Music industry vet turned music management teacher Sally Gross has seen “what happens to the detritus of the music industry firsthand.” With the study, “Can Music Make You Sick?”, she and co-author George Musgrave aimed to figure out why musicians, even the most up-and-coming, suffered more mental health-related issues than most other people. Lily Moayeri spoke to Gross about the study and what needs to be done to help.
Making and sharing music has never been more accessible than it is right now. Even as listeners, we know this: we can get our music on Bandcamp and SoundCloud, no major labels required. But along with the access to technology and the unprecedented ability to share music with people anywhere in the world, the emotional baggage that can come with fame can plague even the smallest independent artist.
“[The internet] is this devastating wasteland where everybody is emoting and creating,” says Sally Gross, a music industry vet turned course leader and principal lecturer in the Music Management graduate program at University of Westminster, London. “Social media and the democratization of the distribution of music, which so many people see as an amazing new frontier, had me thinking, ‘Hang on a minute, what is going to happen to all these people?’”
Gross’s previous experience working firsthand with artists and her current role teaching young musicians about the business inspired the study “Can Music Make You Sick?” Co-authored with Dr. George Musgrave, a senior lecturer in Gross’s MA program, the study was commissioned by Help Musicians UK, a charity established in 1921. Currently under the leadership of Richard Robinson, Help Musicians UK’s goal is to support musicians from the early talent development stages through to retirement; the organization also provides assistance during times of crisis, including crises related to mental health.
Part One of “Can Music Make You Sick,” a pilot survey with input from 2,211 participants, was published in 2016 by University of Westminster’s non-profit music industry information hub, MusicTank. The survey participants are self-identifying musicians in the UK. With the survey, Gross and Musgrave set out to discover how these musicians feel about their working conditions and how they perceive working in the music industry to affect their well being. “[With] the unbelievable amplification of the abundance of music and the value of music seeming to disappear, what was going on in the lives of musicians?” Gross says. “If music and artistic expression is so good for us, what’s on the other side of that?”
In their research, they found that huge numbers of musicians suffer from anxiety and depression and that musicians are at risk to suffer depression three times more than the general public. Although artists “find solace in the production of music,” the study describes trying to build a career in music as “traumatic.” “Musicians feel there are gaps in existing provisions and that something needs to change,” the study reads.
“Social media and the democratization of the distribution of music, which so many people see as an amazing new frontier, had me thinking, ‘Hang on a minute, what is going to happen to all these people?’”
Last year, the second part of “Can Music Make You Sick?” was published. It is a qualitative study that takes the findings of part one and attempts to find a reason for the results, as well as suggest recommendations for musician wellness. For the second study, 26 UK-based musicians across genres are interviewed with the resultant summarized findings. The hyper-competitiveness and sheer relentlessness of the profession, from touring for long stretches to a 24/7 lifestyle are large contributing factors to the mental health fallout. Plus, access and affordable professional aid is lacking.
One of the standout findings of the research is, for musicians, “the spiritual place that music holds in people’s consciousness is different from its monetary value,” according to Gross. “The other thing that came across strongly was all these people trying to cope, saying ‘I’m fine, I’m going to do this. It’s okay that people are being really abusive today. I’m getting up tomorrow and I’m going to go out there,’” Gross says, referencing how musicians often tolerate ill treatment from other musicians, producers and executives. “Nobody would go to a workplace like that, but in the creative industries, people will put up with a lot.”
Awareness through education, better guidelines for working in the industry both as musicians and non-musicians, and mental healthcare provisions – not just pharmaceuticals but accessible talking therapies and counseling – are among their recommendations. Musgrave explained to the Financial Times this past November that as a direct result of the findings and recommendations, Help Musicians UK launched a 24-hour helpline as a triage service. The helpline is not meant for those with acute mental health crises but as a first port of call.
“Kids that have no other jobs available to them, maybe being a musician is something you can believe in. You can’t get a job at a fast food restaurant, but maybe you can be a musician.”
“When I started in the music industry, there weren’t 1000 degree courses you could do to become a musician,” says Gross. “Now, for the kids that have no other jobs available to them, maybe being a musician is something you can believe in. You can’t get a job at a fast food restaurant, but maybe you can be a musician.”
One of Gross’s goals is to bring the idea of some health and safety parameters to the music industry. For example, regulating of the working hours in order to remove the 24/7 nature of the industry. She says, “When I started running this course 12 years ago, we weren’t talking about this stuff. Now we really are focusing on working conditions and the repercussions of working in the music industry. Is it not impossible to think it can’t happen in music.”
The research continues with the pending third study, the focus of which is still being determined by Gross and Musgrave. Topics that are being discussed by the pair are an expansion of the qualitative interviews in Part Two, investigating artists who are thinking differently about their music by maintaining day jobs, examining the situations of non-musicians working in the industry, problems stemming from digitization, exploring the soft power of UK music on a global scale, particularly in the post-Brexit era, and the reconstruction of the UK culturally and in terms of growing its economy.
“The first time I typed the question: ‘Can music make you sick?’ on my computer four years ago, I wrote a rant-y essay about it to myself,” says Gross. “With what I’ve found with this research, it’s not over. I’m not done with it yet and it’s not done with me. There’s a lot more to be done.”
Lily Moayeri is a music journalist who has also covered television, art, fashion, and other facets of pop culture. She is a major contributor to the textbook The Guerrilla Guide to the Music Business. Find her on Twitter.