What does mental health actually mean and why do so few people talk about it? Fortunately, more and more people in the music industry, musicians and music industry professionals alike, are sharing their thoughts and experiences and opening up about the expectations that they have for themselves and the industry. In this article, we aim to raise awareness of mental stress among musicians, providing you with tips and ideas on how to better deal with those causes, to protect your mental health.
Please note: This article is intended to provide you with suggestions on how to empower yourself as a musician. It is not medical advice. If you need professional help, contact official counselling centres, associations, psychologists or doctors.
The situation in the DIY music industry
There are certainly many highs involved with being a musician, but all too often, lows and setbacks form the lion’s share of an artist’s career. The pandemic made live performances disappear overnight, sweeping in-person studio collaborations away with it, wreaking financial havoc on artists and industry professionals and isolating them from their social spheres.
Aside from this unforeseen life-changer, the pervasive nature of social media and how it forces artists to constantly compare themselves with others often leads to unhealthy perfectionism – especially amongst musicians who produce, release and promote their music independently. This causes many to over-work themselves to the point of burn-out, in an attempt to live up to unrealistic expectations of how a musician's life should be and to music industry conventions that give you the feeling that you’re not good enough and need to push yourself harder. That relatable feeling that others are “living their dream but I’m not” is fuelled by omnipresent, daily posts featuring others’ outstanding achievements. Psychological stress and mental health issues very commonly arise from this.
DIY musicians - between independence and overload
Let's not deceive ourselves - DIY musicians in particular are often overworked. Many of them wear too many hats and have to do most or even everything on their own, from music production to building their release strategy, to promotion to rights management, accounting, booking and tour management. It is almost inevitable that musicians overwork themselves, especially because many of them are not (yet) full-time musicians and have other obligations. Aside from comparing themselves with others, the urge to perfect one's own music, to perform at the highest level and to engage fans is often huge. For many musicians, the desire for recognition - to "make it" - and to satisfy the audience overshadows and suppresses the mental health damage.
If you notice that you are overloaded/overwhelmed and don't know how to move forward and get everything done, try taking a step back and looking at what you really need to be doing right now. Also think about what your goals are and what success actually means to you. Is it really your goal to make it at the highest level? Or is that just what the music industry is telling you to do? Does your tour really have to cover 10 locations? Does your album have to be ready in 2 months or can you give yourself more time? Do you have to share something on social media every day? Try to thoughtfully scale down your activities if you realise you can't do it all, or can only do it by making yourself suffer. Also think about what you can outsource or where you can at least get support. Sometimes it pays to do less, but then do it right, so that you are satisfied with the result in the long run and don't completely overwork yourself. It also helps if you first focus on the things that you enjoy and through which you can express yourself creatively. If you want to focus more on making music yourself, you'll find plenty of tools and platforms to help you streamline your workflows and free up time for that.
Music industry conventions: Do they really dictate your path?
How do you navigate the music industry in the long run without completely overloading yourself? You should first question whether you really want or need to work with major partners. Is it beneficial for you to put yourself under even more external pressure or are there perhaps partners who can help you build a sustainable career at your own pace, supporting you instead of encouraging you to stretch yourself to the max? Actively question whether others' path is your path. Do you want and need to put yourself under pressure to fulfil contracts and put out regular releases? Or would you rather stay independent and decide for yourself at any time? Take the time to define your goals individually and think about how you can achieve them in your own way. This will make you less dependent on others. The music industry is a tough place in many respects, nevertheless, with today’s DIY platforms you have the opportunity to increasingly determine for yourself what your path is and how you go about it.
Stronger together through community empowerment
You can often find support in communities. Take an active look around to see if other musicians can help you, e.g. if they have more experience in promotion than you. In return, you may be able to help them with music production, for example, if that's your strength. In general, you should see other musicians as friends and supporters rather than competition. Perfectionism and constant comparison with other musicians fuel pressure and dissatisfaction. Is it really the case that others have a perfect life as a musician and you don't? It often helps to question whether social media really reflects reality - how can you know? Wouldn't you also share only your successes and positive experiences on social media, leaving out your downs? Did other musicians really make it to the top with ease? Maybe you can even talk to more successful artists and ask them about their experiences. For sure, every musician has gone through ups and downs. Seeing not only the good sides of other musicians' careers may help you to look at yourself less critically and give yourself more time and more breaks. Maybe you can also get tips on how other DIY musicians have dealt with setbacks. If other people seem less perfect to you (the saying "nobody's perfect" really is true), maybe you can also reconsider if your tracks really need to be polished even more or if you really need to make countless tracks before releasing one.
