‘This shouldn’t be normalized’: Why musicians are canceling tours to protect their mental health

In early August, the Yard Acts were at Stansted Airport, waiting for a flight to Sicily, when singer James Smith hit a wall. “I felt like I was in a stable,” he says. “I was banging my head on the table and saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore.'”

Since the Leeds post-punk band released their debut album, The Overload, in January, their touring schedule has been relentless. Critical acclaim and a Mercury nomination had only amplified the pressure—bigger bookings kept coming in, and the band was determined to play them all. “This weekend we were playing castle with The Flaming Lips,” Smith says. “It was a dream come true. You feel ungrateful saying you can’t do it.

His band and crew admitted they all felt the same way. After consultation with their management and label, they have made the difficult decision to cancel a series of shows in Europe. “Rest time at home is what our bodies and brains need right now,” the group said in a statement.

Yard Act aren’t alone in their sudden flare-up and openness to reasons. A number of high-profile actors have recently canceled tour dates, claiming the need to address 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 series of US shows and explaining how the relentless grind of the past 18 months has left her “exhausted and dangerously low”. His decision follows Sam Fender’s announcement that he was canceling his US tour support slots with Florence + the Machine due to burnout: “It seems completely hypocritical to me to advocate for a health discussion mental health and write songs about it if I don’t take the time to take care of my own mental health.

Law on construction sites.
“I was banging my head on the table saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore’… Leeds band Yard Act.

There are two factors at play here: a growing willingness of musicians to speak out about mental health issues and the demands of their profession, and an industry desperate to come back to life after a devastating pandemic, with hectic touring and promotional schedules to do. for perceived lost time.

Add to that the pitiful income from streaming, the rising cost of living, and the pressure to work harder and pursue success increases further. “These opportunities are rare,” Smith says of the never-ending touring momentum. “Nobody owes you those slots, and you can say no to them, but if you lose traction, and those opportunities no longer arise, it’s up to you.”

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

While the growing pressure on artists is concerning, Hastings says there’s some comfort in people asking for help (some record labels also offer free therapy to their artists) and discussing their problems. “The way artists articulate their experiences wasn’t so common just five years ago,” he says.

Social media helped here. Over the summer, Arooj Aftab spoke out on Twitter about growing touring tensions: price increases for flights, fuel, visas, taxes and hotels, promoters’ fear of raising the price tickets, public reluctance to attend post-Covid shows and at a cost of living crisis. She had returned from her recent tour with headlines and sold-out shows only to find herself still tens of thousands in debt. “And I’m told that’s normal,” she wrote. “Why is this normal. It shouldn’t be normalized.

Singer-songwriter Cassandra Jenkins has opened up about the promoter who threatened to cut her fees a week before her show because she only planned to play with two musicians, not the biggest ensemble she sometimes plays with . The promoter said that only the largest group justified the total price. She was forced to find local musicians who could improvise in order to complete the lineup and receive the promised fee. “It made me question my relationship with self-esteem,” she says. “Although I’m reminded all the time that they lose money too – the promoters, the festivals, the venues.”

Cassandra Jenkins.
“It made me question my relationship with self-esteem” … Cassandra Jenkins performing at the End of the Road festival.

This followed a brutal tour in which Jenkins had to defend himself daily just to maintain some sense of well-being. At one point, realizing she hadn’t had a day off in two months, and with two more months of touring to come, she canceled two shows. “Every day I wondered: Am I burning? Is that how burnout feels? When you ask that question, you’ve already passed that point.

Jenkins compares musicians speaking out on this topic to the recent number of athletes speaking out about their own vulnerabilities. “It’s really good to talk about it,” she said. “But it’s also very difficult to talk about it, because it’s very difficult 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 offers a fascinating and damning insight into the unhealthy demands and excesses of the music industry. Although he “seems willing to have a conversation about mental health,” he says, “the litmus test is whether he’s willing to challenge the notion of ‘the show must go on’.”

Winwood recalls interviewing Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley, who was dope-sick and clearly in no condition to face 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 played two shows at Coachella “because he had trained himself to believe that the band’s career rested on two shows”.

Of course, many musicians are far from playing Coachella, and it’s hard to believe that for them, the cancellation of shows in favor of their mental health would be welcomed as warmly as for Parks and Fender – or that they would have the network security and support networks to do so.

But the open discussion of these high-profile acts on industry challenges could cause a ripple effect. MMM’s Hastings notes that it’s “important to empower artists to make tough decisions based on a solid understanding of what they need to take care of themselves and have a happy, healthy career.” Top artists talking about the mental health demands of touring can also educate promoters, venues, labels, managers, and audiences, prompting greater empathy for anyone struggling on every level.

At any stage of your career, understanding that shouldn’t be so difficult, says Jenkins. When she canceled her dates in Spain, she was heartbroken by Spanish fans who posted crying emojis under her announcement on Instagram. She answered everyone. “And I got so much love in return,” 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 a similar understanding of the vulnerability of musicians could extend to those involved in touring infrastructure. She talks about the huge effect of a Swiss host who simply cooks her a hot meal and talks while they eat 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 a certain levity”. These were “beautiful, intimate experiences and examples of how real-time care led to better performance”.

Wet leg.
“It was not an easy decision at all” … Wet Leg performing in Las Vegas. Photography: Daniel DeSlover/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

In every cancellation statement and every interview for this piece, the musicians were quick to mention their gratitude for having a musical career, for touring the world, playing shows, meeting their audiences. “I can’t express how grateful we are to have such an impressive fan base,” Fender wrote. “Thank you for always standing by our side.” Parks said how grateful she was “to be where I am today” and promised, “I’ll do whatever I can to make it up to you.”

Musicians fear, says Winwood, that if they ever complain, audiences with “proper jobs” outside the music industry will think they’re ungrateful. But, he says, one thing is worth remembering: “If an artist has reached a 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 United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the Lifeline crisis helpline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org

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