Why musicians cancel tours to protect their mental health

Why musicians cancel tours to protect their mental health

Why musicians cancel 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 like I was in a cattle shed,” he says. “I hit my head on 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 touring schedule had been relentless. Critical acclaim and a Mercury nomination had only added to the pressure – bigger bookings kept coming and the band was determined to play them all. “That weekend we played at a castle with The Flaming Lips,” says Smith. “It was a dream come true. You feel ungrateful when you say 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 series of shows in Europe. “Rest at home is what our bodies and brains need right now,” the band said in a statement.

Yard Act is not alone in their sudden crack, and their openness as to why. A number of high-profile acts have recently canceled tour dates, citing the need to look after their mental health, from Wet Leg to Disclosure, Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Gang of Youths and Russ.

This week Arlo Parks became the latest, canceling 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 canceling his US tour support slots with Florence + the Machine due to burnout: “It seems completely hypocritical of me to advocate for the discussion of mental health and write songs about it if I don’t take the time . to take care of my own mental health.”

There are two factors at play here: a growing willingness among musicians to talk about mental health issues and the demands of their profession, and an industry desperate to bounce back to life after a devastating pandemic, with turbocharged touring and promotional schedules to make up for perceived lost time.

Couple this with pitiful earnings from streaming, and the rising cost of living, and the pressure to work more and chase success increases even further. “These opportunities are rare,” says Smith, of the endless tour momentum. “No one owes you these slots and you can say no to them, but if you lose traction and those opportunities don’t come again, that’s on you.”

Music Minds Matter (MMM), the music industry’s mental health service run in partnership with Help Musicians, has noticed a marked increase in uptake. “After a long period of relative inactivity, there has been an increase in the number of people coming to us about stress, anxiety and performance-related anxiety,” says Joe Hastings of Help Musicians. MMM is able to refer those who need it to a range of services, including a 24/7 hotline, therapy, online resources and peer support sessions.

Related: ‘It all fell apart’: pop stars on mental health in the age of Covid

While the increasing pressure on artists is worrying, Hastings says there is some comfort in the fact that people are seeking help (some record companies also offer free therapy to their artists) and discussing their problems. “The way artists articulate their experiences was not that common even five years ago,” he says.

Social media has helped here. Over the summer, Arooj Aftab spoke on Twitter about the cumulative burdens of travel: airfare increases, fuel, visas, taxes and hotels, promoters’ fear of raising ticket prices, audiences’ reluctance to attend shows post-Covid and in a cost -of- life crisis. She had returned from her recent slot tour and sold out shows to find herself still tens of thousands in debt. “And I’m told that’s normal,” she wrote. “Why is this normal. This should not be normalized.”

Singer-songwriter Cassandra Jenkins wrote about the promoter threatening 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 only the bigger band warranted full price. She was forced to find local musicians who could improvise to fill out the lineup and receive the promised prize. “It made me question my relationship with self-worth,” she says. “Although I’m constantly reminded that they lose money too – the promoters, the festivals, the venues.”

Cassandra Jenkins.

“It made me question my relationship with self-worth” … Cassandra Jenkins performed at the End of the Road festival. Photo: Burak Çingı/Redferns

It came on the back of a brutal tour where Jenkins needed to defend himself daily just to maintain a sense of well-being. At one point, she realized she hadn’t taken a day off in two months, and with two more months of touring ahead of her, she canceled two shows. “Every day I asked: Am I burning out? Is this what burnout feels like? When you ask that question, you are already past that point.”

Jenkins compares musicians speaking out on this topic to the recent spate of athletes speaking out about their own vulnerabilities. “It’s very 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 favorite artists struggling to do what they do.”

Music journalist Ian Winwood is the author of Bodies, a book that provides 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 drug-addled Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, who was clearly unable to meet the media, and hearing Biffy Clyro’s Simon Neil recount the time he “collapsed at the Toronto airport, placed on a stretcher, 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 difficult world of live music after Covid

Of course, many musicians are far from ever playing Coachella, and it’s hard to believe that for them canceling 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 net and support network to do so.

But these high-profile acts’ open discussion of industry challenges can lead to a trickle-down effect. MMM’s Hastings notes that it is “important to enable artists to make difficult decisions based on having a good understanding of what they need to take care of themselves and lead happy and healthy careers”. Bigger artists talking about the mental health demands of touring can also educate promoters, venues, labels, managers and audiences, bringing greater empathy for anyone struggling on any level.

At any stage in your career, that understanding shouldn’t be too difficult, says Jenkins. When she canceled her dates in Spain, she was left devastated by the Spanish fans who posted crying emojis during her announcement on Instagram. She wrote back to each one. “And I got so much love back,” she says. “At the end of the day, people just want to show you that they care. They see that you’re vulnerable.”

She hopes that similar understanding of musicians’ vulnerability can extend to those involved in the touring infrastructure. She talks about the enormous impact of a Swiss host simply cooking her a hot meal and talking while they ate together. And that the End of the Road festival is “the best festival I’ve ever played – because it’s so well organized that it allowed everyone to have an ease around them”. These were “beautiful, intimate experiences and examples of how real-time care resulted in 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 audiences. “I cannot express how grateful we are to have such an amazing fan base,” Fender wrote. “Thank you for always standing 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 it up to you.”

There’s a fear among musicians, Winwood says, that if they ever complain, audiences with “real jobs” outside the music industry will think they’re ungrateful. But, he says, it’s worth remembering one thing: “If 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’re 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 is Lifeline 13 11 14. Other international suicide hotlines can be found at befrienders.org

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