I’m Todd L. Burns, and welcome to Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. I highlight some of the best stuff I hear, read, and watch every week; publish news about the industry; and interview writers, scholars, and editors about their work. My goal is to share knowledge, celebrate great work, and expand the idea of what music journalism is—and where it happens. Questions, comments, concerns? You can reach me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you’re not already subscribed to the newsletter, you can do so at musicjournalisminsider.com.
This month, I’m taking a break from the regular newsletter format to present a series of special editions. Earlier this year, I was talking to a music journalist who brought up the topic of mental health. It’s something that’s touched on, briefly, in a lot of the interviews that I conduct for the newsletter, so I thought it might be something to dig into more fully. I asked Rhian Jones, co-author of the recent book Sound Advice: The Ultimate Guide to a Healthy and Successful Career in Music, to do that digging. She’s taking over the newsletter this week with a deeply reported piece that will hopefully be the start of a much-needed conversation.
The mental health challenges that musicians face have been the subject of much discussion in recent years. But what about the job of a music journalist? Are there any pressure points inherent in the work that also deserve scrutiny and support? While there are lots of differences between the two jobs, there are some similarities.
Yes, most music journalists don’t go on tour, deal with the pressure to write a hit, or navigate the financial and mental challenges that come with signing to labels. However, like musicians, a lot of them are self-employed, juggling many plates, working in a competitive and precarious industry (often for low income), dealing with online trolls, and engaging in a late-night gig and festival culture that can facilitate substance misuse and sleep disruption.
There are, of course, many plus sides to being a music journalist. And some of them can actually improve mental health. As music writer and author Kate Solomon points out, “we do a job that allows us, or sometimes forces us, to interrogate our feelings and emotions regularly, whether that’s by reacting to music or through the act of writing, which I think is very healthy.”
On balance, The New Cue’s Ted Kessler says that pursuing his passion has been a good thing for him and his mental health. “Before I was a music journalist, I was lost,” he explains. “I was long-term unemployed, had a criminal record, was an absolute waster. So I was not in a tremendous frame of mind.”
Yemi Abiade, freelancer and Contributing Editor at Trench Magazine, says that his work “has done wonders for my creativity, which in turn has helped my mental health.”
But there are plenty of challenges. Before we delve further into those, it’s worth defining what we’re talking about exactly. As author and psychology lecturer Lucy Foulkes brilliantly breaks down in this article, there’s a difference between periods of mental ill-health, which may temporarily mimic the symptoms of serious disorders like anxiety and depression, and mental illness that requires professional help. This piece will broadly focus on the former. If you feel like you’re experiencing the latter, you should seek medical assistance as soon as possible.
From the six interviews and research I did for this piece, five main pressure points were consistently identified.
Social media. Both Solomon and Roisin O’Connor, who is music correspondent at The Independent, point to the rise of stan culture as a pressure point in music journalism. Stans have often attacked critics over articles that are perceived as negative. O’Connor says she’s experienced sleepless nights before pieces go live in anticipation of the “inevitable backlash.” Certain comments that Solomon has received will go round and round in her head for weeks, impacting her ability to sleep or concentrate. There’s also the comparison element of social media—Abiade explains that early in his career, seeing peers interviewing big artists and seemingly doing better than him was “quite harmful” for him.
Low income and instability. It’s no secret that music journalism doesn’t pay as well as other forms of journalism. As freelance music writer Christine Ochefu puts it, when this reality is combined with the exciting promise of interviewing high-profile musicians, journalists can be left open to exploitation. “In this industry, people can very easily be taken advantage of under the guise of opportunity,” she explains. Journalist and former Kerrang! editor James McMahon experienced this early in his career when he’d sometimes get a call late at night asking for a feature to be turned around by the morning. “I wouldn’t say no because I was flattered to be asked, but that wasn’t great for my mental health.” The instability of the industry, meanwhile, is a source of stress for Solomon. “It can feel quite manic to be one minute thinking you’re financially secure and, in the next, hearing that another of your regular clients has folded.”