Don't know how to communicate with other musicians, where to find those struggling as much as you are, or how to open up to them? There are lots of music communities where you can find artists who are in similar situations to you. Maybe it makes sense to look around in communities related to your genre. Feel free to check out our MusicHub community in Discord. There are also online groups and meet-ups specifically for musicians on the topic of "mental health", where you can share your thoughts and learn and benefit from the experiences of others. Don't worry, these are generally not "self-help groups", but actually platforms for open exchange. There are associations (e.g. the MiM Association) that can support you with advice on how to stabilise your mental health and, above all, prioritise it and bring yourself back into a place of harmony.
Open up to yourself first and then to others
The fear of opening up to others is understandably large. Many people already find it difficult to open up to themselves and admit their problems and worries. This is a difficult step and can take considerable energy. What is wrong with me? Why am I often so unhappy and lacking energy? Am I mentally ill? Such questions can cause even more uncertainty and pain. Especially because society still often makes these questions a taboo, stigmatising mental health issues as something to be ashamed of, but there have been some positive developments in this respect. There is no reason to be ashamed of mental difficulties or to hide. On the contrary, by dealing with your thoughts and feelings and talking about them, you show yourself and others that you prioritise your wellbeing and health. Being open about mental issues or illness is in fact a sign of strength. You are not accepting that you are not well, but by dealing with your worries, fears and problems, you are working to get better. Once you have taken this step, it may also be time to open up to others.
Believe me, it can be so liberating to open up to others slowly and thoughtfully. I myself have been amazed by how many people I have opened up to understand my problems and concerns, sharing that they feel or have felt the same way. Talking can do real good and an open ear even more so. At the same time, we can create understanding for our situation and behaviour when we explain to others why we are struggling. We can also learn something about others, like that their lives are not as perfect as we perceive them to be on social media. In addition, you will certainly help the people you open up to as well, because they will also learn that they are not alone with their experiences. How should I address such a topic, you may ask? There is never a right or wrong time or way. Ask your music industry colleagues if they would like to have an open dialogue. Then you can address the issue of your shared passion for music, talk about your experiences and ask for advice.
Some people also take the approach that they only want to surround themselves with positive people. What does that mean though? Does that mean that you aren't positive yourself? I think that every person has both positive and negative sides to them and our thoughts and feelings are sometimes positive and sometimes negative. It is better to surround yourself with people who understand, support and encourage you. When you share your feelings and experiences, always be aware that not everyone will be receptive to them. Be careful with whom you share what because you never know what situation your fellow human beings are in and whether you might trigger or overwhelm them. Therefore, approach slowly and carefully. If you have common interests and generally have a similar vibe, it will be easier for you to open up and your counterpart may also be more receptive to your thoughts.
Processing in music
No thoughts and feelings exist in a vacuum. Everything we do is conditional and many musicians bring fears and worries from their personal lives into their music - many process dark thoughts in their music and lyrics. To write from your chest and to pack it into songs can be liberating - this is also a way to open up to others and "speak". You are not only doing yourself a favour. Among your listeners, there are certainly many people who can identify with your experiences. You may also help them to process their own problems.
Don't wait until it's too late!
Mental problems do not always lead to mental illness. However, the longer we ignore our mental health, the more we risk it resulting in, for example, a depressive episode or a longer-lasting illness. Conversely, existing stress that we carry around for a long time can make us more vulnerable to setbacks and crises. If you feel that your mental health problems are persistent or that you are in a crisis, contact a person you trust deeply or a network, association, doctor or psychologist who can provide professional support and help.
Together we can break the stigma
A few final thoughts: mental health per se does not mean anything positive or negative. What's important is taking care of our mental health and making sure we stay mentally healthy or become mentally healthy again. Talking about our own mental health and stress does not make us "crazy" or "mentally ill." and it's not just "whining." No one should have to make do with "everyone is sad sometimes", or "just pull yourself together" when in a crisis. We should collectively create more awareness for the topic of mental health, reduce the stigma and make it a priority. Talking about stresses, problems, setbacks and personal crises should no longer be taboo.
At MusicHub, we aim to do our part to normalise talking about how being a musician, especially in the wake of a global pandemic, can affect our mental health. We should all be able to raise our hands and say stop (even to ourselves!) when we notice that something is not doing us good or even causing us real harm. On the other hand, we shouldn't get rid of our personality, individual experiences, worries or fears, when we devote ourselves to work or music careers. Everything we do, feel, think or experience is mutually conditional and no experience exists in a vacuum.
You too can help those around you to throw stereotypes overboard. Show others that mental problems or mental illness are human and are not something that we need to keep quiet about.
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