sat 18/05/2024

theartsdesk Q&A: Sally Anne Gross and Dr George Musgrave, authors of 'Can Music Make You Sick?' | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Sally Anne Gross and Dr George Musgrave, authors of 'Can Music Make You Sick?'

theartsdesk Q&A: Sally Anne Gross and Dr George Musgrave, authors of 'Can Music Make You Sick?'

On World Mental Health Day we meet the authors of an incisive new study of music and musicians

Sally Anne Gross, Dr George Musgrave

Today is World Mental Health Day and of course that means an awful lot of hugs and homilies, thoughts and prayers, deep-breathing exercises and it’s-good-to-talk platitudes from people speaking from positions of immense privilege – ranging from the well-meaning to outright grifters.

All too rarely does any of this speak to people’s lived experience of mental suffering, and that goes double in the music world, where perpetual insecurity has increased exponentially with the collapse of the live performance industry and the future looks particularly bleak right now. One new book, however, is slightly more engaged in its approach, and appears to have struck quite a nerve with musical practitioners, fans, and a more general audience.

Can Music Make You Sick CoverCan Music Make You Sick? Measuring the Price of Musical Ambition is the fruits of a lengthy research project by Sally Anne Gross and Dr George Musgrave, examining what it is to be a musician in the era of micro-incomes and always-on social media. It is a sociological study, and presented as such, with multiple case studies framed with academic analysis – but it’s also strikingly readable, and serves as a stark portrait not only of the music industry but of our society and its priorities.

The case studies examine the pressures that musicians put on themselves and those they feel from the industry and culture. This includes everything from economic opportunity and lack thereof to cultures of harassment and abuse that continue to hold women back. But the questions that arise from this have potential resonances for anyone, even those with little interest in musical culture or subculture: it throws into relief how we as a culture value labour, creativity, emotion, intellect, individuality, time and indeed our own lives.

The book doesn’t offer easy answers, but it does ask a lot of the right questions – and, crucially, it makes a bold statement about whose voices we should be listening to when we talk about mental health. Gross and Musgrave understand their subjects well: both have history in the music industry, Gross in the club music world in roles like managing drum'n'bass star LTJ Bukem's Good Looking Records label, Musgrave as a rapper and songwriter who has worked with the likes of Mike Skinner and Ed Sheeran. But they let those subjects’ voices lead, and in doing so they demonstrate how an industry in the deepest of crisis is made up of individuals in their own particular kinds of crisis themselves.

It should serve as a textbook for anyone with an interest in the culture industries – and for music makers themselves: the digital edition of the book has been made available for free download to ensure that it can be read by those who can’t afford academic book prices. We spoke to Gross and Musgrave on the inevitable Zoom call to find out how they’d got to this project, and where it in turn has led them in their thinking and research.

JOE MUGGS: How does it feel to be launching a portrait of the modern world in a world that's changing so very fast?

DR GEORGE MUSGRAVE: We talked about it quite a lot in the run-up to the release. At one point, I remember thinking, COVID has upended lots of the stuff we were talking about in the book. But as it went on, it became clear it's more just a very, very sharp focusing of lots of the stuff that's already in the book. In a way it's exaggerated and amplified lots of the things we talk about.

SALLY ANNE GROSS: Absolutely. We started this four years, nearly five years ago, and there's nothing about right now that you could have imagined or predicted then. As gigs started getting shut down, there was a terrible "I can't believe this is happening" feeling for many people. But for us, every single thing about experiences of working in the music industry, of talking to musicians, of talking to other professionals really brought home how precarious it all always was, how it could just disappear [snaps fingers] like that. And as it started happening, there was a slightly grim "Oh my god, it's almost like we did predict this" or at least we named the knife edge that everyone was on, and nobody had been prepared to talk about that knife edge.

