April 7, 2015

Thank you for the music

By Jenny Valentish
Thank you for the music
Image by Ashton (Flickr).
Are we morally responsible for caring for those who have entertained us?

In January 2015, the former pop star was filmed in an alleyway, smashing to smithereens his band’s platinum discs.

“This is what I think of you all. Fuck your record industry and fuck your weird paedophile world. Fuck you.”

Brian Harvey was once the lead singer of East 17, a boy-band manufactured by London Records. In the mostly middle-class music industry, East 17 were Dickensian urchins; their oeuvre unkindly referred to as “chav pop”. By the time Harvey was fired, aged just 23, they’d racked up 18 top-20 singles, including ‘House of Love’ and ‘Stay Another Day’, and amassed 20 million album sales.

Harvey was a PR disaster. Just over a year after the high-profile death of British teenager Leah Betts to ecstasy use, he extolled the virtues of the drug on national radio. In damage-control mode, the band fired him and continued as a three-piece.

Since then, Harvey has been in and out of the British tabloids, but not for any noteworthy career moves. In fact, a band reunion in 2006 ended abruptly when band mate Tony Mortimer punched Harvey in the face after he was late for a meeting.

A documentary released a year later revealed the ugly truth: other than Mortimer – who as principle songwriter would be receiving the lion’s share, if not all, the royalties – the band members were destitute. Mortimer had built his own ‘House of Love’ – a gated mock-Tudor mansion – but some of the others were back living with their families, despite having enjoyed material success at the height of their fame.

It’s not just chart-topping pop acts who experience an uneven split of royalties. Across genres, band members without songwriting credits are typically paid wages that can be terminated at any time, and the additional profits from touring and merchandise only roll in for as long as the band is active. In the case of Harvey, who had been in the band since his teens, there was no trade or degree to fall back on. A musician with superannuation or health insurance is extremely rare.

“The most challenging issue for many people working in music is the uncertainty of income,” says Joanna Cave, Chief Executive of Support Act. This charity – which includes The Go-Betweens’ Lindy Morrison (a former social worker) on its staff – provides financial help and practical assistance to music professionals unable to work due to illness, injury or some other misfortune. “Regular salaries are rare and inconsistency of work is common, which makes for a terrible combination when someone experiences a crisis.”

Financial woes are but one trouble a musician is likely to face. Many artists’ lives are blighted by mental health problems such as addiction. As well as being surrounded by enablers within the industry, musicians are often supplied drugs by fans and hangers-on, who quickly learn that a guaranteed way to get a star’s attention is to come bearing gifts. Smaller bands are likely to be paid in beer.

Susan Cooper, General Manager of the charity Entertainment Assist, says the industry is “full of passionate, creative people working in a negative culture of bullying, criticism, professional jealousy, sexual harassment, irregular hours leading to bad sleep patterns and self-medication.”

An Entertainment Assist survey – instigated after it was reported by the Australian Road Crew Collective that 70 roadies had died prematurely, many from suspected suicide – aims to develop targeted support and prevention programs and to work towards generational change. “We care about those who ‘thrive then dive’ into life crises and are left, often with public meltdowns, to grapple with getting their lives back on track,” says Cooper.

In the UK, Brian Harvey has found solidarity from a similar organisation, Help Musicians. He is now speaking out in the media about the routine of being “chewed up and spat out” by the industry – and, indeed, by the public.

Even East 17’s apparent success story, Tony Mortimer, has described the alcoholism and depression that descended on him once the band split. There’s the problem of how to answer the question “What are you up to now?” Going from being overworked, you suddenly find your phone never rings. Relationships that have survived month after month of one partner being away on tour now have to weather that same partner always being home, at a loose end. There are myriad support groups for mining families suffering these problems; there should be no shame in artists seeking similar help.

One musician in agreement is Kellie Lloyd, bassist with Screamfeeder since 1990. She recently appeared on a Q Music panel in Brisbane on Addiction and Music – along with this author, SixFtHick singer Geoff Corbett (who is also a drug and alcohol clinician) and journalist Andrew McMillen, whose book Talking Smack features interviews with musicians about their past and present drug habits.

“Even before I got sober, I've always wanted to help younger people deal with the unrealistic expectations we put on ourselves as performers,” Lloyd tells The Monthly. “Getting caught up in all the surrounding noise of being in a band can be hard to deal with.”

Lloyd is now six years sober. As well as continuing to play she is studying for a Master’s degree in music. “I want to legitimise my choices in life by validating them academically,” she jokes. After a “million shitty jobs”, she has now managed to combine employment with expertise, and teaches about the industry at a tertiary level and works behind the scenes at festivals.

Here in Australia, some artists find new careers – take Kat Spazzy of the Spazzys, who went from singing about the Ramones to enrolling in a law degree, or Powderfinger’s Jon Coghill, now studying to be a journalist.

“I went back to study mostly to see if I still could,” says SixFtHick’s Corbett, who has a Master’s in addiction studies. “For a long time I couldn't finish a sentence let alone a thesis, but I figured I might have a head start on this topic.”

As Corbett notes, there are many developmental milestones that need to be met between the ages of 16 and 21, which puts someone who reaches stardom at a young age, such as Harvey, at particular risk. “Individuals who have issues with substance use, compounded by access to a steady supply of drugs and a lifestyle insulated by management, are prone to coming apart when the curtain catches fire.”

Many musicians who fall on hard times wind up applying for housing benefits and disability pensions. Health problems can include hepatitis C, depression and anxiety. Professor Dianna Theodora Kenny at the University of Sydney wrote in The Conversation about her research – that in the deaths of 12,665 musicians between 1950 and June 2014, more of the sample died of suicide, murder, injury or accident than would be expected of the general population.

Brian Harvey, who was diagnosed with clinical depression in 2005, feels there should be drop-in centres for people feeling suicidal, but for now the only help available is from non-government funded charities Entertainment Assist and Support Act.

“We would like any music professional in crisis – whatever the age or the circumstances – to reach out to Support Act, secure in the knowledge that our service is offered without judgement and in complete confidentiality,” says Joanna Cave.

It’s possible for the public, of course, to donate to both Support Act and Entertainment Assist via their websites – and certainly anyone who’s ever downloaded or streamed music for free should give this idea special consideration.

Whether consumers are responsible for the wellbeing of artists depends on if you believe members of a community should contribute to its overall health.

Geoff Corbett cites the dandelion–orchid hypothesis: most people are reasonably hardy like the dandelion; others need special care to survive – but the joy they bring far outweighs the effort.

Jenny Valentish

Jenny Valentish is a journalist and novelist, and the author of Woman of Substances. Her latest book is Everything Harder Than Everyone Else.

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