Can the music industry ever recover

Working in the music industry made me mentally ill

This article originally appeared on Noisey Netherlands.

A job in the music industry is pretty cool. You go to concerts all the time, drink beer for free, go to festivals and parties, sleep in posh hotels, hang out regularly in the backstage and get paid for all of that. After years of work as a press promoter, I had a burnout at the beginning of the year. I quickly realized that mental problems are hardly discussed in the industry.

Every professional field produces people who feel overworked and burned out. According to a study by the Bertelsmann Foundation, a quarter of all employees complain that the pace is too fast, and almost a fifth often reach their limits. Compared to other industries, the music industry has some special features. First of all, the line between leisure and work is often blurred. Not infrequently you work from festivals, event halls or a tour bus. So it is seldom far to the next bar. That makes your work entertaining, exciting and dynamic, but the temptations are also not without.


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I collapsed this year. Literally. There were various causes and reasons that brought me to this point: all the work, the urge to have to prove something to myself, and - to top it off - a particularly unpleasant experience with gossip, power games and bullying within the industry. In retrospect, none of this was a surprise. There had been moments before when I had the feeling that I could no longer cope. But when I really broke down, it was extremely frustrating.

One night I woke up crying so much that my shoulders were shaking. It felt like I was trapped under a gigantic rock and couldn't get away. I was scared of having a heart attack. So I called my mom and my doctor. The diagnosis came quickly: burnout. After staying away from the office for a week, I decided to put all my projects on hold for health reasons. It was the hardest decision of my life. After all, I had studied music management, had twelve years of experience in the industry and had worked hard on my own business for the last three years. Now I am putting all of this at risk.

It was obvious that I had to stop and gain some distance. At the same time, however, it only plunged me deeper into my depression. Fortunately, my colleagues were more compassionate than I expected. I got a lot of encouraging and loving messages. I had the feeling that the others could empathize with my situation because many of them had already gone through more or less the same symptoms as me.

My Facebook timeline is full of hard working colleagues doing great things. Of course, they share their successes: a sold out headliner show, a platinum album, a radio hit, a successful tour abroad, promotion, permanent employment, a trillion club gigs, positive reviews of a new record, an infinite number of clicks on YouTube. I also shared my professional successes with the rest of the world, but if you are not mentally stable at the moment, this constant flood of information can also be paralyzing. There is always someone doing something better than you. If you represent a band and they sell out a few shows, someone else has sold out an entire tour. For every four-star review you get, someone else gets ten five-star reviews.

Frank Kimenai, founder of the successful Amsterdam agency Lexicon Bookings, can understand that. "This tendency to compare oneself with others comes from the way artists are touted the market. Nothing ever goes wrong. There is no bad news," he says. "The moment my mental health started to deteriorate, I started looking over at other colleagues in the industry instead of focusing on my own strengths as I usually do. You set yourself unrealistic goals that you can never meet, which makes things worse It's a dangerous downward spiral in our industry and it's very difficult to get out of it. "

There is nothing more important in the music industry than your network. Booking agencies, festival curators, press promoters, managers, journalists and musicians - none of them can exist without the others. In order to do your job well, you have to know the right people and they in turn have to want to help you. In order to cultivate this network, you have to be seen at festivals, parties, industry meetings and concerts. Just because you were once at Eurosonic Noorderslag - one of the aforementioned industry meetings - does not automatically mean that you already have a foot in the door. It's much more important for the artists you work with to always be present. That eats up a lot of time, says Kimenai: "Especially in the first few years you are there around the clock without ever having a vacation worth mentioning. Understanding festivals or tours as a kind of vacation is dangerous. You always have something to do and hardly any time to relax. "

The music industry is also the employer of many freelancers who can hardly treat themselves to sick days or just a day off. When you're in bed with a nasty gastrointestinal flu, you're still expected to answer emails. Cinderella Schaap, owner of Professional Independent Music Promotion (PIMP), also has to deal with a lot of pressure - even if she needs a day of relaxation. "It's hard to please people. Rarely is your work good enough and everyone thinks it can always be better and more," she says. "That puts you under a lot of pressure because you never feel like you are ever done with your work."

Your private and work life regularly overlap. Alcohol is ubiquitous and drugs are at least tolerated. Not everyone participates, but the temptation is there. They are a socially accepted form of escapism and can be an indicator that someone's sanity is shaky. Using drugs to keep you up for work or alcohol to make it easier for you to talk to coworkers are both easy solutions. In the music world, they are part of the ruling culture. Accordingly, the inhibition threshold to reach for the bottle when stressed is quite low. The line between use and abuse is often difficult to see - a problem that affects musicians and industrial workers alike.

Because free time and work constantly overlap, the relationship between the hours actually worked and the remuneration is totally distorted, says Kimenai: "A lot of loyalty is expected from you and you can feel this loyalty yourself," he explains. "You want to be at every event and prefer not to say 'no' to people you work with or who you like." It is the love of music, the profession and the artists that you do the job because of - and that is why you are so loyal to the industry. If the whole thing is such an affair of the heart, then the work should definitely be satisfying, doesn't it? And yes, the so-called secondary conditions and incentives are really great: You get paid to listen to music, go to concerts and festivals, and work with like-minded people who are just as enthusiastic as you are. Your name is always on the guest list and you rarely have to pay for food and drinks.

But all of this is little consolation when the remuneration for the work is so bad. "Somebody gave me this example once and I thought it was pretty apt," says Kimenai. "A brain surgeon receives infinite gratitude from his patients and their families, and the surgeon should also see a deeper meaning in his work, but still we do not expect from him that he can do it all at a bargain price. "

Schaap sees it exactly like this: "When I worked for a label, the work was hardly valued by the press - both in terms of compensation and words of praise for the work. It should be a bit better now, but the appreciation - especially through money - is out of proportion to the time and energy you put into your projects. "

Nowadays there are degree programs for people who want to get into the music business. There you will also be taught the economic aspects of the job. Curious to know if mental health is also on the curriculum, I contacted Rob van der Veeknen. He is Director of Studies in the Music Industry Professional Program at Herman Brood Academy.

"We have a seminar called 'Career Development', which is about setting your own limits and taking care of your physical and mental health," explains van der Veeken. "In this course we try to prepare our students as best we can for the real world of work. For example, we tell them that at the beginning of their careers they often have to say 'yes'. Only later in their careers can they be increasingly picky. Every class has a coach who is also a confidante. There is also an absence officer who is in contact with the students. If someone does not show up for class, that is a sign that the person is not doing well. " The young professionals trained today are therefore supported and instructed. They are aware of the pressures to come in the music industry and that gives you some hope for the future.

But what about those who have been working in the field for a long time? Where can you find help? Even if the topic seems new, it has been increasingly discussed for a number of years - here at Noisey (for example here, here and here). The Music Managers Forum in the UK has the Music Manager's Guide to Mental Health published, but in the Netherlands, where I live, the topic is hardly discussed. There are no seminars on this at Eurosonic and when I broke down I didn't know who or what to turn to. It's important that we start talking about burnouts within the industry. Combined with the lack of readily available support, poor visibility of symptoms is dangerous for artists and professionals alike. Once we start paying more attention to it, we may also be able to reduce the stigma of something that comes with mental health problems. After all, a healthier industry is also a more sustainable one.

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