Touring Has a Mental Health Problem. How Do We Fix It?

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In September 2022, Santigold made her long-awaited return with her first album in six years, Spirituals. Naturally, she had been planning a tour in support of it. But a few weeks after the project’s release, she revealed in a detailed personal note on Instagram that she just couldn’t make it work. Not only did she cite the financial barriers that she and other artists are facing with heading back on the road after more than two years of COVID restrictions, but she brought up how her mental health had contributed to her decision.

“I want to tell you that for me it has taken a toll — through anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, vertigo, chronic pain, and missing crucial time with my children,” Santigold wrote in the open letter. “In the place that I’m in, in the place that the music business is in, it feels like I’ve been hanging on, trying to make it to the ever-distant finish line, but my vehicle’s been falling apart the whole time — the bumper fell off, the wheels one at a time, the steering wheel, and finally the whole bottom fell out.”

Santigold is far from alone. In July, Shawn Mendes canceled his “Wonder Tour,” detailing the mental toll the transition back to live shows had taken on him. After revealing he was battling Ramsay-Hunt Syndrome earlier this year, Justin Bieber announced in early September that he was canceling the remainder of his “Justice World Tour,” as his mental and physical health needed to remain his priority.

In early September, Sam Fender added his name to the list, canceling his US tour dates to prioritize his own mental health. “It seems completely hypocritical of me to advocate discussion on mental health and write songs about it if I don’t take the time to look after my own mental health,” he wrote in a statement. About a week later, Arlo Parks also canceled her US tour dates and told fans she was “in a very dark place.” Her mental health was suffering, and she had reached her limits.

Artists — mainstream and indie alike — are halting gigs for their mental health, and that letter Santigold wrote could have come from any of them. Ezra Feinberg, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist, believes that there is often a chain reaction of sorts that comes from someone having an insight about themself and prompting others to look inward, too. “Maybe it starts with something dramatic like canceling a tour or you’re a big pop star,” he says.

That the music industry is listening and honoring when artists need to take a break is commendable, notes Courtney Grimes, LCSW, and founder of The Collective. “Mental health has become way less stigmatized in these circles, and performers are prioritizing their mental well-being for the overall good and longevity of their careers,” she explains.

But it’s no secret that the pandemic had a profound impact on the music industry. More than one in three jobs were eliminated due to the pandemic, according to UK Music. Many artists had to halt performing mid-tour or scrap their live gigs before they even had a chance to hit the road. While some were able to earn more substantial financial support from pivoting to virtual gigs and major livestream events, that wasn’t necessarily the case for all artists, particularly more independent ones.

As a result, many were faced with wondering whether they’d ever be able to tour again — or be able to afford to continue pursuing music. “Many folks in the industry are trying to build back those lost profits into the following years, and the sheer exhaustion of a grueling tour schedule is enough to bring some to their knees,” Grimes explains.

Singer-songwriter Cassandra Jenkins has contemplated this after spending the last year touring. After canceling just a few shows in the US because she got COVID, it cost her $10,000, and she’s still dealing with lingering symptoms. “I’ve often questioned why I put so much of my life (and my bandmates’ lives) at risk in order to bring my music to a live audience, and if that audience knows what it takes to get there,” she tells Consequence. The strain that comes with constant touring is further exacerbated by the fact that she’s often losing money on tour due to travel and operation costs.

“This year has taught me that a day off can dramatically change the trajectory of a tour; it can be the difference between a person sustaining their life as a touring musician, or quitting entirely,” Jenkins explains.

After months — or years — of losing earnings and sometimes momentum, many artists are being met with intensive touring schedules, which are ultimately impacting their physical and mental welfare. “Some people are noticing that their capacities have changed since the pandemic, meaning that they are less willing and able to put themselves through periods of intensive stress,” explains Tamsin Embleton, psychotherapist and director of Music Industry Therapist Collective (MITC). “And as more and more artists publicly announce cancellations, it may galvanize others who are struggling to do the same.”

A combination of inflation and supply chain issues hasn’t helped, either; everything from equipment to tour buses have gotten more expensive, and a shortage of workers has made hiring crews harder. Rhino Staging founder/CEO Jeff Giek told Billboard that “20% to 40% fewer personnel are available than usual,” while Wasserman Music agent Corrie Martin noted that “things that would take 24 hours before are taking two to three weeks.” The result? Exacerbated stress and mental health issues for the artist whose name is on the bill, making it even harder to decide to cancel even one gig.

Meanwhile, artists who were used to collaborating in a studio with people coming and going were relegated to largely making music on Zoom — and for some, that had its own drawbacks. Some artists who flourished with in-person contact were challenged by the isolation and learning how to be a songwriter within these new constraints. Others faced creative blocks or questioned their purpose. “If the performer part of [a musician] is one of the only parts that feel high functioning or has a sense of mastery, distance to that part can lead to a loss of purpose or even existential dread,” notes Embleton.

The transition to opening up again after quarantining has come with its own set of challenges, too. Artists who weren’t used to being home in the first place have been faced with transitioning back to life on the road. Singer-songwriter Noah Kahan has been grappling with that feeling on tour throughout the past seven years. “The whiplash effect from the constant travel and bi-polarity of in one moment being surrounded by thousands of people and in the next completely alone brings out a lot of negative feelings,” he tells Consequence. “For a long time, I wasn’t able to stay in one place for more than a week because my brain was hardwired to always be on the move.”

While therapy has helped Kahan find balance, life on the road now is flanked by more potential for financial loss, thanks to COVID requirements. There is also the general sentiment that artists and non-artists alike are still processing the trauma from the past few years of the pandemic like losing loved ones, long COVID and parenting.

It’s important to note that there has been more of a gradual focus on mental health in the music industry with a plethora of organizations being used to help artists in crisis, including Backline, a non-profit that connects artists and music industry professionals and their families with mental health and wellness resources; the Scars Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes mental-health education; Sound Mind, which is dedicated to building an open dialogue around mental health within the music community, and Send Me a Friend, which offers sober buddies for artists in recovery on tour.

According to Jodi Milstein, MA, LMFT, LPCC, and founder of RockStarTherapy, therapy sessions have become part of the initial process for management companies and labels working with bands. “One management company that I work with regularly, anytime you bring in a new artist or band, we meet, and we talk about what’s going on, to get an idea of how they’re doing. It’s all confidential — I don’t go back and report it to the manager unless there’s an agreement between the artist,” Milstein says. That way, she suggests, the artist has that initial conversation that lets them know they have the support and can always reach out directly.

However, with the unprecedented effects of the pandemic and the slew of tour cancellations due to mental health issues, it’s clear there’s still more work to be done. “For me, the questions are, ‘Why are these artists canceling their tours?’… ‘Why are they getting to crisis point?’ and, ‘What needs to change to make touring healthier?’ Someone on the artist’s team needs to be advocating for their welfare, and it’s important that person is not profiting financially or commercially from them being on the road,” says Embleton.

Without this, the live music industry will remain broken, with many artists who aren’t mainstream unable to ever recover — and what a loss that will be for us all.

Touring Has a Mental Health Problem. How Do We Fix It?
Ilana Kaplan

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