The Unintended Victims of a Rock ‘N’ Roll Culture (Op-Ed)
The Australian music industry is currently in a process of self-examination, catalysed by years of issues, serious allegations and instances of sexual assault, workplace harassment, bullying, substance abuse, and mental health. In this article, Dr Brendan Magee and Joseph Humphreys discuss the impact that creating a ‘marketable image’ of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll can have on both the amateur music scene and wider audience.
In Part 2 of the series putting the spotlight on culture change in the music industry, we examined the issues surrounding the reputation of the music industry, noting that it has, in part, spent the best part of a century cultivating a ‘hard living’ brand based on sex, drugs and rock and roll.
“How do you start dismantling the very reputation that has not only generated some of the greatest music of all time, but has also enabled seriously bad behaviour to masquerade as culture?”
The article further noted that the rock ‘n’ roll brand creates an unattainable, unsustainable, but extremely alluring version of what it is to be a music legend, with both fans and the media contributing to the interest and appetite for more.
This myth extends to the idea that authenticity and artistry is somehow also tied to this image. But artists like Jimmy Barnes, Slash, and bands through documentaries such as Metallica’s “Some Kind of Monster”, ripped the lid off this, making clear that they were suffering greatly and needed help for mental health and drug addiction. This has led to research and questions being asked about musicians, and an industry that has promoted – and in some cases exploited – these artists.
Research has shown a higher than normal prevalence of mental health disorders among artists and musicians (Smalley & McIntosh, 2011). However, in his book “Musicians and Addictions: Research and Recovery Stories“, Paul Saintilan found that: “With musicians, as with any human being, there can be a number of contributory factors in the creation of an addiction problem, which may be present prior to someone entering a professional environment like the music industry. These factors include: genetic predisposition, personality traits, childhood trauma, and mental health issues such as clinical depression and anxiety. These can be interrelated.”
Further research has claimed that personality traits can influence a musician’s risk of developing problems. Punk musician Keith Morris believes that the music industry attracts ‘extreme’ personalities.
“I think that’s why so many musicians end up with drug and alcohol issues. But if you’re lucky and live through your dark days and deal with those issues, you get to meet all the people who have been through what you’ve been through and have found a way to do what they love while clean and sober. And there are a lot of us,” Morris said.
In a positive change in culture, musicians have begun to share their stories, and books such as Saintilan’s “Musicians and Addiction” are breaking the myth around rock ‘n’ roll culture.
Reuben Styles has recently begun work on a new project, separate from his work with Adam Hyde as Peking Duk. Styles discusses the project: “‘You’re Only Great Always’ was pretty much my daily reminder to everyone because I wanted the project to be focused around mental health, and I think a lot of mental health problems do come from that lack of a daily reminder that, you, you are great.”
There is a bi-product of this rock ‘n’ roll culture who have also been suffering in silence – quite literally. Young and amateur musicians are also exhibiting similar behaviours as ‘label’ musicians with the negative effects of alcohol and substance abuse. For them, music is also an escape from the challenges of childhood, and ‘label’ and ‘amateur’ musicians alike are all following the same dangerous path.
Saintilan recorded many stories, and renowned ska-punk musician Dave Smith shared how it started for him: “The powerful music and destructive lyrics fuelled by anger was the external manifestation of how I felt inside. I was inspired and determined to become a rock star. Living within the constructs of this fantasy provided a great distraction from the world, school, parents and the day-to-day dissatisfaction of living that was driven by the pain I was feeling in my heart and mind.”
Kenny Gormly is the former bass player in Australian bands The Cruel Sea and Sekret Sekret.
“To me music was my best friend. It lifted me up into a world of mystery, of longing and hope, of excitement and the promise of things to come. I empathised deeply into songs. Words and melody gave meaning to my raw feelings of loneliness and anxiety, my abandonment, and the trauma of my childhood, that I understand today,” he explains in the book.
Whilst music empowers disengaged or marginalised young people seeking expression and refuge, many are misled by the intoxicating cultural allure that conflates substance abuse with excitement, status and creative genius.
Brisbane artist Sam Geddes is sharing his story of recovery from addiction to advocate for awareness and combat stigma surrounding substance abuse within the industry through his project, SAMMM.
In a 2022 interview with Joseph Humphreys, Geddes provided a candid insight into the world of a young musician using substance abuse as a way of escaping a challenging and at times dysfunctional childhood.
Connecting with music from a young age, Geddes joined a primary school rock band becoming enamoured by the ‘live fast, die young ethos’ endemic within popular media portrayals of rock and roll and alternative music.
Suffering throughout his school years from undiagnosed ADHD, Geddes found an outlet within music into which he could channel all his energy.
However, he was also drawn to the near mythic status of musicians such as Kurt Cobain and the infamous ‘27 club’.
“It was the idea in my head as a musician from a young age; alcohol and drugs were a very solid part of that,” he said.
“I started missing a lot of school. I was already playing up a lot. I spent a lot of time in suspension.
“We started drinking before school occasionally, eventually that turned to getting stoned before school, lunch break. Right after school which turned into getting stoned in the morning, not going to school.”
After dropping out of high school, Geddes’s substance use escalated to include hard drugs which rapidly took over his life, to grave effect to his personal wellbeing and music career.
“The music became less of a priority and the drugs started becoming the only priority. It was kind of like being in a video game, only going from A to B, constantly chasing. It was pretty traumatising. I wasn’t equipped with the coping mechanisms at such a young age”.
Geddes’ musical output would later become a cathartic mode of expression, with his discography replete with anecdotes diarising his journey through addiction and recovery.
The descriptive lyricism in tracks like “Holes in Walls (Bathroom Stalls)” off Geddes’ 2018 EP “Mandarin Season” offers a listener blunt insight into the thoughts and episodes of an adolescence lost to addiction.
His 2020 single “Four Eyes” goes further, sharing a documentary-like recount of his struggle, overcoming the universal tendency to keep the darker parts of our lives secret.
Geddes emphasises the need for artists to have a sense of social responsibility and acknowledge the effect that their music and lifestyle can have on the community.
“It is important to send out a message that can’t encourage, or be interpreted as ‘let’s go and do that’. People are always going to write about what they are feeling, but the industry as a whole needs to take responsibility for the themes and the messages that they are sending,” he said.
“You have a social responsibility to a generation that you don’t really understand yet”.
Geddes also reflects on the importance of acknowledging your issues and seeking help, but noted that the industry isn’t quite ready to fully embrace raw honesty – particularly from emerging artists.
“There still needs to be a change in the industry to support people in the middle. It is an industry that is built on your ‘face’, your reputation or perception. People may have problems, but they can’t talk about them honestly because they are worried that if the industry finds out, they’ll have permanently scarred their reputation”.
There is an increasing acknowledgement within society on the importance of mental health support. The advocacy of artists and projects such as Geddes and SAMMM, Styles and Y.O.G.A, and the pivotal work of Saintilan in shedding a light on the struggles of so many artists, is helping to reduce the stigma and fear of seeking help. Within the industry, Support Act is a great resource for artists and musicians.
Achieving positive cultural change doesn’t need to involve the ‘sterilisation’ of the music industry.
Sharing the stories of artists and musicians, increasing the dialogue and education around the dangers of alcohol abuse and drug addiction, and providing support networks to beat that addiction, is changing the perception of the behaviour that was previously seen as ‘hardcore rock’. At a macro level, this change can only have a positive effect, as we attempt to move forward as an industry, and on society as a whole.