Can music damage your health?
The answer, according to a study commissioned by the charity Help Musicians UK, has found that the answer is yes, if you are a professional musician working in unsympathetic conditions. Dr George Musgrave, one of the study's authors, talks to Darren Dodd about the findings.
Presented by Darren Dodd and produced by Fiona Symon
From the Financial Times in London, I'm Darren Dodd, and this is FT News. Can music make you sick? That's the title of a new report from Help Musicians UK, a charity that's launching a mental health support service for workers in the UK music industry. We're joined today by Dr. George Musgrave at the University of Westminster and he's one of the researchers behind the report. Hi, George. Thanks very much for coming in. What's the actual background to this report?
So the research that we've just done, can music make you sick, was actually conducted by myself and my colleague Sally Gross at the University of Westminster. And Sally had this idea for a number of years, actually, to try and look into this relationship between musicians and mental health. And obviously the link between artists and madness, in inverted commas, is not a new discussion. You tend to get these ways of thinking about it that tends to perhaps pathologise-- all artists are a bit mad sort of discussion, or they kind of sensationalise in the discussions of the 27 club, and Amy Winehouse, and things like that.
And there's also some pieces of research which we came across that was talking about how creative people are more prone to having mental illness problems and things like that. But what we really wanted to look at was this notion that there may be a link between the working conditions of working in the music industry and the subsequent mental health impacts on the workers, and looking at them as workers, as you might do any others. And obviously there was a lot of media reports about this type of thing and you saw Kanye West in the news and Benga, a dubstep artist, came out talking about his battles with schizophrenia. And we wanted to take those discussions that tend to be focused around global mega-stars and their problems with mental health, and look at it more on the level of day-to-day musicians.
And there were a number of studies which had come out globally, talking about this type of thing. There was a really interesting study in Australia that came out, which talks about a similar type of thing. There was also one in New Zealand, the New Zealand music Federation or Foundation I believe. And there was also a study in Norway as well, which was a slightly smaller sample --I think it was between 8 and 12 musicians-- looking at this link. And what we were thinking was this kind of evidence that the working conditions might be impacting musicians sits very uncomfortably alongside two kinds of rhetorics.
One, which is in the new knowledge economy --and the role that the creative industries are coming to play, as we evolve into this new knowledge economy-- alongside literature which talks about the therapeutic benefits of music. We know that there are studies where it's used in overcoming trauma and things like that. Well, these two things sit quite uncomfortably alongside each other, the notion that the career might be damaging, yet is so important to the economy and can help people at the same time. And so the charity which we go in contact with were wanting to expand their evidence base, in order that they could tailor the services more appropriately to what they were offering, whilst Sally Gross and myself were wanting to explore in a bit more detail something which we'd anecdotally come across.
Because Sally is a music manager and runs a record label in France and has been for 20 years or so. And am I'm a musician as well. I'm signed to EMI and Sony. And so we just wanted to explore some of these questions in a bit more detail really. That's where it came from.
OK, that's very interesting. So can you tell us how you actually went about the research and share some of the headline findings with us?
It was a two-stage research process that we went through. The first one was a survey, a very, very general survey, which-- sort of very open questions to try and find out, I suppose, the scale of the problem defined quite broadly. And we did that last year and the results that came out-- we got 2,211 responses. So it was the biggest ever piece of academic research on this topic. And of the people that responded to us, 71% percent saying they'd experienced anxiety and 68% depression which-- obviously really high numbers. A self-selecting sample, but nonetheless, very, very high numbers.
And so what we then wanted to go on to do was to try and talk about causality, because lots of people, when they first saw that, were saying, well, we kind of already knew that. We knew that musicians were a bit nuts anyway. So some people weren't so surprised, so we wanted to find out why these numbers were so high.
So we went on and did 26 interviews drawn from people who responded to the initial survey as well as people in our professional networks, from a whole variety of genres, from opera to heavy metal, different career stages, even, 50-50, men and women and basically said, tell us about your experiences. What does it feel like to be a worker in this industry? And the results that came back was them saying that the making of music was therapeutic, but the pursuing of a music career is traumatic.
And I suppose the main headline findings come out of it. There's a number of them, which you can see in the report, in the kind of summary report, but I would cluster them into three big ones. And the first one is --and it comes through all of them really-- is about the role of precariousness. So the first one, you have financial precariousness.
Now everybody knows that musicians-- Saying musicians are poor is not new. That's not particularly novel or interesting. But what is interesting that came through from the interviewees, they were telling us that they get this kind of existential crisis of meaning, whereby if the work doesn't have economic value, --and particularly now that the economic value of music has been decimated so intensely-- they wonder about the value of themselves almost, because musicians, in particular, sort of embody the work that they do and were telling us that they feel they are the work.
There was quite a nice quote in the report. It's one typical comment was, someone saying to this musician, so are you still doing your little music things? Well, yes. Are you still doing your little banking thing?
Absolutely. That was a great comment because it sums up very nicely, about how if your work doesn't have economic value, what value does it have? And there are a number of people for whom they have financially precarious work. Perhaps an Uber driver might be precarious work. But the nature of how they conceptualise the nature of their own work is very different, because it is them. And that comes to sort of destabilise them and cause them anxiety. So you have financial precariousness.
