Music is Hard

Most musicians that I know are (overall) glad to be musicians. Most of the musicians I know – and the ones I surveyed – feel that they were drawn to music (at least partially) due to their emotional unrest, and in their music they find comfort and release. At the same time, many issues surrounding their music tend to be frustrating (if not downright depressing).

I surveyed musicians on their thoughts about the connection between depression and being a musician. Most respondents were musicians (a few were non-musician music lovers). Almost all respondents (86%) noted that they have experienced depression in their lifetime. Over the next several weeks, we’ll delve into their responses. If you haven’t taken the survey yet but would like to, click here!

A lot of articles I’ve read talk about how the life of a working musician is bound to make one depressed. Think about it: We bare our souls and often get nothing in return (certainly not money, for most of us; and often not even respect); we struggle to balance music/family/work/wellness/other interests; we might be out on the road for days, weeks, or months at a time – driving long distances, sleeping on hard floors, eating poorly, and maybe drinking too much (those things certainly are not conducive to a positive state of mind); and there’s something to be said for feeling like you’re consistently hitting a brick wall or screaming into the abyss – how does a musician make a name for herself or make a living in this world?

Photo by Trevor Richards

Interesting: Not all musicians are low on cash (from my perspective, at least). The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra musicians make an annual base rate of $107,000. (Good, they deserve it!) According to a Money Magazine article, on a good night during prime hours, some street performers (this article refers to San Diego) can apparently make around $21 an hour (wow). If achieved consistently (haha!) that would be an annual income of a little over $44,000 (not bad).

But (back to reality), on a particularly bad afternoon, street performers can look forward to a hefty $1.50 per hour pay rate (that’s $3,120 per year). [Sad trombone.]

I’m curious. What are we non-PSO musicians making here in the Pittsburgh area (and beyond)? How does that influence our feelings about music, the music industry, our music community? How does that influence our emotions overall? If you’re willing, take my anonymous Musicians and Money Survey so we can get some statistics on this!

And even when things are going really well, there’s a downside. When we play a great show to a ton of people it can feel euphoric, but it can be really quiet after the cheering stops. When we work hard on a new album and it’s finally done and we’re so proud, there’s always going to be some reviewer or artist who has something negative to say (or – worse yet – maybe no one says anything). When we feel like we really are making an impact and getting some notice, there’s always going to be someone who lets you know (in some way or another) that they don’t give two shits about you and your music.

The articles I’ve read argue that there is definitely a connection between being in the music industry and struggling with depression, because being in the music industry is really hard. Most of the stories you will find on this topic [see The Guardian, Consequence of Sound, and Pitchfork, for example] are based on a huge, pioneering 2016 study from University of Westminster and MusicTank, which was commissioned by Help Musicians UK.

The study determined musicians may be up to three times more likely to experience depression (and anxiety!) than the general public. Respondents noted that making music was a comfort to them, but also believed that the music industry attributed to their distress through poor working conditions, a lack of recognition, physical impacts, and issues related to being a woman in the industry.

The second part of the study went deeper by interviewing individual musicians and music industry workers. Here are some additional, notable findings (directly quoted from “Can Music Make You Sick?: Final Report and Recommendations“):

  • Music makers’ relationship to their work is integral to their sense of self. It’s how they define themselves.
  • People in the music industry needed to believe in themselves and their work, yet the unpredictable nature of the business can knock that belief.
  • Music makers can be reflective and highly self-critical, and exist in an environment of constant critical feedback.
  • A career in music is often precarious and unpredictable.
  • Many musicians have several different jobs as part of a portfolio career, and as a result can feel as though they work 24/7 and can’t take a break.
  • It can be hard for musicians to admit to insecurities because of competition and wanting to appear on top of things.
  • Family, friends and partners play an important role in supporting musicians, but this can also lead to feelings of guilt.
  • Musicians’ working environment can be anti-social and unsympathetic, with some people experiencing sexual abuse, harassment, bullying and coercion.

Check out “Can Music Make You Sick?” at Music Minds Matter to learn more.

This study was needed (we need one in the US, too!) and the data has already sparked change in the UK with the creation of Music Minds Matter, which is a 24/7 support and service line for the UK music community. Their goal is to roll out similar services in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand upon successful implementation in the UK (well, that’s pretty cool). 

Musicians who participated in my survey on the connection between depression and being a musician cited issues similar to those found in the Music Minds Matter study. Pressure, self-confidence, time management, and financial concerns were major themes.

When asked the question “What role – if any – does music play in creating or increasing your depression?” respondents had a lot to say.

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Photo by Trevor Richards

We’re under a lot of pressure.

  • The pressure to perform well contributes to feelings of depression. When a show doesn’t go well – it’s sparsely attended, there’s a negative response, or the performance sucked – feelings of guilt and shame may arise, “emotionally crippling” the musician.
  • The pressure to practice hard, learn quickly, and ooze creativity also contributes to feelings of depression. When motivation for practice and creation gets low (that can happen often when you’re dealing with depression), it produces feelings of guilt and drags on self-confidence. Feeling like you aren’t creative or like you can’t learn something (maybe a technique or a song) can be devastating and “murders future confidence.” Some musicians are left to ask, what’s the point?
  • “I feel I am always competing.” The pressure to succeed often leads to critical comparisons, and vice versa. It’s easy to compare your own success as a musician to the success of others, “particularly in a music scene this small.” Regardless of the specific music scene or the size of the scene, it’s easy to compare yourself to others, and if you find yourself lacking, it can lead to negative feelings. [There is something to be said about healthy competition as it can sometimes compel you to improve yourself; however, when struggling with depression, comparisons often feel inherently critical and criticism can be unbearable to a fragile emotional state.]
  • Feeling that your art is not respected or that you’re not going to accomplish your music career goals can contribute to feelings of depression, too. The idea that “performers are dependent upon the approval of others” means that no matter how hard you work, you just might not get where you want to be.


We don’t have enough time or money to do what we want.

  • For many, playing music “takes away time that could be used for doing more profitable work.” Music is not profitable for many, and the schedule of a touring musician, in particular, makes it hard to have a “stable, consistent ‘day job.’”
  • Not being able to live on music alone is frustrating. “Can somebody just pay me in food and rent if I keep going? Please?”
  • The pressure of being depended on by your band mates – to create, perform, and bring in money – contributes to negative feelings, too. Especially when you’re struggling with depression, the thought of others relying on you can be overwhelming. “Sometimes you just want to check out of the world and only be responsible for the bare minimum (going to work and coming back home).”


And don’t forget about:

  • Drama and conflict among band members or within the music scene.
  • Alcohol and drug use.
  • Body issues.
  • The pain of not making music.


There’s more. Actually, most respondents felt that creating and performing music only attributed to their depressed feelings by amplifying those negative feelings through the act of focusing on the negative feelings. Often this is done by choice and is an escape, a comfort, and a cathartic act; thus, it also alleviates those negative feelings. 

The UK study shows that musicians are more likely to be depressed because the music industry is hard, and I agree (my survey – your answers! – back it up). However, I think the connection goes farther than that (and according to my survey – you do, too). Mercifully, I think that what might make us as musicians more likely to be depressed is also our salvation. Our propensity as musicians towards depression can be both our tormentor and our healing salve.

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Photo by Trevor Richards


What are some ways that you cope when you’re feeling down or dealing with depression? Click here to anonymously share your coping techniques.