Neil BarnesNeil Barnes

We need to talk about DJs & depression

An image of Ciaran Varley
Ciaran Varley

The idea that DJs and electronic artists may suffer mental health difficulties as a result of their work is an idea that should, to any critical thinker, be obvious. Nocturnal hours, unhealthy touring schedules, fickle fans, job insecurity, a culture of drink and drugs… not to mention the many solitary hours in front of a computer. The inherent risks to wellbeing are clear.

So why is it only so recently that artists and others in the industry have begun to really speak about this?

There’s an accepted idea that Benga’s public 'coming out' with mental health issues was the catalyst to a lot of the candid discussion we’re now seeing.

He was unequivocal about the causes of his own problems. Not everyone within the industry will have had the same experience. Benga was also vocal about the isolation he felt.

Since his retirement, we’ve seen more and more artists coming forward. Resident Advisor made a brilliant film about performance anxiety and generalised anxiety with Danilo Plessow aka Motorcity Drum Ensemble.

Most recently, Ben Pearce took to Facebook to publicly explain his decision to cancel upcoming gigs.

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In order to try to understand better the different, overlapping factors that can lead to problems, and also what we can do to help, we spoke to some key people inside the industry, including Neil Barnes of Leftfield and Sally-Anne Gross and Dr George Musgrave from the University of Westminster – both of whom have worked in the music industry for years and who, together, are leading the first ever academic study into the relationship between music and mental health, titled Music and Depression(MAD), for the UK’s leading music charity Help Musicians.

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Neil’s career in electronic music covers two decades. He’s seen a lot of change. One thing he’s certainly become more aware of in recent years is his own challenges.

“I’m now aware that my depression is not a new thing. It’s triggered by the world I’m in.”

He described a sense of meaninglessness.

“I was on the verge of releasing my last album, sat in Brent social services, on heavy anti-depressants, thinking, 'what the f**k!?'... I’ve been on stage and felt in a really, really bad, dark place. I thought, s**t, everyone’s having a great time and I’ve been up for quite a few hours and I’m thinking, why are they jumping around? Can’t they see through it all?”

Neil BarnesNeil Barnes

For Neil, by his own admission, his problems stem primarily from a sense of low self-worth. That’s perhaps why he can’t see the same value in his own work that others clearly do.

“People come up to me and they’re so invested in the music I’ve made… I feel a great deal of responsibility for that… I’ve never, ever felt that what I do is more important than anything anyone else does. I suppose in that way, I’m actually fortunate in that. I’ve only just begun to realise how important what I do is for other people and how to accept that.”

One thing that definitely doesn’t help, he tells us, is incessant press speculation and negative reviews – a problem that’s only become more heightened in the social media age. This is something that Sally-Anne Gross touches on too.

“It’s more and more difficult for young artists now. If you don’t do the social media thing, you’re criticised for that. If you do, you’re criticised for what you say. It’s a new, added pressure.”

The converse danger is, we suppose, that you begin to believe your own hype. Or at least try to convince yourself and others as much. Ursula (not real name) has recently ended her relationship with a very high-profile figure in the UK dubstep/grime/hip-hop scene. She was candid that the reason their relationship fell apart as his mental health declined.

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“…he was a ‘normal’ person until his ego started developing through the adoration of fans and young people that looked up to him. He started to change because he thought what he could get away with during his job was what he thought he could get away with in his personal life.”

She saw people all around her self-medicating.

“They just down it with more drugs, more ketamine, more booze and y’know, they’re in a bubble! No one tells them no.”

Neil is clear that he’s never had those problems with drugs – his case is different – but he does recognise that drugs are part of the way that others in the industry try to cope.

Is any of this new? Rockstars have been taking drugs and developing cumbersome egos since time immemorial. We wondered if there was anything unique to electronic music that made DJs, MCs or producers more prone to difficulty.

On this point, Sally-Anne and George have to be inconclusive. They are both still currently in the first phase of their research, with plans to test differences between genres further down the line. Nevertheless, both cite some factors that may make electronic music more high-risk. First of all, dance music relies so heavily on a nocturnal touring schedule. Then there’s the practical observation that a lot of DJs or producers spend so much of their time solitary, interacting only with technology.

Sally tells us she’s not interested in pathologising musicians, as if they’re somehow more prone to problems than others. She seems to think that that Western romanticisation of the connection between creativity and madness can be dangerous.

In a much more practical way, she suggests that shifts in the industrial landscape have made working conditions much harder for musicians.

“It’s always been difficult to make money out of music, but we have an atmosphere now, where everyone thinks, 'It’s up to you to make things happen.' There’s a mantra that the individual is totally responsible for their success and failure.”

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Hyper-competition, coupled with hyper-criticism (social media) is, according to Sally, making for a dangerous mix. What’s more, a growing environment in which making music just doesn’t seem to generate any revenue for the artist will inevitably predicate more and more touring. The cycle continues.

One of the areas that Sally is most interested is the role that gender plays in the way discussions are executed. The male domination of dance music is something that’s only just starting to be addressed.

“In particular genres, there are particular cultures that manifestly perform a kind of gender role.”

Does a predominantly male culture preclude talking about feelings? On this question, Ursula was fairly succinct.

“…they don’t want to look like a pussy.”

Sally-Anne and George both have lots of experience in urban, grime and drum and bass. George himself performs under the moniker of MC Context, described recently by MistaJam as “Middle England’s Poet Laureate”.

We wondered if the outwardly macho culture prevalent in urban, for want of a better word, 'black', music genres put up blockers to open conversation. Sally-Anne certainly believes that a hyper-competitive atmosphere hinders people working together positively. She remembers a time on tour in Japan with Good Looking Records Vs Metalheadz when a fight broke out in a posh restaurant between two members of the crews. She also believes that the increasing difficulty to make it in music is worsening these problems. George believes that the difference between dance and urban music is that, in urban music, you can hear how 'pissed off' young people are. It’s a more vocal genre. That may actually help mitigate the pressure.

“In urban music, being pissed off and depressed might be more obvious.”

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Given that mental health dangers seem so endemic in the music industry generally and electronic music, specifically, what can we do to help?

Neil would love to see more support available, but admits that, as an artist, he doesn’t see that always readily available in the industry.

"I'm fortunate to have an understanding manager. But generally there isn't much help around. It's a shame but people could be helped to deal with performance anxiety through therapy. A difficult journey, but worthwhile. Unfortunately, I wouldn't know where to send them.

"It's such a shame, but, in my own experience, this anxiety can lead to worse depression and can take you into a really bad place. "

Ursula’s fairly pessimistic about how much help artists get from the teams around them.

“…for the most part they’re surrounded by ‘yes men’ and managers who want their money, agents who want them to keep booking shows for money.”

Where does the burden of responsibility to help lie? Record labels? Managers? Others? Sally-Anne confirms that there is a problem at the moment about who would help. She does tell us though that the feedback they have been receiving from musicians is that they’d appreciate support from people who understand the industry they’re in. Another interesting finding from their survey was that the majority of musicians who responded did not want chemical treatment. They wanted support.

“It isn’t available because it’s expensive, or it isn’t available because drop-in centres are being shut down.”

Help Musicians, with whom MAD are conducting their research, were set up specifically to offer these kinds of services, but it does seem at the moment that help is limited to charities and individuals, without a systematic approach from the industry. The Music and Depression research is still in its very early stages, and Sally-Anne and George will be going on to look in more detail at all of the factors that are leading to problems, before making recommendations to help. In the meantime, as trite as it may sound, the best we can hope for seems to be that artists and others continue to have a conversation.

If you're affected by any of the mental health issues raised in this piece, you can find information and support here.