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‘We Can’t Have All Our Artists Die’: How the Music Industry Is Fighting the Mental-Health Crisis

Musicians suffer from addiction and mental-health issues at an alarming rate. But with a new wave of initiatives and organizations seeking to help, the industry is taking action like never before

Mac Miller at home in July 2018.

Clarke Tolton for RollingStone.com

In 2009, Anders Osborne found himself at rock bottom. He was bankrupt, his house was in foreclosure, his wife had kicked him out, and he couldn’t see his two young kids. His livelihood was playing gigs, but he couldn’t even do that — he’d often show up too drunk or high to perform. “For close to a year, I’d [either] try to find a friend’s couch to sleep on [or] I lived in the park,” says Osborne, a New Orleans-based singer-songwriter who’s collaborated with everyone from Phil Lesh to Tim McGraw. “I ruined everything.”

Osborne, then 42, was eight years into his latest struggle with substance abuse and mental illness, which manifested in psychotic episodes and hallucinations. “The bipolar tendencies, like staying up for days and days, flourished in my addiction,” he says. “I’d make these dramatic changes from, like, Tuesday night to Wednesday morning, and before you know it, I’m hitchhiking somewhere in the middle of nowhere.”

Osborne’s story isn’t new. Every generation has its share of musicians — from Charlie Parker and Janis Joplin to Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse — who’ve battled addiction and mental illness. (The two are closely linked; according to national data, about half of people who suffer from mental illness will also experience substance abuse during their lives.)  

Lately, it’s become clear that the number of artists suffering is staggeringly high. In a 2018 study from the Music Industry Research Association, 50 percent of musicians reported battling symptoms of depression, compared with less than 25 percent of the general adult population. Nearly 12 percent 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 album sales continue to fall and record labels and digital distributors gobble up the majority of streaming revenue, artists essentially have no choice but to tour more and more. “We’ve hit a tipping point where the people who work in our industry — artists as well as crew — are commodities,” says Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman, a professor at the University of Southern California’s music school and a longtime mental-health advocate. “People are working twice as hard to stay in the same spot they used to. The pressures are ratcheted up.”

Aside from financial instability, all kinds of stressors accompany this literal gig economy: loneliness; being surrounded by drugs and alcohol; strain on relationships; poor sleeping and eating habits; lack of access to quality health insurance and care, and so on. “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.” Or, as Osborne puts it, “it’s the perfect collision” for a breakdown. 

While top-tier musicians aren’t immune to these problems, they tend not to be the ones hardest hit, at least when it comes to financial and health-care issues. “For every artist that stands onstage, there are 10 to 100 crew members invisible to the public who make that performance, tour, or album run,” says Newman. “Those crew members all burn out in the same way [as the artist].”

There may even be neurological reasons why so many artists struggle with mental health. “Centers in the limbic system that control negative emotion tend to be more heavily [located] in the right side of the brain,” says Newman. Translation: “Right-brained” people — like artists, who can more easily tap into their feelings — “tend to have dominance in the side of the brain that creates more negative emotions,” he says. “We might even say there’s a predisposition for [that].” 

What’s more, performing can throw an artist’s bodily systems out of whack. “With the pressure and rush of the stage, artists are in this ramped-up sympathetic-activation mode,” says Newman. “It almost looks like the equivalent of a panic state, except it’s being induced by voluntary circumstances.”

In the past few years, these problems have played out in striking and tragic terms. In 2019 alone, Silver Jews’ David Berman, guitarist Neil 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. 

cornell berman casal mental health

Chris Cornell, David Berman and Neil Casal. Photographs by Casey Curry/Invision/AP/Shutterstock; Brent Stewart; Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

Now, the music industry is taking action like never before to address the growing 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 Lyman. “They’re realizing, ‘We can’t have all our artists die.’ ” 

