People who work in the music industry, including the musicians as well as staff and other personnel are at an increased risk of experiencing alcohol harms, such as addiction, because of harmful norms attached to the music industry.
One pervasive and especially deadly norm is that to be creative or perform alcohol or another drug is needed, expected, and even pushed on people in the music industry. This alcohol norm has been so pervasive for a long time that it has limited the freedom and harmed the well-being of many in the industry. Alcohol and other drugs are also far more easily available for those working in the music industry. High availability coupled with the pervasive alcohol norm drives higher consumption resulting in alcohol and other drug harms.
Every generation has seen its share of musicians — from Charlie Parker and Janis Joplin to Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse — who’ve battled addiction and mental illness. Too many lost the battle and their lives. Substance use disorder, addiction and mental ill-health are closely linked. For instance alcohol is linked with almost all mental health conditions, such as depression, PTSD, and suicide.
Rolling Stone listed a number of high-profile musicians: In 2019 alone, Silver Jews’ David Berman, guitarist Neal Casal, Yonder Mountain String Band founder Jeff Austin, and Prodigy singer Keith Flint all died by suicide. In the two years prior, rapper Mac Miller suffered an accidental drug overdose, and superstar DJ Avicii, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington all died by suicide.
Lately, it’s become clear that the number of artists affected by substance use problems is staggeringly high. A 2018 study conducted by the Music Industry Research Association found:
- 50% of musicians reported battling symptoms of depression, compared with less than 25% of the general adult population.
- Nearly 12% reported having suicidal thoughts — nearly four times the general population.
According to a 2019 study published by Swedish digital-distribution platform Record Union, the numbers are even starker: It found that 73 percent of independent musicians have battled stress, anxiety, and depression, as per Rolling Stone reporting.
The music industry has long promoted, glamorized, and perpetuated the alcohol norm
The music industry has condoned and perpetuated a culture of excessive substance use for decades. The problem lies within the culture of music, and the wider entertainment industry, that encourages and normalises harmful substances, which often lead to dire consequences. Carefully examining the structures and environments that promote heavy and high-risk alcohol, and other drug use and that glamorize and perpetuate harmful norms helps to identify ways to dismantle them.
Nina Posner wrote for MixMag about the responsibility to change substance culture highlighting the role of venues hosting nightlife events. Kristin Malossi, aka DJ Voices, a member of the Working Women crew and head of booking at Brooklyn venue Sisters, pointed out how event spaces often rely on alcohol sales to keep things running smoothly in several ways.
One of the worst ways the music industry continues to be crushed by capitalism is basing payout/talent budget on bar sales for small-scale events, and the ubiquity of liquor sponsorships/deals in major clubs and at most festivals,” said Ms Malossi, as per MixMag.
When the parties are free, and the music isn’t the main financial draw for a space, you really have to rely on that, which puts undue pressure on DJs not only to get people out, but to ensure their guests are also spending money at the bar too.”Kristin Malossi, head of booking, Brooklyn venue Sisters
Ms Posner reports of a source working at a record label, who wished to remain anonymous, explaining that environments where the alcohol norm dominates are created from the top down.
People in positions of power at labels, management companies, etc. need to be aware of the influence they have on company culture as a whole, and work to avoid coercing coworkers, consciously or not, into unhealthy use of substances. But we also have an individual responsibility to our friends and coworkers to flag toxic behavior and actively discuss how we in the music industry approach substances, since right now it seems like a taboo subject.”Anonymous source, via MixMag
To break and replace the alcohol norm, alcohol-free products have emerged as an increasingly attractive way for the venue to make ends meet – free from the harmful alcohol norm.
For structural change, alternatives to alcohol industry sponsorships are essential. Big Alcohol could be replaced by alcohol-free companies, vegan, and other pro-health companies.
Increasing recognition of mental health needs
However, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit people working in the music industry have been given a chance to become free from alcohol and other drugs.
