Tamsin Embleton: ‘We need to reimagine the way we tour’
The last few months have seen an unprecedented number of artists pull the plug on tours, citing the detrimental impact of touring on mental health.
Santigold, Arlo Parks, Shawn Mendes, Sam Fender, Russ, Wet Leg and Disclosure are just a handful of artists who scrapped outings, with many referencing the gruelling reality of touring via public statements.
Tamsin Embleton, a psychotherapist and the director of Music Industry Therapists Collective (MITC), called the mental health crisis in the artist community “startlingly widespread” but says many mental health crises are preventable.
In advance of the publication of her new book, ‘Touring and Mental Health, The Music Industry Manual‘ (due 23 March 2023), Embleton shares tips for identifying and coping with the various psychological difficulties that can occur during or as a result of touring.
What’s leading the rise in the number of tour cancellations due to mental health?
As my fellow MITC therapist Jodi Milstein points out, burnouts, breakdowns and relapses have always happened on tour but we used to use euphemisms for it, like ‘exhaustion’. Researchers in the UK and the US have been waving the red flag about the vast number of artists who suffer psychological difficulties when working in the music business since the 1980s, but it’s taken the latest wave of research around six years ago headed up by a paper from Gross and Musgrave and Help Musicians to catalyse substantial change in the industry.
Attitudes have changed a lot since the 80s. We have a greater mental health literacy so there’s less need for euphemism. This is partly down to wider societal trends but also thanks to artists who have publicly disclosed their struggles in the press. This encourages others to reflect, identify problems and seek help. Teams need to be careful that they don’t view an artist’s mental health difficulties as their USP though. Discussing sensitive issues in the press can be distressing – if it happens too early in recovery it can set progress back. And, of course, once it’s out there, it’s out there, and might be probed for years to come. Artists need support in figuring out what they feel comfortable disclosing, what is just theirs and what should remain private.
Touring is intensively stressful from a biological, psychological and social perspective. Stress accumulates on the road – and as it does so it degrades mindset, morale, optimism, tolerance, immunity and every system in the body. It makes it hard to get restorative sleep, and so the cycle continues. Some artists are sent out on the road with schedules they aren’t physically and psychologically able to withstand. Chronic stress can create psychological and physical problems and can exacerbate pre-existing conditions.
For some touring professionals and artists who were grounded during the pandemic, their capacities have changed for better and worse. There might be more awareness of the hidden costs of touring in terms of mental, physical and relational health. The pandemic meant lost earnings and opportunities for many, and there are other issues (low streaming revenue, inflation, the weak pound etc), adding financial pressure and resulting in extra dates being added.
“Touring is a high-stress situation where environmental conditions expose you to rely on unhealthy coping strategies”
What kinds of mental health issues are touring artists prone to currently?
Depression, anxiety (general, performance, social, flight), addiction, dependency and substance misuse problems (alcohol and substance, sex, porn), stress and burnouts, mental health crises (psychosis, self-harm, etc), conflict and anger management difficulties, eating disorders… the list goes on. Touring is a high-stress situation where environmental conditions are changeable and challenging, and the touring lifestyle encourages you to rely on unhealthy coping strategies such as excessive alcohol drinking, indulgent food, smoking, illicit substances, sex etc.
What causes these issues – where are the pressure points?
Touring is stressful to mind, brain, body and relationships. Firstly it takes you away from the people and practices that usually keep you stable (maintaining relationships at home is hard when you are physically and psychologically in different places). You are constantly thrust into unfamiliar spaces like venues and hotels which can be a source of stress in itself. Then the pressure is ramped up – to meet the expectations of a wide number of people (audiences, teams, press, local crews etc). You’re always ‘on’ – expected to deliver to exceptionally high standards night after night, no matter what role you’re in – and that’s hard to maintain.