I think for us one of the things that was most interesting when talking to musicians was that you could feel how relieved they were to talk about these things and be heard: they didn't have to say, "It's brilliant and I'm having an amazing time." To ask them how they genuinely felt about their work gave them a space to open up, and once they began to talk they really talked. Everything in the book is based on what they said, we didn't make this up, we recorded what we were told. And yes, the pandemic has really brought into very, very sharp focus just how precarious people's ambitions and lives and dreams and hopes are. Everything is in there, with musicians, it really is, "This is where I live, I've invested my heart and soul into all this, and this is what has happened?". But you can't stop believing because you practically cancel yourself out if you do. It's who you are, and to stop that is like erasing your entire being.

Sally Anne Gross portraitAnd of course music remains at the heart of collective identity too...

SAG: Yes, the importance of community can't be separated from what music is and what it's for. It's one of the things we always reiterate and talk about on the Music Business Management masters degree course that we both work on: it's been profoundly importance that we emphasise the collectivity of music, its social importance not just its financial or revenue importance. Music has a wider value, and unless we engage in the fullest understanding of that value then we are literally selling ourselves and our communities short in every way. One of the most telling things since I've been course leader of this programme is that I have a real case study – names changed of course – about the making of an album that involved lots of people coming in and contributing at different times, and it led to lots of disputes later... One of the tasks of the students is to untangle this and see how connected performances and scenes are and how power distributes even within small scenes – and they have to find a resolution in how to contract the whole thing together. And this year for the very first time, they interpreted it by giving everyone an equal share. That had never happened before. And I feel that what is happening now has forced a realisation that we need to support each other mutually.

GM: One of the interesting things about the book is an undercurrent of how, sitting behind the self belief and positivity and idea that everything's brilliant we're used to, people have forgotten about the extreme vulnerability of cultural production of the music that we all love and think is important. Now COVID has produced a really extreme representation of that vulnerability, and our cultures are threatened. What we're saying in making this book is that these cultures are truly important and they matter. When we've talked about this book at music colleges people at the end have said, "Do you think we should just stop making music then?" – but of course that's not what we're saying. We're saying that the music that's being made is so special and important to us and our lives, but look at what's happening here, something drastic needs to change to support it.

People often forget that during the most financially successful period for music in this country – roughly the 1960s into the 1990s – music cultures were massively subsidised simply by virtue of young people being able to sign on the dole...

GM: Right. There's a section in the book that touches on this, I think the sentence is – "never before has there been a time in modern history where artists are completely expected to rely on the market to survive." There is this completely brutal neoliberal competitive idea that music is a meritocracy and the best will find its level, it's etched into the way people talk – "be an entrepreneur", "find your own lane". But art has always existed within infrastructures of support that facilitate its production, and that's been really, really highlighted this week after Rishi Sunak's statements: representatives from the live industry have been coming out and saying, "Hang on a minute, what's going on here? We're just being left hanging in the wind." Because music production has never existed outside of structures of support, not really.

SAG: And it's never been outside of communities. Maybe there were some hermits or shamans that made music alone, but ultimately music is something that is produced and finds its meaning within communities. We've seen the value of community coming together highlighted by things like Black Lives Matter, by women in music coming together around #MeToo, we've seen those things play out profoundly – but the idea you can leave the live music, small venues, centres for communities, and let them disappear, then think you can rebuild a nation or have any kind of social cohesion is flawed. People are inventive, of course they are: they use garages, they use sheds, they found spaces outside and inside for music. But they face unbelievable challenges now, and the need to realise and restate the collective cultural value of music right now is extreme.

Homing in on the issue of mental health – it's not like popular culture hasn't sounded clear warnings about this, right? You do a case study on Lil Peep, and he's just one of a whole set of megastar emo rappers whose entire focus and persona is built around their mental anguish... and he's one of many who've ended up dead of an overdose too.

SAG: Yes, what does that say about where we're at? It's talking loud. So loud.

GM: We have this bit in the beginning of the book where we talk about the idea that music making could have a nuanced relationship with people's wellbeing. There were lots of things that have happened in recent history that show that kept happening as we were writing the book, and we were noting them as we went. There are things like the drill group from Ladbroke Grove who had their music banned as being too dangerous. Another interesting one was when fabric was closed down and Islington Borough Council were reviewing their license, and one of the ideas being floated was how maybe they should reduce the BPM of the music because this might temper drug use! There were all these things that implied that music is dangerous – and of course there's a long history of this...

