The life of a touring DJ comes with well-documented, complex issues – and those need addressing, fast
Words Abby Lowe
Death makes us feel some uncomfortable emotions. They often start with shock, denial, pain, guilt and anger before eventually segueing into some degree of acceptance, and eventually, hope for the future. It’s fair to say that in the wake of Avicii’s passing in April this year, this was almost the exact journey that the music industry went on. There was widespread disbelief that one of its shining stars had reportedly taken his own life – the Swedish musician, DJ, remixer and record producer’s achievements included two studio albums and an evangelical fanbase. But mixed in with the sadness was also a widespread acknowledgement that the touring life of a DJ is tough and often takes a toll.
Those working in music are up to three times more likely to suffer from mental health issues compared to the general public.
Cynics may scoff, but this outwardly glamorous job comes with its own set of well-documented, complex challenges. Often it includes gruelling, unsociable hours, long periods away from home, lack of sleep, irregular income and in some cases substance abuse, often as a crutch for supporting a relentlessly exhausting lifestyle. A study entitled Can Music Make You Sick? commissioned by Help Musicians UK, a leading charity on the subject, found that those working in music were up to three times more likely to suffer from mental health issues compared to the general public – a conclusion that won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s experienced the pressures of touring first hand.
“We all struggle with the touring lifestyle,” explains Dubfire, a DJ who’s been on rigorous international club rotation since the ‘90s. “We have to deal with not eating and sleeping, not seeing family and friends, being out of balance with ourselves and nature and coping with the pressures of trying to stay on top. I know many DJs who cope with that by getting high or drunk, and others who’ve had to eliminate it from their lives because eventually it became a problem for them.” Indeed, one DJ who’s been commendably open about his struggles is Luciano, who recently confirmed on social media that he battled substance abuse for two decades before admitting himself to rehab last summer. He’s now been clean for over a year.
AVICII: TRUE STORIES TRAILER
Such honesty is a relative rarity – in the music industry and society as a whole. Long-held stigma in relation to mental health has made it difficult for people to discuss their issues openly for fear of mockery or retribution, but finally, attitudes are beginning to soften and a movement towards candid conversations is gaining momentum. One element that’s played a huge role in this shift is the International Music Summit, held annually at the Hard Rock Hotel in Ibiza. This year it focused on promoting wellness within the music industry, in the process serving as a vessel in which industry problems – and essentially, solutions – could be aired. Pete Tong, DJ and IMS co-founder, gave a keynote speech about Avicii’s death but remained pragmatic in addressing concerns and rumour surrounding it. “Addiction doesn’t happen because you’re a DJ,” he commented on one panel. “It’s more about dealing with life.”
“When I first started DJing, the whole scene was great, but I still realised I wasn’t actually having a lot of fun. I felt emotionally very drained. It was too much for my body.”
This sentiment has been echoed countless times by both DJs and experts in the field. “Not everybody processes poison in the same way,” affirms Cassy, soul-rousing DJ, mother and outspoken critic of the downsides of an industry that focuses on giving other people a good time. “But even so, if you don’t have any help it’s really hard. When I first started DJing the whole scene was great but I still realised I wasn’t actually having a lot of fun. I felt emotionally very drained. It was too much for my body.” She now advocates a healthier lifestyle, one she’s developed over time that’s far more in tune with her personal needs. “It’s all a work in progress but I deal with touring by not drinking and taking drugs,” she explains. “I’m grateful to be able to make money in the way that I do but I’m disciplined. When I’m touring I go to the gym, call my mum or remind myself to be grateful. I stay in my own power and fuck the rest.”
“We’re addressing education to ensure that those in music are well equipped with the knowledge around self-care, as well as knowing the signs if someone you know might be struggling.”
Cassy’s not alone in using self-imposed techniques to help bring her back down to earth when the pressure become too much. Seth Troxler has also been vocal about avoiding a tendency to call for a blanket solution to the wide-ranging problem of mental health, suggesting that ultimately, it’s the individual who’s master of his own fortune. “Everyone is looking for a solution but really it’s about paying attention,” he says. “If you want to change something, change it. Get out there and look after yourself.” This doesn’t come from a place of flippancy (he’s talked at length about his own conflict with depression) but rather an awareness that there needs to be ownership before a cure. “Take some time off. Do some yoga,” he adds. “I was having some mental health problems before I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and what did I do? I climbed a mountain. I did something different.”
This is by no means a revolutionary approach, of course, but taking care of yourself is a vital step in maintaining perspective and forming boundaries to ensure optimum personal wellbeing, particularly in the face of the temptations faced by DJs. And this is where initiatives like Remedy State come in. Designed to run parallel to events like IMS, it’s a curation of resources and information ranging from psychiatry, Ayurveda, yoga, breathing techniques and meditation – tools that can be used to boost state of mind. “Our goal is not to cure or fix anyone at our retreats,” explains Blaise James DeAngelo, co-founder and former head of Skrillex’s label, OWSLA. “We want to present people with information they can use to improve their own wellbeing, in the hope that one or two of these things will resonate with each person. For a lot of people I think health and wellness is a vague, complex and overwhelming topic, so there are many people who want help but aren’t sure where to start looking. It is my hope that the existence of Remedy State will give people a place to start and make it easier for them to find help. But of course, they have to want it.”
Christine Brown, Director of External Affairs and Business Development at Help Musicians UK, agrees, citing the launch of Music Minds Matter – a support line and service for the nightlife industry open 24 hours a day, seven days a week – as one of the many projects launched to tackle the problem. “Mental health is a complex issue,” she says. “That’s why we’re addressing education; to ensure that those in music are well equipped with the knowledge around self-care, as well as knowing the signs if someone you know might be struggling and what steps to take.”
“We should have more conversations so young people feel like they can talk to veterans and get some insight. Maybe a peer to peer recovery system.”
BEST OF AVICII LIVE
DJs have made additional suggestions based on their own experiences in dealing with mental health. “Surround yourself with the right people,” says Cassy. “People who treat you like a human rather than a commodity.” While Troxler advocates talking to those who have a more enlightened perspective of the industry: “We should have more conversations so young people feel like they can talk to veterans and get some insight. Maybe a peer to peer recovery system. I get a lot of great information and tips from guys who’ve been in the game a lot longer than me.”
The point is, now more than ever there’s an awareness and willingness to be open, and in turn that’s fuelling a collective effort to look for solutions. There is no one size fits all cure for mental health, but fuelled by tragedy, attitudes in the music industry are finally changing, and a culture in which people can discuss their issues without prejudice is thriving. Slowly, a once-dim flicker of hope is gaining strength.