Talking Mental Health In The Music Industry With While there have been many conversations around the mental health of artists and particularly touring musicians, less discussed is the impact this industry can have on its workers’ well being. But for a job that revolves around late nights, long hours and lots of socialising, it can be easy to ignore the potential pitfalls. Kieran Allan is a radio plugger at London-based independent music PR specialists Brace Yourself, and despite a successful career in the music industry, he has long battled with his mental wellbeing.
We sat down with Kieran to talk about the importance of recognising mental problems early on. Here he opens up about his own struggles, offers advice on getting help, and how having a boss that recognises the need for down time can make all the difference in this fast-paced industry.
First of all, tell us how you came to work in the music industry and what led you down the path of PR and radio?
I kind of fell into it really. I went to university in Hull to study English, which I got into through clearing, and when I came back I was trying to work out what to do. I started working at a youth outreach charity called Renaissance Foundation, then a friend of mine had done an internship at a radio plugger and after she’d finished she put me in touch with them. That turned into a longer term job, and no one’s stopped me since then. I didn’t think it’d be possible to find a way in to be honest, so I had no real aim but I’ve been doing radio plugging now for the last five years working at various places until I found myself where I am now at Brace Yourself PR.
We know the music industry is an incredibly competitive place and for many roles it involves late nights, lots of socialising and hectic schedules. This can undoubtedly take a toll on anyone’s mental and physical wellbeing. What were the triggers for you?
I went through bouts of severe anxiety when I was about seventeen that came to a head while I was doing my A-Levels, but in terms of music I’ve always had an underlying feeling of imposter syndrome because I didn’t come from a music background – other people I’ve worked with had started with jobs at places like their university radio station and then had a career trajectory from there, whereas I just seemed to fall into it. But it really peaked when I moved to a larger company. Before that, I’d worked at a small PR business and was at the stage where I was about to start taking on my own campaigns, then they had to restructure when the boss moved away so I found an internship role at a larger company, and that felt like a step back in a lot of ways.
A lot of a radio plugger’s worth (and what you’re essentially paid for) is your relationship with people at radio stations, labels and management. It’s all very socially defined, and that fed into my feelings of anxiety. I was worried that I wasn’t making those kinds of relationships quick enough, or that I wasn’t going to enough gigs, which is where you meet a lot of people. And then the cycle of late nights, drinking, early mornings and barely sleeping catches you up. One thing I’ve realised looking back is that, obviously, you don’t need to drink to socialise. You start getting the idea in your head that you need to be a super outgoing person who’s mates with everyone, when that’s not your job. My day-to-day role doesn’t revolve around going out and drinking, but you feel an expectation or pressure to do it because it’s a competitive industry. I felt like I wasn’t being me, or being honest to who I was, I was just trying to fit in.
Do you think the lack of formal training in the music industry, and an expectation to know what you’re doing as soon as you enter a job plays a part in feelings of inadequacy people feel?
Yeah definitely. I had to teach myself that it’s okay to ask questions because that’s not always made clear to you when you enter the industry. It’s okay to not know things. My first bout of anxiety was when I was in an internship role, when obviously you shouldn’t be expected to know anything, it’s meant to be a role that teaches you. Again, I thought everyone around me had gone to university to study music related subjects and had learned everything there, when actually that wasn’t the case. Companies need to make young people more aware that it’s okay to feel like a learner when you first start, because you are a learner.
How did you find out about support networks?
The music industry isn’t purely to blame for my feelings of anxiety, but it definitely exacerbated the problem. I tried to throw myself further into the lifestyle to alleviate the problems by drinking, smoking and going out more but it had the absolute opposite effect. I’d gone from the point of feeling weird in social situations to having panic attacks, starting with feelings of pins and needles at my desk. That’s when I started googling things like “coping with lifestyles in music” and I came across Music Support. There was a day when it all came to a head and I called Samaritans because I felt like I needed to offload to someone, but someone from Music Support got back to me really quickly. She was really reassuring and told me that this is what they’re here for. Having read the piece you did with them recently, I recognised myself so much in all of it, but at the time you feel so alone.
They put me in touch with the man who is now my therapist. There’s such a massive waiting list for mental health services, especially through the NHS, and it’s hard to get proper help outside of group therapy, which didn’t appeal to me, but Music Support was so helpful in being able to get help and talk about things in relation to the music industry – it definitely sped up my recovery process.
