Photography: Daniel Wirtz / @danielwirtz

From elation to frustration, love to rejection, music charts our deepest emotions, says Greg Edwards, Charity manager at The Open Door Centre.

Versatility is one of music’s greatest attributes. There may be a particular record or genre we turn to when we are feeling positive and there may another for times when we are feeling low or distressed. What I find relaxing might be industrial, Berghain techno music whereas you may prefer to opt for something made of soothing pan flutes and sitars. The point is, we are dealing with a subjective domain that has different effects on different people.

Music has an important role in our society: it can define groups of people, influence our decisions and creeps into our everyday lives through television, radio and buskers on the street. Psychological research has always had an interest in the effects of music on people, how it can be used to improve mental health – but there’s also now a growing interest in exploring the complex relationship between the music industry and those who aspire to be a part of it, and even those who are already involved.

From record labels to management companies, promoters, artists, streaming platforms, aggregators and sync companies, the music industry is a vast global business that has had to adapt to and change with technological advances over the past 30 years. Many young, budding musicians and artists only see what is publicly portrayed by the industry’s output, usually consisting of success and creativity. However, behind every song that comes to market is a well-oiled business machine that ensures that the only music that is released is that which will make the invested parties (particularly the labels and management) money. Even for established musicians, this can cause conflict where their creative ideas and ambitions clash with the business side of the industry. There is also a worrying trend of artists struggling due to the pressures placed upon them as a result of touring and being responsible for making money for others in the industry when they become their own established brand. The late Swedish DJ Avicii is an unfortunate example of this; the turbulent life of a full-time musician with an exhausting touring schedule can often exacerbate feelings of anxiety.

Jane Boland from charity James’ Place raises the point that “we as humans benefit from routine and often performing musicians work antisocial hours. Performing in itself is emotionally challenging and can be draining for musicians”. James’ Place is a new charity that has opened in Liverpool devoted to suicide prevention, aimed at men for whom everyday issues become problematic and they find themselves in crisis. Zero Suicide Alliance is another organisation doing fantastic work to raise awareness and provide free suicide prevention training which could benefit musicians that are struggling in the future.

“More needs to be done in looking at vulnerable groups such as those who aspire to work in creative industries”

A lot of us develop an interest in music as children, starting as listeners then becoming fans, and some turning that into a life as a musician. For some, an interest in music comes from their own personal ambitions and inquisitive mind, whereas others may be inspired by parents and friends. Music should – and does, for many – serve the important purpose of being a key hobby, interest and passion. Provisions which meet these aims can be extremely important for our mental health and wellbeing as humans. We know this because it is what makes us unique; but we also know through mental health therapeutic interventions, like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), that these hobbies and interests are usually the very same that suffer when conditions such as anxiety and depression develop, resulting in less engagement on a behavioural level with these personal interests.

Music has other important psychological and neurological benefits. For example, children who learn instruments have been found to have better verbal memory, second language pronunciation accuracy, reading ability and executive functions which substantially support cognitive development (Miendlarzewska and Trost, 2014). Executive functioning of the brain is concerned with high-level cognition processing of information, retaining information, regulating behaviour, making decisions and problem-solving. Having a higher level of executive function could also suggest a link with higher intelligence and academic achievement which requires further exploration (Zuk, et al, 2014).

Music has additional advantages for musicians when they become confident enough to join their first band or group, often in the early stages of secondary school, working with other musicians to develop further skills in music ability, teamwork, social skills, commitment, performing and compromising. Again, this can be beneficial for an individual’s personal development but also for wellbeing and mental health. Young people are often also influenced by famous musicians in their field of interest; these can be positive or damaging role models. For example, a musician who is renowned for taking drugs and being in trouble with the law could potentially inspire young fans or musicians to behave in similar ways. Many people are strong-willed enough to make their own decisions on these matters. However, there are also vulnerable people who will engage in risk-taking and questionable behaviour in order to feel accepted in a peer group or try to display their individuality. Research has also found that individuals who show high interest in or idolise celebrities may suffer from poorer mental health (Maltby et al, 2004). This could potentially raise questions and concerns for those who take up or develop an interest in music for positive reasons initially, but become avidly inspired by famous artists or use this as a basis to pursue further interests in the music industry or a related career.

We know that mental health issues can affect anyone, which includes the hugely successful who may have battles of coping with fame and a chaotic lifestyle – but what about those who are trying to break into this exclusive circle industry where the odds are against them? As previously discussed, there are numerous positives in musical hobbies and interests, such as playing instruments or writing music as a defining, enjoyable behavioural activity. Why wouldn’t someone with a love of music not want to try and turn a hobby into a career, and maybe even become as successful as some of their role models? Mark Twain once said “find a job you enjoy doing and you will never have to work a day in your life”. Unfortunately for those wanting to make a long-term career out of music who often have all the skills, passion, motivation and work ethic, getting into the industry or making a job out of it can be a difficult journey which at times is likely to include a rollercoaster of emotions, from elation to frustration, love to rejection.

An insightful study (Gross and Musgrave, 2016) orchestrated in conjunction with Help Musicians UK recently examined some of the issues facing musicians and their mental health. The findings were alarming, with over 2,000 participants contributing. It found that 71 per cent of musicians had experienced panic attacks and/or anxiety, 65 per cent had struggled with depression, and that musicians could potentially be three times more likely to suffer with mental health illnesses compared to the general population. Some of the key issues were around financial difficulties of being able to live a sustainable life, long and anti-social working conditions and the general lack of support available. Sarah Butler-Boycott from Liverpool Mental Health Consortium says: “We’re pleased to see that suicide and mental health is increasingly being discussed more widely and that the role of the arts and creativity is being recognised. This is something that Liverpool Mental Health Consortium feels particularly strongly about and is a focus of our Liverpool Mental Health Festival in October.”

With knowledge of the issues facing musicians and the increasingly competitive nature of trying to build a fulfilling career, more needs to be done in looking at vulnerable groups such as those who aspire to work in creative industries. Helping to manage expectations by encouraging transparency rather than exclusivity, and trying to make support avenues less intimidating/clinical, has to be a goal for developing mental health provision in the creative sector. The more we can implement tools and initiatives that are imaginative and relevant to the needs of our musicians and artists, the more we can help them to do what they do so well: create.
World Suicide Prevention Day – an annual awareness raising event organised by International Association for Suicide Prevention and the World Health Organisation – is held each year on 10th September. Start a conversation today if you think a friend, colleague or family member may be struggling. #ITSOKAYTOTALK

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