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26th October 2015

Mental Health in the Music Industry: A Matter of Life and Death?

Like the chicken and the egg, the music and the misery continue their endless cycle. Alex Daniel thinks it’s time for change

Recently, Benga announced on Twitter that there was more to his 2014 exit from the music industry than had initially met the eye. He’s cited drugs and excessive touring as the respective reasons for worsening cases of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. In doing so, he has sowed the seeds of a more general debate surrounding links between deteriorating mental health and professional overwork in the previously unresponsive soils of the music industry. Exhibit A—Yannis Philippakis of Foals: “If you can’t hack it, don’t do it.”

The issue at question here is, does Yannis have a point? One might argue that artists are artists. It is their job, their livelihood. Like it or not an artist, by definition, lives and dies for their art. The ever-glamorised ’27 Club’ stands as a figurative monument to this within popular culture, making a modern-day mythic cycle of those whose lives were cut short in the public eye.

Indeed, deifying the likes of Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix et al for their musical martyrdom gives these figures a sense of true immortality and there is something immediately appealing about that. Their art lives on, unblemished. Yet, the sick fact of the matter is that whilst those whose profession has caused depression and addiction are marginalised during life, their troubles become normalised in death. Yannis’s hard-nosed attitude is romantic, but would he say the same about Ian Curtis? Even geniuses need help.

Benga’s case brings this issue in the spotlight again. One of his tweets read: “The stigma around [mental health issues] is what makes you feel so alone… Nobody recognises it.” His reluctance to admit his troubles publicly for over a year after his 2014 ‘retirement’ from music is testament to this and is indicative of the ignorance that the industry commonly exhibits towards these matters.

Benga isn’t the only one experiencing problems of this sort either; Zayn Malik, previously of One Direction, copped plenty of abuse and ill feeling from 1D diehards when he announced his departure from the boy band. Was this fair? A source close to the band told the tabloid press: “Zayn went because he’d had enough. Have you ever been on the road for four years?”

Admittedly, neither of these cases are in the same horrific ballpark as the ’27 Club’ deaths, nor did either of them (it seems) have to endure the same long-term tortuous experience that led to Ian Curtis’ suicide. However, the Joy Division frontman’s difficulty in balancing his musical career with a difficult personal life, compounded by ill-health brought on by his famous epilepsy, is presumed to be the cause of his death. It may seem a long way from Benga and Zayn Malik, but the formula is roughly the same in each case. It must be taken seriously.

One possible source from which those subjected to such problems might draw hope, however, is the charity Help Musicians UK. Though it tends to work on a smaller scale, their mission is essentially to provide support for musicians who find themselves in dire straits, helping them through to continue on the road to success.

Perhaps it isn’t on the same level, but the existence of organisations such as this will only help to provide exposure for those who are suffering in the industry. If there had been a more visible movement or school of thought that addressed the mental health issues brought on by the inconstancy and insecurity of a musician’s life on the road throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, perhaps there wouldn’t be a ’27 Club’.

With all this in mind, is Benga just garnering unnecessary sympathy when he actually squandered a charmed existence? He made it; he got to do what he loved for a living; was able to express himself and travelled the world for several years in a highly successful career as a relative dubstep-pioneer. I’m sure there are many who would happily swap lives with him, and even more who would happily show him the true meaning of being mentally ground down by an arduous professional life.

Perhaps Yannis is right: “People destroy themselves for their art, for their calling.” The trouble with this sentiment is just how true it can be.

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