You sound unique. You’re made from pure creative potential. You can stand alone or be part of a symphony. To the opportunistic music business, that makes you an instrument to be played; to over-pluck till destruct making sweet money music; to neglect to go out of tune. In its obdurate scheme, it is the necessary thumb to your melody – but that’s just not true. Because you’re the musician, and ultimately you are you.
It’s no secret: although it’s amazing to be professionally engaged with your passion, the very nature of the music industry brings with it a framework that makes us vulnerable as human beings. As Help Musicians UK’s recent study reported, musicians are three times more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety than the average (UK) population.
Factors at play include precariousness of living conditions, merging of personal identity with profession, working late and inconsistent hours, alcohol and drugs, heavy touring schedules and simply never switching off. But as we learnt at this year’s dBs Dialogues mental health series, coming together to talk about these issues – taking ownership of them, even – is the best way to bring about change.
Last month, we continued the conversation in a collaborative panel talk with Music Pool Berlin, an invaluable organisation which supports musicians with practical resources and advice. “When I read the study and heard that dBs Berlin was organizing an event series on the topic,” said our moderator, cultural producer and curator Andrea Goetzke, “I got the idea to also organise one of our Music Pool Berlin community evenings on the topic of mental health and music.”
Our fantastic panellists were: electronic artist Emika, artist manager and agency owner Andy Inglis, !K7 head of artist management and former label owner Rachael Patterson, and philosophical advisor and coach Florian Goldberg. Bringing together extensive knowledge from all corners of the music industry, they discussed the health issues that arise, how we can take better care of ourselves and others, and what we can do to turn detrimental working conditions and structural issues on their head.
Read on for the first of our two-part round-up.
You are not your music
“It’s very healthy to be able to separate yourself from your public-facing career or identity, even if they are linked in every way.”
You put your heart and soul into your music – we get it. But that does not mean you should be defined by it. As the Help Musicians UK report put it, the way that musicians come to embody their work, arguably “renders them particularly vulnerable.” It’s the tipping point where a career becomes all-consuming, criticism turns personal, or a personal brand becomes a cage. But remember, you are a human first and a musician second.
As Emika pointed out, finding your brand is a great form of self-expression: “In the beginning, so much of it is about settling on an identity that you feel is yours.” But what happens when that identity becomes a feedback loop, or if you disassociate from it after it’s brought you success? “That started to get really unstable for me,” she continued. “Getting internationally recognised for my music, I started to realise that I was surrounded by a lot of people I didn’t understand.”
But in an industry where branding is everything, is there any way we combat this? According to Emika, it’s all about keeping a distance: “Emika is like a glove,” she said. “I created certain guidelines that I could put on and take off.” One of the rules Emika is most strict about is not sharing anything personal online: “I don’t focus on what I share with people around me; it’s around my music.” And Andy agreed: “It’s very healthy to be able to separate yourself from your public-facing career or identity, even if they are linked in every way.”
Be the cause, not the effect
“If you keep your eyes on the prize, it really doesn’t matter what comments people throw at you.”
Not feeling in control of your work or your life can be a great source of depression and anxiety for anyone. And in the music industry, facing pressure from managers and labels to relentlessly create, tour or live up to a certain sound, it’s a feeling all too familiar. “If we are pushed to be just the effect [rather than the cause], and if we allow that, we start to feel bad,” Florian asserted. “To really understand what it means in your personal life – to ask where am I at the source of things? and where am I at the effect of things? – this is especially important for an artist.”
This is something that Emika has personally experienced. So anxious about an upcoming Glastonbury gig that she had to medicate in order to perform, Emika reflected, “I recognised that there was a lot of people around me that pushed me to do that and that I really needed to change my entire life.”
The best way to regain control over your life, Florian advised, is “for an individual is to ask, what can I do to change things where I am?” “For artists, it’s good to make your own plan,” he continued, “then do it and follow it up and find the people who are willing to collaborate with you.” In the end, it’s all about prioritising your own well-being. “If you keep your eyes on the prize, it really doesn’t matter what comments people throw at you,” Emika added, “you have to just be focused on what you want and know why you’re doing it.”
