Dance music and mental health: What next?

With nightclubs and festivals beginning to reopen in some regions, we explore how conversations about artists' mental health might finally give us some practical solutions.

There’s a consensus emerging in dance music that might surprise you: that a career in it can be a mental health nightmare. In recent years, it’s become more common to see DJs and other dance music professionals discuss their mental wellbeing openly. A typical headline for a feature like this has read “We need to talk about DJs and depression” or “Dance music is in a mental health crisis.” People often describe the profession as a source of pain as well as pleasure. 

There are aspects of dance music culture that are obviously bad for your health, mental or otherwise. Years of sleepless nights and substance abuse will take a toll on anyone. But the industry’s mental health issues can no longer be explained away as what happens when people party too hard for too long. There’s growing evidence to suggest that DJs and producers face heightened risks of mental ill-health through, among other things, overwork, status anxiety and social stressors. 

Getting to this place has taken the combined effort of social media appeals, press coverage (especially after the death of Avicii in 2018) and, more recently, academic research, all of which has amounted to a better awareness of mental health issues within dance music. Given the powerful stigma once attached to talking about it, this represents some progress. And the topic of mental health has only become more urgent since the pandemic. 

But you can only raise awareness so much before the conversation goes in circles. The more pressing question at this point may be: what next? If dance music returns to something like normality in the coming months, and we accept that the mental health of those in the industry is unacceptably poor, then what are people prepared to do—or prepared to sacrifice—to make it better?

Setting expectations

“It’s like chasing an apparition,” said George Musgrave, co-author of Can Music Make You Sick? alongside Sally Anne Gross, when talking about the evasive nature of solutions to musicians’ mental health challenges. “It’s so difficult, because so much of it is about people’s subjective understanding… of what they consider to be successful, meaningful, fulfilling, happy.” 

These feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment are made difficult to obtain from the start. There is, Musgrave said, “the injunction to participate” and its unintended consequences. Since the days of punk, the orthodoxy around a career in music is that anyone can and should do it (immortalised by the famous quote and illustration from a ’70s fanzine: “This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. Now form a band”). But the smallprint under these calls to action usually fails to include warnings about the volatile career paths that usually follow, which artists often find themselves ill-equipped to navigate.

“One of the challenges is when that expectation does not match the reality, which, for many, it doesn’t,” said Musgrave. “And trying to realign the expectation with the reality is not a task that many people are willing to confront and engage with in a world that relies on being positive or being so upbeat, encouraging people [to participate] saying, ‘It’s brilliant, come on in’. And if you then enter that, and you start going, ‘Oh, hold on a minute, am I gonna have to live with my mum? Until I’m, like, 29? Is that what I’m signing up to?”

The circular nature of mental health conversations hasn’t escaped Adam Ficek, a psychotherapist, DJ and former member of the band Babyshambles. “There’s too many surveys,” he said, “‘We took all these people from the industry and they suffer from anxiety’—that’s great as a starting point. But that’s not the picture, really—it’s a headline.” As he recited some mental health clichés—”We need to keep talking! We need to break the stigma!”—to illustrate his misgivings about how mental health is discussed, Ficek suggested starting with the setting of realistic expectations. 

“People need to be more reflective,” he said. “People need to know about their own wounds. They need to know the industry’s hard. They need to know the reality of it, what they’re getting themselves in for. And if you are going to become media successful, there’s a price to pay for that. That’s the nature of it. And then you put yourself out there—people will attack you the bigger you become. That will happen. And it shouldn’t happen. But that’s something that’s probably not going to change.” 

Unfamiliar faces

“Sean,” one of three experienced artists I spoke to for this piece who wished to remain anonymous, described the dance music industry as “a petri dish for mental health issues.” “The most glaring point,” he said, “is that because you are constantly moving, and constantly surrounded by different people, it’s very easy for you to shy away from those conversations. Most people have a group of friends that they see quite often; if your mental health is struggling, the conversations you can have with people and the things that people might pick up on doesn’t necessarily happen in the music industry. That’s why things like alcoholism and drug use can get quite serious in the music industry, because no one’s really there to connect the dots.”

This isn’t as much of a problem for DJs who play locally, surrounded by mates and venue staff they know. But for those used to spending Thursday to Sunday in global clubs, hotels and airports, the absence of intimate friends facilitates what Sean calls “a perfect smokescreen to hide behind.”

How, then, might artists find some emotional stability on tour? “Best practice might look like a coach or therapist you could access pre, during or after your tour,” said Tristan Hunt, from the Association For Electronic Music, “but for up-and-coming artists who don’t have access to those resources, they can definitely just check in with themselves, make sure they have a good support network around them, to have trusted people you can call who you can rely on to be there for you. And nominating people—asking friends or partners, ‘Can you check in with me, I’d appreciate a call from time to time.'” 

