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‘This should not be normalised’: Why musicians are cancelling tours to protect their mental health | Music

lIn early August, Yard Act was at Stansted airport waiting for a flight to Sicily when singer James Smith crashed into a wall. “It felt like I was in a cattle shed,” he says. “I banged my head against the table and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.'”

Since the Leeds post-punk band released their debut album The Overload in January, their tour schedule had been relentless. The critical acclaim and a Mercury nomination only added to the pressure – bookings kept increasing and the band was determined to play them all. “That weekend we played a castle with The Flaming Lips,” says Smith. “It was a dream come true. You feel ungrateful when you say you can’t.”

His band and crew admitted they all felt the same. After consulting with their management and label, they made the difficult decision to cancel a series of shows in Europe. “Rest time at home is what our bodies and brains need right now,” the band said in a statement.

Yard Act isn’t alone in their sudden nod, and their openness about why. A number of high profile acts have recently canceled tour dates, citing the need to pay attention to their mental health, from Wet Leg to Disclosure, Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Gang of Youths and Russ.

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This week Arlo Parks became the last, she canceled a string of US shows and explained how the relentless grind of the past 18 months had left her “exhausted and dangerously low”. Her decision followed Sam Fender’s announcement that he was canceling his support slots for US tours with Florence + the Machine due to burnout: “It seems completely hypocritical of me to advocate for a discussion about mental health and write songs about it.” if I don’t take the time to take care of my own mental health.”

yard law.
‘I banged my head against the table and said ‘I can’t do this anymore’… Leeds band Yard Act.

Two factors are at play here: a growing willingness among musicians to talk about mental health issues and the demands of their profession, and an industry desperately trying to come back to life after a devastating pandemic, with turbo-charged touring and promotion schedules to make up for alleged lost time.

Combine this with meager streaming income and the rising cost of living, and the pressure to work more and pursue success continues to mount. “Those opportunities are rare,” Smith says of the endless touring momentum. “Nobody owes you those slots, and you can say no to them, but if you lose traction and those opportunities don’t come, then that’s up to you.”

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Music Minds Matter (MMM), the music industry mental health service run in partnership with Help Musicians, has noticed a marked increase in use. “After a prolonged period of relative inactivity, more and more people are coming to us about stress, anxiety, and performance-related anxiety,” says Joe Hastings of Help Musicians. MMM can refer people in need to a range of services, including a 24/7 hotline, therapy, online resources and peer support sessions.

While the mounting pressure on artists is worrisome, Hastings says there’s some comfort in people asking for help (some record labels also offer their artists free therapy) and discussing their problems. “The way artists articulate their experiences was not so common five years ago,” he says.

Social media has helped here. Over the summer, Arooj Aftab spoke on Twitter about the mounting tensions of touring: the increases in flight prices, fuel, visas, taxes and hotels, the promoters’ fear of raising ticket prices, the public’s reluctance to attend shows. after Covid and for a fee -life crisis. She had returned from her recent tour of headline slots and sold-out shows and found herself still in debt tens of thousands. “And I’m told it’s normal,” she wrote. “Why is this normal. This should not be normalized.”

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Singer-songwriter Cassandra Jenkins posted about the promoter threatening to cut her fee a week before her show because she only intended to play with two musicians, not the larger ensemble she sometimes plays with. The promoter said only the bigger tire justified the full price. She was forced to find local musicians who could improvise to fill out the lineup and receive the promised rate. “It made me question my relationship with self-esteem,” she says. “Although I’m reminded all the time that they also lose money – the promoters, the festivals, the venues.”

Cassandra Jenkins.
‘It made me question my relationship with self-esteem’… Cassandra Jenkins performs at End of the Road festival.

It came on the back of a brutal tour in which Jenkins had to plead for himself daily to maintain a sense of well-being. At some point, she realized she hadn’t taken a day off in two months, and with two months of touring left, she canceled two shows. “Every day I wondered: am I burned out? Is this what a burnout feels like? If you ask that question, you are already past that point.”

Jenkins compares musicians speaking out on this topic with the recent number of athletes talking about their own vulnerabilities. “It’s really good to talk about this,” she says. “But it’s also very hard to talk about because it’s very hard for people to think about their favorite artists who are struggling to do what they’re doing.”

Music journalist Ian Winwood is the author of Bodies, a book that offers a fascinating, scathing insight into the unhealthy demands and excesses of the music industry. While it “seems willing to have a conversation about mental health,” he says, “the litmus test is whether it’s willing to challenge the idea of ​​’the show must go on.'”

Winwood recalls interviewing a dope-sick Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, clearly unable to face the media, and hearing Simon Neil of Biffy Clyro recount the time when he “collapsed at the Toronto airport, stretcher, wires sticking out of him”, but went on to play two Coachella shows anyway “because he trained himself to believe the band’s career rested on two concerts”.

Of course, many musicians are far from playing Coachella, and it’s hard to believe that canceling shows on behalf of their mental health would be as warmly received for them as it was for Parks and Fender — or that they’d have the security networking and supporting networks to do this.

But the open discussion of these high-profile acts on industry challenges could have a trickle down effect. MMM’s Hastings notes that it is “important to empower artists to make difficult decisions based on an understanding of what they need to take care of themselves and have happy and healthy careers”. Bigger performers who speak about the mental health demands of touring can also train promoters, venues, labels, managers and audiences, evoking greater empathy for anyone struggling at any level.

At any stage of your career, understanding that shouldn’t be that hard, Jenkins says. When she canceled her dates in Spain, she was heartbroken by the Spanish fans who posted crying emojis below her announcement on Instagram. She wrote everyone back. “And I got so much love in return,” she says. “Ultimately, people just want to show they care. They see you’re vulnerable.”

She hopes a similar understanding of musicians’ fragility can extend to those involved in touring’s infrastructure. She talks about the enormous effect of a Swiss host simply cooking her a hot meal and talking while they ate together. And that End of the Road festival “is the best festival I’ve ever played – because it’s so well organized it made it easy for everyone to take it easy”. These were “beautiful, intimate experiences and examples of how real-time care led to better performance”.

Wet leg.
‘It wasn’t an easy decision at all’… Wet Leg performs in Las Vegas. Photo: Daniel DeSlover/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

In every cancellation statement and interview for this piece, musicians have been quick to express their gratitude for having a music career, touring the world, playing shows and meeting their audiences. “I cannot express how grateful we are to have such an amazing fan base,” Fender wrote. “Thank you for always staying with us.” Parks spoke of how grateful she is “to be where I am now” and pledged, “I’ll do everything I can to make this right.”

There’s a fear among musicians, Winwood says, that if they ever complain, the public with “the right jobs” outside the music industry will think they’re ungrateful. But, he says, it’s worth remembering one thing: “When an artist has gotten to the point where people know their name, they’re already tough, they’re already resilient. So if they tell you they are broken, believe them.”

In the UK, Samaritans can be reached on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org

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