The music industry's sickness
A new book, Bodies, interrogates why the music industry is heaving with self-destruction. Are we journalists complicit?
When I first asked my friend and music journalist Ian Winwood about the premise of his excellent new book, Bodies, his answer was simple: “the music industry makes people ill.” Bodies, then, charts the casualties, with Ian talking to some of those who made it out of the industry alive – just.
Ian almost didn’t make it either, and this book is part memoir, tracing with bracing honesty and black humour his own journey to overcoming drug and alcohol addiction while working as a rock journalist in London during the early Aughts, profiling artists who had been inside psychiatric facilities, or who have since died. (With horrible timing, Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, who Ian describes in Bodies as lucky to have survived his near-fatal overdose back in 2001, died last week from cardiovascular collapse; there were 10 different drugs in his system.)
Ian bridges his own story with that of these rock stars with a disturbing premise: in an industry built on dysfunctionality, a person falling apart is no cause for concern. “My behaviour was given perfect cover by the industry in which I work”, he writes, describing the drink-soaked, drug-fuelled environments in which journalists, publicists and artists would meet, work and observe. At one point, Ian’s dealer was actually the former tour manager for a very well-known band.
With the perspective of being now three years sober, Ian examines how the music industry, “dandruffed in powder”, not only tolerates but celebrates dysfunctionality. Extreme behaviour is normalised; vices can pass off as personality traits – and admired ones at that. Ian describes how in music press circles “getting plastered on a Tuesday night was a commendable achievement” and how, when a magazine editor who got so smashed after a Metallica gig fell asleep upon platters of food on the buffet table, he was “widely applauded” (though I can see this happening in other industries too). Nearing the peak of Ian’s addiction, a Los Angeles press agent he’d only just met that day greeted him with: “I hear you like a bit of jazz salt. There’ll definitely be some of that for us later tonight.”
One moment in the book sums up the ‘normality’ of excess and self-destruction within the music business with horrifying clarity. After talking to LostProphets bassist Stuart Richardson about how the band remained oblivious to their vocalist’s paedophilia, Ian writes: “The reason LostProphets failed to identify something so uniquely vile within their ranks was because Ian Watkins could take his pick of routine ruinations behind which he could so easily hide.”
So what is it about the music industry and “ruination”? And why has it ceased to shock us? When I was working at GQ, particularly in the lead up to the Men of the Year awards, there was constant gossip circulating on the latest celeb to have pulled out last minute because of a heroin or coke addiction. Someone would always know somebody’s stylist, and stylists always know the stars’ dirty secrets – they literally have to see them naked.
At first, particularly when one year concerned a massive global star, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I naively thought these kinds of vices only existed in rock n roll's debauched heyday. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that these beautifully put together pop stars who preached about meditation, green juices and mountain yoga on Instagram could be unravelling so extremely behind-the-scenes.
Five years later and it’s more shocking to hear about the musicians who haven’t been addicted to something, or who haven’t had a mental breakdown. Demi Lovato has opened up about their addiction to crack cocaine and heroin. Justin Bieber has said that his drug addiction to pills, marijuana and alcohol was so bad that his security used to have to routinely check his pulse. Lady Gaga revealed that when she did “bags and bags of cocaine” alone in her room, she rationalised it as “about being an artist”....“I wanted to BE the artists I loved, like Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol – and I thought the only way to do it was to live the lifestyle.”
In Bodies, Ian interviews up and coming rock band Creeper. On their 2017 tour, the frontman Will Gould tells Ian that every day for three months straight, he and the band would drink pints of gin from 11 am to offset the sleeping tablets they’d taken the night before to cope with anxiety. And they would continue drinking until they went to bed. Ian Miles, Creeper’s guitarist, said that nobody around them saw their behaviour as unusual. “One night I set my guitar case on fire and threw it in a lake. It was people going mad, essentially. And that’s just normalised. Not in public perception, just within the music industry…”
As psychologist Dr Howard tells Ian, if artists aren’t struggling, it’s more likely that “they haven’t got to that stage in their career… It would be a miracle if there weren’t [difficulties] because it’s a very extraordinary world that artists live in.” When I interviewed rising star Lola Young late last year, who is being managed by Amy Winehouse’s former manager Nick Shymansky, I asked her what scared her about becoming famous. “I’m scared of getting addicted to drugs,” she told me. “I’m not talking crack and heroin though, I’m talking about opiates. Because when you become the cool one, everybody wants to do it around you, everybody wants to see you doing it.”
Landing on my desk at similar times to the proofs of Ian’s Bodies last year were two other books about tragedy in the music industry: the official biography of Avicii by Mans Mosesson, and My Amy by musician Tyler James, Amy Winehouse’s best friend and flatmate for most of her life .
