Illustration: Jordan Moss
Being a music producer is a career that comes with a lot of highs and lows.
For most working musicians, 2020 has been beyond challenging. The loss of live performance, touring, and studio work has been particularly challenging for performing musicians, but producers are feeling the strain as well. Aside from the inherent challenges that come with being a music producer, the global toll on mental health this year has exposed many realities that often go ignored when everyone is consumed with ‘the hustle.’
Although many music producers may prefer working solo, the widespread lockdowns that took place earlier this year (and continue to take place to varying degrees) limited social interaction and forced everyone to spend time with themselves. For some, this opportunity meant finally having the time to do that dream project or learn a new skill. For others, every day is merely an act of survival and a test of mental fortitude. Combine a global pandemic with national race relations boiling up and rapid unemployment, and you have the perfect cocktail for unparalleled mental stress.
Mental health is often stigmatized in popular culture and creative communities. However, in recent years, musicians such as Kid Cudi, Logic, Denzel Curry, and Kendrick Lamar have opened up about the mental health struggles they’ve faced, and have helped start conversations among musicians around wellness. A musician’s life is often glamorized in popular media as a revolving door of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” However, the reality is closer to years of grit, lots of traveling, lobby calls, and waiting to get paid, with (hopefully) a few peaks of amazing success. While both of these descriptions are an oversimplification of the complex reality of life as a musician, the truth is that the mere act of continuous creation takes an immense amount of emotional, mental, and physical effort.
Once you develop a lifestyle of constant creation, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, burned out, or headed for a breakdown. This is why it’s important to maintain a healthy physical and mental state. As a music producer who has dealt with my own challenges, I’ve identified some of the common factors that I believe affect many musicians’ mental health, and some pathways to a healthier mind.
Disclaimer: I am not a healthcare / mental health professional, and the opinions and information given in this article are based on my own personal experience and education. I did consult with mental health professionals on the accuracy of the information relayed in this article, but nothing I recommend should be taken as medical or otherwise formal mental health advice. Please consult a mental health professional if you’re experiencing severe mental health challenges.
There are many types of stress that can have physical, mental, and emotional effects. For example, emotional stressors are things that affect your mental wellbeing, such as the loss of a loved one, interpersonal difficulties, childhood trauma, or anxiety about confronting an uncomfortable situation. When you’re stressed, you release a chemical called cortisol, also known as the ‘stress hormone,’ which heightens your adrenaline while simultaneously lowering your immune system. Once your mind perceives that you’ve avoided the danger or stressor, the body needs time to recover and return to homeostasis (a state where the mind and body are balanced and functioning properly).
The challenges of mental stress in today’s world
The issue in today’s society, especially when it comes to musicians, is that our stress doesn’t come from immediate physical danger, but rather from situations that give us sizable mental anguish. Whether it’s something that happened in the past or something we anticipate will happen in the future, our minds have the ability to constantly be engaged in stressful situations by merely thinking about them. Prolonged periods of intense mental stress can contribute to the onset of dietary problems, heart disease, depression, insomnia, and anxiety. As a musician, it’s easy to always find yourself in high-stress situations. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to avoid stress entirely – so what do we do?
Identifying the cause of your stress
For me, a great way to alleviate stress is to identify its cause. Physical stressors are relatively easy to identify and correct: maybe the way I’ve been practicing my instrument or sitting in my chair when I produce music has caused me unintended physical strain. Where things get difficult is identifying emotional and mental stressors, and finding ways to cope with (and ultimately alleviate) them.
As a musician, I get a lot of emotional and mental stress from imposter syndrome, which is essentially the idea that I doubt my skills, talents, and accomplishments to the point where I feel as if I’m a fraud impersonating a music producer. I don’t think I’m the only one who has ever felt this way. In the era of social media, it’s very easy to compare yourself to your peers and feel that you’re not doing enough. Every time I see a producer post a beat video or land a major placement, I somehow feel as though I’m not as legitimate, and (often subconsciously) start a cycle of negative self talk that gives me a great deal of emotional and mental stress. Other times, the stress of having a big project to complete or my DAW crashing (or some other technical problem) causes me stress or anxiety.
Regardless of what it is, by identifying the cause of the stress, I can then start to analyze it and create a new mental script to combat it. For example, when I see a producer doing something I want to do, I now choose to think, “This is awesome! I’m on my way to doing this too, but when I do it, it’s going to be like this…” Tricking my brain into having a positive response to what would normally be a trigger for negativity allows me to lower my stress level before it gets out of hand.
But what happens when we’re out of balance?
One possible symptom of mental stress is anxiety. Anxiety is defined by a feeling of uneasiness, worry, or nervousness about something that has already occurred or is yet to happen. To generalize, it’s basically a reaction to the fear of the unknown. Anxiety is distressing because the situation that is feared can be kept ‘in focus,’ even though it may not actually be present in the moment. Anxiety can manifest in a number of ways, including but not limited to a lack of focus, fatigue, feelings of dread, restlessness, diminished concentration, nervousness, excessive worry, muscle tension, and panic attacks.
