Now, more than ever, the music industry is in real trouble and those working in it are facing the biggest crisis in generations. Much of that, of course, comes from COVID-19 and the devastation lockdown has wrought on live music, but the cracks have been showing for a long time now.
A mixture of chaotic working hours, business models weighted against musicians and an infinitesimally small chance of success makes pursuing a career in music almost impossible to bear. Add to that the solitary lifestyle that it breeds and it's a recipe for poor mental health. In truth, there's a lot for creatives in the music industry to bear and the road to the top is littered with horror stories. It's a topic that is gradually becoming more talked about—campaigns for awareness seem to spring up fairly regularly—but there's still a long way to go.
Can Music Make You Sick? Measuring The Price Of Musical Ambition, the new book from Sally Anne Gross & Dr. George Musgrave, puts forward some real, meaningful suggestions on how to move forward in a sustainable way.
Far from speaking in abstract terms, Musgrave and Gross use a combination of anecdotes and empirical data to map the true extent of the problem and put forward real world, structural solutions that will change working conditions in the industry for the better.
You can read an exclusive extract below. The book is out now.
p83: Do You Feel in Control?
“While musicians might have a level of creative control in terms of production and distribution, they do not have ultimate control over how their work is received and how processes of intermediation play out. This is in stark contrast to contemporary musical production; being told you are in control, but feeling that luck matters too. As a producer told us, ‘In the music industry there is always that element of luck and randomness that’s out of our control. It’s just timing. It’s circumstances’ (Producer/songwriter, M, Pop, London ). Being heard, as ever in the music industries, involves complex networks of intermediation that take place in the context of a decline of symbolic efficiency in which to achieve stickiness to attach to something — in other words, to connect — becomes key. It is this process over which artists have less control, particularly if they are in areas of pop music production where managers and labels are the central figures. Because they embody their work so strongly — they are their work and their work is their life — this creates an uncomfortable relationship between responsibility and blame when things go wrong, and as all the data indicates, it will go wrong for the majority of aspiring musicians. We began the previous chapter with a quote from UK Music which stated that ‘music is a meritocracy’. This myth of meritocracy is all-pervasive in the music industries and even though many of our interviewees were clearly able to articulate structural problems — they could call out sexism and racism and see how privileged networks operated within their industries — they still had hope. They still wanted to believe that even if not everybody has an equal chance, that everybody should be given an equal opportunity to be seen and heard… In this sense, musicians feel and experience the emotional stresses of a creative career and the existential tensions relating to value and measurement profoundly, because their ‘failures’ are simultaneously understood to be out of their control and as being somehow their responsibility — their own fault. ‘I manage myself, I decide what happens and I’m kind of the only one who’s accountable. There’s no one else to blame’ (Musician, F, Cardiff ). This idea of only having oneself to blame can also be reflected in musician’s experiences of trying a get a deal. One interviewee told us:
[My managers] made some comments about the reasons why I couldn’t get the deal... that I wanted and kind of linked it to me not being good enough. So, I think that really affected me, because they were the people that were supposed to be looking after me and I really took that on and it’s something that still today I really deal with that. That phrase ‘just not being good enough’.
Q: Your managers said that to you?
A: Yeah they did... It just kind of fell apart and I think that was the start of the issues that I was really facing. I think probably because it’s a total hit on your confidence really. And it made me feel like everything I’d worked for didn’t really amount to anything after that. That was the time when I felt really, really low.
—Musician, F, Pop/R&B, Manchester 
How does it feel when the world tells you you are in control, but in fact you are not? We found that for the musicians we interviewed their desire to have control, coupled with the lack of control in their working lives, was at the least a cause of frustration and at worse manifested in stifling anxiety, feelings of paranoia and even loss. Their experiences sit uncomfortably alongside a powerful media rhetoric that paints a picture of these musicians as creative entrepreneurs who are in control, and now that they have control over all the levers of their creative lives they are personally responsible for the outcomes — they only have to work harder, or better, or longer, or faster. This is the demand, and this is struggle. This has been captured in the work of Han (2017: 7) when he writes, ‘People who fail in the neoliberal achievement-society see themselves as responsible for their lot and feel shame instead of questioning society or the system ... This auto- aggressivity means that the exploited are not inclined to revolution so much as depression’.
Even if musicians are no longer experiencing financial difficulties and have achieved a degree of success within the industry, the nature of the precarity and anxiety simply evolves as control is, once again, lost. For example, interviewees told us that as musicians become more well known and are travelling and touring, they first lose control of their diary, and ultimately, over their lives: ‘At the bottom, the instability is not having any money; at the top, it’s not having any freedom’ (Manager, M, Pop/various, London ). When artists are experiencing a career buzz or success, they spoke of working all the time and having no personal life. This unpredictability can manifest itself in highly changeable diaries, with studio sessions, gigs, meetings or interviews all being changeable at the last minute: ‘The insecurity of it can be really scary’ (Singer, F, Opera, Lon- don ). As a platinum-selling, BRIT Award-nominated dance music producer told us: ‘It’s very hard to plan your future and things change regularly. So whilst not sleeping, touring every day, [and] having pressure from the label to come up with your next single or making sure your brand is building... the travelling, the no-sleep and being awake and DJ-ing at nightclubs at 3 in the morning... that all rolled in to one is a recipe for anxiety... The lack of control is essentially what it comes down to’ (Producer, M, Dance, London ). Another interviewee put it like this: ‘I remember David Bowie describing his first moment with fame as being in a car that somebody else was driving incredibly fast and you could not stop it and you were just being pushed back by the force of the speed but you kept going... That is a good description. It is frightening, and frightening for everybody’ (Musician, M, Pop/Soul, London ). Indeed, control is a fantasy in the world of the musicians we spoke to. The idea of having some personal control really matters to these musicians, but in a precarious and blurred world, control can be as slippery as luck and just as hard to come by, and often as difficult to define as success itself.