Self-employment. A lot of music journalists are freelancers, which can be, according to Kessler, “a terrible way to live.” He went through a two-year period of freelancing in the early ‘00s that he found “very stressful and isolating” due to working alone and “pitching ideas and being at the whim of commissioning editors who you didn’t know who just left you hanging, or fucked with your work without telling you.” He adds, “It makes you insecure and doubt your own abilities.” There’s also the rigmarole of managing your own tax and health insurance, which can be extremely bureaucratic and expensive, depending on where you live, potentially adding further stress.
Gender and racial inequality. Although improvements have been made in recent years towards gender and racial equality among journalists, there’s still a clear disparity. O’Connor says that she’s been “routinely undermined or underestimated,” which she believes has “probably caused residual stress/anxiety.” A recent Reuters factsheet found that from a sample of 20 top online and offline news outlets in 2020, 18% of the editors were non-white despite the fact that, on average, 41% of the general population across the five countries surveyed were non-white. Ochefu says that sometimes editors don’t understand “how an artist is trying to represent themselves, especially if they are talking about things to do with race or identity.” This can result in controversial or sensationalist headlines, which the writers have had no control over. “I’m aware of how that has harmed a lot of other journalists from minority groups,” explains Ochefu.
Substance misuse. Although today’s up-and-coming professionals seem to be increasingly savvy about the negative effects of frequent alcohol and drug consumption, there is still a hangover effect (no pun intended) from earlier times. As music writer Jeremy Allen writes about his battle with addiction in the ‘00s, “a career in music journalism is the perfect foil for anyone who doesn’t want their job getting in the way of a good day’s boozing. Rock stars may have plenty of spare time to drink, but they’re also distracted by all that travelling and performing. Music writers on the other hand can spend the evening half watching from the bar, then spend the next day trying to piece together the night’s action from the drunken hieroglyphics scrawled into a notepad in the dark.” Kessler is from a similar generation, and says that he’s experienced “lots of substance and alcohol abuse” while working. O’Connor, who belongs to a younger cohort, says that she’s managed to avoid any serious issues with substance misuse, yet “as a journalist, especially, you’re surrounded by people offering to buy you drinks and I enjoy a glass of wine, or a whisky, so it was a very rare occasion that I turned those down. But I think we forget that alcohol is a drug as well.” This is something music writers will surely be facing anew as gigs and festivals restart following global lockdowns.
Are there any solutions to all of these challenges? In terms of social media, O’Connor wishes companies would do a better job of stamping out bots and troll accounts and addressing abusive behaviour. She also says that media companies can do much more to support their staff, even if it’s just a regular reminder to let folks know that support is available. She continues: “Often just knowing that you will be supported in the event of stress and anxiety is enough to reduce it.”
Solomon says that if editors are commissioning something potentially controversial, there should be a conversation about headlines, how the piece will be positioned on social media, and how to deal with any backlash. She says: “The number of editors that won’t even check in when you’re being attacked because of something they’ve published is wild.”
Kessler thinks everyone might be better off if commissioning editors could taste the world of freelancing for a while, “so they are able to deal with freelancers with the consideration and duty of care that is due.” Abiade also finds promise in online forums or chat rooms for freelance journalists in particular to share war stories and find support. It’s worth pointing out that there are versions of this out there, including Study Hall, which charges a subscription fee for access to its online community. On Facebook, there’s also the popular No.1 Freelance Media Women group; a few other non-gendered groups linked through here; the newsbreak website, which offers a place for journalists to discuss their mental health; and the Journalist’s Toolbox mental health resource.
Some of the solutions that are already helping the folks I interviewed include having a life outside of work, responding to aggressive stans to remind them they are talking to a human, and limiting their social media activity. In order to manage the insecurity of the industry, many of the freelancers I spoke to had supplementary income outside of their music writing.
In the music and mental health conversation, music journalism has largely fallen under the radar. But it’s clear there are challenges unique to the job that deserve attention and support. Mental health is complex, and this piece is hopefully just the start of a conversation that translates into action. As O’Connor points out, mental health is no longer a taboo subject, but “we need to move beyond the ‘we need to talk about it’ phase.”
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Thanks for reading! Full disclosure: My day job is at uDiscover Music, a branded content online magazine owned by Universal Music. This newsletter is not affiliated or sponsored in any way by Universal, and any links that relate to the work of my department will be clearly marked. Feel free to reach out to me via email at email@example.com. On Twitter, it’s @JournalismMusic. Until next time…