Some level of anxiety is normal
It’s completely normal to feel anxious about situations in which you may be potentially uncomfortable. Uncomfortable situations are an occupational hazard of being in the creative field. Whether it’s networking with other artists, performing with artists you don’t know, or taking on a client, as a musician you’ll always have to navigate the unknown on the path to success.
The difference between short-term and long-term anxiety
However, it’s important to note that there’s a difference between short-term and long-term (or chronic) anxiety. Momentary anxiety about a particular situation is common, but when it becomes a long-term condition, it can have really damaging effects on your life. Stress and anxiety can enable or co-exist with other mental health conditions such as insomnia or depression. They can also manifest in a variety of physical illnesses.
There’s so much uncertainty in today’s music industry that just paying your bills or finishing a track can trigger anxiety. That said, in my opinion, the goal of managing anxiety is analyzing what exactly is triggering it, and understanding whether these fears are actual threats to your wellbeing, or based on an unrealistic belief that a negative outcome will occur.
Challenging your beliefs
A particularly common form of anxiety musicians face is stage fright or performance anxiety. Usually, this anxiety is defeated once you do enough successful gigs, but as recording artists and producers, this fear can translate into never releasing music for fear of judgement. The fear of public rejection can be crippling as an artist or producer; however, the benefits of releasing your music will likely surpass the most negative outcomes that you can imagine.
Challenging the beliefs that make you anxious is a way to get past the feeling and create a new mental script for your anxiety. This may mean finally sending your beats out to major artists, releasing the three albums you have on your hard drive, selling your beats online, etc. While it might not be easy, try your best to prevent allowing the thoughts in your head from keeping you in a state of constant inaction.
Everything I’ve mentioned can play into a feedback loop where one condition triggers another condition, which then amplifies the original problem. While we’ve already started mentioning a few strategies, how do you break these cycles and get back to a productive and healthy life?
In my opinion, stress management is one of the keys to living a balanced and healthy life. Musicians spend so much time perfecting their craft that we can leave other areas of our lives unattended. Creating a balanced life can help us maintain a balanced mind. If you find that any of the conditions I’ve mentioned in this article affect you, then I have three solutions that might help point you in the right direction: exercise, meditation, and therapy.
Regular physical exercise not only feels good and keeps you in shape, but also has positive effects on your mood; in many cases, exercise can give your body the extra dopamine or serotonin you need to kick-start your day. Try substituting your morning coffee with a fifteen-minute workout. You can divide your days between different types of physical activities such as upper- and lower-body workouts, stretches, yoga, and running.
Another great practice is meditation (and mindfulness). Taking ten minutes in the mornings and evenings to sit in silence and focus on your breathing helps center your body and bring it back to homeostasis with your mind. For me, one of the biggest benefits of meditation is being able to quiet my conscience, especially when I feel overwhelmed. Practicing regular meditation can help you declutter your thoughts by focusing only on the present moment. If you don’t know how to get started, there are many different online resources and lots of apps out there that can help you with guided meditations.
Psychotherapy or counseling is one of the most effective ways to improve your mental health, and may be essential to eliminate the distress experienced with severe anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other serious problems. Having someone to talk to who can give you the tools to improve your mental health is just as valuable as going to the doctor when you break your arm. You may also find relief from apps that help people deal with stress, mindfulness, and sleeplessness such as Calm, Slumber: Fall Asleep, Relax Melodies, and Headspace. There are also a wide range of helpful articles for managing your mental health, from reputable websites such as the American Psychological Association.
Bonus: positive affirmations
Lastly, I also want to mention the power of positive affirmations. Cycles of stress and anxiety often start because of the negative self talk that we consciously or subconsciously participate in. We all have doubts and fears, but when we get caught in a loop of negative thoughts, it becomes easier to slip into chronic anxiety or depression.
Although it may seem silly, saying positive things to yourself every day helps rewire the brain to a more positive default state. Consider starting a daily practice of affirming positive things about yourself and your life. Maybe it’s a mantra you say every morning or a prayer. I look in the mirror and tell myself that I am beautiful, loved, confident, safe, brilliant, or whatever I need to hear that day. If that isn’t for you, just try saying five positive things about yourself when you wake up and when you go to bed. Do this for a week, and see if you notice a difference in your overall mood. Positive affirmations are just one of many techniques used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is a goal-oriented therapy that focuses on changing negative thinking patterns into positive ones.
Mental health is a continuous journey
Maintaining or healing your mental health doesn’t have to be a journey that you take by yourself. Lean on your peers, friends, and loved ones for support, and there are also many different types of psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists who can help you along your way. The most important thing is to take your mental health seriously. It’s true that the world needs great music in times like these, but more importantly, we need musicians who are healthy if we hope to heal the world with our art.
November 9, 2020