The following blog comes from Rhian Jones and Lucy Heyman, who are the co-authors of a new health-focused career guide for musicians called Sound Advice. The book has had widespread support from across the music industry, including from The BRIT Trust, who funded copies for The BRIT School.
There’s no doubt that the last year has been absolutely devastating for the music business, and the live industry in particular. For musicians, the coronavirus crisis has taken a huge toll, both mentally and financially, with 87% of respondents to a recent study by Help Musicians saying that the double whammy of Brexit and the pandemic has contributed to the deterioration of their mental health. This isn’t just due to the loss of work, as Help Musicians' CEO James Ainscough told NME, “Musicians who cannot work don’t just suffer financially, they grieve for the creativity and connections that their music usually brings.”
Even when there isn’t a global pandemic, we know that research suggests musicians are at risk of developing a host of health issues due to the nature of their jobs. As we delve into in Sound Advice, these include mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, addiction and substance misuse, as well as physical health issues that impact the body, hearing and vocals. The prevalence of mental health issues in music can be due to the touring lifestyle, which can be stressful on both the body and mind, long working hours and financial insecurity, pressure and competition, trolling and bullying online, and industry culture where alcohol and drugs can be freely available. Physical health issues can arise due to lack of adequate training and preparation to do what can be a very physically demanding job. In the sports world, athletes have a whole team focused on health, while in the pop world especially, basic training on how to play instruments in order to prevent injury, or how to properly warm-up the voice and ensure it remains strong for demanding show schedules, is often lacking.
The recently announced roadmap out of lockdown in the UK offers a light at the end of the tunnel and should all go to plan, live gigs could return in full capacity by the end of June. It would be tempting for the industry to charge full steam ahead into a post-pandemic world, cramming schedules to breaking point in order to make up for lost time and income, without much thought given to what the longer-term impact of this might be. It’s not hard to see the danger in this when considering the existing pressures musicians face, the impact on mental health that the pandemic and Brexit has had, and the fact that some sort of preparation and training will be required for those who perform to return to the same schedules they had before a year off.
Right now, the music business has a real opportunity to return stronger and more sustainable than before (which isn’t going to be an overnight fix). Those working with artists today could be thinking about how they are going to make mental and physical health a priority in order to foster longevity. Refusing to overbook an artist is part of that, as is getting to know what individuals need in order to thrive and putting things in place that are supportive. Understanding that there needs to be some sort of training to prepare for a return to touring and playing live, as well as to foster good health while on the road in order to avoid cancelled shows and lost consumer confidence, is also vital. Other examples of what support might look like in practice include musicians having a check up with a BAPAM physio if they’ve been experiencing any pain or MSK problems while playing, while singers could have an MOT check in with a coach, and get a tailor-made warm up and cool down practice, if they don’t already have one. Professionally fitted ear plugs are also a good idea, as is seeking professional help for healthy solutions for anyone suffering with performance anxiety. You’ll find lots more ideas in our book.
Over the last decade, there’s no doubt that there’s been a sea change in the way we talk about mental health in music and the support that’s available. Historically, though, there’s been a focus on crisis management, so addressing problems only when they arise, rather than learning how to try and prevent them from happening in the first place. Education is part of aiding prevention, which is what we’ve provided in Sound Advice, and then action must follow. And in the words of musician Catherine Anne Davies, who we interviewed for the book, taking action is everyone’s responsibility. As she says in our introduction: “Because the music industry is made up of these little pockets and there isn’t one big umbrella, it’s such a great get-out clause. Everyone can just absolve themselves of responsibility. But how long have we been passing the buck? As long as we continue to do that, nothing changes.”
So before we all get distracted by the daily grind of post-pandemic life, it’s worth taking a pause, and considering this question: what are you doing to ensure the music business has good health baked into its infrastructure in order to preserve the health and longevity of those on whose shoulders it stands?