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Episode 111

Music's Mental Health Crisis with Jenn Pelly of Pitchfork

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Session Notes

In December of 2022, Pitchfork published an article, written by Jenn Pelly, called "Confronting Music's Mental Health Crisis".  This article was passed around widely on the internet; obviously, it resonated with many musicians. 

Jenn and I dig deeper into her article, discussing her research and takeaways, bits that she left out of the article, and consider what role Pitchfork can serve regarding artists' mental health.  

We also identify resources for artists and offer concrete ways to support mental health services. 



0:00:00.6 Jessica Risker: Hey, guys! Welcome to Music Therapy. Today, we're going to dive deeper into music's mental health crisis. We have a special guest, Jen Pelly, a staff writer for Pitchfork, joining us on today's Music Therapy. 

Hey, everybody! Welcome to Music Therapy. I'm Jessica Risker, a musician based here in Chicago, Illinois, and I'm also a licensed Clinical Professional Counselor. 

Music Therapy is a mental health existential podcast for musicians and music fans. Visit for previous episodes and upcoming events. 

We have an upcoming event on Wednesday, February 8th, at Cafe Mustache, where we will be doing a live taping of the show featuring Chicago band Waltzer. These are group sessions where I interview a full band, and we have a special guest, Leslie Tanner, who will be doing a comedy interview with the full band. And, of course, the band will give a live performance. They are a lot of fun. The event will be held on Wednesday, February 8th, at Cafe Mustache at 8 PM. I hope to see you there. 

Here's a quote: "Artists are suffering from mental health struggles vastly disproportionate from the general public, even in light of the mounting mental health crisis around the world." 

That quote is from a December 2022 Pitchfork article called "Confronting Music's Mental Health Crisis."

0:01:33.9 Jessica Risker: It was written by Jen Pelly, and she spent a year researching this article. The article was shared widely, and a lot of people sent it to me. It's a great article that clearly resonated with a lot of musicians. I wanted to dig into it, so I reached out to Jen Pelly. Here is our conversation regarding music's mental health crisis. 

0:02:34.9 Jessica Risker: Okay, I'm here today with Jen Pelly. Thank you so much for being with me today.

0:02:40.1 Jen Pelly: Yeah, thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

0:02:43.2 Jessica Risker: So this article was passed around a lot. Several friends sent it to me. I think it really made waves in the music community, and I just wanted to talk about it a little bit more. I wonder if you could just give us a synopsis of the article as you understand it...

0:03:02.3 Jen Pelly: Yeah, totally. I was really glad to see that it seemed to really be reaching people well. So, yeah, for some context, I've been a music journalist for about 15 years, and I started working at Pitchfork in 2011. I'm currently a freelancer, so I think the nature of my work as a freelancer, I could relate to what musicians are up against a lot of the time. And I guess it was around the time that I went freelance in 2018 that I started to think about a lot of the issues that I'm investigating in this story. I've also always had a lot of friends who are musicians, and I think because of that, I've had a front row seat to the realities of touring. I've been on tour with some of my friends' bands, and I've been on tour as an artist myself, which is maybe less relevant given the nature of that.  I've been on tour with some of my friends' bands, and I've been on tour as an artist myself, which is maybe less relevant given the nature of that. But I just know, I feel like from that, I've witnessed a lot of the stuff that I'm talking about in the piece. And as a music journalist, at a certain point, I just started to feel like the world that I write about and live inside of, and that enriches my life, is clearly not working for so many people. I felt a certain level of responsibility to take a close look at why that is. Why so many musicians, at various levels, seem to be struggling with mental health, particularly in relation to touring, and how touring works, and how the streamlined quality factors into that. It's all part of these interconnected systems that are not working.

0:04:54.6 Jen Pelly: I guess I certainly felt a responsibility to take a closer look at that as someone who lives a life with music. And the more time I spent talking to people, both artists and industry professionals, and those working at the intersection of music and mental health, those systemic issues became clearer to me. 

The economy of touring, the streaming economy, the barriers to healthcare in the United States, particularly for freelancers, the overall unsustainability of touring during the pandemic we're living through—these factors, along with corporate consolidation in the music industry, all contribute to the challenges faced by musicians operating in the middle. I wanted to take a close look at all of this. 

Additionally, over the years, I started to notice various initiatives cropping up, such as the organization Backline, which connects musicians and crew members with mental health resources, or the Touring and Mental Health Manual, a book by therapist Tim Bon in the UK. These initiatives, along with artists calling for mental health support from record labels, were part of the story I was trying to piece together. It ended up being a 7,000-word piece.