There are great soaring highs (when performances go well) swiftly followed by lows – a rollercoaster people are rarely adequately prepared for. It starts off as very exciting, but as Nile Rodgers said to me it can be gruelling. The stress levels make it hard to get good quality, restorative sleep and exhaustion add to the cumulative stress. It’s hard to switch off when you’re always gearing up for the next show, which makes it hard to be present and enjoy your surroundings. There’s very little privacy and solitude. Often people talk about loneliness on the road, which is about not feeling connected to people or understood.
“Record labels, managers, and promoters have a duty of care toward artist”
Who is responsible for an artist’s mental health?
The artist has personal responsibility towards their own health and their teams have a duty of care towards their health too. A duty of care is the legal duty of people in positions of trust, power or authority to exercise reasonable care toward those they manage or assume responsibility for. It protects the health, safety and welfare of clients and employees while they carry out their work duties. So, record labels, managers, and promoters have a duty of care toward artists (i.e. anyone who employs the artist to fulfil work, or those who are employed by the artist to make career decisions on their behalf). Artists also have a duty of care toward their touring parties and managers.
Are there more services that artists and crew can reach out to now?
Greater numbers of artists and music industry workers are recognising that they need support and reaching for help. We have many excellent services and charities in the UK serving the community – Help Musicians UK, Music Support, BAPAM, Music Industry Therapist Collective (MITC), Tonic Rider, and grants available from PRS for Music fund, Royal Society of Musicians, StageHand (run by PSA) and others. Majors like Sony, Warners and Universal are offering greater levels of support. There’s a huge number of passionate, highly skilled people working to change things for the better.
“I think all artists could benefit from mentorship and coaching”
How can touring be made sustainable for artists?
That’s a big question and not one that’s easy to answer succinctly! We do need to reimagine the way that people tour. It’s not one-size fits all – capacities vary. Some people are more vulnerable than others.
Some changes can be implemented for free with a little bit of effort like providing ‘dry’ (alcohol free) dressing rooms, signposting to specialist mental health services, local 12-step meetings, green spaces, sports facilities, and ring-fencing time so that they are able to meet with therapists, coaches or sponsors. Others, such as changing the schedule and having sensible routing, have cost implications and raise questions about who pays for the shortfall. There’s a chapter in [‘Touring and Mental Health, The Music Industry Manual’] that addresses this.
What kind of support should artists be provided with?
It depends on what they’re dealing with but it’s helpful to set off feeling prepared. Adequate rehearsal time helps people feel a sense of mastery over the repertoire (which in turn can reduce performance anxiety).
Depending on the individual they might need to visit their GP or psychiatrist for a medication review ahead of the tour. I think all artists could benefit from mentorship and coaching, whether that’s ADHD coaching, vocal or performance training or career coaching. Skills building through psychoeducation, developing an understanding of mind-body connections and finding healthy ways to relax such as self-hypnosis for performance anxiety, meditation and mindfulness etc is important too, which is why we have tried to cover as many bases as possible in the book with chapters on all of these topics.
Then there are a number of psychological therapies that can help people to intercept unhelpful thought patterns, or reflect on their self-perception, formative past experiences and relational dynamics. Artists need to understand the risks to mind and body (including RSI, vocal strain issues like nodules, hearing issues etc) and have the right equipment, such as custom-fitted ear plugs or noise-cancelling headphones for those who struggle with sensory overload.
“We have to be flexible and anticipate life transitions that might cause stress or mean people need to adjust their way of working”
What do artist teams need to remember about artists and their mental health?
Even with the very best of intentions, over-functioning fosters dependency and reduces resilience and tolerance (think: helicopter parents). Try not to dismiss protests or expressions of suffering (verbally or musically) – it means something, so take it seriously. Educate yourself on the warning signs of poor mental health and illness. Think: prevention rather than cure or crisis response.
The industry is highly stressful, and the artists you work with will need to find ways to vent, blow off steam and make sense of it all. Encourage healthy behaviours and model self-care. Put in boundaries around communication and when some time is blocked off in the diary, don’t tempt the artist into working during their time off. It’s important they (and you) have some semblance of a life, and relationships outside of work. Social support is a vital source of stress relief throughout life, so we should try to help people stay connected to loved ones whilst out on the road.
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