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The last few years have been rough for live music. The pandemic forced countless musicians to put their tours on ice to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and, even now, as many artists are performing again, the coronavirus always threatens to throw a wrench into any concert schedule. One bandmate falling ill can easily derail an entire tour. But in 2022, it’s not just the virus that continues to cancel shows. Increasingly, it’s the artists themselves, who are citing burnout and mental health as reasons to pull the plug.
In September alone, more than half a dozen major international music acts announced partial or full cancellations of their tours for mental-wellness reasons. These included Disclosure’s Howard Lawrence, who said he needed to take time away from an Australian tour to look after himself. Justin Bieber cancelled more than 70 shows for similar reasons. And they were joined later in the month by Santigold, who cancelled her entire North American tour, citing the financial challenges of touring profitably in the midst of inflation, while also alluding to “anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, vertigo, chronic pain, and missing crucial time with my children.”
This wave of announcements has also hit close to home. Last month, the British band Wet Leg, which was billed as a top act for this year’s Westword Music Showcase, pulled out of the Denver music festival last minute. On Twitter, the band wrote, “Our busy touring schedule finally got the better of us this time… Our mental and physical health are such easy things to overlook when everything is so exciting and so busy; you barely have a moment to check in with yourself.”
The cascade of cancellations got us wondering: How are Denver musicians and music industry folks faring in this moment, and do they identify with the performers who are speaking out about mental wellness?
We interviewed a few prominent members of the Mile High City music community, and they identified substantial challenges that all working artists face—many of which are at the root of mental-wellness struggles. Below, we rounded up just some of the challenges musicians are confronting in today’s industry.
We’ve all heard of the proverbial “starving artist.” But Jami Duffy, the executive director of Youth on Record, suggests that in the modern music industry, the term is more than a cliché.
“The music community in the United States has no middle class,” Duffy explains. “It does not exist. The average American musician makes less than $22,000 a year.”
As the head of a Denver nonprofit that pairs young people with working musicians who teach the students the ins-and-outs of the biz, Duffy would know. And she’s quick to dispel the myth that most touring musicians are rolling in dough. Sure, she says, there is a musician upper class with megastars like Beyoncé, Harry Styles, and Lady Gaga who bring in the big bucks. “But these are outliers,” Duffy explains. “The majority of artists in the United States are living below the poverty line, and that’s going to have an impact on their mental health.”
That kind of financial insecurity can affect musicians’ mental health in myriad ways, Duffy says, including “a lack of access to resources, a lack of access to care, and further isolation.”
So one simple solution that can improve the mental wellness of working musicians? Paying them more. And that doesn’t mean paying in alcohol, Duffy says, which is a common practice among bar and venue owners. “The fact that we would normalize paying professionals in alcohol is appalling,” Duffy says. “Especially professionals who do not have access to the kind of care and resources they might need if they are struggling with substance abuse.” Instead, artists need living wages.
At the Underground Music Showcase (UMS) this year, Duffy put her words into practice as a co-manager of the music festival, which Youth on Record recently acquired a co-ownership stake in in. Duffy says that the UMS was able to pay artists more to perform at the festival this past July by adding surcharges to tickets, as well as applying venue fees and bar tips to artist wages. The goal is to pay artists as the professionals they are. “You always have to look at economics as one of the first, foundational things when you’re talking about mental wellness,” she says.
Stress or Burnout From Performing
Spencer Townshend Hughes says that it wasn’t until the pandemic, when everything shut down in 2020, that he realized how burnt out he was as a musician. During lockdown, the frontman of the rock band the Hollow was no longer hustling from $200 gig to $200 gig, constantly networking, or trying to book new shows. Instead, he was forced to slow down.
“And I didn’t pick up a guitar for the first six months of the pandemic,” Hughes recalls.
As someone who already thought a lot about musicians’ mental health, Hughes was taken aback by how burnt out he’d become before the pandemic forced him to take a break. In addition to being a rock artist, Hughes is a co-founder of Music Minds Matter, a mental wellness-focused nonprofit in Colorado that he’s run for about five years.
“I started [Music Minds Matter] as mental wellness meetup, and it was out of necessity,” Hughes recalls. “I was getting ready to play a big show at the time [in 2017] and started having a crisis, asking myself, Why am I doing this? Who’s going buy tickets to our show?”
As Hughes soon learned, many musicians deal with burnout and insecurities around their art. Since 2017, the meet-up group Hughes started has been sparking vulnerable conversations among working musicians (the last gathering—a virtual one—took place on October 11). And Hughes says the discussions have been both revealing and reassuring. When musicians share stories with each other about topics including anxiety, stress, and depression, it can feel validating for those who feel like they are struggling on their own. And these conversations, coupled with his own experience as a musician, have meant that Hughes resonates deeply with the recent tour cancellations that have been grabbing headlines. “I truly feel like we’re in a bit of a renaissance for musicians and creatives to finally take a stand and address their mental wellness,” he says. “It’s been something that has gone terribly unaddressed and unnoticed for so long.”
The Emotional Toll of Art
Another mental wellness challenge many musicians face is that their music and performances can be emotionally taxing, especially when songs delve into vulnerable topics.
N3ptune, a rising star in Denver, knows that all too well. The genre-bending hip-hop and pop artist frequently sings songs about his own life, which don’t shy away from raw vignettes about family estrangement, coming back from a suicide attempt, past drug use, and navigating the world as a queer Black man.
“I think what a lot of people don’t take into account is that performing takes a lot out of you,” he says, “and depending on the nature of the music, you can really feel that and have to relive hard moments.”
Reliving those moments is part of what makes N3ptune’s (the only name he goes by, pronounced “Neptune”) most recent album Renaissance, produced by Rusty Steve, so powerful. But in order not to retraumatize himself, “I have learned to compartmentalize,” N3ptune says. “Some songs are easier to sing than others.”
One song in particular is so emotionally taxing that N3ptune sometimes skips it when he doesn’t feel like he’s in the right head space to perform it. “Thank heavens I have creative control,” N3ptune says, referring to his ability to dictate the set lists for his concerts, which recently included opening for Sleighbells on a North American tour. “This industry is a vicious one. So you have to be strong willed, and you have to have a good head on your shoulders in order to last in this business,” he says.
Like Duffy, he also wishes artists were paid more—and that there were more mental health resources available. “Specifically mental health resources for artists,” he adds, “and even more specifically for marginalized groups who are artists.”
At least locally, Youth on Record is trying to incorporate those calls for resources into the UMS. At the last iteration of the festival, Duffy says the festival offered musicians professional development opportunities (as opposed to alcohol), as well as an artist care lounge—a sort of reimagined green room that provided massages, movement work, and mental wellness discussions led by Hughes and Music Minds Matter.
All of it aims to help artists and raise public awareness about what musicians go through. “There’s a responsibility to help music fans understand what the musicians might be going through,” Duffy says. “And there’s a responsibility to give musicians the amount of care that they’re giving to us.”