Around Christmas last year, noise-pop DIY band Joanna Gruesome were on the verge of a career breakthrough. Following their acclaimed debut, Weird Sister, the Welsh five-piece had just been offered an exhaustive U.S. tour. They were delighted: as musicians in the digital age, in which torrents and streams have radically devalued recordings, this is where the money comes from, and frantic gigging is now a universal requisite for mid-level bands expecting to eat. But while four-fifths of Joanna Gruesome were itching to hit the road, singer Alanna McArdle was stalling. After a recent suicide attempt, she was dreading touring. McArdle confided in Fortuna Pop label head Sean Price, who gave a reassuring pep talk: your health comes first, this tour is optional, and I’m thrilled to release your records anyway. “I don't know if she heard that clearly enough,” Price says today, sighing down the phoneline, “because she went out [on tour] a few weeks later.” It was to be her last tour with the band; citing her mental health, she left Joanna Gruesome shortly after coming home in March.
In 2015, the complications of life on the road are more visible than ever. Pinballing adrenaline, erratic income, performance anxiety, and disturbed sleep routines are just a few hazards of touring recently highlighted by artists ranging from Chicago blues singer Willis Earl Beal to Massachusetts indie outfit Passion Pit. In October, London-based dubstep pioneer Benga tweeted that he’d been sectioned in 2014 as a result of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, blaming a culture of excessive gigging, drug use, and industry negligence. Add to that the absence of centralized support systems, and the tour grind becomes, as punk band Perfect Pussy’s Meredith Graves told The Guardian this June, “a recipe for a breakdown.”
So why has the industry failed to act? Part of the problem is deciding who’s accountable. While thriving businesses often establish staff help services—wellbeing officers, mental health hotlines—most signed musicians answer to a rotating cast of string-pullers. That includes various label figures, as well as managers, tour managers, bookers, and promoters. One result is that, with promotion schedules so meticulously devised, performers are under enormous pressure to stick to them. Plus, when they’re orbited by so many business types, artists often have no idea who to approach for help.
“With a normal job, if you're sick, you don't go in. As a DJ, if you’re on tour and can't turn up to a gig, you lose money."—Visionist
“With a normal job, if you're sick, you don't go in,” says Louis Carnell, aka producer Visionist, over the phone from his hometown of London. Carnell recently released a dark, tetchy electronic record called Safe chronicling the arc of a panic attack: the teetotal producer suffers anxiety so severe he once had to cancel an Australian tour. “As a DJ, if you’re on tour and can't turn up to a gig, you lose money,” he adds. “And you don’t just lose the money you're about to earn—you're probably gonna have to pay for flights.”
As well as emptying your wallet, chronic anxiety on the road can pose a grave psychiatric risk. In 2013, singer-songwriter Beth Jeans Houghton—now signed to Mute as glam outfit Du Blonde—was cooped up mid-tour in a Zurich hotel, obsessing about death. After five sleepless days, she suddenly panicked and called her tour manager; when he arrived, she had become paralyzed. “I looked at him and tried to say, ‘You need to get me an ambulance,’” Houghton remembers, speaking on the phone from her north London home. “And gibberish came out. I thought, I'm either dying or I'm going to spend the rest of my life in a mental institution.”
Luckily, her tour manager recognized the symptoms of a nervous breakdown, and spent seven hours cradling her to sleep. But it needn’t have got that far. “My label checks in with my tour manager to see how my voice is doing,” Houghton reasons, highlighting a disproportionate focus on physical health. “Maybe every six months they could have a meeting and check how we are, mentally.”
A simple enough idea, but in practice, it’s compromised by the stigma that still exists around the subject of mental health. Mike Sniper, the owner of Brooklyn label Captured Tracks, stresses that he’s “definitely interested” in artists’ wellbeing, yet bristles at the thought of reaching out. “Certain artists, if I was to suggest a thing [concerning mental health], they or their managers would be upset,” he tells me over the phone from his New York office. “Like, ‘What gives you the right? Why would you think you're even able to do this?’” In Sniper’s eyes, the parties responsible are “management, bookers, promoters, venues, and artists who make the money on live performance.” After all, he claims, “nobody's forcing you to tour.” While technically true, the financial realities are often different.