0:07:01.9 Jen Pelly: There's more to it. I also wanted to give serious attention to how artists I know or am a fan of in other countries are navigating these issues. I wanted to do a side-by-side comparison of how artists in other countries are getting by in 2022. So I spoke to people in Norway, Australia, and Canada about the government subsidies and healthcare options available to them and how it impacts the reality of being a working musician. That aspect became a significant part of the story as well.

0:07:39.7 Jessica Risker: The article itself is not overwhelming when you read it, but what it brings up feels very overwhelming. You touch on many aspects, like you said, in many arms, and it seems very centered mostly on the economics of healthcare available to American citizens and the music industry. 

So it's hard to know where to begin, which I think is probably what everyone's feeling a little bit like, how do you start chipping away at this? How do you start working on this issue? But what takeaways, whether related to that comment or otherwise, did you have after researching and writing the article?

0:08:24.6 Jen Pelly: I think what you're saying about the overwhelming nature of the conversation is something that was extremely top-of-mind for me as I was working on the story. It can feel unwieldy, and I had to present the research I've done in a way that felt useful. But I think that's a big part of why the conversation about mental health and music often gets pushed under the rug. 

Even before the pandemic, it's something that would linger, and people knew things weren't working out, but the fast pace of being a touring musician doesn't allow for much reflection all the time. That's something I found interesting. In the piece, I try to highlight organizations and people who are providing immediate resources to musicians through therapy or other mental health support. At the same time, I also take a systemic perspective and explore the necessary changes within the music industry.

0:10:02.8 Jen Pelly: What are the changes to the music industry and society that people can advocate for and organize towards in order to make music a more sustainable place for those pursuing it as a career? Some of the initiatives I explored in the piece feel practical and worth pursuing.

0:11:49.1 Jen Pelly: It was really interesting to hear Jenny Hval from Norway, one of my favorite artists, talk about the support she receives living in Norway and how it has influenced her music. She mentioned universal healthcare, government subsidies, and being part of artist unions. This highlights the importance of organizing, solidarity, and information sharing among musicians in the United States. 

There are resources available, such as pro bono therapy initiatives, but people often don't know about them. It's crucial to make information more accessible and create channels for communication. I find inspiration in initiatives like the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, which was founded in 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic by musicians striving to improve the quality of life for musicians.

0:13:10.7 Jen Pelly: Another initiative I discussed in the piece is the Rural Mountain Records Mental Health Initiative. This Canadian label provides a $1500 mental health and wellness stipend for every artist they sign for an album cycle. 

While this may not solve the systemic problem of the mental health crisis in music, it's a step forward. I would love to see more labels and projects incorporating such support into their deals for artists. It's hard to believe that most labels, especially independent ones, don't have similar initiatives. 

During a panel discussion, I mentioned that I see people at record labels freely spending money at bars. 

0:13:10.7 Jenn Pelly: And it's like... So it's like there's money there, so why can't some of that money be allocated towards mental health resources rather than $1500 on alcohol in one night for everyone at the label? To me, it seems like opening up funds like that at record labels would be a step in the right direction. But beyond that, I also think that Sandals, whom I interviewed for this piece, spoke powerfully about the necessity of addressing the exploitative streaming deals that exist for artists. These deals have created a context where artists feel like they are expected to tour harder and more frequently than in the past. The way people think about touring has changed. In the '90s, you didn't go on tour to make a living; you went on tour to promote the CD you were selling.

And so the idea that touring is how you make the vast majority of your money is a fairly new phenomenon. This is one of the conversations I've been having with people a lot since my piece came out, and it's about the changing perception of touring in the music industry. I believe that considering the streaming economy is also crucial.

 I want to acknowledge my twin sister, Liz Pelly, who is a music journalist and has written important pieces about the streaming economy. Her work has influenced me and made me think more deeply about the instability of the music industry. Shout out to my sister.

Jessica Risker:  I'd like to revisit a point you made earlier. One of the quotes I pulled from the person running the Canadian label, who provides stipends for mental health services, resonated with me. They said, "I've had artists tell me I was on the edge, and this helped save my life. It doesn't seem like good business, giving money away, but in the long run, it actually is good business because bands can be healthier and make great art."

