For The Record: Avicii’s Death Is The Tip Of The DJ Anxiety Iceberg

Words by: Gavin Herlihy
Posted: 26/4/18 11:03

Avicii, real name Tim Bergling, on a recent holiday in 2017.

The Swedish superstar’s death cast a light on the tangled web of anxiety and ill health that befalls many DJs. Gavin Herlihy is one such artist whose career hit the ropes, as a result of anxiety and asks how many more tragedies like Avicii’s are waiting to happen?

Whether you love or hate EDM, Avicii’s death has had a profound effect on dance music. As the articles poring over the details of his career and demise continue to uncover new details of how his management team failed to protect the twenty eight year old Swedish born Tim Bergling from alcoholism, anxiety issues, and burnout, it has exposed many ugly flaws in the industry.

His death has clearly touched a nerve with DJs and many artists took to their social media pages to express messages of condolence and their shock at the circumstances of his passing.

Some of these are artists who have been openly critical of EDM in the past. He was an incredibly divisive, as well as successful artist, but even if you were not into his music, Avicii was still one of us. A kid who spent his youth under the spell of his DAW making music. A fan who dreamed of one day sharing stages with his heroes.

It is hard as a DJ to not relate to the ugly world of Catch 22s that Avicii found himself trapped inside. We are now only realising that the clues to his eventual demise were there for all to see long before his death. Even his artist name gave a suggestion what was to befall him in the latter stages of his career. The word Avīci is a Buddhist term originally used to describe the lowest level of Hell.

As more details of his life continue to become apparent, his life as an introverted global dance music star has all the surreal hallmarks of a particularly macabre episode of Black Mirror. The Netflix science fiction show constantly poses the adage; be careful what you wish for. And it is a sentiment that cruelly defined his career as alcoholism, anxiety problems and pancreatitis took their toll over the past five years and plunged him into what must have felt at times like his own personal take on hell.

Dance music - as a culture - has recently begun to discuss the ticking time bomb of mental health issues that DJs can face. The ‘Why We DJ: Slaves To The Rhythm’ documentary for one brings together artists like Luciano or Erick Morillo to talk candidly about the toll that constant touring can take. It is perhaps this unifying experience that all DJs share, that has made his death hit hard with artists from all walks of dance music.

 

The general public is only just getting a glimpse of what life is really like for a jobbing DJ. It’s obvious that a life of excessive partying will eventually catch up with you. But even those who don’t party still suffer from the never ending early morning flights, the perennial lack of sleep and the constant illnesses contracted on germ filled planes.

And that’s just the physical side of it. The list of mentally challenging situations that DJing throws at you is endless. Constantly performing with little sleep, (a condition that heightens anxiety even for non sufferers). Working in an incredibly competitive industry where time to grow as an artist is non existent. The pressure to keep reproducing success that is never ending. The bizarre Groundhog Day situation where a club full of people are cheering you one minute and the next, you’re alone in your hotel trying to cope with the weird loneliness that only touring can bring. The pressure to play every gig that comes your way.

It is this last factor that was clearly evident in a documentary made about Avicii before his death. Released in 2017, 'Avicii True Stories' contains scenes where he is constantly being pressured to not cancel his tours, even though he is suffering from anxiety and health problems. Despite only being released online only a few weeks ago, Netflix have pulled the documentary without an explanation why.

Seth Troxler infamously called out Avicii's former manager Ash Pournouri at IMS in 2014, asking him if his contractual relationship with Bergling was a ‘Milli Vanilli situation.” One half of the 1980s pop duo later died from an alcohol and prescription pill overdose.

As a DJ myself I can sympathise with Bergling’s situation having experienced my own career grind to a halt as a result of anxiety problems. While my level of shows or success were nowhere even remotely near the level of Bergling’s, I know exactly what it is like to fight it out with the mental turmoil of overthinking both in the studio and the DJ booth, while trying to remain sane amidst the constant challenges of a touring lifestyle. And I can only imagine what it must have been like for Avicii to be touring at the frighteningly high level he was at from such a young age.

One of the worst parts of finding yourself in this situation is the invisible pressure to keep quiet about it in case the general public castigate you for moaning about what they deem to be your easy life. To keep up the pretence especially amongst your peers that everything is amazing and that success is ever flowing.

I fear that Avicii’s death is just the tip of the iceberg of mental health suffering that exists beneath the surface of dance music. He may have been in the one per cent of DJs whose earnings tip into the millions. But the realities of dance music are that even if you are one of the 99% of other artists, the industry can still mentally and physically break you. There are plenty of DJs touring every weekend relentlessly for a fraction of Bergling’s DJ fees who are afraid to turn down gigs in case it costs them momentum and who are fighting it out with many of the same problems.   

Footage of Avicii under the influence of prescription drugs during and after a hospital trip. 

Many battle to stay afloat financially in a constant boom and bust cycle of popularity and earnings, a factor that comes with another level of financial stress that few feel able to admit to. And there are far more beneath that bracket trying to get to the next level while balancing day jobs with studio time at nights and weekend DJing.

The ability to tour as a DJ can be both a gift and a curse. A rare breed are born with the particular type of coping skills necessary to perform these feats of mental resilience. The rest of us have to fight it out with self help books, therapy, Ayahuasca trips, meditation and whatever else you can lay your hands on to equip yourself with the mental tools required. At every level of dance music, sleep is at a premium.

I’m lucky to say that I was able to overcome my own anxiety problems in my own time away from the DJ booth and a million miles away from the kind of spotlight and pressures Bergling found himself under. But not everyone is that lucky.

His death now asks burning questions of dance music. Of how hard we should tour our artists. Of how hard we should push ourselves. And the general public’s awareness and understanding of the lifestyle that DJs lead. If you are one of those bedroom producers like Avicii was, or I was as a teenager pining for a career as a DJ, be aware of what you’re getting yourself into. And be careful what you wish for.


More For The Record:


Where Have All The Freaks Gone?
Marathon DJ sets - so what?
Craig David and the new San Antonio Blueprint


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