May 19, 2020

Why do musicians have such an extraordinary vulnerability towards addiction?

Musicians and Addiction
Musicians in recovery

Why do musicians have such an extraordinary vulnerability towards addiction? ‘Musicians and addiction’ certainly resonates in a different way to ‘electricians and addiction’ or ‘engineers and addiction’. The spate of overdoses in the hip hop community last year showed that this remains a contemporary issue. Is it the pursuit of ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’? Or the use of drugs to stimulate creativity? Or what? A new book entitled Musicians & Addiction: Research and Recovery Stories delves into this age old conundrum. It identifies a number of different facets which contribute to the problem and which are summarised in the diagram below. Let’s examine each in turn.

Contributing factors to addiction with musicians

Pre-existing conditions

With musicians, as with any human being, there can be a number of contributory factors in the creation of an addiction problem, which may be present prior to someone entering an environment like the music industry. These factors include: genetic predisposition; personality traits; childhood trauma; and mental health issues such as clinical depression and anxiety. These can be interrelated. Psychologists have reported a higher than normal prevalence of mental health disorders among artists and musicians, particularly in terms of anxiety and depression, and a clear link between this and dependency/substance abuse issues. There are many musicians who are very open about using music and creative expression to process trauma, to employ music as medicine to heal underlying issues. 

Performance Anxiety    

This is a big one. Musicians can use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate performance anxiety. In a UK study, 75% of musicians had experienced some form of performance anxiety in their careers, just as many people experience a fear of public speaking. This can range from mild (and good) levels of adrenalin to panic attacks. Sufferers reportedly include Adele, Mariah Carey, Barbra Streisand, Eddie Van Halen and Brian Wilson. In certain professional groups of classical musicians, approximately 20 to 30 percent use beta-blockers to control performance anxiety. Non- classical musicians tend to use alcohol and other drugs.

Creativity, imagination and originality  

Both art and the heavy use of alcohol and drugs can involve an attempt to generate new experiences, to develop new ways of seeing, to unveil hidden realms, to extend boundaries or to access states or parts of the psyche that are hidden from ‘normal’ people leading humdrum 9-5 lives. To stand at a strange angle to the universe, to attempt to touch the sublime, to see things more freshly or deeply, is a natural aspiration for poets, artists, and mystics, as well as alcoholics and addicts. Given the similarity in these aspirations it’s not that remarkable that art and addiction should find themselves entwined in this way.

Social, workplace and cultural pressures           

 “The band is like a family, and the family works better when everybody is in the same mood. And this mood is easier to reach if everybody takes a couple of pints” (Finnish rock band member quoted in Grønnerød, 2002, p 433*). 

Drinking with band members is part of band bonding, socialisation and group cohesiveness. In some types of musical employment, socialising professionally with alcohol is seen as a key expectation, a necessary part of networking in an industry that is driven by personal networks.

Popular music and jazz have been performed historically in venues such as nightclubs, bars and pubs that rely on alcohol sales as part of their business model, which makes them economically interdependent. Alcohol can make performances profitable for venues and it can also break down inhibitions and get people dancing. In the music industry, unlike other industries, ‘drinking on the job’ is normal for musicians and can be even encouraged.

UK research has identified a number of workplace pressures impacting the mental wellbeing of musicians, including: insecurity and the precarious nature of work; the inability to plan one’s time/future which can be in the control of others or luck; unsocial hours and sleep deprivation, particularly on tour; rejection, fear of judgement, constant criticism; feelings of inadequacy when others succeed; financial instability and pressures; music streaming revenues supposedly a salvation but paying a pittance; for women, sexual harassment and focus on physical appearance.

At a cultural level, there are a range of supportive beliefs which encourage self-destructive behaviour from artists such as:

•          That the music industry is about “Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll” as Ian Dury and the Blockheads sang in 1976;

•          That “great art comes from pain”, “you need to suffer for your art”, you need to be a “tormented, tortured soul”. To write great lyrics, you need to have a part of you that is broken and damaged, and you need deep demons, which drive your creativity;

•          That it is romantic to “live fast and die young”, never having to grow old, captured forever in time as someone young and beautiful like Marilyn Monroe. Another angle on this is that some artists are too sensitive, too beautiful for this world;

•          That artists are meant to lead forbidden lifestyles, secretly admired and experienced vicariously by people working humdrum 9-5 existences;

•          That “you’re only as good as your last gig” – which heaps further pressure on artists;

•          That the industry lives by the motto of “Whatever it Takes” [to be successful] – this was the official war cry of Casablanca Records, which subsequently collapsed due to its excesses;

•          that as in the 1960s the heart of youth culture is libertarian, counter-cultural, expanding consciousness through drug exploration;

•          that some artists give themselves up to be sacrificed, like psychedelic travellers that bring back magical objects from strange lands, but may not survive the trip eg “Messily sacrificed on the altar of opiates, the New York Dolls imploded before their spiritual progeny emerged to profit from their enduring legacy. But, like all good saviours, they’ve risen again” (Fortnam, 2006).