“When you're in the middle of an album cycle, it feels like this inexorable process where you can't get out of it,” ex-Joanna Gruesome frontwoman Alanna McArdle says today from a Hackney café. “And because it's a small label—and I really love working with Sean [Price]—I thought, I can't fuck this up, because this is his money on the line.” After a short run of dates this February, McArdle—destabilized by sleepless nights, bipolar-induced mood swings, and the threat of costly show cancellations—realized she’d had enough. “Lately, my mental health problems have become a lot worse and I've gone through a pretty shitty time,” she wrote in a Facebook statement that June. “Thanks to everyone who ever put up with me on tour, and anyone who stopped any assholes from hurting other people at our shows.” With overwhelming love and support from fans, she parted ways with the group.
“When you’re in the middle of an album cycle, it feels like this inexorable process where you can’t get out of it. I thought, I can’t fuck this up.”—Alanna McArdle
To explore why artists alone shoulder the mental toll of touring, I visited Help Musicians U.K., a charity for British-based musicians in financial hardship, who are working to change this reality. In a bright, open-plan office in King’s Cross, London, I’m greeted by health and advice manager Nigel Hamilton. Formally dressed and well-spoken, Hamilton—a former government worker in homelessness—chooses his words carefully, but has a quiet enthusiasm for his team’s work. Lately, after a Help Musicians survey found musicians are highly susceptible to hearing loss and tinnitus, Hamilton’s been quizzing audiology experts to get a medical background on those impairments, which he’ll now translate into prevention and support services for musicians. Next, he hopes to apply that systematic approach to mental health in the music industry.
Although this is new ground for a British charity, Help Musicians has a history stretching back beyond the dawn of pop. Established as a memorial fund in 1921, after English tenor Gervase Elwes fell under a train during a U.S. tour, it soon became known as the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund. But until a recent rebrand, few outside the classical sphere paid attention. As record sales thrived in the last third of the 20th century, the pop industry generally looked after itself.
But the reality was that while the money was being looked after, not much else was. During the late ‘70s, Dr Brian Wells was working as a general doctor-for-hire for misadventure-prone rock bands, particularly on Atlantic Records. “Quite a lot of it was people having bad trips, having too much cocaine,” recalls Wells of the era, from his home in London. “Ringing up, saying, ‘Am I ever gonna live?’ Giving them a tranquilizer to calm them down, that kind of thing.”
In 1987, Wells began specializing as a band therapist; among his clients were Michael Jackson, AC/DC, Foreigner, and many more protected by confidentiality agreements. Unfortunately, he recalls, the labels he worked for were hardly paragons of altruism. Often, they’d send Wells to a distressed artist’s side only once they’d become a financial liability. “It [was a case of] ‘What the hell are we gonna do with this guy?’” he says, chuckling. “A lot of the people involved with celebrities don't give a shit about the health of the person.”
Jonathan Morrish, a veteran CBS/Sony publicist who’s since become a Help Musicians trustee, remembers the period through a rosier lens. “It was very much instilled in you as a press officer, when you were given a new act to look after, to treat them with the utmost respect,” he says over the phone. “Kill Your Friends”—John Niven’s Britpop-era thriller about a megalomaniac svengali who embodies cutthroat major-label politics—“is now out as a movie, but that's fiction. The industry never encouraged it.”
Still, there’s a glint of truth in Kill Your Friends’ caricature. This July, Amy, Asif Kapadia’s enormously successful Amy Winehouse documentary, pulled back the curtain on an unscrupulous entertainment industry and its failure to protect the stars who make its executives rich. The film suggested that, had Winehouse’s team, family, and the press better understood the nature of her addictions and eating disorder, she might have lived. A year before the singer’s death, Dr Wells tells me today, her GP asked him to step in. “I said no,” he admits. “I just couldn't cope with all the players involved. You'd have to deal with the label and the managers and the dad and the whole fucking thing. It's too much hassle.”
