Melbourne’s music industry and mental health: the system is broken

Originally publushed in Beat Magazine.

In an industry that relies on the love of its audience, not much time is spared for the mental health of those both on stage and behind the scenes.

Sitting at my desk in my bedroom, still quite dark with the blinds slightly open on a dreary, overcast afternoon, I’m listening to one of my most prized records – Nirvana’s Nevermind. At the moment I’m midway through track five; Lithium.

Many view frontman Kurt Cobain’s work as pure artistry, spewing from his thoughts and worldviews, as somewhat of a troubled icon. Troubled upbringing, troubled teenage years, resulting in ‘troubled’ music.

But does this troubled nature deserve to be glamourised?

Sure, it can be argued that his negative life experiences made him who he was, and thus directly influenced his music – yet if they also cut his life tragically short, why are we not frantically trying to ensure that nothing of the like ever happens again?

A 2015 report by Victoria University has found that Australian music industry workers are ten times more likely to suffer from anxiety and five times more likely to suffer from depression than the average person. Sleep deprivation and a lack of a stable income are two of the key factors here.

The respondents were split into three groups, with the first consisting of performing artists and composers. The second was made up of performing arts support workers, and the third of broadcasting, film, and recorded media equipment operators. These issues were prevalent across all three groups.

The report was not entirely negative – it showed that music industry workers overwhelmingly love what they do and value its importance, both for themselves and their audiences. However – this report has brought the mental health of music industry workers to the forefront, and frankly, it’s about time.

The mental health problems that musicians face within the music industry have existed much longer than they have been recognised and talked about. While it’s not out of the ordinary to hear stories of drug and alcohol abuse, it is out of the ordinary to unpack them and try to figure out exactly how and why this abuse could happen in the first place.

That said, drugs and alcohol aren’t the only catalysts for – or means for dealing with – mental health problems. It seems as though the mistrust for those in the music industry is still there, though – in the sense that it is still, to this day, generally associated with drug and alcohol use.

This is a view supported by Julie Crabtree – psychologist, and director of Zebra Collective, a group which aims to assist those who work in creative industries to aspire towards innovation and longevity within their careers.

“I am shocked that in an industry that is known for its innovation and leading broader culture, when it comes to issues of mental health, drugs and alcohol, bullying, and sexual harassment – it is still in the eighties.”

Part of the problem lies with the fact that alcohol is so widely accepted within the industry.

Head of Entertainment Management at the Australian Institute of Music, Rob Cannon, explains further.

“I think the broader concern is just that it’s available and condoned,” asserts Cannon. “There’s very few professions where you go to your workplace and drink alcohol – and usually, you’re given it for free – and people are very happy for you to do it. It’s that easy access, the ever-present nature of it, and the fact that the fabric of the event and society is quite happy for that to be the case.”

But is this more of a personal problem? Or is it a cultural problem within the industry?

Does the industry need to do more? Or, do those involved simply need to take better care of themselves?

A small handful of groups such as Support Act and Entertainment Assist are there to help those involved in the music industry, yet there is only so much they can do. At present, there are no clear avenues within the industry for those affected by mental health issues to seek professional help.

“The music industry has lost any formal group advocating for them – it is dominated by ‘gate keepers’ in the industry who have no vested interest in supporting the mental health of their artists. Other creative industries are aware of these issues and are working very proactively for their artists, but the music industry is decades behind,” says Crabtree, a speaker on the Mental Health & Music panel at the 2016 Bigsound music conference.

Sure, they could just go to GPs, psychologists and the like, and many do, but that costs money – something which industry workers are finding hard to come by. Thirty-five percent of the report’s respondents stated that they earn less than $20,000 annually.

Cannon, also a speaker at the 2016 Bigsound conference, has witnessed these issues first-hand.

“Being a performer is a tough, tough gig, and when you’re starting out, earning a living from your craft is a hard thing to do. A lot of people are either operating on the smell of an oily rag, or they’re incorporating their performing in with other things as well.”

As a result, many artists must supplement their music careers with ‘real’ jobs. Even then, 65% of the respondents reported a combined annual income of less than $60,000.

“You’re doing a day job, and then you’re playing a gig, and by the time you’ve bumped out and gotten home it’s like 2:30 in the morning, and then you’re getting up at seven to be at the office at nine,” says Cannon.

This is yet another issue that music industry workers have to face. Along with the lack of sleep and lack of a stable income, the idea that musicians aren’t necessarily valued unless they’re successful is still commonplace.

Operations and Program Manager at Music Victoria, Nick Cooper, agrees.

“I think a lack of valuing music is a massive contributor to the mental health of musicians and artists,” he says.

“Music doesn’t really seem to get valued enough not only as a cultural and creative offering, but also financially and commercially. For musicians, it’s hard enough to make ends meet and have their music appreciated, let alone deal with health issues like mental health.”

Lead guitarist of Melbourne band The Moody Spooks, Stuart Ferguson, acknowledges the prevalence of mental health issues within the industry.

“Mental health is an important issue in the music industry just as much as any other industry. Possibly even more so, as mental health can sometimes be glamourised if a famous musician suffers, such as Kurt Cobain.”

Respondents to the Vic Uni report citedthe music industry’s culture as a factor in their unwillingness to seek help. Specifically, the report refers to this as “the perception that seeking support may compromise future employment opportunities.”

“I certainly don’t think the majority of artists would be keen to put their hand up and say that they are dealing with mental health issues, but I know that there are some out there that are pretty active in the area,” says Cooper, a key figure in both the Melbourne and the Victorian music scenes.

Does this mean that any change in the industry must come from artists themselves? To spark some sort of movement, perhaps?

In September 2016, Melbourne band Camp Cope spearheaded a campaign – referred to by its hashtag, #ittakesone – aimed at stamping out sexual harassment at gigs. It quickly gained traction and widespread exposure, in part due to a video in which music industry figures urged fans to realise that it only takes one person to ruin a show, but it also only takes one person to initiate change.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily the answer, I think it’s one of the many awesome things that can be done,” says Cooper. “These movements can start quite easily – they can start in a pub, they can start in the backyard, they can start at a gig, and the next thing you know you might have a festival, you might have a campaign by a band, you might have a tour, that sort of thing.”

But with all of this being said, it’s still clear that not enough is being done to care for those involved.

In early October 2016, Sydney musician Fergus Miller (aka Bored Nothing) died at the age of 26, following a battle with depression. It “eroded away at him”, according to a post on Brisbane band Major Leagues’ Facebook page.

This sparked an outpouring of love and grief from the Australian music community, and re-ignited discussions around mental health in music.

Yet, it should not have to take tragedies such as these for the issue to be addressed.

These undertones need to be brought to the forefront, so that real change can begin.

“Mental health is everywhere and it’s acceptable, it’s totally part of being human,”Music Victoria’s Nick Cooper says.

It’s time we started realising that.

If you or someone you know is suffering from depression or anxiety, you can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or visit their website

About anthonyfurci

Journalist and producer based in Melbourne.

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