"The internet is a devastating wasteland": How social media could be making musicians sick

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Music industry vet turned music management teacher Sally Gross has seen “what happens to the detritus the music industry firsthand.” With the study, “Can Music Make You Sick?”, she and co-author George Musgrave aimed to figure out why musicians, even the most up-and-coming, suffered more mental health-related issues than most other people. Lily Moayeri spoke to Gross about the study and what needs to be done to help.

Making and sharing music has never been more accessible than it is right now. Even as listeners, we know this: we can get our music on Bandcamp and SoundCloud, no major labels required. But along with the access to technology and the unprecedented ability to share music with people anywhere in the world, the emotional baggage that can come with fame can plague even the smallest independent artist.

“The internet] is this devastating wasteland where everybody is emoting and creating,” says Sally Gross, a music industry vet turned course leader and principal lecturer in the Music Management graduate program at University Westminster, London. “Social media and the democratization the distribution music, which so many people see as an amazing new frontier, had me thinking, ‘Hang on a minute, what is going to happen to all these people?’”

Gross’s previous experience working firsthand with artists and her current role teaching young musicians about the business inspired the study “Can Music Make You Sick?” Co-authored with Dr. George Musgrave, a senior lecturer in Gross’s MA program, the study was commissioned by Help Musicians UK, a charity established in 1921. Currently under the leadership Richard Robinson, Help Musicians UK’s goal is to support musicians from the early talent development stages through to retirement; the organization also provides assistance during times crisis, including crises related to mental health.

Part One “Can Music Make You Sick,” a pilot survey with input from 2,211 participants, was published in 2016 by University Westminster’s non-prit music industry information hub, MusicTank. The survey participants are self-identifying musicians in the UK. With the survey, Gross and Musgrave set out to discover how these musicians feel about their working conditions and how they perceive working in the music industry to affect their well being. “With] the unbelievable amplification the abundance music and the value music seeming to disappear, what was going on in the lives musicians?” Gross says. “If music and artistic expression is so good for us, what’s on the other side that?”

In their research, they found that huge numbers musicians suffer from anxiety and depression and that musicians are at risk to suffer depression three times more than the general public. Although artists “find solace in the production music,” the study describes trying to build a career in music as “traumatic.” “Musicians feel there are gaps in existing provisions and that something needs to change,” the study reads.

Last year, the second part “Can Music Make You Sick?” was published. It is a qualitative study that takes the findings part one and attempts to find a reason for the results, as well as suggest recommendations for musician wellness. For the second study, 26 UK-based musicians across genres are interviewed with the resultant summarized findings. The hyper-competitiveness and sheer relentlessness the pression, from touring for long stretches to a 24/7 lifestyle are large contributing factors to the mental health fallout. Plus, access and affordable pressional aid is lacking.

One the standout findings the research is, for musicians, “the spiritual place that music holds in people’s consciousness is different from its monetary value,” according to Gross. “The other thing that came across strongly was all these people trying to cope, saying ‘I’m fine, I’m going to do this. It’s okay that people are being really abusive today. I’m getting up tomorrow and I’m going to go out there,’” Gross says, referencing how musicians ten tolerate ill treatment from other musicians, producers and executives. “Nobody would go to a workplace like that, but in the creative industries, people will put up with a lot.”

Awareness through education, better guidelines for working in the industry both as musicians and non-musicians, and mental healthcare provisions – not just pharmaceuticals but accessible talking therapies and counseling – are among their recommendations. Musgrave explained to the Financial Times this past November that as a direct result the findings and recommendations, Help Musicians UK launched a 24-hour helpline as a triage service. The helpline is not meant for those with acute mental health crises but as a first port call.

“When I started in the music industry, there weren’t 1000 degree courses you could do to become a musician,” says Gross. “Now, for the kids that have no other jobs available to them, maybe being a musician is something you can believe in. You can’t get a job at a fast food restaurant, but maybe you can be a musician.”

One Gross’s goals is to bring the idea some health and safety parameters to the music industry. For example, regulating the working hours in order to remove the 24/7 nature the industry. She says, “When I started running this course 12 years ago, we weren’t talking about this stuff. Now we really are focusing on working conditions and the repercussions working in the music industry. Is it not impossible to think it can’t happen in music.”

The research continues with the pending third study, the focus which is still being determined by Gross and Musgrave. Topics that are being discussed by the pair are an expansion the qualitative interviews in Part Two, investigating artists who are thinking differently about their music by maintaining day jobs, examining the situations non-musicians working in the industry, problems stemming from digitization, exploring the st power UK music on a global scale, particularly in the post-Brexit era, and the reconstruction the UK culturally and in terms growing its economy.

“The first time I typed the question: ‘Can music make you sick?’ on my computer four years ago, I wrote a rant-y essay about it to myself,” says Gross. “With what I’ve found with this research, it’s not over. I’m not done with it yet and it’s not done with me. There’s a lot more to be done.”

Lily Moayeri is a music journalist who has also covered television, art, fashion, and other facets pop culture. She is a major contributor to the textbook The Guerrilla Guide to the Music Business. Find her on Twitter.

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