Musicians’ Mental Health in the Empire City During COVID-19

One resident interviews 2 NYC-based musicians about their experiences during the pandemic.

CLINICAL REFLECTIONS

In 2017, New York City (NYC) boasted 57,500 jobs in the music industry,1 making it one of the largest music cities in the worldand creating a uniquely musical population that considers the art part of its culture. It is one of the world’s largest and most influential music ecosystems.1

In 2019, digital distribution platform Record Union surveyed on 1500 musicians and found that 73% of independent music makers suffer from negative emotions in relation to their music creation.2 When the COVID-19 pandemic started, the musical platform was gone overnight and it has been noted that musicians all over the world have been struggling emotionally,3 with reports of waves of musicians committing suicide.4 Studies from the United Kingdom via UK-based charity Help Musicians found that 87% of music artists cite a decline in their mental health after the pandemic,5 but no studies are currently available regarding the status of US musicians, let alone NYC musicians.

As a psychiatrist and fan of music, I cannot help but wonder what is happening to musicians in NYC. As part of answering my own questions, with the hope of shedding some light on the underappreciated other side of the stage, I conducted separate interviews with 2 NYC-based professional musicians.

Musician A is a drummer who completed his musical studies in NYC and has been touring with his band since 2014. Musician B is a pianist who has collaborated with many other musicians since 2016. Both musicians wanted to remain anonymous.

Eds note: This interview has been edited for clarity.

Dr Hong: Would you tell me about your life as a musician before the pandemic?

Musician A: My band has been on a slow ride for a while. And—for the first time—we had tours lined up when the pandemic hit, and everything got canceled.

Musician B: I am a pianist; also studied music therapy and worked as a music therapist. My husband was a full-time musician.

Dr Hong: Tell me about your story after the pandemic hit.

Musician A: My studio that I usually practiced in shut down, and I could not play drums at all. So, I did not have an outlet—could not see my bandmates. Then I was told $40,000 had gone down the drain from canceling the tour. For so many months, we were just kept in the dark like, when it was going to be over? After last summer, we thought it would be over, then another surge happened, then I went back down. And then again in the winter, we had another surge, and I hit a very hardcore depression. I have questioned everything because we do not know how long this will go on. I have thought about how I am going to make my life, kind of stuck home in a room. I had no failsafe.I did not know if I had to completely change career like, maybe I should start to learn how to code.Let’s say it was not a good place to be…

Musician B: Yeah, it was definitely hard. It was a combination. There was a pandemic and also my immigration status. I was in sort of an immigration limbo, and I could not go back and had to be away from my family for a long time. And that was a big part of my mental health crisis. There [was a] lot of anxiety. I was depressed for some time, like after a few months. I still had work because I am a therapist as well, but my husband—he was really hit hard. He literally lost everything in his books for a year. All the gigs, all the tours, all the projects were halted. So that took a really, really big toll on him. And of course, that affects both of us.

Dr Hong: Tell me more about your thoughts on mental health issues during the pandemic.

Musician A: Honestly, I started drinking very heavily for a while because I did not know what else there was to do. All I had been doing was being in studios playing drums, playing shows, and all of that was taken away. I had nowhere to turn, but just to be alone with my own thoughts. There is no music happening for a year-and-a-half, and this is how you make money. Either you need to find another job, or have a good savings account.

Musician B: The spring—the beginning—was very, very hard. Summer was a little better because we started doing little things outside and were able to play again with people. And then when it started getting cold, and we were still in this shit show, it was hard again, because we could not play. When the fall came, we were like, Oh, we are still doing this. It is the beginning of a New Year—there are still no gigs. We are at home all the time. It is very, very hard—many months of a lot of despair, and depression, and anxiety.

Dr Hong: Did you get any help when you noticed that mental health problem?

Musician A: I did not feel like it was worth talking about because everyone’s going through something.And unless someone handed it to me, I did not know where to go. I did not really seek out too much. It did not feel like it was an option, like finding somebody to talk to.

Musician B: For me, I started therapy with a new therapist. Oh, it was very clear to me that that was a huge, huge shift. But it is never easy financially to be in the therapy; that has always been a burden. And finding the right therapist has also been hard.

Dr Hong: What helped you the most to get through the pandemic?

Musician A: Realizing there was going to eventually be an end—when you started to see the vaccines come into play, and to see venues opening up at 30% capacity. At least there was a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel. I was lucky to have my core group of people like my lead singer, who is a mental health advocate. I think that kind of network where musicians understanding other musicians and having a space to talk was very, very helpful. It is very difficult to find people who can understand what you are going through, especially when anxiety and depression are part of your fuel to make your art. For me, knowing someone’s listening—that is already half the battle. Just to be like, hey, you get what I am going through, and there is someone I can talk to about this. That made me feel a lot less anxious.