From your own experiences, what are the warning signs to look out for in yourself and others?
I think when you find yourself acting unnatural you should always ask yourself where that’s coming from. People grow and change and develop certain aspects of their personality, but if it feels forced then that’s an internal way to realise something might be wrong. If someone had told me to think about that earlier, then I probably would have cottoned on to the severity of my problem sooner.
We also all need to get rid of the idea that you need to be a certain type of person to do a certain job. At one point I was specifically told that I had to be a certain way, which is bullshit. If you can do the job competently then you’re fine. People express themselves in different ways. I’m an introverted person but I know people who come across as extroverted and they’re also going through these issues. They’re just able to hide it better or it isn’t expressed in the same way. When I first met some of my friends in the industry they seemed like the most self-assured, outgoing, confident people but now I’ve got to know them, that’s not the case all of the time. Just because someone is able to be confident in a social situation doesn’t mean they’re not having their own problems. Just because you don’t recognise yourself in someone else doesn’t mean they’re not going through the same problems as you.
Did anyone in your social circle reach out to you, and if not, do you wish they had?
I look back on myself and realise I was drinking quite heavily, but this industry is looked at as a lifestyle – you go to work in the day then you go to gigs in the evening and see largely the same people, so the lines of what’s acceptable are blurred which makes it harder to spot problems. You’re essentially there at gigs in a work capacity, and if you saw someone drinking at their desk to get through it in the same way they do at a show then these problems would be immediately noticeable. And because of this I was seeing less of my friends outside of my work circle which meant the people who might recognise a problem never saw that side of me. I was in a new job and a new role so my social circle completely shifted and those people didn’t really know me, so they had no ‘normal me’ to go off.
Do you think there needs to be more distinction between what is work and what is your social life in the music industry?
Yeah, and it’s something I feel is a lot better defined in my job now. Having a boss that is aware of these things makes all the difference. He’s made it clear that when we’re at home, it’s our own time and he doesn’t expect us to be constantly checking our emails. Or if we don’t feel like going to a show, then that’s totally fine. He realises that it’s important to take time out to avoid burnout, whereas I feel that in multiple jobs I’ve had before there’s been an unspoken pressure that you should be working all the time to remain competitive. Your personal life is yours and your work life shouldn’t bleed into that if you don’t want it to. A lot of companies pay lip service to these ideas but when it comes down to it on a financial line, the feeling is your job is more important than taking care of yourself. A good boss should check in on their employees from time-to-time, and have regular sit downs with them to make sure they’re okay because being a boss comes with a duty of care.
I don’t think it’s always down to a lack of care that these things get overlooked– talking to others about how they feel can also bring up emotions or problems within yourself that you might not want to address and so I think for a lot of people they’d rather just pretend it isn’t happening, which is understandable but only perpetuates the cycle.
How can the industry better support mental wellbeing? What would you like to see from employers?
For bigger companies, there needs to be more support outside or HR – a council support team who are visible and approachable. Other industries already have these resources, and having someone who is always available to talk who is well sign-posted, making it clear exactly how you get in contact with them is really important.
Mental health in the workplace needs to be an ongoing conversation rather than a week a year where everyone does an Instagram post and changes their profile pic, because that feels more like a box ticking exercise.
Making it less of a taboo thing to talk about on a day-to-day basis will help to alleviate that sense of shame or embarrassment. There shouldn’t be any shame in taking care of your mental health in the same way you would your physical health. People say that all the time but it’s true. When you don’t feel right in yourself you can make yourself believe it’s because you’re in the wrong job or industry but that’s not the case. It’s often the environment around you. Feeling like you’re in an environment where you can speak openly about it is the first step to getting help and the responsibility there is on employers. Since feeling more confident in talking about my problems, I’ve come to realise that so many people are in the same boat.
What advice would you give to someone who is struggling from mental health problems and working in the music industry?
Don’t feel like it’s a weakness. It can weaken you, but it’s not a weakness. It’s something nearly everyone will go through in their life, it’s part of having an internal life and it doesn’t always go to plan. Coming out the other side of having a serious bout of depression or anxiety is possible and if through it you’re able to come to a better understanding of yourself and your own mental processes then it will make you stronger, so always keep that in mind. If you engage in help, then you will get better, so don’t be afraid to address your problems.
For a list of music industry specific and general mental health support organisations head over to the Route resources page.