Dallas Green, City and Colour, plays an acoustic set at the Vernon and District Performing Arts Centre. File photo by BLACK PRESS news services

Musicians say pressures of touring can take a serious toll on mental health

TORONTO — Dallas Green is all too familiar with slipping into the deep pits of depression that often go unspoken about in the music industry.

It usually happens while he’s pushing forward on a gruelling schedule, locked inside a tour bus with City and Colour or Alexisonfire. What starts as exhaustion builds into a suffocating isolation, amplified by his intense perfectionism over each show. The feeling eventually becomes too much to bear.

“It’s multiplied by the fact you’re in a tour bus bunk that resembles a coffin,” the Toronto musician says.

“You can wake up and have panic attacks in the middle of the night.”

Green has openly discussed how he sobbed uncontrollably as he slid into a breakdown in the months that led to Alexisonfire’s temporary breakup in 2011. He still occasionally faces similar experiences when he’s playing in City and Colour, he says, even though he’s got a better handle on his mental health now.

“I take the highs really well, but I take the lows really, really poorly,” he adds.

“It’s terrible on relationships and it’s terrible on your relationship with yourself… It’s not a surprise to me that so many people in the music business have drinking and drug problems.”

Being caught in a whirlwind of tour dates often makes it difficult for musicians to maintain a level of self-care. But as mental-health conversations pick up in the broader culture, questions are being raised about whether record labels and management teams could do a better job keeping tabs on the well-being of their artists.

The topic is likely to come up at the Juno Awards this weekend in London, Ont., where a number of music industry events will provide ample opportunity for artists and executives to discuss the hurdles of the business.

As album sales plummetted in recent years, concert tours have emerged as the new lifeblood of the record industry.

Bands and solo artists will plug away for months — sometimes years — on the road with few opportunities to come up for air. After that wraps, pressure mounts to churn out another album before hitting the road to capitalize on new material.

It’s a financially volatile and competitive cycle with few support systems, and the damage it levels on artists can be seen in the headlines.

Over the past two years, the music industry lost an unsettling number of artists to suicide — including Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington and Prodigy singer Keith Flint.

Discussions over improvements to mental health support have led to few tangible changes so far.

At the East Coast Music Conference last April, organizers handed out a survey to gather insight into how mental illness affects the East Coast music industry.

The sample size was only 50 people, but representatives for the East Coast Music Association saw a startling disparity between national data and the experiences of artists.

About 26 per cent of respondents reported suicidal thoughts over their lifetime, compared to the national average of 11.9 per cent, according to a 2012 survey by Statistics Canada.

The association will release all of its findings ahead of this year’s East Coast Music Awards in May.

Royal Mountain Records, a Toronto-based indie label, hopes to set an example for the industry with a new fund that gives each of its artists access to $1,500 per year for mental-health services. It’s not a lot of money, acknowledges the label’s co-founder Menno Versteeg, but it’s a start.

Versteeg, who also fronts rock group Hollerado, says he’s familiar with how leaving mental health unchecked can tear a band apart, even in the midst of their greatest accomplishments.

“Hollerado broke up like five times in the early years,” he says.

“People were having panic attacks, depression, struggles with addiction. Of course we were breaking up every five minutes.”

His own experiences in therapy convinced him to establish the fund in February. At this point, the money is coming directly from the label, but Versteeg hopes to establish a third-party trust to collect from a growing number of interested private donors.

“A lot of bands have contacted me directly and been like, ‘Wow, this has really helped,”’ Versteeg says.

“I realize not every label can afford this. A lot can afford less — and a lot can afford more.”

At Canada’s major record companies, it’s unclear how much support is provided to musicians. Universal Music Canada, Sony Music Canada and Warner Music Canada all did not respond to requests for comment.

Dine Alone Records, which represents Alexisonfire, City and Colour and Tokyo Police Club, offers benefit packages that “include mental health expense coverage.” The indie label also encourages staff to tap into the Unison Benevolent Fund, a registered non-profit that, in part, provides counselling to the Canadian music community.

“We’re always open to looking at any initiatives that may be of benefit to our artists,” Dine Alone vice-president Lisa Logutenkow said in a statement.

Hollerado bassist Dean Baxter says labels need to recognize the benefits of widespread mental-health systems to support artists for the long haul.

After more than a decade of touring, Baxter says he plans to use Royal Mountain’s fund to get counselling for “micro panic attacks” that started to escalate during the band’s most recent tour.

Some might call it stage fright or performance anxiety, but the musician says it’s only developed into a full-blown problem as Hollerado graduated to playing larger venues.

“It starts small, but there will be the odd uncomfortability halfway through a set,” he says.

“I’ll get a sharp panic attack that’ll make me bolt in the opposite direction … It feels like the stage is tilted forward and everyone is going to slide off. Having a couple drinks before a show helps to relax the body, but that’s obviously not a long-term solution.”

As Hollerado prepares to embark on their farewell tour this year, Baxter says he will seek counselling he can now afford through the Royal Mountain Records fund. He hopes other labels take note.

“These are your most important assets that you should be protecting at all costs,” he says.

“As an artist you’re dealing in real time with your accomplishments, but more often than not your failures. Your mental health is your first line of defence.”

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