Identity issues  

“public selves war with core selves, creating painful self-focus that the celebrity seeks to escape, often through alcohol and drugs” (Bryant Smalley & McIntosh, 2011, p. 392)

In the film Whitney: Can I Be Me (and the title of the film itself is significant), Whitney Houston was initially positioned to appeal to a white audience, which led to huge commercial success. However, a consequence of this success was that she began to be seen by black audiences as having ‘sold out’. This became clear when she was booed at the 1989 Soul Train Awards, an experience that she found emotionally devastating. It led to a deep discomfort with her public persona and she attempted to reposition herself. This type  of experience is also related to the quest for ‘artistic authenticity’, the fact that artists will want to feel that they possess authenticity, integrity and credibility and fans will want to see this or will brand the artist a fake. Houston was complicit in the creation of this mainstream image, and benefitted from it financially, but it did not make the subsequent rejection and humiliation any less traumatic for her.

Dick Hebdige’s book Subculture: The Meaning of Style showed how punk style items such as safety pins and ripped clothing derived their meaning from being rebellious symbols of subcultural identity. There is no question that drug use has been part of music subcultural identity, from bebop to hip hop). As bebop trumpeter Red Rodney acknowledged:

“Heroin was our badge….the thing that made us different from the rest of the world. It was the thing that said, ‘We know. You don’t know.’ It was the thing that gave us membership in a unique club, and for this membership we gave up everything else in the world.” (Ward & Burns 2000, p. 358).

Fame and celebrity       

“don’t think being a rock star is the answer to all your problems. It’s the beginning of all your problems” Joe Walsh, The Eagles (Grant, 2019)

Fame and celebrity bring their own pressures, as both Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston observe in the films Amy and Whitney: Can I Be Me. Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys spoke of the rise to fame being a scary process that mixed feeling excited with feeling sick. Nerves and fear of failure creep in. People start swarming around you wanting a piece of you with their own agendas. It makes it difficult to find true, new friends. Fame can lead to trolls and relentless criticism, risks to physical security, and having your life threatened, which can happen to even the most loved bands such as The Beatles.

The achievement of fame means that the public begins to project onto you things that may have absolutely no relationship to you as a real person at all. The artist can become alienated, with fans loving a fantasy object often quite removed from the reality of the star’s self-identity. Artists who are under siege from fans and the media need a protective bubble wrapped around them, which a good artist manager or record label will attempt to facilitate. But if you don’t have a protective bubble, it is tempting to use drugs to create one.

Imposter Syndrome      

In 2017 the UK Music Managers Forum published The Music Managers Guide to Mental Health, in partnership with Music Support and Help Musicians UK. This resource booklet features a whole section on Imposter Syndrome, and makes the observation that within the music industry people need to do impossible things, like be ‘authentic’ while aggressively self-promoting themselves. ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is where we feel like a fraud, in danger of being publicly exposed. It could be that we’re holding ourselves up to standards which are almost impossible to achieve, and so feel fraudulent because we’re not achieving them. Or that an element of luck and chance may have entered into our success, which then makes us feel that we are not deserving of success. 

Managing Heightened Emotional Turbulence 

Steven Tyler: “After two encores in Madison Square Garden, you don’t go and play shuffleboard” (Heath, 2019)

Musicians who abuse drugs and alcohol invariably use them to manage the emotional highs and lows in their life. Stressors can include all the pressures discussed in this article. In a study of non-professional rock bands in Finland, alcohol performed a range of emotional management functions: it relaxed performance anxiety, it combatted boredom while they were waiting around to perform, and it allowed them to relax and unwind after the performance and socialise with the band.

So, in summary, the number of facets is fascinatingly complex, and plays out in the lives of musicians in different ways. This discussion of preconditions and pressures is only one aspect of this new book, which also provides a series of 12 excerpts from published interviews and autobiographies, 12 specially commissioned recovery stories from musicians, and a range of professional perspectives. It concludes by summarising advice for musicians, organisations who employ musicians and the music industry as a whole. If you’re interested in this book, although the paperback publication date is June 12, you should be able to order a copy at the following sites:

 * see the website for full references and underpinning research

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