Venues can also do more. Tamsin Embleton, a psychotherapist who leads the Music Industry Therapists & Coaches collective and will publish a book on the effects of touring next year, suggested a range of practical measures: “dry” dressing rooms with soft drinks and healthy snacks, signage pointing to local 12-step programmes, dedicated chill-out areas and hotel bookings that allow artists a proper sleep. 

“What we’re trying to do,” said Embleton, “is reduce the risk of substance-use disorders and mental health crises by maximising rest, increasing awareness of symptoms, signposting to further support, and reminding people that they have a choice around what they consume.”

Status anxiety

In most industries, symbols of professional success tend to be unambiguous—there’s a fairly straightforward link between a job title, a promotion and a salary. In the music industry, the notion of status, tied unsecurely to formal qualifications and earnings, is defined by instability. As Musgrave and Sally Anne Gross observed in Can Music Make You Sick?, the key currency in music is actually attention—and much of the work required to attract it (podcasts, interviews, social media, producing and releasing music) is of marginal financial benefit, and yet encourages serial overworking. 

In an attention economy that rewards novelty, the one thing harder than attracting attention may be maintaining it. “Sarah” told me that COVID has made her and her similarly experienced peers feel particularly vulnerable to obsolescence. “All of a sudden, the game has changed so much if you’re an up-and-coming DJ. There’s an influx of people that—if I’m being honest—haven’t even played in front of a crowd before, and then they’re getting booked up straight away because their Instagram or TikTok’s exploded. It feels like when you’re competing with that alongside financial worries, I’ve gone through thinking, ‘Do I wanna do this anymore?'” 

It’s not unusual for artists to experience anxiety around becoming or staying relevant, said Embleton. But if a disappointing chart position or middling review consumes an artist’s every waking moment, it may be indicative of something we’d normally associate with office jobs: an unhealthy work-life balance. It’s important, said Embleton, to “nourish the other parts of your life, so that if your career ends you’re not left feeling empty and unsure of who you are when you’re off stage.” 

This attitude might seem at odds with the obsessive qualities that seem intrinsic, even necessary, to DJing (though, as Sean says, “A lot of the DJs who strike me as the most happy and balanced either still have a job, or have a part-time thing”). It may be especially difficult when, as the integrative psychotherapist Matt Cantor said, people’s self-esteem is tied up with the music. “How well a track’s doing on Beatport can really affect how you feel about yourself. If things are going well, then everything’s good. But a track getting a bad review or not getting enough hits on social media, that sort of thing can really spiral.” 

How might an artist put some distance between their music career and sense of self? “It can be helpful to help DJs and music producers reconnect with the selves that they were before the music industry happened,” said Cantor. “The thing about DJs and musicians is they can often be swept up in a wave of activity, almost like a fantasy world. You start making a lot of friends in the music industry, and making connections around the world. But there can be a forgetting of your roots, and not tending to friendships from where you’ve come from. There can be a lot of missing friends’ weddings, missing family barbecues—all those things that give us a sense of normality and rootedness can be neglected.”

Sleepless nights

For many people, drink and drugs are integral to the “fantasy world” Cantor described—and, it’s safe to say, an accelerant for artists’ mental health struggles. Though strategies for tackling addiction such as the 12-step programme are well-established, identifying the line between moderate consumption and compulsion is tricky in environments where drinking and drug-taking is normalised, and where sometimes the only person in a position to see an unhealthy pattern of behaviour, as Sean pointed out, is you. 

The biggest thing that people do through any therapy is self-awareness and self-knowledge,” said Ficek, “When you go out, is it a compulsion? Have you got a handle on this? People generally say, ‘No, I’m alright with it.’ OK, well, can you not drink or not take drugs for three months?’ And generally they can’t. 

“And then you think, let’s look at what’s going on here. Because I think if you’re going to approach it from an addictive behaviours point of view, you’d say, right: don’t do drugs, don’t go out, maybe go to 12-step meetings. But underneath that is the whole meaning, the whole perspective of what’s going on. What does it mean for you? Why is there a need for this? Then you start digging deeper, and you generally find this stuff in their narrative. Or maybe they feel less than. Or maybe they struggle because they’re really anxious. There’s generally a reason for it.”

So long as artists understand why they’re drinking or taking drugs, Ficek argued, then they’re in a much better position to make an informed choice rather than being at the mercy of a compulsion. “So next time they’ve got this real urge to have a drink, they can say, ‘Do I want to have a drink because I want a release? Or is it because I feel really sad or really shit about myself?”

Some recent research, however, illustrates a bigger picture to artists’ mental health than drugs and alcohol. In a recent Belgian study of mental health among 163 electronic music artists, sleep disturbance was found to be the most significant indicator of depression and anxiety—more so than factors like drug and alcohol abuse, performance anxiety and occupational stress. 

Tom Middleton, a certified sleep science coach best known for his former life as a DJ, agreed that sleep underpins many of the mental health issues artists face. “It’s quite magical. When you’ve understood the power of sleep, and the benefits… Did you know that REM sleep is essentially your personal psychotherapy? It’s kind of like built-in emotional triage, which is fascinating. If you don’t get proper REM sleep, you can’t possibly give yourself an opportunity to fix your problems on the day. Alcohol is one of the primary disruptors of REM sleep. If sleep is being disrupted because we’re nightshift workers, effectively, you can see what starts to happen. It’s a problem.” 