What struck me in both these books was how ill-suited and unprotected these artists were from the mad world that is celebrity. Artists are so often introverts and outsiders, and the sudden ascent from anonymity to fame is completely derailing. According to James (who writes of his own long history of alcohol and drug addiction after getting dropped by his record label), part of the reason Amy would get so drunk was so she could stop feeling like a star. James claims she was totally uninterested in how her records sold or the money she made, and was so desperate for normal interactions with those around her she would baffle her North London neighbours by popping over unannounced with various expensive gifts, for a drink and a chat. James says she wore a Beehive so people wouldn’t look at her face.
Reading about Swedish DJ Avicii (Tim Bergling), who died of suicide age 28, it was so sad to see how uncomfortable the shy, deeply anxious and obsessive Bergling was to a life in the public eye. He had acne, and hated people looking at him, and he suffered from anxiety and panic attacks. He had health OCD, and was convinced there was a tumour growing inside his stomach. His reliance on alcohol to soothe his nerves when performing became so bad he gave himself pancreatitis. No wonder, considering Avicii was performing 600 gigs a year, sometimes two on the same night in different cities.
Mosesson includes this heartbreaking email from Avicii to his manager: “It feels like I’m going to faint every single day now. And not just today and from this tour but from about the first time I mentioned that I felt worn out….pretty regularly but I push it back down and chose not to bring it up because there’s nothing I can do about it.” As his life spiralled out of his control, Bergling began to purposefully arrive hours late to work engagements: a tiny act of resistance, he once said, against an industry that pulled him about like a puppet.
Avicii, like many artists, was unprepared to deal with the mental and physical exertion of being on tour for six weeks straight. His dad blamed the lack of “structure” he felt his son was given as an up and coming musician navigating the “dangerous combination…of fame and fortune”. As the bluegrass musician Tom Gray tells Ian in Bodies: “There is no longer any money in recorded music so everyone just stays on the road playing hundreds and hundreds of gigs.” (The average pay out per Spotify stream is $0.004, while Avicii could charge over $500k for a single show). Artists can get into alcohol or prescription drugs simply as a way to stay awake on stage at a time of sheer exhaustion. Or as a way to calm down following the enormous surge of adrenaline when you come off stage. There begins the vicious cycle. Rappers Lil Peep, Juice WRLD and Mac Miller all spoke of their addiction to prescription drugs – all of them died before they were 27.
What was horrifying to read across Bodies, Avicii’s biography and My Amy was how much the music industry knowingly feeds this cycle. Almost everyone around Amy was on her payroll, so it was in everybody’s interest that she keep working, that she keep performing, despite her crack cocaine and heroin addiction. Of course there were some good guys, but she could fire anybody who disagreed with her, which is what happened to her manager Nick Shymansky when he tried to get her to go to rehab.
When Avicii had his gall-bladder and appendix removed due to infection, and became addicted to the Percocet his doctor gave him shortly after, he kept performing despite sources saying that he desperately needed to be in a facility. American producer Kaskade told British GQ at the time: “This whole industry is designed to destroy. Managers, business managers, agents, attorneys: they are all focused on working you because that is how they make a living.”
As Ian in Bodies makes clear, the music industry attracts vulnerability, and vulnerability is easy to control – and monetise. “The managers, the agents, the whole industry is porn…” Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins tells him. “It was built on the assumption that you’re only going to be here for a few years, so we’re going to tell you what you want to hear and we’re going to say what we need to say to get what we want from you.” Corgan goes on to tell Ian how, when their drummer left the band after a decade of debilitating drug abuse, they were rushed back on tour six weeks later. “How can that psychologically be a good idea?”
Justin Bieber told GQ that he became so desperate to have some time off from performing when he was starting out that he actually hid his passport so that he wouldn’t have to play on the Today show. “There’s all these opinions. And in this industry, you’ve got people that unfortunately prey on people’s insecurities and use that to their benefit,” he said. “And so when that happens, obviously that makes you angry. And then you’re this young angry person who had these big dreams, and then the world just jades you and makes you into this person that you don’t want to be. And then you wake up one day and your relationships are fucked up and you’re unhappy and you have all this success in the world, but you’re just like: Well, what is this worth if I’m still feeling empty inside?”
Near the end of Bodies, Ian notes that the music industry is getting better. Mental health helplines have been launched by record labels, while earlier this year Sony launched Songwriter Assistance, which provides free, confidential counselling sessions to its entire roster. But for every article or press release promoting change, there are artists pointing out all the gaping holes – artists are thrown into the deep end too soon, they are unprepared, under-supported and underpaid, and they continue to be exploited. Or, as musician Grant Hutchinson tells Ian in Bodies, there remains impure motivations. “‘To put it quite bluntly, people who take their lives can no longer play shows. I think [the industry] is starting to realise that looking after [vulnerable performers] also means that they’re looking after themselves.”
Whenever I see an artist’s machine in motion, I am often struck by how infantilised these stars can seem. There is someone hired to do every job they could possibly need doing, to respond to any whim – as if they were children that might tantrum at any moment. I remember, in one interview I did a few years ago, the publicist was on the phone to PlayStation customer service to retrieve the 24-year-old musician's forgotten password, so he could continue to play it during our conversation. The other month I was shocked to read that then-17 year old Kid Laroi would ask his manager to drive 30 mins out of town to get him his favourite frozen Coca Cola.
