By Jack Sirkett
What could be better than living the life of a touring DJ? Wide-eyed admirers, exotic locations and one never ending party, right? They’re the carefree hedonists that everyone loves; every week they turn up and create unforgettable memories in venues across the world.
Unfortunately, behind this alluring reality lies a potentially dangerous reality for professional DJs. Strip back the bright lights and the besotted crowds and you’re left with a human just doing their job. This job is in constant flux between high octane performances and empty hotel rooms. This job leans towards heavy alcohol and drug intake. This job turns the regular sleeping pattern on its head. This job, whilst seemingly pristine on the surface, has pitfalls with potentially serious ramifications on mental health.
Mental health has been somewhat of a taboo in the dance music community, shrouded by an ethos of hedonistic escapism for decades. However, sometimes a catastrophic event needs to take place for people to talk about such issues in the public sphere. The recent death of Avicii shone a piercing spotlight on the darker side of the profession. Avicii, aka Tim Bergling, tragically died in April at the age of 28.
Bergling, who performed over 800 shows during his brief career, had previously spoken openly about the vices of DJing as a full-time profession. In what are now harrowing words, he foreshadowed his own death. He’s heard saying “I’m going to die. I have said it so many times so I don’t want to hear that I should entertain the thought of doing another gig” whilst talking of his bookings team in the 2017 documentary Avicii: True Stories.
Sometimes, the wellbeing of an artist can be at odds with their bookings team, who could lose a lot of money if the artist does not perform. However, everyone has a breaking point. Unfortunately, Avicii reached his before he could receive sufficient help.
Other well-known artists to speak out include Benga and Ben Pearce. In 2015, Benga came out with a series of statements reflecting on years of excessive drug use and touring which led to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The Croydon producer strongly urged musicians in a similar position to seek help and hoped that speaking out would help break the stigma around mental health issues.
In 2016, Ben Pearce announced that he was cancelling a string of tour dates after revealing that he was receiving treatment for anxiety and depression. The onset of social and performance anxiety, according to Pearce, was the result of excessive drug use and a stacked touring schedule. Pearce recently addressed his mental health issues at the House of Commons for SING4SANE, an event run by singer/songwriter Melissa James, with the aim of educating and raising awareness of mental health issues.
Addiction is prevalent in the music industry; substance culture is omnipresent in electronic music. Think of the last nightclub you visited without alcohol as a central focus of the event. The ubiquity of liquor sponsorships at large events is not helping the issue and we’re not far from the days when tobacco companies were in a similar position of power in advertising. An individual visiting a nightclub will enter such environments as a form of escapism from the day to day. For DJs, this is the reality of their vocation, a minefield for more susceptible individuals.
Benga and Ben Pearce are amongst many musicians to recently speak about such issues openly. They’ve normalised a new, open attitude towards mental health in a typically hyper-competitive and macho industry. However, there’s still a long way to go. This is largely due to the scale of the problem in the profession.
Alongside addiction, there are a lot of other threats to wellbeing. Many mental health professionals have given statements on the prevalence of mental health issues for performers and often mention touring as a catalyst.
“The classic image of a touring musician would seem counter-intuitive to all we know about well-being,” says Isabella Goldie of the Mental Health Foundation. “Drinking in moderation, avoiding drugs, getting sufficient amounts of sleep and having a support base of close friends and family nearby. These are the bonds that help keep you grounded … It’s no surprise that some musicians struggle.”
Help Musicians, UK’s leading music charity, recently conducted the first academic study researching the link between music and mental health. They found 69 per cent of 2,211 musicians had experienced depression, whilst 71 percent had high levels of anxiety and/or panic attacks. Perhaps the most impactful statistic is that people working in the music industry are three times more likely to experience depression than the general public.
There are a huge number of factors which could lead to the onset of mental health issues. However, the risks involved with playing hundreds of shows a year are plentiful. There’s a marked contrast between the adrenalin-fuelled highs of a gig and the subsequent lows that follow. The phenomenon is known as ‘post-performance depression’, or PPD.
The biochemical release from a major shift in mood results in a feeling of ecstasy. After the show, the body balances out and leads to a prolonged sadness. This process does take place in everyday life but if you play 800 gigs a year, then PPD could take a stranglehold on your life.
Isolation can also lead to mental health issues. A lifestyle of non-stop touring lends itself to temporary relationships and transient, solitary living spaces. Mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression are exacerbated by this particularly unstable life, with frequent destruction of personal relationships and a lack of a place to call ‘home’.
Apart from being a literal four walls and a roof over our heads, the home is something with deeper symbolic meaning. It’s the place which is wholly shaped by us and showcases our personalities. It is essential for humans to have a home to return to because our physical surroundings play such an important role in creating a sense of meaning and organisation in our lives.
When this concept of home is neglected, it can have dangerous effects on our mental wellbeing. DJs spend a great deal of time in soulless hotel rooms, far away from the meticulous personalisation of one’s home.
According to Moby – these artificially created spaces – “unhealthy, toxic spaces”, he says – provide a striking uneasiness for the human body. “When I’m home, I’m in a space that I have chosen. They’re healthy spaces and filled with comfortable things but when you go on tour, you’re constantly putting yourself into a space that someone else has designed.”
As we’ve seen, touring as a musician is dangerous for your health. The mortality rates of people who tour are extremely high. However, the difference between professional DJs and musicians is that DJs can perform a great deal more shows in a year.
Bands will tour based on album cycles, whereas DJs do not have to stop. Also, most musicians tour with a band or a crew. The numbers are essential for the show and they’re essential for the mental wellbeing of each and every performer. For the most part, DJs are alone with just a pair of headphones and USB stick in hand. This has serious ramifications if they are playing numerous shows a week.
So, what’s the solution?
DJs who are experiencing mental health issues as a result of their profession are faced with a catch-22. It’s likely that they make most of their income from live shows, in an industry which gives very little back to producers. They rely on the industry for financial support and have an intense love for music but are finding that their dream job is tearing them apart. This is a convoluted issue.
It’s difficult to pry oneself away from a job which on the surface is flawless, especially in the public eye. However, it’s essential to give the mind a break. Without a break, there’s no way of discerning that there’s a serious problem in the first place.
For some, it may mean a career change. The vices of touring do not subside and if there isn’t a clear motive to change, the same problems will come to the fore. Others find that keeping a solid connection to family and friends is essential. There’s also meditation, yoga and diet to contemplate.
Most importantly, it’s great to know that help is always available. In 2017, Help Musicians launched ‘Music Minds Matter’ – a service providing advice, signposting, clinical pathways and professional therapeutic services for musicians in need. If you’re a DJ or musician in the industry and struggling with your mental health, I’d urge you to seek help from these services and don’t be ashamed to do so.
Ben Pearce gives some words of encouragement in a 2017 article about his struggles with depression – “to anyone out there who is struggling: don’t be ashamed or afraid to get help, talk about it, trust in your friends and family and love yourself, do anything that makes you smile. You can beat it, it will pass and even if it never goes away, sometimes seeing the world from that angle forms who you are as a person and gives you a clarity you might not have had before.”
If you’re a UK-based DJ in need of help, or a musician of any kind, Music Minds Matter’s help line is 0808 802 8008. It’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Jack Sirkett (aka Sirkett) is a DJ currently performing around London’s club circuit and is the promoter of ‘Artsclub’, a music and arts community event series. Check out his page here.
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