting in ‘Firestarter’ gave us the strength when we needed it the most. Unfortunately, he also needed it as much as any of us, and we hope this tragic news will help us realise how much we all need to be there for one another.”
A statement from the band simply thanks fans for “respecting the privacy of all concerned at this time”.
“I’m shell-shocked, fucking angry, confused and heartbroken,” adds Howlett, in an emotional tribute to his bandmate posted on the band’s Instagram account.
“RIP, brother Liam.”
Updated: The Prodigy’s Keith Flint passes aged 49
Update: In a statement posted to Instagram just after noon, Liam Howlett reveals Flint took his own life.
“I’m shell-shocked, fucking angry, confused and heartbroken,” he writes. “RIP, brother Liam.”
Keith Flint, frontman for the Prodigy, has died aged 49.
Flint – who became the face of the British electronic music pioneers during their ’90s heyday, and sung on both of the band’s number-one singles, 1996’s ‘Firestarter’ and ‘Breathe’ – was found at his home in Dunmow, Essex, at around 8am this morning (4 March), according to Essex Police. The death is not being treated as suspicious.
“We were called to concerns for the welfare of a man at an address in Brook Hill, North End, [Dunmow], just after 8.10am on Monday, March 4,” an Essex Police spokesperson tells the NME. “We attended and, sadly, a 49-year-old man was pronounced dead at the scene. His next of kin have been informed.”
Flint had recently returned from a Prodigy tour of Australia with bandmates Liam Howlett and Maxim. A US tour is due to begin in May, following festival dates at Estereo in Bogota and Snowbombing in Austria.