You have a second one, which is what we call the precarity of experience. And by that, we mean that precarity is not just a financial thing in the context of the music industry, because you get this very, very profound sense of uncontrolability. The role that luck, and timing, and writing the right song in the right place, being heard by the right people, with the right PR, all of this contributing towards whether or not your song is ultimately successful. And then, what is success?
So it's a kind of an intangible thing of trying to work out what success-- It's like on Master Chef, you know what a successful cake is, but you don't in music because you operationalise success in a different way. And then this creates this really unpleasant scenario, whereby the notion that you're a kind of entrepreneur, in control of your work, this autonomous, in-control, entrepreneur, clashes with an industry that you actually have very little control over. And that inability to reconcile the two becomes a real problem.
And then you also have these issues with relationships, which came through quite strongly, both family relationships, because they're forced to support them for a long time, living in unstable housing or things. Family relationships come to be defined by guilt a lot of the time. And then you get these professional relationships where they're precarious, and that they vanish when you're not wanted anymore.
But that also there was a number of things that came through where they were subject to abuse, and particularly in the women that we were speaking to. Some horrific things that these musicians were telling us about. There was one musician, for example, who was measured every single month by her management agency, to make sure she stayed a size eight to fit into sample clothes. Things like this and some other really troubling stories. And you sort of tie all of these things together and you start to formulate a picture that says, a lot of the working conditions of being a musician are not pleasant. They're really not.
And if there is going to be this rhetoric of, the creative industries are going to be fundamental, as the economy moves forward, and we're all going to be creative entrepreneurs soon-- Musicians are a little bit like the canary in the coal mine really. They sort of foreshadow changes in the wider labour market. And if this is happening to them, the people who are supposed to love their work and enjoy their work, what happens to the people then that aren't loving their work?
For me, it's a question of --it's even more than just musicians really. It's just musicians are suffering in this way and they have very particular labour market challenges, which we've tried to explore.
It's a good point about the value of the music industry, because it still is one of Britain's most successful industries. And we do need to find some industry champions of the next years.
Is it well beta?
--for whom? The question is, successful for whom? Because the people-- at its heart, what comes through in this are suffering.
And can you give us some other examples? I mean, that's a shocking story of the woman singer. Are there any other examples, quite typical ones that stand out?
I mean, there were a number of ones, really. But there were a number of kind of anecdotes, stories that people told us which were particularly frightening, some of them. I mean the idea of the role of success-- There was a really fantastic quote by one guy who was saying, the thing about working in music and wanting to be successful is-- He was like, imagine a footballer going and playing football, but the goal is absolutely tiny. It's the same size as the football and every single match ends in 0-0 and people only score goals once every six months or once a year. The football players would be too depressed to go out and play. That's what being a musician is like. You're continually doing something that's very hard and you never really know what's going to happen to it and it just becomes an endless struggle.
There was a female folk singer who we spoke to who was talking about how she's played at Glastonbury, she's had a number of critical releases, she's successful, in inverted commas, whatever that term means. And she said, when people ask me what I do, I feel I have to say I work in retail or I work in a shop, because it is what I do. Is music really a job? Do I feel I can really call it my job, because I actually earn very little money from it.
And you can see them grappling with what they do. The family stories as well. We were talking to a slightly older guy. He was a really quite illustrious jazz musician, talking about the strain it's placed on his marriage, of trying to get these early flights back home, and then his gigs would change at the last minute, and the impact he would have on his family and how often he could see them. The stories are not particularly pleasant and part of this is about revealing what it's like to actually be a worker in this world. Music is a sort of myth-telling industry. It loves telling myths about itself and one of them is that it's really glamorous and wonderful working in it. Well, the creation of the songs are. They love that. That's who they are. And I get. I totally get that. But the working conditions that surround it, as they've told us, can be damaging to them.
So now that you've identified this problem, what is Help Musicians actually going to do with this report now? Is there some concrete action against it to address these issues?
Yeah, so this is the great thing really about this, is that as a direct result of the findings, and the recommendations that we've made in the report, Help Musicians are launching a 24/7 phone line --it's called Music Minds Matter-- that's going to be launching in December. I believe It's the first 24 hour helpline of its kind that's been launched. It's like a triage service.
So people can contact, get emotional support, information and advice, legal benefits about debt, mental well-being, that type of thing. And then they can point you to other mental health professionals or appropriate support. Support those where it's clinically possible to access other services. It's not so much for those with acute mental health crises as such, but it can certainly be that first port of call for people to go to. And that's been really great that's been launched off the back of this report.
I can see the triage aspect very important, especially if you're on tour, it's a late night in a hotel room, there's a 24 hour hot-line you can get through to. OK, George, well thanks very much for coming in. You can find the report at musictank.co.uk. Tank You can follow the campaign on Twitter with the hashtag #MusicMindsMatter. And you can get in touch with George himself with his Twitter handle @DrGMusgrave. That's D-R-G Musgrave. And remember for the latest health news, you can follow the FT on Twitter @FT_Health and sign up for your free weekly health briefing at ft.com/fthealth.