While many may envisage the life of a touring musician to be that of a glorified jetsetter, the reality is far from idyllic. A recent study by charity Help Musicians UK found that over 60% of musicians have suffered from depression or other psychological issues, with touring an issue for 71% of respondents.
“The classic image of a touring musician would seem counterintuitive to all we know about well-being,” says Isabella Goldie of the Mental Health Foundation. “Drinking in moderation, avoiding drugs, getting sufficient amounts of sleep, and having a support base of close friends and family nearby. These are the bonds that help keep you grounded … It’s no surprise that some musicians struggle.”
“Ninety-nine per cent of touring is the airports, the hotels, sitting in a metal tube for up to 16 hours at a time,” says Grammy-nominated producer Mat Zo (real name Matan Zohar). “It’s easy to let your mind and body slip into decay, even for a person with a healthy emotional state. For those with anxiety, hotel rooms are like prison cells.”
For many, the contrast between the highs of a successful show and the anti-climactic low that often follows can be hard to adjust to, a phenomenon that has been termed “post-performance depression’, or PPD. Mental health professional John C Buckner writes: “When the body experiences major shifts in mood, it is flooded with several different neurotransmitters, resulting in a biochemical release that leads to a feeling of ecstasy. After these moments the nervous system needs time to recalibrate itself to prepare for another release. After an exciting performance the body starts to balance out the level of neurotransmitters, and therefore it is not releasing the same level that caused the exciting feelings, resulting in the lingering sadness. In normal day-to-day life, biochemicals are released and rest/recovery follow, causing the typical ups and downs of life. In the case of PPD, the process is more extreme with higher highs and lower lows.”
Goldie agrees: “Musicianship remains one of the most exalted job roles and each live performance can provide a real high which can be hard to adjust to – especially when the elevated status that musicians receive is suddenly lost.”
“Touring can be destructive on a musician, it was destructive on me, that’s for sure,” former XL Recordings artist Willis Earl says. “I’d come home from tour, and I’m back to feeding the cat. My wife at the time – I don’t have a wife now – worked 12-hour shifts , so I was cooking the dinner all that sort of domestic stuff. There was a lot of tension, because I’m thinking to myself, ‘I don’t deserve this, I’m a big star’ and that was one of the contributing factors in ending my marriage. This career, the striving towards something that never existed and doesn’t exist.”
A breakdown of personal relationships is common, with many musicians feeling alienated from loved ones back home. Zohar agrees: “Relationships are compromised, partly because it becomes difficult to relate to people with a more stable lifestyle. Your problems and cares become radically different to the other people in your life.”
For some, however stressful and chaotic touring can be, it is preferable to daily life at home. “Touring institutionalises you and it can make normal life feel mundane,” says Vaccines singer Justin Young, recently returned from a handful of dates in the US. “You end up with a lot of expectations from life that aren’t always fulfilled in everyday tasks like going down the shops for a pint of milk or even going for dinner with friends. It’s hard to replace all that adrenaline.”
These sentiments are echoed by Nash: “When you’re on tour, you know exactly what you’re doing and what’s required of you. There’s a routine. It’s tangible what you stand for because it’s right in front of you. You come off tour and say to yourself what is the point? What am I doing with my life?’”
But is treating touring as escapism healthy in the long-term? Isabella Goldiesays: “Life on the road can be exhilarating but it is vital that the musician has a place to call home, a place where he or she belongs.”
Many of those surveyed by Help Musicians were reluctant to seek help. One anonymous artist said: “I feel guilty asking for help with something I should be able to deal with given the issues in question are part and parcel of the career path I’ve chosen.” But Nash says it’s important to know when to take a break. “I think I was probably overworked,” she says, reflecting on her early career. “I was doing huge tours and having two days off and then going out again. It burned me out.”
Is it viable, however, for an artist to simply not tour? Beal, for one, thinks not. “If I could just stay home and record, I would, but it’s not financially feasible for a musician to do so these days.”
A cruel reality then, but is the music industry waking up to the strain it may be inflicting on its own artists? “I hope so,” says Nash. “When you’re young, people tell you that if you don’t do something it’s the end of your career. But it’s not. People are fragile. Our brains are fragile and you can only abuse them for so long. The sad thing is that some people can’t take themselves out of these situations. That’s when it is a manager’s responsibility to go ‘Hey, I think we need to take a break.’”
Nash says that the internet has had a positive effect, in giving younger musicians more control of their own careers. I suggest that social media also means today’s audiences see artists more as human beings – and are therefore more understanding when they cancel a show. Nash agrees: “I’ve seen fans be really loving if that happens, saying, ‘The most important thing is your health.
Now on a personal note, when artists complain about the road life. I would emphatically have this to say – “get over yourself, we were living the dream!” Sure, there were times that the room service may have been 10 minutes late and the limos were the wrong color from what are tech rider demanded, but somehow we roughed it through 😊
I have been on the road for more that forty years. Sure, I have a few battle scars and may have lost a few relationships that I wasn’t crazy about anyway, but what else would I do? Touring fits me like a glove. With today’s technology, you can see and talk to your wife and kids in real time through Skype, Facetime, etc. every day of the week, anywhere in the world. When I am on the road for a long tour, the constant contact feels like I really never left home.
I am not sure of the phrase “absence makes the heart grow fonder, ” but doing the very thing you were born to do definitely makes the relationship work. People always compliment me on my wonderful children, I tell them it is because I was never home long enough to have a chance to really screw up their lives 😊
Talk to any artist that didn’t make it and is stuck in a 9 to 5 job that he hates and consider just how “mentally healthy” he is……