Hilary Gleason was friends with both Austin, who died in June, and Casal, who died two months later. “Both were seemingly doing really well in their careers and playing these huge shows,” she says. “It’s a silent killer.” Gleason is the CEO of Level, a consulting firm that connects bands with nonprofits. The day after Casal died, her phone started blowing up with calls from despondent friends and clients. “They said, ‘This is so messed up,’ ” she recalls. “‘What are we going to do?’ ”  

Her answer: Organize a conference call with what she calls the “music-industry mental-health task force,” more than 40 music-industry vets, including promoter Pete Shapiro, plus musicians, tour managers, and crew members. “We had a conversation around, ‘Let’s see what initiatives are out there and what the gaps are and where we can throw our support behind,’” says Gleason. “All of us in music understand that it’s both the best thing that ever happened to us and the hardest life we could’ve signed up for.”

Out of that call grew Backline, an organization dedicated to connecting musicians and anyone in their orbit — from roadies and sound engineers to agents and family members — with mental-health resources. (Newman is on the clinical advisory team.) Gleason announced the initiative in early October; 70 submissions came in that month. “We’ve had agents and managers say, ‘I’m experiencing so much anxiety because of my never-ending email inbox and booking for [all these] bands, and I think it should all be great, but I feel this crushing weight,’ ” she says. 

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). “There was no central hub for all these places to coexist,” says Backline’s clinical director, Zack Borer, a licensed therapist and musician himself. “We’re trying to bring all the existing organizations out of their silos, where people can see all the things happening.”

Backline’s case managers have a one-on-one conversation with everyone who submits a form on its website, then pairs individuals with the appropriate resources — be it a therapist, life coach, support group, or AA meeting. Backline’s services are free. “The discourse around mental health is changing,” says Borer. “It’s not just sex, drugs, and rock & roll anymore. It’s how sex, drugs, and rock & roll can have a long-term impact.”

Aside from Backline, a slew of music-focused initiatives launched in the fall. On October 10th — World Mental Health Day — Live Nation announced it was backing a new nonprofit called Tour Support, which gives artists, crew members, and vendors on a given tour 24/7 access to a therapist via phone or online. (Vicky Cornell, Chris’ widow, is a partner, and artists from John Legend to My Morning Jacket have endorsed the organization.) Live Nation also recently funded an industry guide to mental-health best practices published by the Music Industry Therapist Collective. “With more artists touring than ever before, it’s increasingly important to consider the challenges that artists, crews, and vendors face while on the road for long periods of time,” says Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino. “It’s inspiring to see major industry players step up to tackle some of those issues.”

Trade associations and performance-rights organizations also joined the cause. In October, the Association for Electronic Music released a mental-health guide for people working in the electronic-music industry. It explains how to identify conditions like depression, burnout, and imposter syndrome, and goes deep on coping strategies for managers and artists, who tend to tour heavily.

In December, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) debuted a wellness program called TuneUp in response to a survey that found musicians are 31 percent more likely than the general population to say their health and wellness majorly impact their careers. ASCAP will launch recovery-support groups in several cities and online, plus offer discounts to its 725,000 members on fitness, nutrition, and mindfulness services. (First up in 2020: a group meditation in New York.)

At least one record label has caught on to the shift. Last February, Toronto-based indie Royal Mountain Records announced that every act on its roster would get a $1,500 stipend for mental-health-related services. Borer has seen a jump in the number of inquiries from managers and label executives looking to provide support to their artists, but would like to see more from major labels. “With every additional death or overdose, the industry is being confronted with the growing problem of depression and anxiety within the business,” says Borer. “Ultimately, it depends on whether they want to invest in providing clinical support.” 

Artists are also doing their part to destigmatize mental illness. There are many examples, but in 2019 alone, Sully Erna of Godsmack debuted the Scars Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to mental-health education; veteran jam band Widespread Panic held a ticket raffle that brought in $100,000 for a suicide-prevention organization called Nuci’s Space; and Billie Eilish starred in a PSA to share her battles with depression and urge those who are struggling to ask for help. 