 I believe this is true on a philosophical level. Personally, when I've struggled with mental health issues versus when I've been in a better place, my music has improved significantly. The executive functioning skills involved in creating and releasing music are much better. So investing in mental health resources is an investment in our arts community that benefits everyone.

Jenn Pelly: Yes, I completely agree. People across all areas of the arts can relate to that. As a writer, I can relate to it as well. Therapy has had a tremendous impact on my ability to function as a creative individual. There's a quote by Tamsin that follows in the piece where she says, "Your capacity for expression widens when you begin to heal." I think both of their statements are incredibly important. 

Given the nature of being a touring musician and the reality of that lifestyle, I believe there should be infrastructure in place, not just within labels but within the entire music world, to support artists. I remember discussing this with Adrian Langer from Big Thief, and she expressed that if people felt like their basic needs were being met, shows would improve and music would be better overall. This includes having mental health resources available and ensuring that artists are paid adequately for their performances, especially when they are just starting out.

[0:14:27.0] Jenn Pelly: I do feel like I say in the piece, I think that people who are at the beginning of their careers often get overlooked in these conversations. There are certain resources available to those who can prove that they have been making a majority of their income from music for several years, and so on. What Adrian Langer was talking about was like making sure that people are paid fairly when they play a show with their opening shift, so the idea of food being provided, hot meals being provided, things like that...

[0:18:14.7] Jessica Risker: Yeah, so many times I'll play a show and I'm not a beginning artist, but I'm definitely... Anyway, so a lot of times you go and you play a show and you get half off of whatever food that they provide, and I feel like that could be a good place to start, give the band a meal.

[0:18:30.1] Jenn Pelly: Yeah, I was talking to someone at this conference that I spoke out on Sunday, I was talking to someone who said in Europe, the idea that an artist would show up to your gig and would not be provided a hot meal. It's just unthinkable, it's not providing a bathroom or something, it's just something that is built into the infrastructure of the performing arts.

 I know that not every venue can afford that, but I think it's interesting to take a look at, why is that? Why can't everyone afford that? And something I was talking a lot with a friend about over the weekend is like, I think we should take a closer look at why venues feel like they can't afford these things and how that would change if, say, for example, a venue in New York City or DC or Chicago could apply for some sort of arts grants to fund that opened up to the arts and cities more to help subsidize some of this stuff. 

I think that could also be interesting, and all of these things seem like they are impossible, but I do think that artists organizing is kind of like the first step to exploring what is possible in terms of trying to find more funding for the arts to reduce stress and make things feel more possible as a prospect...

[0:20:06.1] Jessica Risker:  I'm curious if you had any interesting bits that for one reason or another, you weren't able to include in the article or anything that, for whatever reason, didn't make the cut, but was also something that stood out to you?

[0:20:55.1] Jenn Pelly: Oh man, there's so much stuff that's on the cutting room floor of the piece, 'cause I interviewed so many people, but let's see. I'm not sure if anything in particular comes to mind exactly, but maybe one thing that was interesting that I think that I left out is people increasingly... I think people understand that touring isn't like this traveling party where people have beat the system and they just get to live outside of capitalism and have this kind of existence where they travel around to play music and it's like summer camp or something. 

That's an idea that is just so far from the reality. The reality is that it's really hard for 90% of the day, and then for 10% of the day, it's not... Maybe some people would even disagree with that ratio, but I was talking to one artist for the piece and I was like, "Is there any example of an incident on tour or an anecdote that you remember that you feel like would really hammer home the challenges that come with being a touring artist?" 

[0:22:14.6] Jenn Pelly: If it was one example, it's like I just... Over and over and over again. Which, yeah, I don't know. There's other stuff that was left out of the piece too, but that's one that I thought was interesting because sometimes I feel like being a freelancer or being an artist, the challenges... Yeah, you isolate them. And if you talk about them individually, it may not paint the fullest picture of what it feels like when you feel like you're drowning while you're trying to do the thing that you do. Actually, I felt like Rachel Brown from Water From Your Eyes, who I spoke to, said this and this person, Rachel Brown, who I spoke to from a band called Water From Your Eyes, who are a fairly young band who I really like, they just signed to Matador Records, which they announced today, and they were saying in the piece, people really glamorize the idea of being a musician and forget that it's a lot of work when you're stressed about surviving... You can't think about anything else, right? I think it was when you're in survival mode. That's it. You're just in survival mode. And there's so much about being an artist today, particularly touring-wise, that just puts you into perpetual survival mode because the economics of it are so bad.

