Sound Advice, with Rhian Jones and Lucy Heyman

Many of us in the music industry — whether you’re an artist, creative, executive, manager and everyone in between — will experience the pressures and challenges of working in the world of music.

Over the decades, musicians in particular have faced these pressures to such an extent, without let-up or somewhere to turn. Without the luxury of allowing yourself an off-day, or on the other hand, being scrutinised when you do. This is all on top of the physical strain of a musician’s career. Thus, it’s a worrying reality that many musicians and those working with them will often experience mental health issues, either short-term or long-term.

Everyone will experience this uniquely, with nuances due to background, roles and personalities, but there’s no doubt that we could all benefit from taking better care of our own wellbeing as well as that of those around us.

Just recently released, ‘Sound Advice’ is the new book from journalist Rhian Jones and musician’s health specialist/vocal and performance coach/lecturer Lucy Heyman. The book covers the mental and physical health problems research suggests musicians might come up against and offers lots of tools and techniques to help aid prevention.

Following its successful launch, we wanted to hear more about their findings and advice…

Tell us a bit about yourselves and your own career experiences that led you to writing this book together.

Rhian: I’m a music business journalist — I started my career at Music Week nine years ago and have since built up a freelance career, writing for The Guardian, The Independent, Music Business Worldwide, Hits and lots more. So I was in the industry when mental health started being talked about in a big way around six years ago, which was partly tied to the devastating Amy Winehouse documentary, and I wrote an article asking what the industry was doing to support the health of the artists it works with. I didn’t find much support back then and became more and more invested in the subject when I realised that. It just made total sense for me that artists should be supported by the challenging business they are working in and, as an Amy fan, I was incensed to watch her story play out in the way that it did. While continuing to research this subject, I was lucky enough to cross paths with Lucy who became a contact. Over a catch up coffee one day we discussed our idea for a very similar book, which we then decided to write together, and that was the beginning of Sound Advice!

What were your initial aims for the book and did those change at all as you did further research or spoke to industry professionals?

Rhian: Our main aim was always to provide a self-help style book for musicians that was supported by the industry so that didn’t change. A few people did suggest to us that we should write it for music industry professionals too but it would have been really difficult to cover the health issues faced by music industry execs as well as artists in one book and speak to both audiences at once. Also, there isn’t much research looking into the health issues faced by music professionals and it’s very difficult to quantify due to the diverse nature of the business. The issues faced by someone working a desk job at a collection society, for example, are going to be very different to a member of a touring team or an A&R. With books, I think it can be really important to have a tightly defined mission statement to ensure understanding and clarity, and I’m really glad we stuck to our initial focus. With that said, it’s definitely very relevant for those that work with musicians who should be learning about the issues they face and how to support them, as well as gaining a greater understanding of the business they work in. Also, there’s a lot of advice and information in there that’s universally true and not necessarily job dependent.

You spoke to a multitude of artists and musicians for the book. One in particular, Nile Rogers, commented; “The pressure of creativity and success in music is a heavy burden and can be overwhelming”. Were there any recurrent themes that came up when talking to artists?

Rhian: Yes, lots. A few that come to mind include the many ‘highs and lows’ of touring, struggling with comparison and bullying on social media and the importance of working out your own version of success. I think the latter is particularly interesting — the music business can look all shiny and glamorous on the outside but the reality is that very few musicians will hit the ‘big time’ (although can still have sustainable and fulfilling careers). We were keen to make that clear throughout the book and many of our interviewees gave us some brilliant quotes to back that up.

In Sound Advice, you not only interview musicians, but business execs too. How did their perspectives relate to, or contrast with, that of artists?

Rhian: Their perspectives were pretty complimentary. I guess the nature of the research meant that interviewees were fairly self-selecting — we reached out to people who we knew had a vested interest and understanding of the subject matter so didn’t speak to people who didn’t get it. Amy Winehouse’s first manager, Nick Shymansky, for example, talks about how important it is for managers to fight on behalf of their artists in order to make sure they are taken care of, and tour managers Suzi Green and Erica Leite are both pretty health conscious so they gave us some great practical tips for looking after yourself while on the road. It was important for us to cover the business and money related aspects of developing a career in music because research suggests money worries are one of the biggest causes of stress for musicians. In those chapters we’ve got some really informative quotes and tips from former Island Records head Darcus Beese, marketing exec Darren Hemmings, lawyers Liv Lyons and Raffaella De Santis, accountant Nick Lawrence, funding expert Remi Harris and lots more.

What can people working with musicians do to help to foster a more supportive and sustainable career in the industry?

Rhian: Asking them what they need is the first step, which might involve helping them work that out. As Lucy has pointed out, there are some easy assumptions to make about what constitutes wellbeing, like massages, smoothies, days off etc., but we’re all different and what works for someone won’t for someone else. It’s really important to learn about the health issues musicians might face and where to go for help (read our book for that!) so you can support them adequately and realise how vital it is that the human behind the music is healthy and happy because that’s what’s going to result in longevity, which benefits everyone on the business side. Thinking about the industry holistically, having boundaries and encouraging them in others you work with (ie. not working all hours, having a life outside of music) is essential, as is prioritising your own health and, similar to the musicians you might be working with, learning about what you need to thrive. After all, we can’t help others if we don’t first help ourselves!

What is your biggest takeaway from your learnings having researched for and written the book?

Rhian: The main thing for me is what I alluded to earlier about the importance of looking at individual experiences and needs. It’s very easy to blame ‘the music industry’ for not looking after the health of artists but the truth is that it’s far more complex than that. First of all, the music industry isn’t one person or one company, and secondly, the reasons for ill-health are often multi-faceted and can include genetics, trauma, deprivation, personal history and temperament as well as working environments and the stressors that come with working in music. It’s really important to look at all of this, rather than assuming a simple cause and effect, in order to make progress. Amy Winehouse is a prime example of this — she was struggling with an eating disorder and alcohol abuse before she even entered the music industry and when she did, her label actually offered to pay for her to go to rehab but she refused the help (I do think it’s abhorrent she was still touring while clearly very sick, though). The other thing that has stayed with me, which Lucy thankfully pointed out while we were writing our mental health chapter, is the difference between mental illness and temporary poor mental health. As mental health has started to enter the mainstream conversation, often these two things get convoluted and that’s important to remember when looking at survey style studies that show the prevalence of poor mental health in music as well as when considering treatment. Life is up and down and we go through periods of poor physical as well as mental health, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve got an illness that requires medical intervention, it could just mean we need a rest and to take stock of anything that might be causing us stress. Understanding that can lighten the load a bit and help us to learn healthy coping mechanisms, as well as being aware of when illness does require medical intervention. I read this great article recently that breaks this down from a mental health perspective.

What help is there out there for musicians who might be looking for support or advice?

Rhian: Thankfully now, lots! Tonic Rider, Help Musicians, Music Support and BAPAM are all doing great work. You’ll find lots more in the resources section of our book which we’ve published online here.

Is there a technique or tool that you learnt in your research that you have adopted in to your own routine?

Rhian: For me, it’s listening to your own body and mind in order to learn what you need to thrive. It can be very easy to get caught up in the excitement and promise of success in the music industry, as well as the perceived expectations that brings, and try and tailor yourself to fit into a certain mould that might not be true to who you are. In the last few years, I’ve learned that I’m an introvert, I need a lot of peace and time to process my thoughts, and I prefer being at home and in nature to going out to lots of gigs, award ceremonies and industry events and feeling like I have to put a face on in order to network. I’m now pretty secure in who I am and know that as long as I do work that feels fulfilling and true to me, everything else will fall into place.

Writing a book feels like a major project! What would be your advice for anyone who might have an idea for a book but doesn’t know where to start?

Rhian: Having a really clear idea of who the book is for, why you’re writing it and why it’s different to what else is out there is essential for motivation. Both Lucy and I had a strong vision for this book that we’ve never strayed from, which is why I’m really glad we ended up self-publishing and maintaining total creative control, and that helped me stay motivated to finish it throughout the project, even during some very tough stretches! Beyond that, you just have to start — don’t wait for someone to give you permission to write it. If you have a strong belief in your vision and have good answers for the questions at the beginning of this answer, the other puzzle pieces — like how to publish or fund it — will slot into place along the way.

If a music industry book club were to read your book, what question/s might you suggest to kickstart the conversation that you’d like this book to inspire?

Rhian: What are we doing as individuals to support the health of the musicians we work with, our own health, and that of those around us?

Rhian Jones is a respected journalist who specialises in the business of music. She regularly contributes to The Guardian, Music Business Worldwide and Hits Daily Double. She started her professional career at trade title Music Week, where she became news editor, before embarking on a full time freelance career in 2015. She also writes for The Independent, Vice, The Sunday Telegraph, and Billboard. This is her first book and proudest work to date.

Lucy Heyman is a vocal and performance coach, musician and lecturer. Her PhD research at the Royal College of Music focuses on the health and wellbeing support of popular musicians and she has original research published on this topic. Lucy is founder of industry health and performance consultancy Elevate, and hosts the Elevate Music Podcast with guests including Imogen Heap, Dodie, Shaun Ryder, Nina Nesbitt and more. Lucy is a member of BRIT voting academy and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

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