Written by Rob Macfarlane
It’s been a matter of weeks since I volunteered to write a short piece for Mental Health Awareness Week, and so of course I have spent most days since then obsessively thinking about writing without typing a single word. Each time I’ve been asked about how this piece is going, I’ve happily answered with confidence that it is going without issue and should turn out great. Whilst typing these words to my long suffering friend, there has been the private little orchestra of panic, anxiety, self-deprecation and guilt that not a single word had been written.
My first stumbling block is that despite having my own extensive mental health issues both currently and in the past, I have no desire to share them. I’ve never been embarrassed or ashamed of having troubles, but I’ve also never read someone else reel out their laundry list of problems online and felt particularly helped by it. There’s a troublingly performative undercurrent to some mental health awareness posts, and whilst it must somehow help others, the inclusion of internet-points based reactions at something vulnerable has never really appealed to me. Whilst I’m happy to talk to anyone about my history with anyone who cares to ask, a coffee table has always seemed a far more comfortable platform for me to open up across than a social network.
Secondly, I wouldn’t presume that my experiences with my unco-operative mind will be of any particular use to someone else with their broken brainbox. We all sit in our own little bubbles of confusion, and even when parallels or common experiences are found they can often annoyingly grate rather than pleasantly harmonise. Pain isn’t lessened by hearing our fellow lunatics scream the same traumas, it only serves to heighten our insecurity that our own howls will get lost in the hubbub. It’s rare that someone can tell you their medication without it swiftly devolving into dosage top-trumps, each of us desperate to prove to the world and therefore ourselves that our pain is as unique and untreatable as it feels every day.
So no war stories about awful times at the Not-Ok Corrall; nor will I pretend to be any sort of expert on how to maintain a healthy mind. The music industry has however given me a variety of memorable experiences in desperately unhealthy recording sessions, business practices and personal habits that I’ve found useful to analyse. I think it’s important that we do this whenever we can, both for coming to terms with our own responsibility for causing them, and for avoiding their happening again in the future.
The music business is a horrifyingly efficient factory for mental health issues. Even it’s core premise is a deeply problematic moral swamp. We give artists their canvas of three minutes of empty silence and ask them to populate it with their self expression, their emotions, their identity and other various pieces of themselves. We then enter it into a competitive popularity contest marketplace where everything they put into that song is sold as a product, the sales of which determine whether their feelings and identities are winners or losers. Made with the correct intentions music is an highly emotive, vulnerable experience for an artist, and an effectively run business is a objective, emotionless transactional affair – it’s not hard to see the friction between the two.
And so we build a team of people to help ease this friction, and in doing so we dissolve and diffuse it throughout an interconnected web of more potential patients. Producers, Managers, A&R Teams, Engineers, Assistants – any role you care to mention in our industry comes with its unique psychological challenges. A&R roles and Label staff may not be so emotionally vulnerable as the primary musician but they’ll be stung by the same lack of sales, and their careers can be far more expendable to a label than that of the artist. Not all roles come with such a threateningly quantifiable success or failure state as album sales however – for studio staff the failure state is far more vague, and accordingly so is any guarantee that you’re doing well. Whilst it’s rare you’ll take the blame for an albums failure, it’s far harder to feel any responsibility whatsoever when the album succeeds. Instead we usually measure ourselves by the artists mood, and our own often grimly dark view of our own work.
Often in studios the process lends itself incredibly easily to insecurity and anxiety. We spend the session furiously searching for any flaws in our work, any slight issue to resolve, any element that could lend itself to improvement. Whilst we define Mixing as the process of making the song sound ‘better’, we rarely admit that ‘better’ is a not destination you can stop at – only something you can perpetually travel toward. And so we end our day with a head full of things we wish had been done, or ways we wish we’d recorded, or things we wish we hadn’t. This vengeful attitude towards the quality of our own work is what drives our ability to improve day by day, and to hopefully make great recordings and put out great mixes. But it’s far from healthy. Add to this bizarre rollercoaster of self-punishment some regularly unsociable hours, lack of daylight, lack of routine, lack of healthy food and lack of financial security or other validation, and it’s not hard to see why it’s not just the artists of our industry that struggle.
To a degree however, all of the above has been true of our trade since its inception. New technologies have come and gone, working practices have changed and you can quite successfully make the argument that our job roles have never been easier. So why the apparent upswing in mental health problems? A portion of it could certainly be that people are more comfortable admitting their issues than we were in decades prior, and that increased awareness has led to more people seeking help sooner. This is only to be applauded, but I think a lot more of it has to do with our profession never being easier to access, our tools never being more widely available, and our barriers to success never more trivialised.