[0:23:38.7] Jenn Pelly: Yeah.

[0:23:38.9] Jessica Risker: It makes me think of the hierarchy of needs that we have, and then going back to when your needs are provided for, you're going to be more creative at those higher levels and be able to invest that time into what you're making instead of just surviving.

[0:23:57.5] Jenn Pelly: Totally, and no one becomes a musician or a writer because they think it's gonna be easy. That's not even... No one thinks that. You get into a creative life fully expecting that it's gonna be hard in many ways, but I think that the things that are hard about it should be like the creative process. I don't think the things that are hard about it should be being in survival mode constantly in the arts and writing music, whatever it is... It's always gonna be hard, but it shouldn't be as hard as it is. It should be impossible, but I really like what Kevin Erickson said from the Future of Music Coalition when I interviewed him. He said, "People are always gonna make art about the hardships they're going through. We don't have to make it harder." And I think that kind of summarized a lot of it. I just feel like the world we live in, at least in the United States, the context that we live in, just makes it so much harder to be an artist than it has to be...

[0:25:00.2] Jessica Risker: Yeah, I think that's a good way to put it. I wanted to ask you about another aspect of this that you touch on in the article, and this is something that with the podcast, I've done over 100 episodes now, most of them are really in-depth interviews with musicians, and one thing that comes up almost every single time is social media and the impact that social media has on mental health. I think the internet is part of the system that has changed the landscape of music and economics and all of that in massive ways that we're just now trying to keep up with, but I guess I'm wondering your thoughts on the role that social media plays on musicians' mental health.

[0:25:45.9] Jenn Pelly: Totally, I think it's a really good question. And from the very beginning of when I was here to work on this piece in earnest at the beginning of last year, it was immediately apparent to me from the conversations I was having that social media is a definite component of the mental health crisis in the music industry. Maybe it's worth mentioning the statistics that I cited at the beginning of my piece. In music, there is a need for a lot more research on mental health. One study that I mentioned in the piece is a 2019 survey that surveyed over 1100 people who work in music and touring. It found greatly elevated rates of clinical depression, stress, and levels of suicidality that are five times the average rate of the US population. I feel like those statistics really highlight the severity of this conversation. When I started to talk to people about it, it became immediately clear to me that the lack of boundaries created by social media is a huge part of it.

0:27:03.9 Jenn Pelly: And you know, it's interesting 'cause I remember eight years ago thinking... 'cause I have so many friends who tour. And over the years, I remember thinking like, "Wow, I don't think I could ever do that. I don't feel like I'm built for it. I don't think I could just be traveling constantly because of all the things that I know I need to be able to do in order to not be depressed." Really, more over the past few years, social media has been a part of that too. Where I consider myself a pretty private person, at least in the past decade of my life, and I can't really imagine what it would feel like to have so much pressure to commodify yourself and put it on the internet and be public about so many parts of your life. To me, that's obviously not healthy, but I just don't... I don't think that should actually be the norm for how people are promoting their work. I just... I don't know, that doesn't seem right either.

0:28:02.5 Jessica Risker: Yeah, I totally agree. I think the other thing that comes up when I'm having these conversations is just the comparison that comes from social media. Musicians comparing themselves to other musicians, or they see a story of a show and how full the room looks or how many likes somebody's getting or a checkmark. All that kind of stuff really gives rise to a lot of depression or self-esteem issues, and some of that is just so quantified, it's hard not to... How could you not compare your listen counts on Spotify to somebody else's listen counts? Yeah.

0:28:37.5 Jenn Pelly: It seems like artists should be protected from those sorts of things. I think not participating in them. I think it goes back to what we were saying in the piece, where Noah from Real Estate was saying, "It doesn't seem like good business, but people can be healthier and it actually is better for business." 

And I started feeling that maybe in some way that logic could be applied to social media, where obviously, for some people, some people like to be really online, some people like to drink too, and some people... It's like some people are sober, some people can drink, some people can be on social media and not have it ravage their self-esteem, and some people can't. 

And I think it's just kind of like we tend to be incredibly sensitive. And so to me, it makes sense that for someone to protect that part of themselves, they would create a boundary with social media, not force themselves into it every day or be clinging to it.

0:29:40.6 Jessica Risker: I like the idea that a label would just create some paywall for a musician so they can't look at their stats. 

