The lifestyle of a musician doesn’t have to be one of a slow suicide, but few would view that as out of the ordinary. The demise might come through behaviors that carry varying consequences—sex, drugs and rock and roll, you know the deal. But the complexities of a musician’s health go far beyond shortsighted reaches toward false glamor via hedonism. What’s self-destructive in those stereotypes is often most saturated during nighttime hours, but musicians these days—specifically in this country—face health risks around the clock.
Like many other types of artists and small business owners, to win the fight of simply keeping your head above water as a musician is often regarded as a measure of success. And it is, sure. But just getting by doesn’t yield optimal results. Just eating at the most convenient place on the road doesn’t leave room for nutritional health. Just grinding—whether on tour, in the studio or working doggedly at home while (probably) juggling another job and a sky-high stack of obligations—doesn’t leave room for good sleep habits or general wellness.
What’s more: Healthcare lingo is heavily coded and intentionally dense. Whether a musician is trying to navigate private insurance, Medicaid or obtaining healthcare without any coverage at all, the fine-print ambiguity only serves to complicate the matter. The default “insurance” for many musicians has become the GoFundMe model—an individual’s wishful thinking that people will crowdfund expenses for them should they ever be in a position to send out an S.O.S. Fingers crossed.
And did I mention that the physical act of playing music can lead to injuries in and of itself?
This all adds up to a pretty bleak landscape when our country’s social system doesn’t provide the kind of baseline healthcare services for citizens that other first-world nations do. Pursuing a music dream looks different everywhere, but that pursuit requires substantial risk in the United States of America—a nation largely populated by immigrants who came here to chase a dream. Even if all of the talent, drive and luck work out in your favor, it’s not worth much if you can’t stay healthy enough to enjoy it.
• • •
Music has been my primary passion for just about all of my life. I got my first guitar when I was 11 and wrote a song (or something like one) the same day. In eighth grade, I conducted my own study on classmates (during recess) examining the impact music has on mood. I’ve released records and music videos, toured the country several times over, performed at CMJ and SXSW, and have received royalty checks for more than just a few dollars (not frequently, okay, but it’s happened). I’ve studied music at the college level, taught music, worked in a music store, and have written about the subject here and there. All of this is to say: With music bleeding into many aspects of my everyday life for most of my life, I’ve become intimately familiar with the health risks musicians pose to themselves, first and foremost. Sometimes the slow suicide lifestyle is shockingly slow, indeed. But sometimes it’s devastatingly swift.
In what felt like the blink of an eye, a former bandmate of mine died from an overdose. He was 29 at the time.
From my own network alone, I wouldn’t know where to start with the taxing nature of this widely embraced lifestyle. Substance abuse struggles, relapses and overdoses are too numerous to count. The repercussions of unsafe sex (frequently under circumstances that are a little too altered to legitimately be called consensual, mind you) are kept quieter, but still everywhere. And let’s face it: The kind of debauchery associated with musicianship hasn’t ever helped anyone to become a healthier version of themselves. But it sure has left a lot of folks hospitalized, jailed, in legal trouble, unemployed, dumped by their romantic partner, insecurely housed, kicked out of their band... or dead.
From my own experience alone, I know how easy it is to be swept up in an unhealthy subculture. While much of it stems from bravado and an eagerness to keep up with the Joneses of “cool,” a lot of it just comes down to sheer convenience. With various substances—but alcohol in particular—the path of least resistance is often just to join in with everyone else. Drink tickets and mini-fridges filled with beer in green rooms seem to dare musicians to decline or even just scale back. It’s far easier to eat fast food on the road than it is to incorporate fresh, whole foods. It’s far easier to just not exercise at all, or to significantly cut down on it, than it is to maintain your personal routine when surrounded by others in a cramped space while on a time crunch. Although some musicians are able to keep up with near-optimal self-care on tour, it’s difficult enough for most that we’re going to need to kill the dated and harmful sex, drugs and rock and roll narrative if we want to see lasting change that positively impacts the collective. We’re going to need a paradigm shift.
• • •
You might not realize this, but there are guerilla support troops serving the musicians’ healthcare cause in various cities across the country. They’re a critical part of the larger shift we need. We don’t have single-payer healthcare in our country yet, but we do have lots of people with lots of heart. Remedying the healthcare problem for musicians would be most effective with one fell policy swoop yielding something truly accessible and affordable to all, but in the absence of that, we have efforts across the industry that have been gaining traction over the years.