If Amy’s picture of a toxic industry rang alarm bells, they have not, it seems, reverberated into its upper echelons. Alison Wenham, the founder, chair, and chief executive of the U.K. indie trade body Association of Independent Music, sharply criticizes the major label model. In that world, she explained by phone, there’s a trend for the “hot-housing of artists—forcing them to produce more than they're ready to produce, in the time that suits your bottom line.” When it comes to treating mental health on the road, she adds, “we've still got that stiff-upper-lip British mentality, which is just bullshit.”
“Let’s try and break down the taboo. Let’s try and open the conversation.”—Nigel Hamilton, Help Musicians U.K.
Over at Help Musicians, Nigel Hamilton is pragmatic about the industry’s slow progress in dealing with mental health. Like any modernization process, revitalizing age-old cavalier attitudes could be a long and clumsy process. What matters, he insists, is that the conversation happens. “Even if labels are struggling to just do their basic job, let’s try and break down the taboo,” he says. “Let’s try and open the conversation.”
For this piece, interview requests to Universal, Sony Columbia, XL, Ninja Tune, Young Turks, Warp, 4AD, and Mute were unreturned; Warner, Hyperdub, Warp, and Tri Angle declined to comment. “The relationships between an independent label and its artists are generally pretty good,” says Alison Wenham, “so [the indies] are probably thinking, ‘Problem, what problem?’” Asked if that’s a valid stance, she shrugs. “If their roster is steady, I think that's fair.”
It’s a slightly puzzling assumption. Although the majors’ lack of urgency is troubling, plenty of artists in this discussion belong to staple indies. It’s possible label heads avoid the topic due to shyness, respect for artists’ privacy, or an assumption that anyone suffering will speak up unprompted. Regardless, to an outsider—and, crucially, many artists themselves—their attitudes are eerily reminiscent of corporate ambivalence.
"When I was on tour at three in the morning...I didn't have anyone I could talk to. I ended up calling my mum, like, ‘Mum I'm terrified of death!’”—Beth Jeans Houghton, aka Du Blonde
Beyond the efforts of individual labels, broader change will require top-down action from organizations like AIM and the British Phonographic Industry, the British music industry’s trade association. Case in point: Help Musicians U.K. have proposed a 24-hour helpline—similar to one run by MusiCares in the States—for which they’re now seeking funding. Staffed by specialists attuned to musicians’ needs, the helpline would provide counseling and support services accessible both online and by phone. (The BPI, which has access to funds such as the BRIT Awards’ charitable arm, said in a statement: “Our aim now is to see how we can offer more material support for [Help Musicians’] plans to expand their range of counseling services.”) Presented with the concept, the artists I spoke to for this feature are unanimously in favor.
Alanna McArdle, who once spent half a therapy session convincing her psychiatrist touring isn’t just an extended vacation, says she’d “definitely use a helpline, rather than talking to someone who's completely alien to what you're doing.” Likewise, Beth Jeans Houghton recalls “a time when I was on tour at three in the morning and I didn't have anyone I could talk to. I ended up calling my mum, like, ‘Mum I'm terrified of death!’” When Visionist’s Louis Carnell started having anxiety attacks, he’d call NHS Direct, the U.K.’s now-defunct health and advice service, “at silly times in the morning,” he says. “But if there was one just for musicians, they’d have an understanding of the life beyond the glitz and glamor. Nobody really thinks about [mental health] in my world.”
While Help Musicians and organizations like the BPI work on a structural level, labels, in turn, need to be proactive and compassionate in confronting mental health. When McArdle left Joanna Gruesome, Sean Price wrote her a long email supporting the decision. Although he has severe debt, sleeps for five hours a night, and isn’t immune to depression himself, the Fortuna Pop boss finds a way to look out for artists’ wellbeing. McArdle tells me: “The bottom line is, when you come to him with a problem, he says, 'I believe you.' That’s all it takes.” As simple as it sounds, label heads like Price make a crucial difference just by recognizing their duty of care. “At the end of the day,” Price concludes, “I would much rather have an alive Alanna than a dead pop star.”