For instance, Music Support is a UK charity that is helping to create positive change in the music industry. They specialize in mental health and addiction in the music industry. Their regular training course on mental health first aid touches on substance use. During the pandemic, the Tour Production Group (TPG), an association of live music touring professionals, requested Music Support to develop a course devoted to substance use issues. Music Suport developed a four-hour addiction and recovery training workshop designed to help people working in music understand addiction and feel confident about helping others.
Since 2021 when the workshop was launched Music Support has trained over 100 people. The high demand has led them to double the sessions from monthly to once every two weeks.
If we want to continue to be this creative, wonderful industry, we’re going to have to start getting better at [supporting mental health], or we’ll lose more people,” said Matt Thomas, co-founder of Music Support and a music industry veteran who struggled with addiction himself, as per The Guardian.Matt Thomas, co-founder, Music Support
In addition to financial instability, many stressors jeopardize the mental health of people working in the music industry:
- Being surrounded by alcohol and other drugs;
- Strain on relationships;
- Poor sleeping and eating habits; and
- Lack of access to quality health insurance and care.
Creatives in the industry today suffer more because their routines are so destabilized,” says Dr. Chayim Newman, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist whose private practice focuses on performers and touring artists.
The intense, long hours on the road or in the studio create a challenge in maintaining health routines and healthy relationship routines. It’s the perfect collision for a breakdown.”Dr. Chayim Newman, as per Rolling Stone
A scientific analysis from 2019 illustrated the pressures that shape the vulnerability of musicians to develop alcohol and other drug use disorders:
- Pressure to be creative;
- Pressure generated by performance anxiety;
- Challenge of managing emotional turbulence, including doubts and fears, in a hectic and pressured life;
- Social, cultural and workplace pressures to use alcohol or other drugs; and
- Dealing with identity issues (public persona versus private self, subcultural identity, and issues with fame and celebrity).
Changing norms and becoming more mindful
The harmful norms associated with the music industry are now slowly changing. Part of the change is challenging cliches, such as romanticizing the intoxicated musician. Artists who have chosen to go sober have challenged these ideas within themselves and faced fears that they may not be able to perform or write music while sober. Overcoming these fears and becoming mindful has freed them, opening up a world of creativity within.
I was nervous at first [when sober] that I wouldn’t be able to write,” said Randy Blythe, lead singer, and lyricist of the U.S. metal band Lamb of God, as per The Guardian.
In fact, it unlocked sort of a creative switch in my brain.”Randy Blythe, lead singer and lyricist, U.S. metal band Lamb of God
Mike Kerr of the rock duo Royal Blood overcame similar fears. Once sober, he wrote the rock duo’s third album, Typhoons. The album continued the band’s streak of No. 1 UK albums.
People could hear I was using my whole brain,” said Mike Kerr of the UK rock band Royal Blood about writing music after going sober, as per The Guardian.Mike Kerr, UK rock band Royal Blood
It is specifically hard for musicians on tour. The highs and lows of attention can take its toll on mental health and increase the risk of using alcohol or another drug. Some musicians have developed coping mechanisms to stop this from happening. For example, Nita Strauss, the guitarist in Alice Cooper’s band has a ‘no alcohol on the bus’ policy. Removing the substance from the environment helps reduce the risk of a relapse.
These musicians have shown that it is indeed possible to go sober and perform, write music, and be creative.
Improving choices and building support
Part of changing the harmful alcohol norm in the music industry is improving the availability of alcohol-free choices. Music Support is advocating for more choices and education about alcohol and other drug problems.
I recall going to an awards show and they came round with 10 glasses of champagne and one glass of juice,” said Norman Beecher, the senior learning and development specialist at Music Support, as per The Guardian.
That needs to change. It needs to be 50:50. So people start thinking, OK, I have a choice here.”Norman Beecher, senior learning and development specialist, Music Support
A supportive community is important for anyone in recovery. This is true of musicians and people working in this field, too. The pandemic took a toll on this industry like with all other industries. But one silver lining is the improved connections via virtual platforms built during these tough times.
Online support groups for those in the music industry such as Passenger in the U.S. and Back Lounge help musicians and staff stay sober, get support, and share with others on the same journey as them.
