Canadian Musicians Speak Up About Mental Health, Work to Change the Industry

Canadian Musicians Speak Up About Mental Health, Work to Change the Industry
Photo: Stephen McGill
Hollerado frontman and Royal Mountain Records founder Menno Versteeg
When Royal Mountain Records announced they had started a fund to give each of their artists $1500 annually toward mental health services, it was heralded as a watershed moment for the music industry.
 
Amidst a glut of confessions from musicians about the ways in which musicians' mental well-being is insufficiently supported by the industry, Royal Mountain's decision was seen as an important, concrete step toward creating structural change, earning the Toronto-based label attention from the likes of The Globe and Mail, Pitchfork and Spotify, with near-unanimous support and applause.
 
But nearly a year after the announcement, when I ask label founder and owner Menno Versteeg if any other organizations have talked about following suit, you can hear the disappointment in his voice from the other end of the line.
 
"Not a one, unfortunately," he says with a sigh. Despite being invited to speak about the fund at music industry panels across the world, he's seen little initiative from other labels. "Everyone's down to talk about it, but when it comes down to paying for it, it's a little harder," he says.
 
Versteeg, the lead singer of indie rockers Hollerado, is one voice in a growing crowd of musicians who have been speaking out against the conditions of the industry, acknowledging the toll that being a musician can take on their psyches and spirits. Throughout 2019, acts of all sizes within the industry have made known their struggles with mental health, especially in the context of the music industry, from smaller artists like Rae Spoon (whose latest album is called Mental Health) and Xiu Xiu (who cited mental health as the reason for cancelling their world tour) to world-famous superstars such as the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson (who also cancelled a tour due to his mental health) and Justin Bieber (who posted a lengthy missive to Instagram about the toll that adolescent stardom took on his well-being).
 
Said Bieber, "have u noticed the statistics of child stars and the outcome of their life? There is an insane pressure and responsibility put on a child who's [sic] brain, emotions, frontal lobes (decision making) aren't developed yet," he wrote. "When you add the pressure of stardom it does something to you that is quite unexplainable."
 
If there's a common message to be gleaned from these artists, it's that the music industry isn't providing sufficient support for artists' well-being, no matter how much they may profit from their art.
 
"It's always been that idea that the industry's doing a favour to the artist," says Versteeg. "If you work for a company as big as Universal Records, for example, everyone there has health insurance. Literally every employee there has health insurance. I know, personally, so many bands who've been signed to that label for ten years, nothing really works out, they're broke, pretty unemployable after, and at the end of the ten years, they're often in really rough spots and there's no support network for them."
 
This reality is front of mind for Oluwatobi Ajibolade, better known as Toronto-based R&B singer TOBi. Before he entered the music industry full-time, he worked as a child and youth support worker, and he retains his commitment toward developing strategies to better one's well-being.
 
"I think there's an overarching perspective towards musicians where we assume this role that we need to be broken, battered and bruised in order to make good music," says TOBi. "I think there should be more emphasis on creating sustainable environments for artists to work. Just implementing ways for artists to develop these habits that not only make them productive, but keep their spirits alive."
 
In addition to recording and performing, TOBi serves as the organizer of UNPACK Toronto, a series of "constructive discussions of mental wellness in the creative community." Led by a panel of artists, musicians and psychologists, UNPACK Toronto aims to de-stigmatize mental health, especially in the context of the music industry, by fostering an open dialogue, both letting musicians speak openly about their struggles while also exposing attendees to realities of the industry that often go unspoken.
 
Being an artist "does come with its share of troubles and setbacks that aren't visible. They're not spoken about. I think we can get caught up in all the benefits and not look at the costs that come with it," says TOBi. "I feel like we're entering an age of more awareness, more transparency, which is a great thing. And the more we bring awareness, the more we remove the stigma from certain conversations, I think the better off everyone will be. Not just artists, but the general public as well."
 
The first UNPACK Toronto event took place at the end of August. On the panel was rapper Haviah Mighty, mere weeks away from winning the $50,000 Polaris Music Prize for her recent album, 13th Floor, and the platform and accolades that came with it. She mentions that while the mood in the room was tense at first, as people tried to vocalize feelings and ideas that they may have been initially hesitant to share, it eventually blossomed into a productive and open dialogue.
 
"I think a lot of people who spoke up, whether they cried or whether it was difficult to get their statement out, I did feel in the end that there was a lot of positivity in the room," she recounts. "Being in a room like that made so many other people realize that they were not alone, they were not the only one [who felt that way]. I think being in a room with musicians that they recognized was a big part of that too."
 
Amanda Power, the Executive Director of the Unison Benevolent Fund, believes that the increasing openness on the part of musicians is greatly contributing to an overall push toward more mental health resources in the community. "I think a lot of it comes from honest conversation," she says. "The stigma is breaking down, slowly but surely. We're having a lot more conversations now than we did two years ago, five years ago. Things are moving in the right direction."
 
The Unison Benevolent Fund is a Toronto-based organization that provides counselling, crisis support and financial services for musicians, along with round-the-clock guidance by way of a toll-free help line. Power notes that their services are free to access, but acknowledges that they require the musicians to take the first step to reach out.
 
"The onus is on the individual to recognize that they're looking for assistance with something and then to call Unison. The hotline's there for them, anytime that they need it. They just have to pick up the phone and we'll help them," she says.
 
But it's not always easy for artists to take that first step, and it's something that Ace Piva has seen firsthand. Piva, a longtime tour manager based out of Hamilton, found himself exasperated when the artist whose tour he was managing had relapsed, and he felt powerless to help them, as missed interviews and lost opportunities began to pile up.
 
Everything changed for Piva during a conversation with a fan of the artist, who had shown up early to the artist's show to express their gratitude. The fan explained that the artist's candidness about their struggles with sobriety inspired the fan himself to choose sobriety.
 
"This kid was a fan of a certain style of music that endorsed a community," says Piva, "and when he went into rehab to talk to well-educated people who speak proper English, but didn't have the social skills to realize they need to talk to him in his language, everything that they were trying to teach him went over his head. However, when I met him, he was ten months sober and gave credit to the lyrics in these albums because they were lyrics he understood and he could relate to, because they were written in his language.
 
"It took me a minute to figure things out, but because of that situation, I went back to school to become an addictions counsellor. And I worked as one around Hamilton, and then I wanted to bring those skills that I learned and bring it back and be able to support people in the music industry in the language that they understand."
 
Piva is now one of the co-founders and principal organizers of Over the Bridge, a non-profit that connects musicians with a community of therapists and addictions counsellors, along with hosting naloxone training and advocating for more sustainable practices in the music industry.
 
Notes Piva, "When you cross from social service work into the music industry, it's tricky, because unlike a professional sports athlete who, when they get drafted onto a team, they have to follow a certain set of rules and guidelines as set out by the league. You need your doctors, your therapists, everything's put in place. But because the music industry is so individually driven, it's an independent industry, there's no higher organization to put this stuff in place for you."
 
Until then, it's up to the artists and their support systems to advocate for change themselves. All of these initiatives are a start, but as artists continue to speak up about their well-being, there comes a time when the conversations need to lead to concrete action.
 
"It's time to stop talking about and actually act on it," says Versteeg. "You know ACTRA, the actors' union, if you act, you pay into your health insurance. This isn't a new idea I'm thinking of. We can do this. I really think it's going to make some positive changes."