Musician B: For my husband, not knowing what things were going to [happen] was the hard part. We did not know when we were going have gigs again. Are we starting to change our whole life? Are we starting a new profession? It was helpful just having people starting to plan and starting to have things in the books. Even if they did not happen yet, but they started being talked about as a plan, I think what was helpful to know, OK, this is going to happen again one day, and I need to be patient.

Dr Hong: Could you tell me about your thoughts on musicians’ mental health?

Musician A: Everyone who’s a musician is a little crazy in the best way possible. What I mean is, if you choose to do this for a living, you have to be alittle crazy.And… mental health issues, in my opinion, are probably more rampant in the music industry.

Musician B: A lot of musicians are very insecure. There is a lot of uncertainty in this profession. You do not know when your next gig is going to be, and all of a sudden, you have a month of full work, but you do not know if it is going be the same for the next month. I am talking about people who only gig—only do shows. We could see last year how people just all of a sudden lost everything they had. You live from day to day. So, there is a lot of uncertainty, which is a huge part of instability. Mental instability or mental hardship that musicians can experience may be from that. On top of that, there is all the other things that go into being a musician, like being sensitive and comparing yourself to others.

Dr Hong: What do you think is needed to support the mental health of musicians?

Musician A: I think the biggest obstacle is insurance. Nothing seems affordable unless you already have good insurance or can afford good insurance. I think that the music industry should work towards labels being able to give their musicians health insurance.I have never seen that coming. So even most successful musicians—they are not getting it through labels. We are still paying out of pocket. A lot of art was consumed during the pandemic, but for the artists who were making it—they were left to the side, not taken care of.

Musician B: I think mental health services that are accessible and affordable and easy to find—that is one. And in general, the perception of musicians as real professionals. I hope there is a shift in how society sees a musician. We dedicate our lives to do that, and free people to express and bring them joy, and we should be paid for that. 

Dr Hong: Is there anything you want to add?

Musician A: I wish there would be more open conversation like this, and I am so happy to talk about this with you. I think both myself and my bandmates are pretty open about talking about mental health. And I am excited to hit the road again—it has been way too long. Even just going back to our rehearsal space and playing drums loud. It feels good.

Note: Both musicians added their thoughts about streaming services and how to support musicians further.

Musician A: Streaming, in my opinion, is the worst thing to happen to musicians. It is great for the consumer: You pay for a CD, it is $20, versus $10/month on Spotify for every song that has ever come out.Musicians make 1/3 of a penny for every song. You would need to play that song 10,000 times for a musician to make about $30. So, if you are talking about streaming, it is not how musicians make a living.That is why so many musicians were affected after the pandemic because the bread-and-butter of income for musicians is live music—that is where the majority of your income is coming from. It is not from streams. For example, ifyou play my song 1000 times on Spotify—I make $3.

Musician B: We hate Spotify. We do not use it. These horrible streaming services either need to start paying musicians a different amount or they should not exist, because they are basically making money off of art. So that is a suggestion I have.

Concluding Thoughts

I started this conversation as a personal curiosity, but after interviewing these 2 musicians, I felt a sense of duty as a psychiatrist to let their voices be heard by a bigger crowd. Musicians who come to NYC to realize their dreams have a vast spectrum of backgrounds, but when they face mental health issues, they all share similar difficulties. I found that the nature of their profession—the unaffordable insurance, lack of information, lack of channels for open communication, widespread misunderstanding of music as a profession, and systemic problems in the way we consume music—all put musicians in a very vulnerable category for poor mental health outcomes. There should be more accessible and affordable tools, as well as more resources providing tailored advice and information for musicians. All of this can be addressed with regular and open communication—at the industry level one day, I hope—regarding how to turn those ideas into practical measures.

I would like to thank these 2 musicians for sharing their thoughts with total honesty. I hope this interview will help increase the public’s understanding of mental health issues among musicians, and that it will help other musicians who may be struggling with their mental health.

Dr Hong is a fourth-year psychiatry resident at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn. Prior to current residency training, she obtained a medical degree and became board-certified as a psychiatrist in South Korea. She experienced various cultures growing up and aspires to provide mental health care to underserved populations, including immigrants, LGBTQ+ individuals, and those with socioeconomic disadvantages.

References

1. Banerjee S, Mank T, Curreri G, et al. Economic Impact, Trends, and Opportunities: Music in New York City. NYC.gov. 2017.

2. The 73 percent. Record Union. June 17, 2019. Accessed November 23, 2021.

3. Primov-Fever A, Roziner I, Amir O. Songbirds must sing: how artistic voice users perceive their voice in times of COVID-19 [published online ahead of print, 2020 Aug 18]. J Voice. 2020;S0892-1997(20):30278-2.

4. Nearly 100 unemployed musicians committed suicide during pandemic—opposition deputy. Ahval. September 17, 2020. Accessed November 23, 2021.

5. Masim A. Study: 87% of surveyed musicians say mental health deteriorated during COVID-19 lockdowns. Dancing Astronaut. March 22, 2021. Accessed November 23, 2021.