We live in a society that claims anyone can make their way in the world if they work hard enough and want it bad enough, that no matter your circumstances or disadvantages, you too can be a superstar. It’s all up to you – if you have the passion, and the work ethic, you too can become a materially important pillar of the modern music world. It’s the foundation of our industry’s favourite story – the ‘rags to riches’ young upstart who wakes up one day to find their dreams made true through ‘having passion’ and ‘working hard’.
Diligence and passion are without doubt prerequisites for any professional in our industry, and I’m proud to say something we have in abundance at Dean St. But I can’t help but feel it’s a little disingenuous to claim that those are the only ingredients to success. Years of experience and all the passion in the world are rarely as expedient as being in the right place at the right time. It’s all very well selling the dream at universities and colleges up and down the country that ‘anyone can make it’, but you’d better be either comfortably middle class or happy only eating four times a week if you want to make it through your unpaid internship. And you might be able to dial in the best drumsound in the UK but financially it’s all for nothing if you’re not getting it for clients who actually sell records.
Our obsession with this Great Dream is what makes us so scared to say when we’re exhausted, and instead work through it. It’s what makes us so sure that our work can’t be of quality, because to stop and tell ourselves we’ve done good work is to invite mediocrity to the table. In a world where everyone’s victories are attributable only to their hard work and passion, then our failures can only be a result of our own lack of either. We will work long hours without fair compensation, take any attitude thrown our way by stressed musicians with a polite smile, and dare not complain for fear of denting our rapidly growing yet still irrelevant karmic credit account. To mention that we’re struggling would be treason against the great dream that we buy almost as often as we try and sell it to others – that this job is a lifestyle choice with little to no reason for complaint. Our jobs are our means of putting food in our mouths, saving for property and god forbid, one day being able to afford a retirement. If achieving even the first item on that list is driving us all to the pharmacy, we have a problem.
The circumstances of the jobs in our industry will likely never change – and largely I don’t believe many of them should. But the way in which we collectively decide to talk about this industry amongst one another simply has to change if we want to avoid the burnout that most of us are finding an inevitable feature of our workplaces. We have thankfully started moving towards a place where discussions of having issues with mental health is not only commonplace, but often actively encouraged; but yet I can’t help but feel that we are being open and accepting to the symptoms of a deep rooted issue we dare not address.
Until we collectively feel more comfortable admitting that our jobs can be just that at times, and not the wonderland of perpetual gratification that we feel obligated to pretend we’re living in, we’re going to keep going back to the pharmacist. Until we can allow colleagues the breathing room we resent not being given ourselves, and until we dare to admit we may need some ourselves, we’re going to keep going back to the pharmacist. If we only take notice of our working practices when people are ending up in the hospital, we’re not checking in with those people who we’re helping drive there.
When you choose a career in the music industry, you’re chasing a dream; successfully holding down that career can feel like your living one. There is no doubt in my mind that I am unfathomably lucky to have the job I do, and not a day goes by I don’t feel deeply grateful for my position. But legitimate problems in your working environment and practices shouldn’t have to be disguised and minimised by the eternal manta’s of “Aren’t you lucky?” and “At least it’s not a proper job!”. But to say that just because we’re not breaking our backs means we have an easy job is a mistake easily corrected by pointing out that the physicists at the Large Hadron Collider are hardly athletes, nor is your local hospitals brain surgeon. The cognitive, and more importantly, emotional endurance required of certain roles in the industry are dangerously exhausting when working what are considered ‘normal’ hours.
It is entirely within the realms of ‘normal’ for a music professional to spend their day permanently on edge, constantly auditing every aspect of their behaviour’s compatibility with the people around them being creative. An assistant engineer cannot complain about being tired during their ninth consecutive 15 hour day, nor can a manager exclaim that they simply don’t have the space to think about someone’s laundry being collected. They are not only perils of the job, they’re often intrinsic to the jobs being done well. I had to make a conscious decision that it is acceptable for me to use the toilet when I need to, rather than the masochistic dance I used to and I know most others still put themselves through. None of these facts are problems, nor am I claiming that the long established means of working need to change – simply that to acknowledge them as facts and then wonder why mental health in our often chaotic industry is on the decline. If you know that your job is going to include situations almost tailored to making you doubt your self worth, surely prioritising healthy self-care should be a given?
I believe the primary priority of any music professional should always be the music above all else. There’s going to be some fantastic work done this year, and yet more just over the horizon. We owe it not only to the music, but more importantly to ourselves, to reach that horizon. I feel a lot of our current methodology for doing that is by slamming the proverbial pedal to the metal whilst still being stuck in first gear, adamant that the loud noise from our brain-engines is just proof we’re working hard. For Mental Health Awareness week, why not try taking your foot off the gas and finding a better gear?