Why artists postpone tours for mental healthPosted by Mike Schumacher
High-profile acts from Justin Bieber to Arlo Parks have cancelled gigs recently, prioritising mental health over the demands of a relentless industry
Early in August, when Yard Act was waiting for a flight to Sicily, vocalist James Smith ran into a wall. He recalls, “I felt like I was in a cattle shed.” I was saying, “I can’t do this any more,” while slamming my head on the table.
The Leeds post-punk band’s tour schedule has been nonstop since the publication of their first album, The Overload, in January. The band was committed to perform every gig that came their way despite the pressure being increased by positive reviews and a Mercury nomination. Smith recalls, “That weekend we were playing a castle with The Flaming Lips.” “It fulfilled a dream. You feel ungrateful for telling them you can’t.
His band members acknowledged that everyone felt the same way. They took the tough choice to postpone a series of concerts in Europe after consulting with their management and label. The band said in a statement that “relaxation time at home is what our bodies and brains need right now.”
Yard Act are not the only ones that suddenly buckled and were honest about it. Numerous well-known artists, including Wet Leg, Disclosure, Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Gang of Youths, and Russ, have lately postponed tour dates due to mental health issues.
Arlo Parks was the most recent this week, canceling a series of US performances and citing the last 18 months of nonstop work as having left her “exhausted and dangerously low.” She made her choice in response to Sam Fender’s announcement that he was canceling his support slots on Florence + the Machine’s US tour due to burnout. Sam Fender stated, “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.”
‘I was banging my head against the table saying: ‘I can’t do this any more’ … Leeds band Yard Act.
Two factors are at work in this situation: the increased openness of musicians to discuss their professional demands and mental health issues, as well as the industry’s desperate need to recover from a devastating pandemic, which has resulted in accelerated touring and promotion schedules to make up for alleged lost time.
When you combine this with the dismal streaming income and rising living expenses, the need to work more and pursue achievement only grows. The never-ending touring momentum is uncommon, according to Smith. Nobody owes you such slots, and you are free to decline them, but it is your responsibility if you lose momentum and those possibilities don’t present themselves again.
The popularity of Music Minds Matter (MMM), the joint Help Musicians/music industry mental health initiative, has increased significantly. According to Joe Hastings of Help Musicians, “after a protracted period of relative inactivity, there have been increased numbers of people coming to us about stress, anxiety, and performance-related anxiety.” MMM may point those in need in the right direction for a variety of services, including as a 24-hour hotline, treatment, internet resources, and peer-support meetings.
Although the increasing strain on musicians is alarming, Hastings notes that there is some consolation in the fact that many are seeking assistance and talking about their problems (some record companies even provide free counselling to their artists). Even five years ago, he claims, “the way that artists are articulating their experiences wasn’t this common.”
Here, social media has been helpful. In the course of the summer, Arooj Aftab often posted on Twitter about the growing difficulties of touring, including the rising costs of hotels, petrol, visas, taxes, and flights, as well as the promoters’ reluctance to raise ticket prices in the wake of the Covid scandal. After her latest tour, when she had headlining slots and sold-out performances, she returned to discover herself still owing tens of thousands of dollars. She said, “And I’m being told that it’s normal.” “How is this typical. This should not become commonplace.
Cassandra Jenkins, a singer-songwriter, wrote on her blog about the promoter who threatened to reduce her payment a week before her performance since she only intended to perform with two musicians rather than the bigger group she sometimes performs with. Only the larger band, according to the promoter, was worthy of the whole fee. In order to fill out the lineup and be paid the agreed amount, she was obliged to locate nearby musicians who could improvise. It caused her to reevaluate her relationship with self-worth, she claims. “However, I’m constantly reminded that they — the promoters, the festivals, and the venues — are also losing money.”
‘It made me question my relationship with self-worth’ … Cassandra Jenkins performing at End of the Road festival.
It followed a trying tour in which Jenkins had to constantly speak out for herself in order to maintain some semblance of wellness. She canceled two gigs at one time after realizing she hadn’t had a day off in two months and that she still had two more months of touring to go. “I used to wonder every day whether I was burning out. Is this the sensation of burnout? You have moved passed that phase by the time you ask that inquiry.
Jenkins compares the current occurrence of sportsmen discussing their personal weaknesses to artists coming out on this issue. She asserts, “It’s really good to talk about this.” But it’s also very difficult to speak about because it’s quite difficult for people to imagine their favorite musicians having to struggle to achieve what they do.
Bodies, written by music writer Ian Winwood, is a fascinating, devastating look into the unhealthy expectations and excesses of the music business. The litmus test is whether it’s prepared to confront the idea that “the show must go on,” he claims, even though it “seems willing to have a conversation about mental health.”
Winwood recalls hearing Simon Neil from Biffy Clyro talk about 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.” Layne Staley from Alice in Chains also talked about the time he “collapsed in Toronto airport, placed on a gurney, wires sticking out of him.
Of course, many artists will never perform at Coachella, so it is difficult to imagine that they would get the same support in canceling gigs for their mental health as Parks and Fender have, or that they would have the safety nets and support systems to do so.
The candid addressing of industry difficulties by these high profile performances, however, could have a spillover impact. According to Hastings of MMM, it is crucial to give artists the freedom to make tough choices based on a solid grasp of what they need to take care of themselves and lead fulfilling lives. Greater understanding for anybody suffering at any level may result from bigger musicians talking about the mental health challenges of traveling with promoters, venues, labels, managers, and crowds in the background.
It shouldn’t be difficult to realize that at any level of your career, according to Jenkins. She was devastated by the Spanish fans who wrote sobbing emojis under her Instagram cancellation of her gigs in Spain. She responded to each one individually. And I got so much love in return,” she adds. “At the end of the day, people just want to demonstrate their concern for you. They can perceive your vulnerability.
She hopes that people participating in the touring industry’s support system would come to have a similar awareness of artists’ fragility. She describes the enormous impact that one Swiss host had by just preparing her a warm lunch and having a conversation as they ate. And that the End of the Road event was “the best festival I’ve ever played” since everyone could “have a lightness about them” due to how well-organized it was. These were instances of “beautiful, intimate experiences and how care in real time resulted in a better performance.”
‘It wasn’t an easy decision at all’ … Wet Leg performing in Las Vegas. Photograph: Daniel DeSlover/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock
Musicians have been quick to express their thanks for having a music profession, for traveling the globe, performing gigs, and meeting their listeners in every cancellation statement and interview for this story. Fender stated, “I can’t describe how thankful we are to have such a fantastic fans. “We appreciate you standing by us always.” Parks expressed her gratitude for “being where I am today” and made the commitment that she would “do everything I can to make this up to you.”
Winwood claims that artists worry that if they ever voice their complaints, listeners with “proper jobs” outside the music business would see them as unappreciative. However, he emphasizes that there is one thing to keep in mind: “If an artist has achieved a level where people are familiar with their name, they are already robust and resilient. Therefore, trust them if they say they are broken.
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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