Sustaining a career as a working, touring musician is a dream shared by many people. It’s often seen as the holy grail of musicianship, being able to support oneself through this precarious and unpredictable existence. Films and magazines present glamourous narratives of hotels, luxury tour buses and fraternising with the rich and famous. However, there is a dark side to the music industry, one which runs incredibly deep, insomuch that it is often seen as a fundamental part of a musician’s life: drugs.
This issue has recently come to light in the death of rapper Mac Miller, who died of a suspected drug overdose on September 7 this year. Sadly, I do not predict that his passing will be remembered any more than the myriad of other musicians who have suffered the same fate – he will simply be another name added to the list.
In order to even attempt to solve this issue, we need a much deeper, wider discussion of the problems faced by musicians. Jackson Browne, in his 1977 album Running On Empty (full credit to my dad for introducing me to this), tackles many of these issues openly.
In songs such as ‘The Road’, he is very explicit about the normality of drug use with the lyrics “Coffee in the morning, cocaine afternoon / You talk about the weather and you grin about the rooms”.
For me, this song perfectly describes the realities of life on the road, embodying the utter monotony of it, and his dreary relationships with female fans he meets along the way – a part of this life that is so often presented as glamourous and desirable. A harsh truth is that many musicians use drugs simply to keep themselves going in a life which is fundamentally exhausting and unsustainable. His song ‘The Load Out’, on the same album, contains the lyrics “When that morning sun comes beating down, you’re gonna wake up in your town / But we’ll be scheduled to appear a thousand miles away from here”. In my opinion, the conversation that Browne was attempting to start has not been adequately followed up.
And it’s not just professional touring musicians who fall foul of this culture. In my relatively limited experience as a semi-professional, I have personally been offered free alcohol, cannabis, magic mushrooms, cocaine, and ketamine – and I include alcohol in this list because it has the same destructive power as any of the others, the only difference being that it is legal. The pressure to indulge in these chemical life-enhancers is immense, and it can be incredibly difficult to say no without feeling like you’re insulting the person offering them.
What we need to do is create a culture of radical self-care for musicians. If enough of us say openly that we’ve had enough of the destructive habits perpetuated by generation upon generation, we can cultivate a new way of existing for the musician. By this, I do not mean stopping drug use entirely; this has been tried countless times, and is categorically proven to be ineffective. We need to increase awareness of the pleasures and the dangers of drugs so that people can make better, educated decisions. I have close friends who have fallen foul of addiction, fought through to the other side, and are now in recovery embracing a new, more conscious life. If we can teach more musicians to take better care of themselves, we will ultimately become a healthier, livelier, more loving community.