Sometimes I stay out and away from the music scene to such an extent, that years can go by without me noticing a successful name. "Too many names" is how I usually shrug it off.
For a while now, everywhere I've looked, the nominal story about a music artist is one of their success, or their new release, or their process, but always coloured in positive vibe, always about the good.
Fifteen years ago, at a music distro, I used to scan through all the press materials we received, and, wow, the way everything was worded was so distorted and blown out of proportion, it bordered on fiction. So I've got used to ignoring most of the pieces on the intertubes.
And just now, among all this noise, rings out a crystal clear bell of an article on Peter Kirn's CDM site. Do pause to read it, even if you never return back to this post. It's about Avicii.
Tim Bergling's death
I had never heard of Avicii before (edit: although I'm pretty certain I've seen some of his Youtube videos and quickly and cynically ignored him "because EDM"). His personal story and struggle is hard to swallow, especially once you get to the bits about stage fright, perfectionism, anxiety, exhaustion, substance use, physical health, the resulting mental issues, substance abuse. And I have been thinking (extensively and for months and before Bergling's death) about what Peter Kirn's article talks about (extensively too) - our mental well-being, the root causes of all these related problems of substituting for things otherwise missing. Think of a popular musician touring constantly → problems magnified by powers of ten.
Good moment to watch this interview in new context.
Once Kirn's article gets to "You may ask yourself a series of questions", here's how I feel:
What does it mean for those of us who encourage music making that we make stardom its ultimate goal?
I'd say this is the only flawed question here. As an artist, I don't need "stardom", I could do just fine with "recognition" and "making ends meet". Unfortunately, the industry has appropriated a long tail of "extremes and everyone else" - it's basically an unsustainable activity for anyone other than "stars". From everyone else's POV it's such a revealing question.
What does this stardom do to how we value music? To what extent are we weighing that music’s financial possibility rather than how it makes us feel?
We, the audience, are no idiots. But our brains can only take so much hammering from media that is happy to take money in exchange for promoting an artist, a brand, a product. The issue is also one of feeds - a feed creates necessity for content. That makes necessary to lower the quality barrier. More content for the feed → more noise → more payments to cut through the noise → more content. But the side effect of that is affection and association goes down so steeply. And then the dreaded "the better things go the more haters you get".
For artists, it's the same, only on the opposite side of the glass of the problem - engage in the practice or leave, seems there isn't a middle.
And then there are the agents, who are happy to grease this, to catalyse it as a process. One more article. One more appearance. One more booking. One more. I don't hide my disrespect for agents, precisely because it can get so extreme. To try and maximise the productivity of a single artistic act (person or a group) is a cruel thing to do. Once, when I spoke to an agent, they told me about their favourite acts they manage - the ones who make money, also about the ones who simply consume effort, and of course who they prefer to spend time on. What goes in a sausage.
Do we insist on presenting artists only in the positive sense, without talking about their struggles?
Oh yes we do. I mean who wants to hear of an artist's struggles.. right? The way media, especially news media, is biased, just makes us as an audience (among which us, fellow artists) rather averse to someone's, anyone's, not-so-enticing story.
Are we purposely leaving out real discussions of health? Of mental well being? Of aging, even?
Yes, yes, and yes. None of this sounds like money.
Are we placing all our emphasis on touring and not on other activities that can support artists?
Yes indeed. Playing live, rather than composing and recording, seems to have entered the general culture and conversation, as the way to sustain oneself as a musician. My opinion that playing live is secondary, and can be done away with altogether, invites back looks of non-understanding. Obviously, as audience, we need to start buying music again. For that, the music needs to not suck. Then it would have merit. And then the audience would be paying for the artist to keep making their art, not for the art- an important distinction.
Are we taking health and happiness as part of the goal of tours, of music careers?
No, of course. But this sounds like capitalism of the current extreme flavour in action: prepare to take things very very far, or be swallowed or run over by another person doing the same.
Do we actively promote ideas that discourage mental health?
Yes. See above. And to simplify this, too much of anything is a bad thing, be it being stuck in the studio, or being exhausted from gigging, or just being lonely and struggling with one's own focus and practice. The issue is that there is such a high barrier to a healthy mix of activities. What compounds the issue is that healthy activities usually do not generate money; sometimes they cost money.
Are we stigmatizing mental health issues in music, even when music is often initially an outlet for people to find healing?
Yes. Mental health is a tough topic. The link and feedback between physical and mental health - even tougher. We have no concept of mental hygiene, and so even benign or temporary mental conditions quickly scare people. Sometimes I feel depressed. I think that's normal and happens to everyone. But I still find it hard to talk about, 99% because it isn't something positive.
Can we reflect on the role of alcohol as the main revenue stream in so much of live music? What about other substances (including the impact of policies around both legal and illegal substances)?
What if the audience too wanted to address their mental condition by deliberately placing themselves in a mental haze, and the music was just a signpost marking a culture, a group, that is having it tough? That absolutely includes the wealthy too. Why else prefer the optional, not mandatory, extreme treatment of ingesting stimulants, to the raw sound, emotional content, and spirit of the music. Unless the music happens to be not so good, because the artist was too busy touring to develop it? Hard to break a cycle like that.
Do we have accurate information for music-goers and event organizers of what health impacts of consuming substances or other behaviors actually are?
Yes. This sounds like a veiled moral question, to which the answer is simply we cannot have any expectations towards either group, since the problem isn't there at all.
Are we doing what we want to be doing? Is it making us happy?
No. We're too busy making sense of the whole mess we've brought upon ourselves.
Are we caring for ourselves and the people around us?
No. I spend an hour browsing photos of cute animals on Reddit each day, but if I was to call my mum instead, one hour wouldn't be enough to even begin untangling the mess of biased stories, fake news, favourite photos of cute animals that she's seen on Facebook and other media over her previous day. We need a small surplus of time to begin catching up, but instead we operate with a deficit.
And how do we make music and musical instruments something that add to that care and that don’t just take it away?
Play music. Record music. Play live occasionally, but let it be optional. Build an audience that can withstand not hearing a new song every month. Grow an audience that care for listening at home and on their own. Cultivate an audience that respects the art, the form, accepts the talent's struggles, and inconsistencies, and is happy to engage and relate. Then make it all be about one kind of exchange - the audience's attention and support in exchange for the artist's talent - money or not. Not the artist's attendance in exchange for the audience's money (music or not) - that is stupid. And deadly.