How the Dance Music Community Is Prioritizing Mental Health After Avicii's Death

Pete Tong
James Chapman

Pete Tong MBE speaks at the 11th edition of the annual International Music Summit (IMS) held in Ibiza.

“How could [Avicii], one of the most talented and successful artists of his generation, go from making music in his bedroom in 2008 to taking his own life in a hotel room in 2018?” BBC Radio 1 personality and dance music tastemaker Pete Tong said last month in his keynote address at the International Music Summit (IMS) at Ibiza’s Hard Rock Hotel.

The young Swede’s untimely death from a suspected suicide was a big topic at this year’s IMS, and it has ushered in a period of deep reflection for the dance-music community. And while Avicii’s story was tragic, it was hardly an outlier. The demanding life of a superstar DJ may seem glamorous on the outside, but it often includes relentless touring and jet lag, feelings of isolation and loneliness, and, in some cases, substance abuse.

“In my 40 years of being around this world,” Tong continued, “I can’t think of a single person who has achieved success who hasn’t paid a personal price via health, relationships, divorce, broken homes, addiction, depression, and anxiety.”

Now, shaken by the loss of one of the scene’s most prodigious talents, figures from across the electronic-music community are more actively opening up about their own mental health issues -- and trying to prevent such losses from happening again.

“There’s a sea change at the moment, and it’s gathering momentum in a very positive way,” explains Tristan Hunt, regional manager for the Association For Electronic Music (AFEM) and co-chair of the organization's Protect Mental & Physical Health for Fans & Professionals working group. “We’ve had the widespread conversations, and now those conversations are turning into action.”

Since forming in 2013, the AFEM has played a key role in shaping the conversation on this issue from within the industry. As an “HR department of sorts for electronic music,” CEO Mark Lawrence explains, the organization focuses on “creating a platform for discussion and action by bringing solution providers to a problem."

With meetings and panels at conferences like IMS, Amsterdam Dance Event (ADE), and Brighton Music Conference (BMC), the AFEM maintains an active global presence, and it has designed its mental health initiative with guidance from British charity Help Musicians UK. Still, AFEM CEO Mark Lawrence says Avicii's death created a renewed sense of urgency. 

“I felt we had failed him,” says Lawrence, who first received the news of Avicii's passing via text message. “We had delivered a solution for those who needed support and we hadn’t got it to the person that needed it most.”

There have been some success stories for how to deal with the problem: A few months after Avicii announced that he was quitting touring in 2016, British DJ Ben Pearce wrote on Facebook that he too would be pulling out of all forthcoming shows, citing depression and anxiety related to performing. “It’s affected every part of my life,” Pearce wrote in the note, which was met with an outpouring of support from the EDM scene. “I never used to have social or performance anxiety and now I suffer with it terribly. It is real, it isn’t talked about enough in society or the music industry and I hope my fans and fellow industry members can understand my decision.”

Today, senior staff at Pearce’s management company, ATC, take time every Wednesday to engage with the staff about their well-being and mental health. “It’s really powerful to see companies taking initiative on this issue,” adds Hunt. “The added benefit of course is that we’ll have a sharper, better adjusted and more efficient industry that is more sustainable long term.”

Yet awareness is only part of the battle. Developing actionable best practices for companies and individuals in the industry is the crucial next step, and the AFEM and IMS are exploring a number of approaches to best deliver that.

“It’s clear that a lot of people just don’t know what to do in these situations,” says Ben Turner, a co-founder of both IMS and AFEM and a prominent figure in the EDM community. “I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but there’s an epidemic of people in our industry suffering from depression.”

Working alongside former OWSLA label head Blaise James DeAngelo, Turner launched a three-day wellness retreat called Remedy State at this year’s conference. The retreat included psychiatrists, Ayurvedic doctors, and nutritional therapists in discussions around mental and physical health within the industry. “We did wonder if a hard pivot towards wellness and challenging conversations like these would disrupt the core of what IMS was about,” Turner says. “But the feedback we’ve gotten so far has been absolutely incredible, and it really feels like this is what people want to be talking about right now.”

In addition to scheduled programming, opportunities like Remedy State are also opportunities for members of the industry to share strategies for self-care with each other. “As [dance music] grew rapidly and globally," Lawrence says, "I think many of the latest generation of artists and DJs didn’t get ‘the knowledge’ handed down to them.”

Mental-health support for fans themselves has also emerged as an extension of harm-reduction initiatives. Electric Daisy Carnival promoter Insomniac has integrated onsite support for fans in the form of Project #OpenTalk, a collaboration between the Drug Policy Alliance, Healthy Nightlife, and Zendo Project; a separate partnership with mental health non-profit To Write Love On Her Arms; and the promoter's own health and safety support group, Ground Control.

This year at EDC, Insomniac also partnered with MusiCares to offer free custom-fitted ear plugs for anyone performing at the festival or working in the music industry. (Tinnitus is a troublingly common occupational hazard for DJs and production staff and is considered to be a contributor to mental health problems for those working in the music industry.)

Many in the industry are optimistic the EDM community can rise to the occasion: Since the EDM boom in the U.S. began circa 2012, electronic music culture has been rapidly maturing, and those in the community have quickly established solutions and support networks to tackle a range of issues, from MDMA-related deaths at festivals, sexual harassment in clubs, and a lack of representation of women and non-cisgender artists on lineups.

Spurred by the AFEM, IMS and ADE, and the sense of international community galvanized on dancefloors, this young scene has become admirably candid about addressing its flaws. But ensuring the mental wellbeing of the genre's talents may be its most pressing challenge yet.

“I don’t come here today to say the party’s over," Tong said in his speech. "But this is a wake-up call to all those involved, to start looking around and see who might need help.”