Long-term attitudinal change
Breaking the stigma around addiction and recovery is important for long-term attitudinal change. The misconception that being in recovery is a liability needs to change. As Matt Thomas points out, someone in a healthy recovery will be the most reliable employee.
Opening up channels of communication to talk about the alcohol and other drug problem in the music industry, challenging stigmas, and increasing awareness will help long-term change. Already attitudes are changing.
Randy Blythe says young people are more aware of alcohol harm. Worldwide young people are changing pervasive alcohol norms. It is not considered cool anymore to be heavily intoxicated. The same goes for younger bands in the music industry.
It’s rare that I see a really hard-partying younger band in our scene,” said Randy Blythe, lead singer, and lyricist of the U.S. metal band Lamb of God, as per The Guardian.
They are the outliers, whereas before they were more the norm.”Randy Blythe, lead singer, and lyricist, U.S. metal band Lamb of God
Part of the change that needs to take place is to de-couple the idea of partying and substance use. Partying should not be treated as a synonym for substance use, but should be open to anybody. Substance use needs to separated from the glamorization and mythology that took place for so long.
Ultimately, people come to watch us play and have a good time – and how I have a good time has changed,” said Mike Kerr of the UK rock band Royal Blood about writing music after going sober, as per The Guardian.
It’s gone full circle: the reason I started playing is because I love it. Now I’m back to where I started – where people can come to watch me just lose myself in the music.”Mike Kerr, UK rock band Royal Blood
Commitment to improvements across the music industry
In 2022, Nicole Frehsee reported for the Rolling Stone magazine that the music industry was taking unprecedented action to address the accelerating mental-health crisis. There are new initiatives popping up from both corporate giants and grassroots organizations; festivals and benefits being planned to raise awareness of mental health; and efforts by record labels and artists to destigmatize mental illness. Musicians from Bruce Springsteen and Justin Bieber to Lizzo and Demi Lovato are increasingly opening up about their own mental-health struggles.
The idea of providing support to artists has been around for decades — the Recording Academy launched MusiCares to lend medical and financial help back in 1989 — but recently, the number of resources for musicians in need exploded.
We’ve lost so many artists that [industry leaders] are finally paying attention,” says Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman, a professor at the University of Southern California’s music school and a longtime mental-health advocate.
They’re realizing, ‘We can’t have all our artists die.’ ”Kevin Lyman, professor, University of Southern California’s music school, as per Rolling Stone
One such initiative is Backline, an organization dedicated to connecting musicians and music industry staff and personell, such as roadies and sound engineers to agents and family members with mental-health resources. Backline acts as a clearinghouse for long-running mental-health resources like MusiCares, Sweet Relief Musicians Fund (founded in 1993 to help artists pay for living expenses), and HAAM (which has been helping Austin-based musicians access affordable health care for 15 years).
On October 10, 2020, on World Mental Health Day, Live Nation announced it was backing a new nonprofit called Tour Support. The initiative provides artists, crew members, and vendors on a given tour with 24/7 access to a therapist via phone or online. Live Nation also recently funded an industry guide to mental-health best practices published by the Music Industry Therapist Collective.
Another initiative is Send Me a Friend. The organization supplies sober buddies to recovering artists on tour It has a network of 3,500 volunteers in 50 U.S. states, and has helped more than 100 musicians since it launched. (“Friends” are recovering addicts too — they must have at least one year of sobriety under their belts to participate.)
You come back from the total bottom and you’re supposed to be sharp enough to do a gig where everyone is drinking and doing drugs,” says Anders Osborne, New Orleans-based singer-songwriter who’s collaborated with everyone from Phil Lesh to Tim McGraw. With his program, artists (or crew members, or managers, or anyone who has a role in the music world) would have a hand on tour. “You’re accountable for those two to four hours,” says Osborne. “You have a space that feels safe and solid.”Anders Osborne, as per Rolling Stone
Osborne was inspired to start Send Me a Friend after going back to work in the early days of sobriety.
What is also needed, to counter-act the decades-long promotion of alcohol and other drugs through the music industry is to make recovery stories from musicians public to discuss the pressures, the way they used alcohol and other drugs to cope, and how they recovered.