On the event side, multiple festivals designed to raise awareness of mental-health issues are in the works. On May 9th in Los Angeles, Lyman is producing 320 Fest, an event he created with Talinda Bennington, Chester’s widow. (Touring giant AEG and Warner Records are also partners.) It will feature free daytime performances by musicians and comedians (the lineup is TBD) and panel discussions — including one moderated by Bennington — on mental health and addiction. The festival will culminate in a benefit concert at the Microsoft Theater. No acts have been confirmed as of press time, but the talent will be “A-List,” Lyman says. “I believe if people have a good time they’re more willing to learn.”

In New York, plans are underway for Sound Mind, a mental-health benefit concert that debuted last year in Brooklyn. Passion Pit and Aimee Mann are in talks to appear. There’s also Recovery Fest in Nashville, an event dedicated to increasing attention around mental illness and addiction, slated for fall 2020. “The more we talk about mental health, the more normal it is,” says Gleason. “Increasing transparency can lead to more willingness to get help. It’s a tide that needed to come in.”

Despite the industry’s new attempts to address the mental-health dilemma, Newman, the clinical psychologist, says it’s only scratching the surface of what needs to be done. “Every little bit definitely counts — if a program helps prevent a single suicide, it was an unmitigated success,” he says. “But what often happens in cases like this is as soon as there’s an awakening around an issue, it’s like, ‘Let’s find a Band-Aid.’ But the goal isn’t to provide solutions — it’s to provide solutions that work.”

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIFORNIA - JULY 20: Founder the Vans Warped Tour Kevin Lyman poses in front of a photograph of Bill Graham at the Vans Warped Tour 25th Anniversary on July 20, 2019 in Mountain View, California. (Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

Vans Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman at the Vans Warped Tour 25th Anniversary in Mountain View, California. Photo credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

In a few weeks, Newman is launching his own initiative: TourHealth.org, the first-ever major research study on mental health in the touring industry. The goal is to gather data on the mental-health problems that artists and crew members face (the survey will be sent to about 10,000 industry members worldwide) and use it for scientific research on the most effective interventions. “The only way to provide solutions that work is that everything has to be empirically based,” says Newman. “We’re trying to get to the roots of the key issues that pop up, and then we can begin to test and develop solutions. If we make sure people get the right care, I think there can be a major impact.” 

In the meantime, Newman says he’s hopeful companies like Live Nation can usher in industrywide changes on the mental-health front. (He’d like to see tour routes plotted with more breaks, and venues and festivals designed to be more “nurturing” to the mental-health needs of artists and crew members.) “We’re just starting to understand what the issues are,” he says. “We’re just at the beginning of being able to get our finger into the dam to stem the flood.” 

Osborne, for one, is doing his part to hold back the surge. A decade ago, when his life was falling apart, a few musician friends — among them Dr. John and Ivan Neville — coordinated with MusiCares to arrange a bed for him at a California rehab center. “That’s when the new chapter started,” Osborne says, adding that he got his house back, he’s reunited with his wife, and his career is back on track. (He released his latest album, Buddha & the Blues, in 2019.) This month, he’ll celebrate 11 years of sobriety. 

Osborne decided to pay his good fortune forward, in 2017 starting a nonprofit called Send Me a Friend. The organization, which supplies sober buddies to recovering artists on tour, has a network of 3,500 volunteers in 50 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.)

Osborne was inspired to start SMAF after going back to work in the early days of sobriety. “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,” he says. 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.” 

He says that if an organization like his had been around when he was struggling, he would have gotten help sooner. “If there would’ve been less tip-toeing and avoidance, and people were straight-up understanding” of mental illness and substance abuse, he says, things may have been different. 

But thanks to the efforts of Osborne and others like him, artists today have a better shot at avoiding the live-fast-die-young cliche that’s plagued so many before them. “Layne Staley, Scott Weiland, Chris Cornell … we lost so many people,” says Lyman, who worked with the frontmen of Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, and Soundgarden, respectively, as a stage manager for Lollapalooza in the early 1990s. (Staley and Weiland both died after accidental drug overdoses.) “That whole era of our legacy bands is gone. We can’t lose another generation.”