There is an obvious tension between healthy sleeping patterns and going to nightclubs. On the one hand, the growth of wellness culture in dance music means that sober or daytime raving are viable options for health-conscious clubbers and artists. But for the industry at large, sleep disruption is a problem to be managed rather than solved (Middleton has some great tips for better sleep). 

It’s difficult, or even undesirable, to imagine nightclubs changing their opening hours, or to otherwise shift the culture of nightlife so drastically around wellbeing. “I think we’re in danger sometimes of sanitising the music industry,” said Ficek, “you can only tour one day a week, and you have to be done by 8 PM. We don’t want to get to that point.”

The wheels of industry

It’s easy to misread mental health as a problem solely about personal responsibility. Only you, after all, can make the decision to stop drinking, get more sleep or go to therapy. But the unusually high instances of poor mental health among musicians point to larger forces. Take streaming. The market dominance and poor royalties of services like YouTube and Spotify have helped engineer a market reality that forces artists to gig far more frequently. To the extent that booking agents, promoters and venues benefit from this arrangement, it’s easy to see how the wheels of commerce can work against an artist’s best interest. 

Companies like Spotify, Musgrave said, “are probably going to push back the hardest from this. You saw Daniel Ek… saying, ‘Musicians should just release more music’. That is indicative. At least record labels are waking up to the fact that something is going badly wrong. We’ve been called into almost all the majors to sit and talk about what’s wrong and get their wellbeing teams to think about things they can do. At least they’re thinking about it. I don’t see people from tech companies thinking about this.”

If we accept that the problem of mental health is a pollutant of capitalism, campaigning for economic solutions throws up as many questions as it does answers. Musgrave, for example, said the idea of universal basic income would need a more politically satisfying reason to exist than allowing a recipient to “fuck around on Logic for three years.” Similarly, he was uncomfortable with the idea of a “musical exceptionalism” that would propose musicians as worthy of government funding but not, say, Uber drivers or plumbers. 

Then there’s the suffocatingly obvious problem of social media, which has, among other things, helped supercharge the status anxiety of DJs. The compulsion to see what others are doing and measure oneself against a selectively flattering moment has fostered a hypercompetitive attitude among artists. From a technology perspective, some of the suggested solutions—divesting, for example, from Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, what’s been called the “GAFA stack”—might seem as daunting as they are necessary. But when I spoke to “Anna,” a DJ who’s suffered with status anxiety in the past, she made clear that the solutions can also be simple. 

“It all depends on what you want. I don’t want to be crazy successful. I also don’t have any interest in getting paid thousands and thousands for one gig. What I want is longevity. I wanna be respected, and I want to be DJing when I’m 50. But when you do get wrapped up in, ‘Oh, so-and-so has played at this place and I’ve never played there’, in those situations all I need to do is, a) have a chat with my therapist, b) have a catch-up with my agent and c) catch up with some friends about it. 

“Therapy helps because we’ll talk about how that touches on my deeper insecurities and why; then with my agent, she’ll be like, ‘The reason you haven’t played at this place yet is because you’re too busy’; and then it’s useful to talk with friends [who DJ] because you can see that everybody’s really insecure about loads of different things, and about the same things.”

Anna’s way of dealing with anxiety echoed what Hunt said about the temptation for DJs to burn themselves out. “Sometimes in the industry the immediate answer is just ‘more,'” he said, “more gigs, more money, more height on the billing. And often people don’t understand what the ‘why’ is. ‘Why are you doing this?’ ‘Why are you doing a massive international tour?’ What benefit will that bring you?”

For young artists starting out—or those who can’t afford resources like therapy—advice like this may be hard to accept. The option to, say, take fewer gigs isn’t realistic if you live in an expensive city or a career in music is all you can imagine; the opportunity to work less may only be open to those who, in a sense, have already made it. Perhaps there’s no escaping the reality that ambitious DJs and producers will always have to work extremely hard. But that pressure will surely be eased through a more systematic approach to confronting artists’ mental health challenges. 

We should, of course, keep talking. These conversations remain crucial, especially if, in cases like Anna’s, they can help clear the air. But safeguarding the wellbeing of artists will require something more. From artists, it’ll take a healthy dose of scepticism about the fantasy sold to them of a life lived in music (and, perhaps, a greater willingness to stay off Instagram, where artists tend to create fantasies of their own). The industry, meanwhile, can adopt specific policies and drive cultural changes that make artists safer, healthier and happier—and if that affects the bottom line, then so be it, thinks Middleton.

“Artists are at this point where they’re refocusing on self-care and their own health and wellbeing,” he said. “If the artists aren’t well—mentally, physically, emotionally—then there is no income stream there.”

Words: Ray Philp 

Design: Olesia Li