SAG: It's always really interesting how people respond to the title. We've had that for a very long time, it was always our title, because people would ask us this question – and we began to think: OK, let's look at all these examples of things where people do accuse music of making people sick, and thinking it should be banned. And this speaks to the power music has. Of course I don't think we should be in the business of banning anything, but on the other hand we should address these questions of whether music has the power to hurt. The important thing for us was to report back what the musicians were saying, and if people say this is how they feel, who are we to say, "No you don't." People ask "how did you test them?" and I always reply that we didn't "test" these people, they weren't laboratory rats, they were humans, musicians, talking about their lives. It's very, very important to hear people talking about what it's like to live at this moment, it's one of the most important things you can do.

On this question of whether the music itself affects people's wellbeing: are there any universals to this, do you think, or does it change from era to era and culture to culture?

SAG: It's hard to talk about innate or universal issues. I think what we speak to in this book is the changing use of music: in older agricultural or very religious societies, music was used in ritual forms, but obviously we moved away from that. Although for those of us who are steeped in raving and festivals it's fair to say that music still is very ritual. We've recently been denied that, but for me growing up and for many others Friday night going to the disco was a ritual, there's no question about it. It was a place of release, of euphoria, and those things are still there and probably connect to deep history of music. Maybe more recently music consumption has become more private, a solo pursuit, though. That's something we barely touched on in this book, and was beyond its scope, but we're doing more research and will certainly be expanding on the more psychic functions of music, the way we use music to reconstitute ourselves alone and collectively. Music as mood modulation. There's some great research happening about this.

GM: We talk about this functionality of music a little bit in the conclusion to the book. People will say "we were attracted to making music because we have this inner angst, and it's something we wanted to explore." We riffed on the analogy that if you're a builder, you need strength, but you develop strength by doing the work. In a way, music making demands your complete emotional vulnerability and expressiveness, and as you do it you train yourself to be better at it. This openness and sensitivity is what music demands of you, so you have to develop it. Some people will say to us, "Well it's always been like this, hasn't it?" But what we try and explore in the conclusion is what is new: the way that music has changed, and especially the injunctions on music makers now to be exposed and create in an environment where having a musical career is so encouraged and held up as being the thing that we can all do.

Recently we were asked to speak at BBC Introducing Live, and afterwards I remember saying to Sally, "That is just overwhelming, it was like X Factor for the underground!" There were A&R rooms where people could have their music judged, there were queues for microphone shops, thousands of stages of people going, "Hey you can do it, break all the rules, there ARE no rules!" And I really felt like, wait, this is not really on. You're pretending that the structural features of work don't really exist: it's framed as "hey come in in, join us in this jamboree" but the really important rooms to be in, actually the doors are locked, you can't go in there.

SAG: This historical moment, with the competitions on TV, the things you can come to like Great Escape in Brighton, Liverpool Sound City, there's this unrelenting train of – "Come in! Make music make music make music!" But you'll be told someone is big in so and so scene, then you find that scene is actually 25 people. The sense of how people are valued is really through a distorted lens in so many ways. And of course now you're expected to be this person 24/7 on every social media format: you're giving out all the time, there's no space for anyone to switch off, to resuscitate, even to breathe almost. When we were listening to people describing their daily lives, we were out of breath listening to them! It's so frenetic, but it's also got a sense of importance to the individuals. People talked a lot about time – and women especially: they'd always raise it really early on in the interviews – and the notion of time accelerating was very interesting to us. Now, in the pandemic, people are trying to wrestle time back. If there is a benefit in what's happening, and I hear this from musicians, it's that in some ways it has slowed things down. Even if it's difficult to survive because you can't play live, people are saying they are genuinely relieved, and bringing about a kind of collective reflection in genres and scenes that we couldn't have had before because of the crazed time element that was ever present.

George Musgrave portraitAnother example of culture talking loud and sounding warnings is the coining of "business techno": a semi-serious genre name that alludes to the relentlessness of the business of DJing – which in turn we've seen impacting on those DJs' mental health...

