Amy Winehouse, the music industry and mental health

There’s a harrowing scene in the Amy Winehouse documentary where she drunkenly skips late onstage to greet a booing audience in Belgrade, Serbia on the 18th of June 2011. Stopping to talk to her band before sitting on a speaker, staring blankly into the crowd with her chin resting on her hand, she refuses to sing. “Sing or give me my money back” screams an audience member, filming on his phone. It was just three weeks after she checked out of the Priory clinic, and she looked seriously underweight, exhausted and bored.

“It pissed me off that her core team didn’t just pull everything. The irony is, when it’s someone like Amy, your records will carry on selling, people will carry on writing about you and, in a weird way, it makes your value in the long run much higher because you’re the person that isn’t available”, says Nick Shymansky — the man who managed Winehouse from 1999 until he was replaced by her live promoter in 2006, months before the late singer’s career-defining album Back To Black was released.

He adds: “When artists are the absolute real deal, their work schedule doesn’t need to be intense because they kind of cut through in terms of being recognised and hopefully their work, music, persona or look will travel much quicker than anything else.” Sade, Adele and Lauryn Hill are prime examples, working what seems like part-time jobs and living a life outside of the public eye in the meantime. Hounded by the press, under pressure to make new music and with a busy touring schedule, Winehouse didn’t get that chance. And after years of struggling with drug and alcohol addictions, an eating disorder and depression, she died one month after the Serbia gig, aged 27-years-old.

The psychological and physical pressures of pursuing a career as a full-time musician are rarely discussed, yet the symptoms are a hit with the media. Newspapers run headlines detailing our sick and tired pop stars; close-up shots of the remnants of a cocaine hit in Pete Doherty’s nostril, Susan Boyle’s nervous breakdown, and the inner politics of One Direction after band member Zayn Malik left to pursue a life as, in his own words, a “normal 22-year-old”.

In the four years since Winehouse’s death (which was ruled as a result of accidental alcohol poisoning), sales from recorded music have been slowly dwindling, as the music consumer moves from parting with £10 for an album, to streaming it for free, meaning artists, labels and publishers receive a fraction of the royalties they once did. According to The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), overall global revenues of the recorded music market have declined 7% since 2011, down from $16.2 billion to $14.97 billion in 2014. Has the pressure on artists increased?

Korda Marshall, founder of Infectious Music and a prolific A&R man who’s worked with acts including Alt-J, Take That and Madonna in a career spanning 35 years, certainly thinks so. “There’s a lot more pressure now than there ever was in the ’80s. The value chain has switched from the CD and the consumption of music more to the live environment, where fans want to see the artists. That’s brought more money into the arena business and the pressures there are huge”, he says. “These creative souls suddenly have success and turn into a business worth millions of pounds with tonnes of advisers, lawyers and accountants. It builds a cooker pressure process of stress and that stress develops into all kinds of different healthcare issues.”

While working with new and emerging acts is exciting, moving from mid level success and playing in theatres, to mega arena and stadium level comes with a “whole kind of psychological pressure that’s often misunderstood,” says Marshall. ‘Cocooning’ the musicians is a tactic he’s often used, keeping them away from decisions and finer details so they can focus on performing and being creative. Dealing with the after-affects of cocooning an artist in that way is another task all together, adds Marshall, “they are cut off and in their own little world and sometimes that world spins off. The most famed example of that is Michael Jackson.”

Making sure young artists get eight hours sleep, eat well and are in bed by 1am while on tour, are just a few of Marshall’s rules. “You have to make the artist comfortable, whether that’s sleeping during the day, booking a hotel room at night as well as a tour bus so they’ve got the option of carrying on with the journey or staying where they are.” The advice is mirrored by mental health charity Mind, that say it’s the manager’s responsibility to make sure artists are working in a healthy and safe environment, as well as stressing the importance of having a support network of family, friends and medical experts around.

When appearing on the X Factor in 2012, singer/songwriter Lucy Spraggan suffered anxiety, paranoia and depression after being thrown into the public eye overnight, receiving vitriol on social media and finding it difficult to trust new people. She says: “Everybody everywhere stops and wants to talk to you and you don’t know them. Some people have a dictaphone when they are chatting to you in the street, which is odd. There’s always the wavering thought of, ‘What happens if people stop liking you, or you do the wrong thing and then your career is over?’ There is lots of pressure and it’s fast moving, you’re the news one day and chip paper the next. And people are always expecting, some of them are expecting you to do well and some almost wanting you to fail.” Post X Factor, Spraggan’s previous management company sent her to a private doctor who prescribed a host of medication that left her feeling numb and led to a long creative block.

Now off the medication and with different management, her own record label set-up and a new album, Spraggan’s career and creativity is back on track. Talent shows should invite old contestants back to explain what the new crop are letting themselves in for, she says. “They kind of keep you ill-informed about stuff and then once you’re in that bubble, you don’t see your friends, you don’t go home, you stay where you live with all the other contestants, you work all day every day, you eat when you’re given the time. I’m always trying to find out who is on the programme next year so I can go and tell them it’s probably one of the hardest things they’ll ever have to do.”

At charity level, there has been efforts to increase awareness of the support available for musicians suffering with mental health issues. Help Musicians UK, previously the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund, rebranded last year in an effort to create more awareness of the diverse range of services they offer. As part of a wider programme of health and wellbeing issues, the charity is about to research mental health in more detail, including performance anxiety. Meanwhile, the Musicians’ Union works with the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine (BAPAM) to give its members access to mental health specialists. The British Phonographic Industry (BPI), funded by the major labels, represents the UK’s recorded music industry and “has been working with Help Musicians’ to raise their profile” and are exploring how they “can take things further”.

Now a senior A&R manager at Island Records — the same label he signed Winehouse to in 2003 — has Shymansky seen any changes in the industry since her death? “When someone as brilliant as Amy dies that way, everyone is forced to think about it,” he says. “But there still does need to be more awareness generally that people do get depressed and when someone is drinking a huge amount of alcohol, falling over or high on drugs, it’s normally a sign there’s something very wrong. Ultimately, what they are going to do is down to the individual, the management and the team around them. The manager in this era is the most powerful person in a successful career.”

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Freelance music industry journalist. London correspondent for US trade rag Hits and contributing editor at Music Business Worldwide.

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