Records to Research: A personal journey with music and mental health
Dr. George Musgrave is a lecturer in Cultural Sociology and Entrepreneurship at the University of Westminster. He is also an MC who raps under the name Context. Musgrave has been at the heart of groundbreaking academic research looking into musicians and mental health, published through Help Musicians UK.
2013 was particularly emotionally turbulent.
When I look back at the lyrics I have saved in hundreds of small Notes on my phone, they remind me of how my days were spent. Waking up at 3pm, scraping pennies from behind the sofa to get enough for a bag of chips, and flitting constantly between elation at having created ‘that song’ which might save me from despondency at yet another email telling me ‘no’. I would drink in the day to accompany my sadness and I would drink in the night to accompany my lairyness. In many respects it felt like what I imagined being ‘a musician’ might be – perennial emotional tension. I remember being unable to sleep with anxiety and waking up shouting at nothing in particular. Or when I did have something to shout at it was, usually, an email from either a manager, or a lawyer, or a producer, or a DJ, or a promoter. There are no shortages of people to be pissed off at in the world of music. I remember when I signed my publishing deal with Sony in that year; when the money hit my bank account I cried. I threw out the Argos basic range clutter which was scattered around the flat which I told myself no self respecting ‘man’ in his late 20’s should own. I booked a Eurostar to Paris and paid my missus back the thousands of pounds she had been paying on our rent for the last few years. Yep. 2013 was particularly turbulent.
Between then and now much has happened. I completed my PhD in Politics and am now an academic researching the links between creativity, economics and psychology. There was a strange teleology to the process, but the first research project myself and my colleague Sally Gross (University of Westminster) worked on together bought all those feelings from 2013 sharply into focus once again. We wanted to look at the links between music and mental health. Sally had been approaching people for years, but no one seemed to want to talk about it. Of course, we, like many, knew the stories about this relationship well, and they go like this: “All musicians are a bit mad”, “artists are nuts”, “they should try getting a real job”. Whether it was Kurt Cobain shooting himself, or seeing the tragic and public downward spiral of Amy Winehouse, this tension between creativity and ‘madness’ was, and is, cloaked in a kind of dismissive pathologisation of creative “types”. We also knew of the other side of the argumentative coin surrounding the ways in which music can help with mental trauma; be it in self-expression or in coping with stress. That is, musicians might be mad, but the music was all that helped them – or at least some abridgement of that. However, we kept returning to one question over and over again; what if music itself was making people sick?
Last year we published the first results of our survey, entitled Can Music Make You Sick?. This was the largest ever piece of academic research of its kind anywhere in the world, and gathered responses from over 2200 music industry stakeholders. The staggering results were published and discussed across the world. Our survey suggested that 71% of musicians had experienced anxiety and/or panic attacks, and 68.5% had suffered from depression. This suggested musicians were up to three times more likely to suffer from these mental conditions compared to the general public based on ONS (Office for National Statistics) data. Whilst it was these statistics which grabbed the headlines, it was the next set of findings which we found, in some respects, even more interesting. Musicians suggested to us that they felt the cause of such high levels of anxiety and depression lay, at least in part, in the nature of their careers. The open ‘comments’ section of our survey was filled with striking statements such as:
“The only thing that causes depression for musicians is the music industry itself”
“My depression is made worse by trying to exist as a musician… Rarely has playing music been detrimental to my health, quite the opposite…but the industry and socio-economic pressures…make this a f*****g s**** industry to try and make a living in”
“…the stresses of being in the music industry, for me, are a big cause of uncertainty which to leads to stress, anxiety and depression”
“I LOVED my job; but it did not love me”
As we synthesised in our report: “whereas artists find solace in the production of music, the working conditions of forging a musical career are traumatic. This is a fundamental and important finding. Whilst it is a widely held perspective that creating music attracts people with particular psychological tendencies, the message that came through in the survey was clear: music making is therapeutic, but making a career out of music is destructive” (Gross and Musgrave, 2016).
We have spent the best part of the last five months following up on this finding, interviewing artists, music industry executives and mental health providers from across the United Kingdom. As we get ready to publish the second part of our project, it is worth reflecting on how we think about the stresses and strains of artistry. The creative industries are extolled by economists, policy makers and politicians as the gem in Britain’s knowledge economy crown, and musicians are the entrepreneurial personification of the idea that we can make a ‘living on thin air’, as Charles Leadbeater phrased it. David Bowie’s apocryphal suggestion in 2002 that “music will become like running water or electricity” has become viscerally true. We can listen to whatever we want, whenever we want; we ‘consume it’ with insatiable gluttony from our Mobb Deep in our headphones on the tube, to techno in the hairdressers and trance in Ministry. But what is life like for those at the heart of this experience: what is life like for the musicians? Our research suggests that a creative career can be dangerous. It can be emotionally draining, financially calamitous, and interpersonally taxing.
"Our research suggests that a creative career can be dangerous. It can be emotionally draining, financially calamitous, and interpersonally taxing."
I remember some years ago a secondary school asked me to come and speak to the young people there about being a musician signed to a major record company and ‘living the dream’ in London. They wanted me to tell them to ‘follow their hearts’ and believe that they could do it. I said that message was irresponsible, and that I couldn’t with a clear conscience do that. I said I could tell them that some of the most incredible experiences of my life had come from music – from the big things like performing on stage at Radio 1’s Big Weekend, to little things like hearing your music on 1Xtra when you’re driving home. It got me an incredible flat in a gorgeous stucco fronted house in West London (only rented, mind), and Michelin starred dinners in Europe. But it also destroyed me. I was forever on edge, my life couldn’t be planned, I didn’t trust anyone and I either slept too much or not at all. I constantly doubted myself, my abilities, my status as a man, as a person, as an artist.
Art is doubt. I walked as my friends drove. People ignored me, turned up late, and dismissed me. In music, no one cares. Much of being a musician is, I told them, horrible. So no, I wouldn’t tell the young people to follow their dreams. I’d tell them it could be a nightmare, and now, I had research evidence of this. Suffice to say they didn’t want me to come and talk.