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Touring Has a Mental Health Problem. How Do We Fix It?

As Santigold, Shawn Mendes, Arlo Parks, and more musicians cancel tours, it's clear that the current model is unsustainable

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mental health touring artists
Illustration by Steven Fiche

    In September 2022, Santigold made her long-awaited return with her first album in six years, Spirituals. Naturally, she had been planning a tour in support of it. But a few weeks after the project’s release, she revealed in a detailed personal note on Instagram that she just couldn’t make it work. Not only did she cite the financial barriers that she and other artists are facing with heading back on the road after more than two years of COVID restrictions, but she brought up how her mental health had contributed to her decision.

    “I want to tell you that for me it has taken a toll — through anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, vertigo, chronic pain, and missing crucial time with my children,” Santigold wrote in the open letter. “In the place that I’m in, in the place that the music business is in, it feels like I’ve been hanging on, trying to make it to the ever-distant finish line, but my vehicle’s been falling apart the whole time — the bumper fell off, the wheels one at a time, the steering wheel, and finally the whole bottom fell out.”

    Santigold is far from alone. In July, Shawn Mendes canceled his “Wonder Tour,” detailing the mental toll the transition back to live shows had taken on him. After revealing he was battling Ramsay-Hunt Syndrome earlier this year, Justin Bieber announced in early September that he was canceling the remainder of his “Justice World Tour,” as his mental and physical health needed to remain his priority.

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    In early September, Sam Fender added his name to the list, canceling his US tour dates to prioritize his own mental health. “It seems completely hypocritical of me to advocate discussion on mental health and write songs about it if I don’t take the time to look after my own mental health,” he wrote in a statement. About a week later, Arlo Parks also canceled her US tour dates and told fans she was “in a very dark place.” Her mental health was suffering, and she had reached her limits.

    Artists — mainstream and indie alike — are halting gigs for their mental health, and that letter Santigold wrote could have come from any of them. Ezra Feinberg, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist, believes that there is often a chain reaction of sorts that comes from someone having an insight about themself and prompting others to look inward, too. “Maybe it starts with something dramatic like canceling a tour or you’re a big pop star,” he says.

    That the music industry is listening and honoring when artists need to take a break is commendable, notes Courtney Grimes, LCSW, and founder of The Collective. “Mental health has become way less stigmatized in these circles, and performers are prioritizing their mental well-being for the overall good and longevity of their careers,” she explains.

    But it’s no secret that the pandemic had a profound impact on the music industry. More than one in three jobs were eliminated due to the pandemic, according to UK Music. Many artists had to halt performing mid-tour or scrap their live gigs before they even had a chance to hit the road. While some were able to earn more substantial financial support from pivoting to virtual gigs and major livestream events, that wasn’t necessarily the case for all artists, particularly more independent ones.

    As a result, many were faced with wondering whether they’d ever be able to tour again — or be able to afford to continue pursuing music. “Many folks in the industry are trying to build back those lost profits into the following years, and the sheer exhaustion of a grueling tour schedule is enough to bring some to their knees,” Grimes explains.

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