On the 20th April, dance music had its own Diana / ‘Princess of Hearts’ moment, with the death of painfully-young EDM star ‘Avicii’ — Tim Bergling was just 28. Youthful casualties are not so unusual in our highly hedonistic industry. What was different this time was that the kid’s descent was clearly documented in an expensive Netflix documentary just 6 months before.
For the latecomers ‘EDM’ or ‘Electronic Dance Music’ is the recent American re-branding of what the rest of the world used to call ‘House and Techno’. America’s something like 30 years late to the party but, being America, has decided that dance music didn’t exist until it got involved and, as always, is never happy until it’s taken it over entirely.
Suddenly there’s a global wellbeing microscope trained on something we’ve been merrily doing in Europe for decades — hammering our bodies and brains. And with that has come a whole new level of mainstream political correctness and terminology. Social media, magazines and industry conferences hum with conversations about ‘wellness’ and brow-furrowing about equality, diversity and ill health. We think that’s excellent, actually, and long overdue. But it’s also massively ironic considering the ruthless realities of the music business, a business that is worth an estimated £5.7 billion a year globally.
It’s not the nineties anymore. Dance music was constructed on foundations of drugs, partying, sleeplessness and excess. Now two generations of selfie-taking young go-getters scratch their heads at why anyone would want to be so out of their mind when there is such good money to be made. The original ethos of dance music as a highly vocal protest movement is long, long since lost in the cheerfully chattering ding of happy cash registers.
We now face a paradox, a corporate conundrum usually reserved for conglomerates: How to tackle — or be seen to tackle — clearly awful and negative issues that seem hopelessly institutionalised without actually examining our own culpability? How do we mourn dead young acts without digging too carefully into what pushed them to that end?
Watch in awe as millionaire DJs boo-hoo about how hard it’s been for them and wave goodnight as they waft off to their mansions, to sleep like babies on the heaped skulls of teenage laptop DJs on pillows stuffed with money. The dance music press can’t do much but repeat these sanitised messages, weak as lemon cordial. Meanwhile poor kids without access to private doctors, yoga gurus or even vegetables struggle with exactly the same problems as superstars, far estranged from the support and solutions that money provides.
Everything is discussed at tedious length at our conferences, except the one relevant truth that pulses at the heart of the problem of mental health issues in the arts: Our industry itself. The biggest enabler. The phattest pusher. The largest ignorer. The most deaf of all ears.
Look out! Fact-sandwich incoming...
A recent University of Westminster pilot survey of 2,211 self-identifying professional musicians working across a broad swathe of the UK music industry found that:
71.1% of respondents believed they had experienced incidences of anxiety and panic attacks
68.5% of respondents experienced incidences of depression
Office for National Statistics data (collected between 2010-13) indicated that nearly 1 in 5 of us suffer from anxiety and/or depression (aged 16 years +). This research suggests that musicians could be up to three times more likely to suffer from depression compared to the general public.
The majority of respondents felt underserved by the available resources:
52.7% found it difficult to get help
54.8% considered there were gaps in the provision of available help
These preliminary findings from 2016 suggest that music, and by this we mean working in or having ambitions to work in the music industry, might indeed be making musicians sick. Or at least be contributing towards their levels of mental ill health. We suspect it’s not limited to musicians and the music industry either. Or that two years have in any way improved the situation.
We are not well. As ‘artists’, workers or as consumers. We can’t change modern society, but we can certainly scold a highly culpable industry.
DRUGS. Say it loud. No one wants to, not really. Prohibition is clearly not working, nor is any sane adult dialogue at government level. Hypocrisy is the number one problem. Denial a close second. One hand dabbing at crocodile tears while the other accepts huge wedges of wonga from booze and ‘energy drinks’ firms, cigarettes and most loopy of all, vast farms of ‘medicinal’ cannabis.
The UK’s own drug tsarina is married to one of the world’s biggest weed growers, while her own policy dictated there is no medical use possible from it. Only recently has the UK, as always, copied America and even considered looking at the issue. Just staggering isn’t it? Our star DJs and industry leaders lie outright about their own consumption. They completely erase it from everything at ‘official’ level, while popping off to the bathroom for a lifter while the interns get rid of all mentions.
How can you escape or take a break from a machine so dependent on novelty? People don’t enter this biz guaranteed with a job for life. You’re not even sure of a job for the summer. Most clubbers in their twenties don’t last more than a few years doing it with any regularity before real life, proper jobs and family drag them back to reality.
In something like three years the industry as a whole can almost completely repopulate. Particularly in the age of interns and zero hours contracts. Our whole damn thing is geared towards utter disposability, not just the acts themselves. If the industry can’t even take itself seriously enough to offer proper employment conditions and wages, how can we expect it to treat anyone’s health — mental and physical — with the correct amount of respect?
There aren’t enough words available here for nuance or solutions. After all, that’s supposed to be our industry’s job. But when the very method of production is a sausage factory designed to squeeze the meat until it squeaks, what hope is there for action or change? At the conferences, and in online documentaries our fattest cats put on their sad faces and tell us it isn’t easy for them either, while offering nothing by way of solutions.
Here’s a start:
Drug use often falls into two rough categories. ‘Means of Escape’ and ‘Celebration’. Many use drugs perfectly recreationally and have few issues, if any. Others seek oblivion, which is highly toxic. Most insidious of all, many people do both. But when one of us dies, we speak of mental health issues and ‘exhaustion’ and completely omit drugs from the equation. Both legal and illicit. Entirely out of fear. It’s time to speak up. It’s a Gordian Knot of intense complexity that is aching for the sword of Alexander.
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