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Fame and celebrity

Swedish DJ Avicii’s suicide changes attitudes to burnout and mental health in electronic music industry

  • 28-year-old committed suicide in April. Two years earlier he warned the DJ lifestyle would kill him
  • Manager of several high-profile artists say there’s a greater focus on the mental health of artists following his death
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 October, 2018, 8:17pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 October, 2018, 9:34am

The suicide of Swedish DJ Avicii in April has “accelerated change” in the electronic music industry, according to the manager of several high-profile artists.

Two years earlier, Avicii had retired from touring after repeatedly warning that the lifestyle was going to kill him, but that he was being pressured to continue. A number of other dance artists have publicly experienced burnout and have even quit the tour circuit because of it.

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A 2016 study showed that 69 per cent of musicians had experienced depression, while 71 per cent have had panic attacks or high levels of anxiety. This is heightened in the electronic dance music (EDM) world, where artists get little sleep and play shows year-round.

Olga Heijns, who manages dance music artists such as Laidback Luke and Blasterjaxx, believes there’s a “huge role” for managers, labels, and agents to let artists know it’s OK to say no – and that they’re not expected to be “always on”.

Laidback Luke says in 2018 “we finally get to talk about [the pressures] – you’re finally not being judged”. However, he believes there should be guidelines on how many shows a DJ can play and how many flights they can take.

Heijns has seen a number of her artists experience burnout from the lifestyle – including those currently on her roster.

The first few years of heavy touring can have a major impact on a person’s life, health, and sanity.
Dutch DJ Hardwell

After the death of Avicii – whose real name was Tim Bergling – at the age of 28, his family said he “could not go on any longer” and “wanted to find peace”. He had retired from touring in 2016, citing a series of health concerns that included acute pancreatitis, in part a result of excessive drinking.

In a documentary titled Avicii: True Stories, released in October 2017, he repeatedly warned that the touring lifestyle was going to kill him, but that he was being pressured to continue.

“There’s a huge difference between [artists in the dance space] and artists in the pop/rock/hip hop scene,” Heijns says.

For starters, she says that other artists are used to a more cyclical life.

“If they’re successful, they’ll have a two-year tour, come off the road, spend Christmas, holidays, and birthdays with family back home, take some time off, then go back into the studio,” she says. “There’s an end to it.

“With DJs, it just goes on year round. There’s always a holiday somewhere, which means there’s a dance party. There’s summer or a festival around the world at all times.”

Because of this, she says a lot of dance artists have the idea that they can’t miss out. “They’ll say, ‘This is the one show that will be super important, I can’t afford to miss it’. They’re suffering from a pressure that’s not comparable anywhere else. It’s constant deadline upon deadline.”

It’s not always obvious when the pressure is becoming too much for an artist until it’s too late, says Heijns.

Electronic dance music finally has its Kurt Cobain with Avicii death

Just last month, Dutch DJ Hardwell – or Robbert van de Corput – announced he would no longer be touring, citing that his career “leaves too little energy, love, creativity and attention for my life as a normal person to do so”.

Heijns says Hardwell “seemed in great spirits” and said he was working out and taking time off.

“For us, there were zero signs for Robbert … It sounded like he was making all the right decisions, and still only a few weeks later it was the straw that broke the camel’s back apparently.”

Having already suffered from two burnouts in his life, Laidback Luke recently reached his threshold once again.

“I was always the kid that would say burnouts are for sissies, that’s not going to happen to me, [but] after half a year or a year of not sleeping … not eating well, I finally hit my threshold, [and] all I could do is lay in bed for two weeks feeling major anxiety,” he recalls.

DJs on tour average about four hours of sleep per night, and with drinking, ­after-parties, adulation and everything that comes with it, it’s easy to lose oneself.
Dutch DJ Hardwell

He says his symptoms were different every time, from a change in sleeping and eating patterns the first time around and not being able to switch off to using alcohol to “run away from real life”. His most recent burnout, however, started after the death of his friend Avicii.

Heijns adds that she didn’t see Luke’s decision coming. “He’s not a new kid on the block, he guides other young talents. He knows we support a healthy and balanced lifestyle and still, it took him experiencing the passing of Avicii, and then also Hardwell announcing he was taking time off to look after himself.”

In 2016, Luke wrote an article for Billboard magazine calling for fans to pay attention to what was going on in the industry after Avicii announced his retirement from live performances following health issues related to alcohol and exhaustion.

“The first few years of heavy touring can have a major impact on a person’s life, health, and sanity,” he wrote. “DJs on tour average about four hours of sleep per night, and with drinking, ­after-parties, adulation and everything that comes with it, it’s easy to lose oneself.”

Heijns believes the industry has been changing since before Avicii’s death, but his passing has “accelerated” the process.

“I don’t know what happened with Avicii … He had already been off the road for so long … But the fact that people are now talking more about this, that press are taking the time to shed a light on it, that is something that has come out of that,” she says.

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Heijns says the main difference is how people “immediately act” now when someone speaks out about their mental health.

“In my beginning years, working with a certain artist, for sure he was having anxiety attacks, but at the time I thought he was being a diva,” she says. “I was saying, ‘Why are you not getting on this plane, we’ve put so much work in and there’s so much at stake.’ But somebody in that situation can’t explain it sometimes, can’t find the words to explain what’s going on.”

She adds that having artists like Hardwell publicly acknowledge what they’re going through is “very helpful for all these other guys that might be going through the same thing, rather than what might have happened in the past – a silent exit or exhaustion, whatever you could spin to not call it what it is”.

Since Avicii’s death, Luke adds that people in the industry have also been coming to him to talk about their mental health problems.

“It’s been good. I feel there’s an overall sense of positivity and understanding in there, I think that will help all of us,” he says.

Read the full story at Business Insider.