GM: In economics, the emphasis has been traditionally on the consumer. The question is usually: when the marketplace is flooded, what benefits does that have for the consumer? But then Barry Schwarz talks about the paradox of choice, how in fact the consumer doesn't benefit from constantly having to make decisions... But we're turning it round again, and asking what does this atmosphere of abundance feel like for the producers? So when you talk about business techno, you're talking about the pressure that's there not just to become a musician but stay a musician, the need to stay relevant. These people have to never stop. I've had it, I've been sat in A&R meetings or radio plugging music, where you'll play them the song and the reaction is "Cool... what's next? What's the next thing? When's the next one?" Then a little time goes by and it's "we haven't heard from you in ten weeks, oh you've fallen off... who is this guy?" You have to stay on the treadmill. This idea that "if you don't take this opportunity, somebody else will" was felt so viscerally by anyone who watched that Avicii documentary. When you saw the interactions between the team and Avicii about the touring nature, and he's sat in the back of this taxi having come out of hospital with his gall bladder removed, his eyes rolling around doing this radio interview... obviously there's lots going on, and we can't ever fully know the back story, but part of it is the most brutal representation of some of the things we're talking about. This emanates from this environment of abundance: you have to stay visible, stay interacting, stay authentic, stay in people's minds, because if you drop out someone else will drop in.

When you're looking at this subject, do you ever feel we as music fans are culpable in feeding this machine – most of all for our prurience, our love of tragedy, rubbernecking at car crashes?

GM: There's a bit in the book along the lines of "in a digital world people want analogue pain to attach themselves to". People are attracted to the visceral and authentic, certainly. That word "culpable" is a fascinating one – there was an article, I think in Mixmag, by Sirin Kale about Avicii, that said that we're all responsible for Avicii's death. And consumers wanting that abundance certainly contributes to the atmosphere for musicians...

SAG: In terms of the story element, yes, we are somehow more attracted to the sad story, sad songs sell really well, because we recognise pain. Maybe it's easier to connect to someone's pain than it is to celebrate their vast richness? Humans are empathic, but are we culpable as individuals? I don't know. It's systemic, and very complex – just like with news and sensationalism, do we actively want it, or do we come to think we want it because it's constantly pumped out at us. Social media is pushing information at us all the time, and extremity grabs your attention fast, whether that's hatred or tragedy. This is very different from anything that we've lived in before, and along with the musical abundance, we're still coming to terms with this intensely mediated world, where the consumer is a part of that mediation too. Whether it's Charli XCX inviting her fans into the album process or how fans on Instagram or YouTube comments interact – intimacy is now a public thing! Those kinds of relationships seem to melt together... and sometimes it's not until it's too late that we realise that some boundaries are safe and good for us. That intensity has turned everything up to 11, everywhere!

It's scary indeed. If it's not too glib, was there anything in particular that's come from your research that has left you feeling positive?

GM: Well, there's this idea of musicians – but also anyone – learning to turn off. This ubiquitous connectivity simply isn't sustainable. Learning to differentiate between work time and non-work time, to put it very roughly, needs to be explored a lot more meaningfully. We need to switch off better... or just switch off at all.

SAG: When I was first a music manager I had four young children, and I managed DJs and producers, so a lot of my work happened Friday through Sunday. I'd be out on the road all round the country all weekend, so I always had Monday off. Nobody was awake in the music industry on a Monday, certainly not in clubland – so that became a thing for me. Now, nobody has time off, particularly not on their own terms. So yes, it is about turning off, and especially about reintroducing some sort of rhythm into your life – and I do know people that are doing this well. We must remember that these are early days, still, for this level of technological intensity, we are still adapting to it. With the pandemic, there are going to be all kinds of new ways of working, and I certainly think it's good to see that pushing people in some cases towards thinking about working communally and cooperatively again. We haven't seen focus on that for a long time, but understanding how vital that is for health, and how you don't have to sacrifice yourself, that's a massive step forward. The thing that we can feel optimistic about is that, like with the change in habits with something like smoking, change does happen. We did the work because we believe there's hope, which might be misplaced, but we think it's real.


Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters