By Max Freedman
In summer 2021, three prominent young pop musicians released albums at least partially about how existing in the public spotlight was harming their mental health. Though the theses of Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever, Lorde’s Solar Power, and Clairo’s Sling weren’t exactly the same, a common thread emerged: The constant attention from their large audiences was tearing down privacy barriers, resulting in the strange parasocial relationships that social media fosters between fans and their idols, and making these artists feel unable to disconnect from their music careers.
In speaking with other young musicians and mental health experts, MTV News has heard similar concerns. More importantly, there’s a growing consensus that the music industry should do more to contend with how social media can be toxic for musicians’ mental health — and that social platforms should help, too. A good place to start? Paying artists livable wages and providing better (or just more) mental health resources.
Take it from Stella Rose Bennett, the shapeshifting 22-year-old pop musician known as Benee, whose 2019 single “Supalonely” became a runaway viral hit. The attention elevated her profile, but it wasn’t an entirely pleasant ride — especially on her breakout platform, TikTok. “The comments are horrible,” Bennett tells MTV News. “People are so mean,” she adds, a notion that the international pop star Charli XCX recently echoed about her own experience on Twitter. Bennett says that, after her 2020 album Hey U X, she saw people calling her a one-hit wonder and accusing her of being a flop. “It’s been really difficult to process that people will just drop off in a second,” she says, and she doesn’t hesitate to say that these comments worsened her mental health.
She thinks social networks should “filter [comments] so it’s not just people being able to say something really horrible, that’s not even constructive criticism, to an artist.” She’s seen this blowback affect other musicians: “I’ll watch a really young artist livestream [while] crying,” she says, “and they’re saying that people are telling them really horrible things on the platform, and I’m like, ‘How do we make it so it’s not like this?’”
Even if social media miraculously transformed into a beacon of positivity, artists say that one of their biggest stressors is the amount of content they need to post for digital marketing and fan engagement to simply keep pace with their peers. The bedroom-pop-gone-hi-fi musician Chelsea Cutler articulated this problem in depth in a January 2022 Instagram post that racked up over 104,000 likes — and that musicians as prominent as electro-folk champion Maggie Rogers and OneRepublic superproducer Ryan Tedder publicly agreed with. “It feels exhausting to be constantly thinking of how to turn my daily life into ‘content,’ especially knowing that I feel best mentally when I spend less time on my phone,” reads one part of the post. “It also feels exhausting to be told by everyone in the industry that this is the only effective way to market music right now.”
“Social media is people advertising their lives, advertising themselves, and advertising what they’re doing,” Cutler, 25, tells MTV News. “It’s exhausting.” She calls the constant social-media engagement expected from artists a “burden.” “For that to be the onus so many artists are carrying is really stressful.”
Research into musician stress levels suggests that Cutler isn’t alone. In 2018, the Music Industry Research Association (MIRA), the Princeton University Study Research Center, and MusiCares — the mental health care nonprofit operated by the Recording Academy — surveyed thousands of musicians about their mental health. Half the respondents reported frequently “feeling down, depressed or hopeless.” Similarly, 11.8 percent of musicians reported feeling “better off dead or hurting yourself in some way.” The corresponding number for the general population was 3.4 percent. And in April 2019, 80 percent of independent musicians 18 to 25 years old said that their careers have caused them stress, anxiety, or depression (or more than one of these things).
The constant uncertainty around the safety of live shows — and frequent cancellations — in an age of ongoing COVID-19 concerns has only exacerbated these issues for artists. “I think the pandemic has been the major catalyst in all of this,” Cutler says. “I really hope the pandemic subsides and we’re able to make in-person connections again with fans. I think that would restore a lot of what feels missing right now.”
Laetitia Tamko began releasing music at a young age just over half a decade ago and says her experience was stressful well before the pandemic arrived. In a now-deleted tweet, Tamko, who has recorded garage rock and electronic music under the moniker Vagabon, said that the music industry is fundamentally exploitative. It’s safe to assume such an environment isn’t conducive to great mental health.
“We are the people on the front lines doing this really grueling work,” Tamko, 29, tells MTV News of musicians’ roles in the industry. She also clarifies that most people she encounters in the industry aren’t “explicitly exploitative,” but that she’s “had a lot of moments throughout the last five years or so that I’ve been making music that I’ve been like, ‘Whoa, I can ask for that.’” The implication is that record labels default to keeping artists somewhat in the dark so they can maximize their profits — at the expense of healthy working conditions for the very people creating what they sell. “A way that the music industry can be more artist-friendly is for the wages to be almost livable, so artists don’t have to be on tour constantly to make an income,” Tamko says. “And even then, artists at my level tend to make a lot less money than the people behind the scenes.”
Musicians of all levels need to tour: A 2017 Citigroup report found that most of the music industry’s revenue comes from hitting the road. That’s exactly why touring has resumed even as the pandemic still rages, and it’s also a big reason why initiatives like Bandcamp Fridays emerged to make up for lost musician income. Less money, of course, means more stress — how can you feel OK if you can barely afford to exist? Similarly, a popularly cited Future of Music Coalition survey found that 43 percent of musicians don’t have health insurance. The picture was even worse before Obamacare — and, more recently, worsened anew as thousands of performers lost coverage during the pandemic.
Rhian Jones, the co-author of Sound Advice, a health-focused career guide for musicians, agrees with Tamko’s assertions and suggestions. “In the U.S., a 2017 study said the median musician makes around $35,000 a year, with only $21,300 of that coming from music-related sources,” Jones tells MTV News. The latter number means that only about 60 percent of an American musician’s income comes from their music. It’s also less than half the average annual salary Americans made that year. Hallie Lincoln, a licensed clinical social worker and co-founder of the musician mental health resources nonprofit Backline, says that poor mental health can pose further obstacles to maintaining a stable income for musicians, even top-tier pop acts — and for their teams. “When people have to cancel legs of tours because they’re experiencing mental health issues, that costs tens of millions of dollars in revenue” across the industry, she tells MTV News.
Lincoln partially attributes the industry’s mental health crisis to a “serious lack of [mental health] resources,” which is partly why Backline offers wellness checklists, positive-reinforcement guides, and videos detailing therapy approaches all for free. Lincoln can’t think of a record label, management firm, or other directly artist-adjacent company that offers the same.
Lincoln also tells MTV News that the musicians with whom she’s worked often say they’ve had trouble finding a therapist or knowing how to begin the search. And while no single therapist or mental health care nonprofit can fill the music industry’s gaps, the value of a support system simply can’t be understated. Tamko provides a great example.
“Having a community of artists at various levels of their career” for “discussing each other’s deals or contracts with labels, brands, management, and booking agents,” Tamko says, has been “really important.” She also calls for “artists owning their work, as almost a standard.” (Tamko has only signed with record labels that give her full ownership of her masters, a rarity in the industry.) She says she would like to see more “sounding boards and a point of reference for [musicians] who are looking at contracts for the first time… having someone else tell you, ‘This is how it works for me. This is something you’re allowed to ask for. This is something you’re allowed to push back on.’ I think all of that serves as protection.”
Jones also stresses that “properly reading and understanding contracts before signing [them]” should become more common among musicians so they can avoid deals that leave them with way less money than the other party. “Because getting a record deal is exciting, lots of artists don’t do this,” she explains. She also says that artists could try seeking “advice from a specialist music industry lawyer [and being] wary of how long deals are for — the shorter, the better, in order to leave room for negotiation in the future — and what costs are getting charged back to the artist before they get their percentage.” She warns that some contracts “sound good on paper [but] might not be in reality once you dig into the numbers.”
Where these contractual matters can sound confusing, Jones has seen musicians’ teams take much simpler steps to protect the artists’ mental health. “I have heard quite a few examples of teams putting an artist’s health first, and I think this is becoming more prevalent due to the younger generation’s awareness of mental health,” she says. She cites “all the attention [on] this issue in recent years” as a reason behind this change: “Awareness has now translated into action.”
Bennett says her team acts in exactly this manner. “My management will sometimes make me go home early from a trip if I feel like I can’t work anymore,” she says. “I’ve had a couple of trips where I’ve been in L.A., and I just did not want to do anything else because I was depressed. My management would be like, ‘OK, let’s send you home, and you can have a couple of weeks to chill.’ That has been really helpful.”
Cutler, meanwhile, finds some comfort in so many musicians of all levels agreeing with her exhaustion about musicians feeling compelled to be content creators. But she’s less optimistic when asked what the industry could do to better protect the mental health of young musicians like herself. “I don’t think anybody has a viable call to action right now,” she says. “It’s like, OK, we all feel this way, but not one of us has a solution.” She has a point: Even though musicians are the ones most affected by the music industry’s lack of mental health support, their job is to make great music, not solve these numerous problems.
That said, Lincoln would “love to see… labels, management companies, promoters, and all other stakeholders that [run] this industry contribute to the financial backing that people need to access mental health care.” She notes that, until that day comes, musicians can turn to MusiCares and the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund for financial assistance. Sweet Relief, Lincoln explains, will “approve a certain amount of sessions [for a musician], or they will directly pay the therapist for however long the therapist wants to sign for. So if the therapist says, ‘I will do $3,000 [worth of appointments] at this rate [per appointment],’ then it allows MusiCares to fund [musicians] to get therapy.”
Once the industry steps in more actively, Lincoln says, “ultimately, it would be saving lives.” Social media, digital marketing, parasocial relationships, low incomes, and lopsided contracts might not immediately go away, but at least artists would finally have the support they’d need from an industry that has long neglected to provide it. In the meantime, Tamko has a solid way to deal with the industry when she’s faced with especially tough circumstances. “If I’m able to sleep at night based on the decisions I make,” she says, “then I can surrender a bit.”