Business

Mental Health in a Pandemic: Organizations, Support Groups Rally to Help Artists & Music Industry Workers

vasabii/Getty Images

"We're not trying to provide solutions to what people are going through, but create a community with each other where we're able to access our own emotional vulnerabilities during this really, really challenging time."

After releasing her first studio album, securing a booking agent and even netting a Juno nomination earlier this year, Toronto-based singer/songwriter STORRY's career finally started picking up steam after years of frustration. Then came the coronavirus.

"As an indie artist, [it felt] like I was trying to push this boulder that didn't seem to move for years, and then finally -- it wasn't really rolling yet, but I felt like it was moving," she tells Billboard. "And then it just felt like it got lodged again."

STORRY's pre-coronavirus trajectory might be a shade more charmed than the average musician's, but her precarious position in the midst of the pandemic is far from unusual, with venues shuttered across the globe and festivals postponed indefinitely as the touring business has ground to a halt. Now, with thousands of music industry professionals left to wonder when their next paycheck will come, many are leaning on digital support groups and informal peer networks to sustain them through a crisis that threatens their livelihoods and -- in many cases -- their mental well-beings.

"I think what [the coronavirus pandemic has] done is shine a spotlight on the immense vulnerabilities of this industry and this population -- it's just happening on a larger scale right now," says Zack Borer, a licensed psychotherapist and former touring musician who co-founded and serves as clinical director at Backline, an organization that provides mental health resources for music professionals. Formed just last year, Backline quickly recognized the need for an outlet for industry workers sidelined by the shutdown. It's now hosting a twice-weekly Zoom support group with an accompanying Facebook group alongside the Tour Health Research Initiative (THRIV) that gives music workers a chance to vent their fears and frustrations with others who are experiencing a similar sense of dislocation, and even panic, during the crisis.

Though financial resources for music professionals put out of work by the pandemic have been growing by the day, the crisis' mental health and wellness aspects have received considerably less attention. That has made Borer's support group -- which he co-facilitates with THRIV co-founder Dr. Chayim Newman -- a desperately-needed lifeline for many who just need a space to vent their fears and frustrations. According to Borer, attendance at the sessions has varied, with as few as 20 and as many as 150 people from across the globe participating on any given day.

The support groups have proven popular enough that Backline has expanded its coronavirus initiative to include free weekly meditation and breathwork sessions in partnership with the "emotional fitness" company Frequency. It will also offer free weekly yoga classes in partnership with Fit on Tour, which offers consultation and coaching services for touring professionals.

"We're not trying to provide solutions to what people are going through, but create a community with each other where we're able to access our own emotional vulnerabilities during this really, really challenging time," Borer says. He points out that many in the industry are so inundated with work during a normal year that they don't typically have the time or space to recognize that their mental and emotional needs aren't being met -- with most now isolated at home, that has changed virtually overnight.

"I think that this whole thing affected me more than I thought it did," says STORRY, who took part in one of the first Backline/THRIV virtual sessions after being alerted to the group by her publicist. "I think it was only yesterday that I really felt, ‘No, I am quite tired. I really need a bit of a rest and I need some support and love.'"

Backline isn't the only organization tending to the mental health needs of music workers in the pandemic. Show Makers Symposium, a brand-new music industry conference that was planning to hold its inaugural event next January before the coronavirus crisis turned sponsors skittish, has begun hosting a series of free live webinars called I'm With the Crew in an effort to help behind-the-scenes touring professionals navigate the mental and emotional stresses brought on by COVID-19.

"There are huge gaps around the care for production and crew," says Tamsin Embleton, a psychotherapist and director of the Music Industry Therapist Collective, who was a guest on this week's webinar. "We have a little bit more interest in getting support for artists and music industry professionals who work in teams, but then you have this gap of people doing this really labor-intensive, stressful work on the road that don't really get a look in."

For touring professionals, the financial aspect of the shutdown is significant. But being severed from their communities on the road -- what Show Makers Symposium co-founder, I'm With the Crew co-host and veteran tour manager Misty Roberts refers to as a collection of "dysfunctional families" -- is arguably a greater source of anxiety.

"We're emotionally connected to the music business, so this has an extra level of hurt," says I'm With the Crew co-host and tour manager Jim Digby, who co-founded both Show Makers Symposium (with Roberts and Shelby Cude) and The Event Safety Alliance, an organization that promotes safety practices among touring professionals. "We recognized right from the beginning that mental resilience is the most pressing need next to being able to pay the bills."

Industry support networks forged during the crisis have also manifested in less-formal ways. Tour manager Aubrey Wright, who has worked with the likes of Kanye West and Martin Garrix, tells Billboard he's part of a daily call with "25 of my closest touring friends." In addition to discussing the current state of the industry, the call also serves as a respite from the grim news cycle; recent activities have included poetry readings and cinnamon roll bake-offs.

An optimist at heart, Wright tells Billboard that his self-care practice includes long morning jogs, avoiding non-essential news and keeping in constant touch with friends and industry colleagues, including those he hasn't spoken to in a while. "It's good to check in on others, because then it helps you check in on yourself," he says, noting he's had to talk more than one industry friend off a proverbial ledge over the past couple of weeks. Indeed, the shutdown has left touring professionals in particular both financially and emotionally reeling, their livelihoods and sense of purpose wiped out virtually overnight.

"For a lot of people now, they're just like, ‘I don't have income, I have bills, nothing's happening, no one knows when [this is going to end],'" Wright says. "I think, mentally, it's gonna hit a lot of people really hard."

The current moment is a reckoning of sorts for a high-pressure industry that has traditionally paid too little attention to the mental health needs of those who work within it.

"There's a panel at every music festival, every conference, talking about mental health, but it's quite shallow as far as it goes," says Embleton, who was recently hired to write a Touring and Mental Health manual for Live Nation that should be out sometime next year. But the unprecedented crisis also presents an opportunity for a healthier industry in the future, says Taryn Longo, a trauma therapist who recently took part in a Show Makers Symposium webinar.

"By the time the lights go back on and the industry is back up and running, you have now, ideally, a lot more people who are in touch with what's happening on a human level for themselves," Longo says. "And that in turn brings more humanity into the industry."

Borer, who experienced firsthand the pressures of the music business over more than a decade as a touring artist, is cautiously optimistic that the industry can turn a corner once the current crisis is over.

"My fear is that the machine will just turn on again and everybody will go back to the way it was," he says. Still, Borer recognizes the unusual opportunity represented by the pandemic. "I am hopeful that this pause can help people access their own vulnerabilities and their own fears so we can help bring them out and start addressing them differently."

In Toronto, STORRY is doing her best to keep her career momentum going and stay afloat financially -- adding merchandise to her website, setting up a Patreon page and performing digital live shows via her official Facebook and Instagram profiles from the home she shares with her mother and brother. She also says she's planning to take part in more Zoom support sessions with Backline and THRIV, which she says she found helpful. Still, like so many in the industry now, uncertainty has become a constant companion.

"I've been keeping very busy, but it just feels like I'm grabbing for things," she says. "I'm not really sure what the outcome is going to be."

Coronavirus