‘This should not be normalised’: Why musicians are cancelling tours to protect their mental health
In early August, Yard Act were at Stansted airport, waiting for a flight to Sicily, when singer James Smith hit a wall. “It felt as if I was in a cattle shed,” he says. “I was banging my head against the table saying: ‘I can’t do this any more.’”
Since the Leeds post-punk band released their debut album, The Overload, in January, their touring schedule had been relentless. Critical acclaim and a Mercury nomination had only amplified the pressure – bigger bookings kept coming, and the band was determined to play them all. “That weekend we were playing a castle with The Flaming Lips,” Smith says. “It was a dream come true. You feel ungrateful saying you can’t do it.”
His band and crew admitted they all felt the same. After consultation with their management and label, they made the difficult decision to cancel a run 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 are not alone in their sudden buckling, and their openness about why. A number of high-profile acts have recently cancelled tour dates, stating the need to attend to their mental health, from Wet Leg to Disclosure, Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Gang of Youths and Russ.
This week, Arlo Parks became the latest, cancelling a run of US shows and explaining 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 cancelling his US tour support slots with Florence + the Machine due to burnout: “It seems completely hypocritical of me to advocate for discussion on mental health and write songs about it if I don’t take time off to look after my own mental health.”
There are two factors at play here: a growing willingness among musicians to talk about mental health struggles and the demands of their profession, and an industry desperate to spring back to life after a devastating pandemic, with turbo-charged touring and promotional schedules to make up for perceived lost time.
Couple this with pitiful income from streaming, and the mounting cost of living, and the pressure to work more and chase success increases further. “Those opportunities are rare,” says Smith, of the endless touring momentum. “No one owes you those slots, and you can say no to them, but if you lose traction, and then those opportunities don’t come along again, that’s on you.”
Music Minds Matter (MMM), the music industry mental health service run in conjunction with Help Musicians, has noted a marked increase in uptake. “After a protracted period of relative inactivity there have been heightened numbers of people coming to us about stress, anxiety and performance-related anxiety,” says Joe Hastings of Help Musicians. MMM is able to direct those in need to a range of services, including a 24/7 hotline, therapy, online resources and peer-support sessions.
Related: ‘It all crumbled’: pop stars on mental health in the age of Covid
While the growing pressure on artists is concerning, Hastings says there is some solace in the fact that people are reaching out for help (some record labels also offer free therapy to their artists) and discussing their issues. “The way that artists are articulating their experiences wasn’t this common even five years ago,” he says.
Social media has helped here. Over the summer, Arooj Aftab spoke on Twitter about the gathering strains of touring: the flight-price increases, fuel, visas, taxes and hotels, promoters’ fear of raising ticket prices, audience reticence to attend shows post-Covid and in a cost-of-living crisis. She had returned from her recent tour with headline slots and sold-out shows to find herself still tens of thousands in debt. “And I’m being told that it’s normal,” she wrote. “Why is this normal. This should not be normalised.”
Singer-songwriter Cassandra Jenkins posted about the promoter who threatened to cut her fee a week before her show because she only planned to play with two musicians, not the larger ensemble she sometimes plays with. The promoter said that only the bigger band warranted the full price. She was forced to find local musicians who could improvise in order to fill out the lineup and receive the promised rate. “It made me question my relationship with self-worth,” she says. “Though I’m reminded all the time that they’re losing money, too – the promoters, the festivals, the venues.”
It came on the back of a brutal tour in which Jenkins needed to advocate for herself daily just to maintain some sense of wellbeing. At one point, realising she hadn’t taken a day off for two months, and with two more months of touring ahead, she cancelled two shows. “Every day, I was asking: Am I burning out? Is this how burnout feels? When you’re asking that question, you’re already past that point.”
Jenkins likens musicians speaking out on this subject to the recent number of athletes talking about their own vulnerabilities. “It’s really good to talk about this,” she says. “But it’s also really hard to talk about, because it’s really hard for people to think about their favourite artists struggling to do what they do.”
Music journalist Ian Winwood is the author of Bodies, a book that offers a fascinating, damning 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 notion of ‘the show must go on’.”
Winwood recalls interviewing a dope-sick Layne Staley from Alice in Chains, clearly in no fit state to face the media, and hearing Simon Neil from Biffy Clyro recounting the time he “collapsed in Toronto airport, placed on a gurney, wires sticking out of him” but still went on to play two Coachella shows “because he had trained himself to believe that the band’s career rested on two concerts”.
Related: ‘We all need a plan B now’: the dicey world of live music after Covid
Of course many musicians are far from ever playing Coachella, and it is hard to believe that for them, cancelling shows for the benefit of their mental health would be received as warmly as it is for Parks and Fender – or that they would have the safety nets and support networks to do so.
But these high-profile acts’ open discussion of industry challenges could prompt a trickle-down effect. MMM’s Hastings notes that it is “important to enable artists to make difficult decisions on the basis of having a good understanding of what they need to take care of themselves and lead happy and healthy careers”. Bigger artists speaking about the mental health demands of touring may also educate promoters, venues, labels, managers and audiences, prompting greater empathy for anyone struggling at any level.
At any stage in your career, that understanding should not be so hard, Jenkins says. When she cancelled her dates in Spain, she felt heartbroken by the Spanish fans who posted crying emojis beneath her announcement on Instagram. She wrote back to every single one. “And I received so much love back,” she says. “At the end of the day, people just want to show you they care. They see that you’re vulnerable.”
She hopes that similar understanding of musicians’ vulnerability might extend to those involved in the infrastructure of touring. She talks of the huge effect of one Swiss host simply cooking her a warm meal and talking as they ate together. And of End of the Road festival being “the best festival I’ve ever played – because it’s just so well-organised, it allowed everyone to have a lightness about them”. These were “beautiful, intimate experiences, and examples of how care in real time resulted in a better performance”.
In every cancellation statement, and every interview for this piece, musicians have been quick to mention their gratitude for having a music career, for touring the world, playing shows, meeting their audiences. “I can’t express how grateful we are to have such an awesome fanbase,” Fender wrote. “Thank you for always sticking by us.” Parks spoke of how grateful she is “to be where I am today” and promised: “I will do everything I can to make this up to you.”
There is a fear among musicians, Winwood says, that if they ever complain, audiences with “proper jobs” outside the music industry will think they are ungrateful. But, he says, it’s worth remembering one thing: “If an artist has risen to a point where people know their name, they are already tough, they’re already resilient. So if they are telling you they are broken, believe them.”
• In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org
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