There’s the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM), which I have personally benefited from, thankfully. They work with local healthcare providers to offer musicians access to services for a steeply discounted rate. MusiCares, started by the Recording Academy (yup, the same folks that give out Grammys), provides emergency medical assistance, as well as other help, to musicians. The American Federation of Musicians (aka Musicians Union, Local 99 in Portland), Music Health Alliance, Sweet Relief, Backline, ASCAP (through their newly launched TuneUp wellness program), and so many other organizations and efforts are attempting to fill the gaps for musicians and their health. New Orleans has a Musicians’ Clinic (NOMC). Johns Hopkins has an entire center devoted to music and medicine—and so do many other healthcare facilities in our nation.
A patchwork support system exists because two things have become abundantly clear:
1. The paths toward wellness are often inaccessible, unreasonable and/or unsupported for musicians all while
2. Musicians (and the toxic lifestyle associated with playing music) are at an increased risk for impaired health for various reasons
A study by Clujul Medical found that performing music is associated with higher levels of anxiety than the general population. And that’s not even the bad stuff. According to a recent survey conducted by Record Union, a digital distribution platform, 73 percent of independent musicians indicated that they struggle with mental health stemming from stress, anxiety and depression.
A 2018 study conducted by the Music Industry Research Association, in conjunction with the Princeton University Survey Research Center and MusiCares, found that musicians disproportionately struggle with substance abuse too. The study also found that a significant chunk of musicians are earning under the poverty line. While it’s no surprise that your average musician might not be rolling in cash, living paycheck to paycheck has direct health implications—the kind that can be a matter of life or death.
Another study out of Australia’s The University of Sydney found that the mortality rate for popular musicians is twice that of someone not in music. All of these studies just barely shine a light on the correlation between musicianship and poor mental health relative to the full body of research that already exists (not accounting, of course, for what’s to come). The music industry just isn’t looking good when compared to the national averages, which already aren’t good.
It makes sense that there are numerous organizations around the nation making an effort to help musicians, particularly with their health and wellness. But some of them are city-specific (like Austin’s HAAM and New Orleans’ NOMC) and others, like MusiCares, are better suited for musicians living in one of a few major cities—which Portland is not. So what can we do about improving the lives of musicians here in Portland? What can we do right now?
As witnessed at MusicPortland’s health and wellness gathering this past December, some local efforts are fortunately already underway as seven local organizations leaped at the opportunity to express their support of our music community. Quest Center for Integrative Health serves musicians, among others, who are underinsured or uninsured. The Jeremy Wilson Foundation is an emergency fund that exists to help musicians negotiate and pay outstanding medical bills. Music for Mental Health works to create events that raise funds and awareness for mental health among musicians, while the National Alliance on Mental Illness provides tons of free services. And Knot Springs—a pristine spa space and social club—has recently partnered with MusicPortland to provide better access to musicians. Not only that, but they’re beginning to incorporate live music into their offerings, extending an ongoing discount to MusicPortland members, and were a sponsor at last year’s Pickathon.
Nate Pereira works for Key Development, the company behind Knot Springs.
“Knot Springs is comprised of a number of musicians and folks passionate about music, so we are excited to give back to the community in this way,” he says. “Opening up this space and inviting musicians provides an opportunity for them to gather and play in an environment completely different than bars, clubs and venues—which tend to be centered around alcohol.”
This is the kind of thinking we all need to employ to truly change the way musicians collectively live. Concerts don’t have to take place in bars exclusively—not for loud, angsty groups and not for party, dance-centric acts either. As concertgoers and listeners, we should be supportive of artists when they try something less conventional—it might just be wonderful and maybe more memorable for all of us.
And as musicians, we need to unify and declare: It doesn’t have to be like this.
• • •
Of all the ironies suspended in the air surrounding the music and health dichotomy, one I find most curious is: Music carries healing power for listeners, even when all of the factors involved in making it might be harming the musician.
Perhaps those drawn to playing music are predisposed to certain health risks, but it just might be that we’re drawn to music to begin with for the alleviating offset it offers for some of those struggles. Research suggests that listening to, watching or playing music can help us to live longer and increase overall well-being, enhance cognitive performance, reduce stress, eat less, more readily acquire a foreign language, boost memory, improve the immune system, facilitate better sleep, aid in recovery from surgery and from a stroke, ease the symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s, increase verbal intelligence and executive function, reduce blood pressure and, quite literally, heal.