The issue is if even their most simple interactions with daily life are outsourced how will they know how to manage their contracts? Or their money? Everything is looked after for them – at one point Amy didn’t even have to buy her own drugs. Tyler James claims she didn’t own any of her credit cards, and that everything was sorted for her via an account. This absence of responsibility or connection to her own reality, writes James, is what contributed to her death. “It can happen to anyone, but when you’re famous and you’ve bodyguards you’re too looked after. And you’re learning, as an addict, that there are no consequences..You literally don’t have to watch yourself, because other people are doing the watching,” he writes. “When you’re not even responsible for getting yourself to bed, that’s dangerous. The very things that were put in place to save Amy were part of the reason she wasn’t saved, in the end.”
Reading Bodies, younger journalists like me might read about Ian’s trips across the world, backstage with bands, drinking with artists, with eyes saucer wide. It’s true the music industry in 2022 seems, in comparison, like a much more moderate, healthier place. The other day a veteran publicist was literally dumb-struck that I had never been taken to Los Angeles on a press trip (press trips! remember them??), while I’m lucky if an artist orders so much as a drop of caffeine in an interview, let alone a shot of tequila. I’ve never even been backstage and a publicist has never offered me drugs. I’ve very rarely seen an artist drunk. Dua Lipa’s pre-performance routine, as she described in her newsletter last week, involved meditation and a facial, while these days artists answer the classic what’s in your rider question with talk of Evian and carrot sticks.
But then again, artists continue to come out with horror stories about fame. Even the new Harry Styles song As it Was alludes to loneliness and substance abuse: “Answer the phone/Harry, you're no good alone/ Why are you sitting at home on the floor?/ What kind of pills are you on?” So perhaps, as the “glamour” that was once associated with debauchery has faded in our era of wellness and perfection, such excess has not disappeared, but simply been tidied out of sight.
Journalists are not innocent in all this either: as Ian writes so honestly in Bodies, journalism’s voyeuristic fascination with tales of stars’ self-destruction remains part of the problem. “I have written reams of articles that examine in precise detail the degradation of a hundred lives,” he writes, recalling how he heard the sound of “trumpets” in his ears when Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails once told him about getting sectioned after pumping himself full of heroin and cocaine. “That’s it right there, I thought. That’s my intro – the rest will write itself.”
Ah, those trumpets – I know them well. Don’t we journalists hear them every time an interviewee divulges a particularly juicy story of misfortune, knowing that we’ve clinched our opening anecdote, or perhaps a zinging final line? It is a grotesque way to think about a person’s life, but it is journalism as we know it – though I think this too is changing, because we’ve noticed it’s not right. As Ian writes in Bodies, “There is, I think, something exceptional about our habit of romanticising the ghastly stories of my wing of the creative industries. Some of us are wedded to the idea that capable art should be underwritten by human suffering.”
Bodies (Faber) by Ian Winwood is out April 21; pre order here.
PS: I am now offering regular media training. If you are a publicist/manager and have an artist/talent who needs help on crafting the best way to tell their story & present their brand to the media, email firstname.lastname@example.org
This week in links
I’ve been watching The Dropout, the drama about fraudster Elizabeth Holmes (played superbly by Amanda Seyfried), who founded Theranos, a (now defunct) company that promised to revolutionise accessible healthcare by allowing patients to test for diseases such as cancer with just one drop of blood, in Walgreens. Problem was the tech she promised Theranos labs were using was about ten years away from being ready. Seyfried’s mastery of her quirks – her weird, jaw-clenching grin, her well-honed deep voice, her robotic dancing to hip-hop and her frazzled low bun – allows you to see a different side of Holmes. (Why do so many white egomaniacs seem have a weird relationship with hip-hop? Kendall Roy, Anna Delvey….)
I’ve been reading The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan, a novel that imagines a dystopian world in which “bad mothers” are forced to a year-long camp where they practise motherhood on silicon AI dolls, if they ever want to see their real children again. It’s unnerving how reachable this dystopian world feels. I also couldn’t get enough of this fantastic GQ profile of Nicholas Cage by Gabriella Paiella. The seamless but always completely unexpected segues between the various layers of Cage’s character are a dreamy masterclass in profile writing.
I’ve been listening to the beautiful neo-soul & jazz of EP Fieldnotes Pt. II from one of my new favourite musicians, Ego Ella May. Listen here
I can’t stop thinking about Aaron Sorkin’s new production of To Kill a Mockingbird, which has just come to the West End, where I was sitting behind a completely unrecognisable Emma Corrin. (Only realised once I saw the Daily Mail pictures the next day – what a terrible celebrity journalist I am). The stage production is incredible – you can tell Sorkin has come straight from Hollywood – while Poppy Lee Friar as Mayella, the white woman who cries rape, is disturbingly excellent. Read my colleague Dominic Cavendish’s five-star review.
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