Depression and the Music Industry: the Elephant in the (main) room

Ask anyone that’s rolled in at silly o’clock in the morning, whether they’ve just had the time of their life, listening to blissful beats, whilst being absorbed by some sort of buzz, whether it be legal or illegal, and they are going to give you a resounding ‘YES’. Ask them how they are in the week, you may get a slightly different response.

Clubbing has always been what so many of us do to escape the monotony of our everyday lives. Some things never change. Another thing that hasn’t changed much since that initial Summer Of Love in the late 80s, is that the dance industry has found it very difficult to discuss a matter that is deemed as being a ‘downer’ but a topic that is so very real: depression.

All the smoke and mirror(balls) in the world, can’t avoid the fact that depression is present in many people’s lives and some of those affected are the DJing hierarchy, who you dance along to, download their music and follow on twitter. You see the occasional gripe retweeted by @DJscomplaining but do you care to read between the lines? Do you really think that the life of a touring DJ is quite what it seems? You may be suffering some form of depression yourself and may think “There’s no way Superstar DJ can feel how I feel” but they are human just like you.

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I scoured the internet to try and find specific articles related to DJs and depression and they were few and far between. When I say ‘few and far between’ I found one, and one from a DJ that has been very open about his troubles along the way and someone that it would seem gets a form of catharsis via being open about his depression. That DJ is Funkagenda, his mates, family and the government will know him as Adam Walder. Call him what you want, but I’ll be calling him brave enough to actually chat openly about a subject that still remains more taboo than it should be.

“I’ve learned to be very open about it because people are a lot more accepting of me talking about it. In fact, I get a lot of emails and Facebook messages commending my stance on it. I just hope that I can justify the praise with my continued airing of my struggle.” – Funkagenda

The frustrating comeback of people I’ve spoken to over the years about the ‘darker’ side of DJing is the whole ‘Yeah, cry me a river. Travelling around the world. Paid thousands. Opposite sex/booze/drugs on tap’. Clichéd response. Let me ask you this, do those perks of the job exclude you from feelings? How many A-List Hollywood stars have gone off the rails over the years?

Let us not forget the talents that have ended their own lives so prematurely, like Philip Seymour Hoffman. An actor so revered by his peers. An actor that could get bums on seats. But an actor that had underlying issues that not many people knew about. He was still just a human being like you or I. Philip and many top level DJs have things at their disposal, that we mere mortals, could only dream of, but perhaps therein lies the problem?

Whilst compiling this article, a DJ that has been part of the fabric of UK clubbing, with a long running residency at legendary club The End, and who even hit the heady heights of the UK Top ten, broke rank and opened up on Facebook with a very honest and heartfelt admission. Matt Benjamin, who many will know as Bushwacka and who has had a resurgent year or so as Just Be! had this to say:

“What you don’t know, because I don’t post it and I don’t show it, and when you see me, 99.999% of the time I don’t look it, but I am, believe it or not, in a place inside myself that is so full of fear and terror and torment and torture and deep rooted sadness and total despair and depression.”

Still think that successful DJs are impervious to these dark feelings? Bushwacka continued to open up and mentioned that it wasn’t a cry for help but that “this is a lifelong burden and it’s just become too tiring and draining”. As hard as it was to read, it was also refreshing to see a DJ take a hopeful step towards betterment in speaking out and looking forward to making a change “Let’s hope a radical change can make a difference”. That last quote being how I feel about this topic within the dance music industry.

Over the years I’ve ended up being in a position where I’ve been privy to all manner of salubrious chit chat amongst my fellow DJ brethren, but often when they were on the downward spiral, all manner of things would spill out. One guy has the classic family set up – wife, two kids, nice gaff and all the material nonsense to keep that façade up – but when he was on the road, he would run up hotel porn channel, ridiculous sex line and even high-end prostitute bills.

All of this was untraceable to the good wife at home, as the tour manager would arrange for it all to be dealt with at source and deducted from the DJ fee. I asked whether the DJ was just a bit of a deviant, but he insisted that he got extremely lonely when on tour and the porn and prostitutes were his way of dealing with how he felt.

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Depression manifests itself in so many ways, but whatever signs it shows, there is no getting away from the cold stark reality that a quarter of the population will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year. To stick a number on that, it’s over fifteen million people! Of course, you could be quick to suggest that only a small percentage of those will be DJs, but considering pretty much everyone knows a ‘mate’ that DJs, whether it be top level or bedroom level, then there could be tens of thousands of people suffering in silence.

And the dance press don’t really want to discuss this? Is that not rather ignorant to just stick your head in the sand and hope it goes away? Suicide remains the most common cause of death in men under the age of 35. So take any dancefloor on any given weekend, anywhere in the land and you could have a DJ, or clubber alike, seriously considering taking their life. The EDM mantra of PLUR – Peace, Love, Unity and Respect, could be replaced by PLUS – Peace, Love, Unity and Suicide – if a stand doesn’t get made at some point.

What can be done do change things? I’m a small voice, that doesn’t have that much of a reach, but this isn’t about me, it’s about my friends in the scene, it’s about people I don’t even know, it’s about all those out there suffering and not knowing where to turn and instead just get off their nut at the weekend to try and forget it all.

Escaping for a while could be exactly what is required in the short term, but in the long term, identifying the depression, being brave enough to talk about it, then finding a support network that suits can be one answer. In more extreme cases you’ll need to visit your doctor and possibly get medication. But never, ever suffer alone.

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If the music media were able to shift perception that this topic is no longer taboo, it could open the floodgates for people to come forward with their issues. I could be accused of looking at things through rose tinted glasses here BUT I bet you all remember when David Beckham wore a sarong, right? That seemingly odd, but bold fashion statement by Goldenballs actually showed balls of steel and changed how men’s mainstream fashion was perceived.

If and it’s a big IF, more big named DJs came forward and discussed their woes openly, it could have a ripple effect which would filter down from the DJ booth to the dancefloor and there could be less of a disconnect and more of a true feeling of togetherness, which has largely been the foundation of dance music since its formation.

Even if that doesn’t happen, I would still like to stress that there are avenues for you, if you wish to speak with someone.  There are a variety specialists out there that can assist you too. After all, I’m not qualified to help, but I do feel passionately about this subject, having been at some real lows myself over the years and also having friends in the DJ industry, who have suffered considerably over the years and who have just put a brave face on it as ‘the show must go on’.

[Editor: If you do want to talk to someone about feelings of depression, or wish to seek help for a close friend, professional help can be sought through The Samaritons, MIND, and a host of other sites here.]


About the Author

Resident DJ for Kinky Malinki for over 15 years. Trainer enthusiast, goalkeeper and collector of too much stuff. Have been dipping my toe in to the world of writing for quite some time having written for Azuli Records in the past, along with doing Kinky Malinki’s press work and writing a sneaker spread for an urban lifestyle magazine called 24/7 Live Listings. I’ve always go too much to say, especially when it comes to the dance industry, so what better way than to channel it in to articles for Decoded Magazine.