In an article titled “Music is good for our health, so why are musicians suffering so much?” from The Independent, author Roisin O’Connor outlines the long-standing benefits of music and questions the industry at large for not bothering much to help the musicians who are helping others with their work.
It’s a worthy inquiry. Musicians often operate as independent contractors in the business, even if they’re contractually bound to just one record label. While an increasing number of labels are starting to consider musicians’ health and even offer various versions of healthcare support, we’re just not anywhere near where we need to be yet. The industry needs to change and so does our national healthcare system. But in the meantime, as musicians, there’s something powerful I believe we can do: Harness the healing power of music for ourselves.
I spoke with Jessica Rose Western, a board-certified music therapist and also a local musician in the projects Flyover States, She Scotia and Deathbed Playlist. In case the last act’s name wasn’t a dead giveaway, she focuses on hospice care. The idea that music can bring resounding peace to a hospice patient who’s looking death in the eye while simultaneously being a part of a less-than-ideal lifestyle for the creator behind that music perplexes me.
“Music has existed in every civilization throughout time in some form or another, yet it serves no direct survival function,” Western tells. “Perhaps this can be taken to mean that music is an important (I would argue imperative) part of the human experience and has an important relationship to wholeness.”
Western suggests the following for musicians who’d like to use their own music to heal themselves:
▶ Songwriting for personal catharsis and expression (and not just marketability or project-specific outcomes)
▶ Improvisation (giving form to our felt senses through sound without any aesthetic judgment)
▶ Using music prescriptively to consciously energize or relax
“To be musically creative is to be accessing the healthiest part of our self. (This is something music therapists facilitate every day.) So why do so many musicians live a lifestyle that is so unsustainable and self-identify as suffering for their art?” Western continues: “It’s time we turned the tools on ourselves—heal thyself, healer. There are infinite ways to tap into this.”
“Why are we all so drawn to music in the first place? Go back to that origin spark and nurture it again instead of letting the consumptive music culture that has evolved force you into a musical role that is depleting rather than life-giving,” she urges.
• • •
It starts with us—the musicians. We have to approach our music in a way that is truly authentic, and by that, I don’t mean “sounds authentic to listeners.” I’m talking about the kind of authenticity that only the musician can confirm.
Here’s where it can get tricky: You have to be accountable to yourself for acknowledging the subjective impacts certain genres and music activities, at large, have on you. Not all sounds are created equal in the world of music and wellness. There’s a reason why music therapists don’t typically default to black metal when endeavoring to reduce a patient’s stress. But that doesn’t mean it can’t work for you, as a 2018 piece from Time explores. You’re just going to have to be the lead scientist on the study of you.
Approach music as play, as prayer, as a place where you retrieve power and healing. Let the same things that cause healing in music therapy patients and music fans, in general, heal you too. Observe and modify your relationship with music honestly. Journal to document your experiences, if that’s helpful for you.
If we are to come at our music-making with reverence, then maybe we can invert the narrative. Bits of performance anxiety can possibly become replaced with excitement for the exchange between the musicians on stage and those in the audience. If we regard ourselves as makers who become better—not worse—from our making, then maybe it will be easier for us to advocate for healthy alternatives. We need to operate from an abundance mindset regarding the positive things we expect musicianship to bring to our lives, not a scarcity mindset. That can start with small decisions, which have a way of binding together to form larger changes. A smoothie instead of a greasy breakfast sandwich. A step outside for a fresh-air-fueled stretch rather than yet another smoke. An insistence on a more well-rounded way of touring—room in the schedule to experience places, make connections, have conversations—and not just burning rubber from one city to the next.
If, as musicians, we can collectively work at bettering our relationship with the music we make, we might just become healthier—possibly even healthier than the general population if we are to take to heart the research on the benefits of music. And with health comes confidence and boundaries.
Now imagine if we have a labor force of musicians out there who are finally a little more healed, a little healthier, and a little more willing to advocate for their needs. We might just wind up with record labels and venues that care a little more about the health of the artists they work with and how to best preserve it.
Which brings me to my final point: If we can embrace and expect health and healing and extend that to our professional relationships, then, in doing so, we’re expanding the conversation on healthcare at large. And while we might not be there yet, that’s an important step toward a workable national healthcare system. We might even one day have label executives clamoring for single-payer healthcare if providing it themselves becomes a non-negotiable demand made by artists. It would be good for their bottom line, after all.
And, for what it’s worth, it really doesn’t have to be like this.