Know your own business
“We’ve got this notion of what artists tend to be; that they’re not professional in a business sense.”
Knowing your own business comes back to being in control. It stands to reason that if you don’t have any idea about your contractual terms, how much your music is worth, how your profits are being used, who is responsible for your accounts, and so on, you are vulnerable to being taken advantage of, left out of pocket or stuck for years in unsatisfactory agreement – none of which is remotely good for your mental health.
Talking of the music industry, Andy said, “We’ve got this notion of what artists tend to be; that they’re not professional in a business sense.” In his opinion, artists are partly to blame: “My biggest frustration of the entire industry is that artists don’t learn about their own business, and we have this separation of I’ll take care of the songs and you can take care of the business. If that keeps going on, we will keep fucking you as artists, you will keep getting fucked – and that has to stop.”
Forgoing the traditional management structure, Emika told us, she created a business persona where she is comfortable “talking about a lot of money and convincing a CEO that they should back [her].” And taking three days out to do her accounting doesn’t mean she can’t still get inspired. “I put on music and catch up with listening while I’m doing my accounting,” she revealed, “so I always find a way to somehow be inspired even though I may just be doing business stuff.” Finally, Emika advised, never assume that others know better than you: “there’s a lot to be said about going with your gut.” If a meeting or a business deal doesn’t work out, don’t take it personally; “just move onto the next thing.”
Still not keen to do all the business stuff? That’s okay. According to Rachael, transparent models that allow the artist to make choices about how their money is used “are starting to exist and starting to be quite helpful.” You’ve still gotta have your head screwed on though.
Labels aren’t everything
“I increasingly see record labels as not any way to earn money.”
Really want to get signed? So does everyone. Does that mean it will benefit you or your music? Not necessarily – that’s why Emika put her business hat on, after all. Rachael gave us an example of an artist she’s currently working with who was signed to a big label a few years ago. Initially excited to get on people’s radar, she has found herself pigeonholed to a particular sound and is now “desperate to not work with them.” Besides, Rachael continued, “I increasingly see record labels as not any way to earn money, but a way to invest to have someone to help you do that marketing.”
In Florian’s opinion, artists shouldn’t feel pressure to follow the conventional path as there are always alternative ways to carve out a successful creative career. “Don’t be too impressed by the expectations,” he said, “ask yourself what is it that I want to do with my life? What do I want to contribute? What niche could I find and settle in there and do my thing?”
Be realistic and get creative
“If we can’t break the old industry, then we should help artists do it for themselves.”
Part of knowing what you want to do with your life is being realistic and knowing your limits. If you’re at the start of your music career, don’t put pressure on yourself to be successful and earn a living from it straight away. As Rachael suggested, there’s absolutely no shame in getting a part-time job to support yourself and take a bit of the pressure off: “If you feel more relaxed, you are maybe able to be more creative with your art; [your creative output] doesn’t depend on the recognition which is also connected to the income you get out of your art.”
Since we already know that labels aren’t a great way for artists to earn money these days, Rachael believes that both artists and the industry need to get a little creative. A friend of hers, for example, is setting up a live venue and studio space run completely by artists. The idea is that musicians work behind the bar and get free studio time whenever they need it.
What it’s lacking though, she says, is the money to get the project off the ground: “Maybe music studios with lots of money should support projects like this, or fund studio equipment. If we can’t break the old industry, then we should help artists do it for themselves.” And, of course, as Emika suggested, if you can leverage your fan base, you can also earn a little extra cash from platforms like Bandcamp, Patreon and YouTube.
Want to gain more mental health and music industry insights from our panellists? Click here to read the second part of our Music Pool Berlin x dBs Music panel round-up with five more things we learnt – from the importance of creating a good routine to dealing with drugs and alcohol.