This provocative and ground-breaking book, Can Music Make You Sick?: Measuring the Price of Musical Ambition by Sally Anne Gross and George Musgrave, presents the hugely cited, largest ever study into mental health in the music industry, which reveals that music makers are three times more likely to experience anxiety and depression than the general public.
Can Music Make You Sick? takes an even deeper dive into the lived experiences of musicians, using empirical research and interviews to challenge myths and demonstrate how the industry’s often unstable working conditions provide the ‘perfect storm’ to foster mental health struggles in music creators. The music industry has often perpetuated the myth of ‘having it all’. Perceived by those on the outside as a ‘pleasure dome’ – a world of self-actualisation and glamour, paradoxically it’s inhabited by musicians that are struggling with psychological, economic and addiction issues.
Amy Winehouse’s death in July 2011 was a significant moment in the consciousness of the British music industry. In the years that followed, there have been various revelations from musicians about their mental health struggles, from Ed Sheeran and Stormzy to Adele and Justin Bieber. There have also been the shocking and tragic suicides of Keith Flint, Avicii, and others – all of which challenge the myth around the glamour and alluring nature of being a musician.
In 2016 and 2018, Help Musicians UK, Music Tank and the University of Westminster commissioned Gross and Musgrave to conduct a study of over 2,000 music makers, across MOBO winners and Mercury Prize nominees, to artists scraping a living performing at local venues to discover their lived experiences and working conditions. The findings which received global media attention were staggering: 71.1% of respondents reported high rates of anxiety and 68.5% reported depression.
Crispin Hunt (multi-platinum songwriter, record producer, Chair of the Ivors Academy) said: ‘In this important book, Sally Ann Gross and George Musgrave investigate the relationship between the well-being music brings to society and the well-being of those who create. It’s a much-needed reality check, deglamourising the romantic image of the tortured artist.’
By listening to how musicians understand and experience their working lives, the book turns on its head the notion that musicians are themselves prone to mental health problems and reveals that, while the creation and consumption of music might be therapeutic, it could be the actual pursuit of a career in music that undermines and destabilises a musician’s wellbeing. Through multiple interviews with musicians, Gross and Musgrave break their findings down into three different themes:
- Status of work. Financial precarity due to the self-employed and freelance nature of being a musician and difficulty in being able to define success, which leaves musicians to question whether what they do is ‘work’ or a ‘career’. Financial challenges also prevent musicians with accessing adequate well-being support and cause anxiety about their futures – something which the coronavirus has brought into sharp focus.
- Status of value. As traditional markers of career success are elusive, and musicians connect their identity to their ability to create, musicians turn to a digital community of fans, artists and industry representatives where their wellbeing is often undermined. Additionally, chasing the markers of status, such as record contracts, often relies on privilege and the right network connections, as opposed to simply ‘hard work’ and ‘luck’.
- Status of relationship. Anti-social working hours, touring schedules, and an ‘always on’ mentality driven by an oversupply of music and a lack of boundaries, leads to musicians struggling to know when to stop working, which can cause isolation and prevent one from being able to build and maintain meaningful relationships.
The book also highlights the key challenges faced by women musicians who are experiencing inequality of access to a career and unfair treatment such as discrimination and sexual harassment. Shockingly, in a recent Musician’s Union survey 50% of women had experienced sexual harassment in the music industry, and 85% did not report it.
This book raises questions about what the industry needs to do to provide a duty of care for those working within it and what best practice needs to be implemented to best support and care for music creators, begging the question: ‘Are we churning out too many musicians for the industry to manage?’
Music is a source of pleasure, joy, meaning and fulfilment, and the type of work many aspire to. However, what does this research tell us about its costs? Is the price of musical ambition simply too high?
Sally Anne Gross has been working in the music industry for nearly three decades as an artist manager, record label director and international business affairs consultant. In 1993 she was the first woman to be A&R Manager at Mercury Records UK. In her current role at the University of Westminster, she is the program director of the MA Music Business Management.
Dr George Musgrave is a lecturer based at both the University of Westminster and Goldsmiths, University of London. He is also a musician who has signed both major recording and publishing deals (Sony/EMI/ATV). His music has earned support from the likes of Mike Skinner, Ellie Goulding and Ed Sheeran and he has been labelled ‘Middle England’s Poet Laureate’ by BBC Radio 1Xtra DJ MistaJam.
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