I really appreciate your time today, and I guess I wanted to ask, like we were saying at the beginning, it's a really overwhelming problem, and sometimes with overwhelming problems, I think there's a sense of, "Okay, we know this is a problem, but I don't know what to do about it." And I guess I was wanting to leave the listeners of this episode with maybe a couple of actions they could take, whether they're a musician or they want to support musicians that feel concrete, that maybe you've identified through your article and research.

0:30:27.4 Jenn Pelly: Yeah, totally. It's interesting 'cause I'm a music journalist, I mostly write about songs and lyrics and interview people about their work. So doing this piece, I learned a lot and I'm really... If people have feedback on the story, if they have other ideas for things that people can do, I would encourage... I would love to hear from people, feedback on the story. 

Like I said at the beginning, one of those inspiring things I came across during the piece was the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers. I do think that they are doing really important work in general, in terms of trying to make music a more sustainable place. They were doing a campaign, the Justice at Spotify campaign, protesting outside of Spotify offices and stuff, and to me, that is an interesting response. 

I think that in my mind, it seems like there could be room for an organization like Yuma or there used to be a healthcare working group. I'm not sure if there is anymore. I think it might be on pause, but the idea of there being a musician-led healthcare working group, having musicians organizing around health and mental health and taking up these issues as musicians' issues could be interesting. But also...

0:31:48.1 Jenn Pelly: I don't want to put too much of a burden onto artists because I think that this is a systemic thing also... 

Well, one thing I would say is to check out this organization called Backline, which I found out about while working on the piece. They're trying to be a mental health hub for music, where if you are struggling and you're trying to get connected with affordable healthcare, you can fill out a form on their website and they will attempt to connect you with therapy that you can afford.

I also think people should ask... Something that came up in this panel that I was on on Sunday is that people don't often ask for things because they don't think that they will get them. Like maybe if you think that your label should be paying for your health insurance or paying for your therapy, maybe ask them for that and see what happens. Or if you think your booking agency should be paying for it, ask them... And see what happens. I've heard of that happening for people since this piece came out. Musicians mentioned that they've asked and that demand has been met by certain labels or agencies.

0:33:00.0 Jenn Pelly: Basically, I can't imagine it would hurt to ask... Yeah.

0:33:02.6 Jessica Risker: Aside from that, yeah, I feel like to me, those are important options. Absolutely, absolutely. As a gatekeeper of indie music and a maker, an arbiter of careers in the music world, what do you think Pitchfork's role is in terms of the musician mental health crisis?

0:33:19.2 Jenn Pelly: I think that's a really good question, and it's something that I've been thinking about since the article came out. You mentioned Pitchfork as a maker and a breaker of careers. Something that's really interesting to me that I've been thinking about in terms of this story is, like I was talking earlier about the infrastructure of the music industry being lost due to corporate consolidation over the past couple of decades. 

When I think about that, my mind immediately goes to the loss of alt-weekly newspapers across the country. It used to be that there were probably multiple outlets in every city, and if you were a band, maybe Pitchfork liked you, but maybe you'd be on the cover of the alt-weekly, and that would be a big deal. That would be a way that people found out about your music. And I think the loss of that is really, really devastating. 

I guess I don't see it as a Pitchfork problem as much as I see it as a media problem, where the loss of infrastructure of music journalism is a part of this too. There used to be more music magazines, more alt-weekly newspapers. So just because one publication didn't like you, it didn't necessarily mean that you weren't championed in other places.

0:34:39.2 Jenn Pelly: Yeah, yeah, I think that problem is true. And not to mention, in this piece that I wrote, I would guess that part of the reason why this story hasn't been told in the way that I told it before is because of the state of music journalism in 2023, where music is underfunded. Music journalism is also underfunded. And to me, anyway, I think there should be more local music entities. There should be more grants for music journalism in addition to grants for positions in order to find stories that are needed, that are doing a public service, and support local music publications that are doing a service to the scenes that they exist in... Yeah. And I'm not sure if I can exactly answer the question you were asking, but I do see media as being a part of the story.

0:35:35.2 Jessica Risker: I would love to see more psychoeducation out there. I think that's something that is a public service and could have a lot of reach for people. Just the power of learning about mental health issues and what you can do, I think would be great. It's another thing to work on. But... I mean, thank you so much for your time today. Your article was really impactful, and I really appreciate you coming on to talk about it a little bit more.

0:36:04.9 Jenn Pelly: I appreciate that so much. Thanks for asking such thoughtful questions.

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