Drugs, sleeplessness, isolation: the downside of being a dance musician
Afterparties, fame, a rockstar lifestyle: Above & Beyond’s Tony McGuinness says he would trade it all for just one night of solid sleep.
“Partying with people back at your hotel for three hours compared to getting some sleep: there’s just no competition,” he says. “Jet lag and being unable to sleep when you need it, this is the single biggest danger in our job.”
Last year, the Guardian reported on the dark side of touring – insomnia, anxiety and other mental illnesses exacerbated by an unstable life on the road, the breakups and destruction of personal relationships from inorganic human connection – and the problem is just as acute, if not more so, for DJs.
“The difference [between the music cultures] is the speed at which a DJ can tour,” McGuinness says. (He’s toured as one-third of the progressive trance trio for more than a decade.) “You have this completely flexible timescale that’s not available in rock’n’roll at all, and you’re often on in the middle of the night.”
“DJs finish shows at 3am or later,” adds Curt Cameruci of trap duo Flosstradamus. “Then we have to go back to the hotel and try to get a little sleep before an 8am flight, but we’re so amped up from the show that it’s hard to come down.”
Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to a compromised immune system, increased levels of anxiety and depression, memory and cognitive impairment, and, in extreme cases, a disassociation from reality. For Cameruci, it’s “turned into straight-up confusion”.
McGuinness recently had a stark reminder of the sobering toll this can take. After several days of touring, he flew to his best friend’s wedding in Italy, where he was slated to give a speech. “I wasn’t nervous at all; I had just sung at the Hollywood Bowl,” he recalls.
“But what I hadn’t accounted for was that I was sleep deprived. I felt like I was going to fall down and faint – I found it very difficult to speak, to feel calm, to say what I wanted to say.
“The thought flashed through my head that I could sing at the Hollywood Bowl, but I couldn’t speak at my best friend’s wedding,” he continues. “Sleep is an incredibly valuable thing that you begin to obsess about.”
Getting half of the National Sleep Foundation’s recommended sleep a night – seven to nine hours for an adult – is a mainstay of life on the road. “I’ll sleep two hours at night and two hours during the day,” says Israeli dubstep producer Borgore. “My life is a constant jet lag.” He has adjusted, but “it’s not a good adjustment”.
For touring musicians, sleep is often found in buses and planes, usually the only spots that offer space for rest. “I have friends who can’t sleep on planes, but I don’t know if I could tour if I couldn’t do that because that’s where I sleep,” says electro-house producer Steve Aoki.
You have to train yourself to sleep anywhere, he adds. But even being in a hotel room with a real bed is psychologically and physically damaging in extended runs. “Being on planes and in hotel rooms all the time can be very difficult on the body and brain,” Aoki says.
According to Moby, these artificially created spaces – “unhealthy, toxic spaces”, he says – provide a slow, cumulative discomfort for the human body. “
When I’m home, I’m in a space that I have chosen. And they’re healthy spaces, they’re filled with comfortable things. But when you go on tour, you’re constantly putting yourself into a space that someone else has designed. And the last criteria is: is it comfortable?”
The platinum-selling musician and producer behind 1999’s Play, the highest-selling electronica album of all time, no longer wishes to tour. After 26 years, he’s had enough.
“I’ve never gone on a tour and not experienced anxiety, depression and insomnia,” says Moby. “In the early days, it seemed like a small price to pay. But at this point in my life, I can’t in good conscious punish myself and my body and my mental health out of obligation to go on tour.”
At first, touring was an exciting novelty for Moby. But after five years, things turned increasingly dark. “I slowly admitted to myself that I hated touring,” he recalls.
“You can only tell yourself so many times that you’re happy and grateful before the brain interrupts and says: ‘Oh by the way, we’re miserable. We’re lonely and isolated and anxious and depressed.’”
He’s aware that many people think that the rich and famous should be grateful for their good fortune and not complain. Nonetheless, wealth and success do not alter basic human needs.
“To pretend otherwise is why so many touring musicians become alcoholics and addicts and eventually die,” he says. “If you look at the mortality rates of people who tour, it is an incredibly dangerous profession – people die really young.”
According to UC Berkeley’s department of demography, a chart depicting the median age of musicians’ deaths by musical genre puts electronic/disco/funk in fifth place out of 14, with rock coming in at sixth; it is topped by punk, metal and rap, with hip-hop proving to have the highest mortality rate. What drives electronic music so high up the scale?
“Bands [usually] tour around album cycles – DJs just don’t stop touring,” says Aoki, who since 2007 has regularly played around 200 shows a year.
“We’re like a pinball, free and easy to fly around the world,” says McGuinness. “These days you’re [often] just carrying a pair of headphones and an SD card. It’s very mobile, so we can do more shows that are farther apart. A tour bus determining the pace of your travel is a restriction that’s lifted from the DJ world.”
More shows mean more stressors on the human body. “The way that the body and the brain respond to discomfort is with stress,” Moby explains. “When we are in subtly stressful environments, the stress builds up and the consequences on a more benign level are irritability and a diminished immune system, but over time it can be mental illness and physical illness.”
It also means increased isolation, one of touring’s most damaging aspects: “If you are alone [as a DJ], you are the band,” says Aoki.
Before Borgore’s tour manager, Justin, joined him five years back, he felt incredibly alone on the road. “In the beginning of my career, the first couple years, I thought maybe I should quit,” Borgore recalls. “I missed my family. It’s very easy to fall into depression in this industry and it’s important to have my family there to support me.” To combat that loneliness, he flies out family members to most of his gigs
When it’s not possible to have someone at your side, however, isolation can take over. “You’re by yourself in your hotel room, then you get in a car with your tour manager and drive to the venue, maybe do some interviews, and you see someone from the record company, and you stand on stage in front of 50,000 people a night, and you go back to your empty dressing room and empty hotel room – you can spend quite literally months without having comforting, human contact,” Moby explains.
For Borgore, this feeling creeps in on flights. “You’re sitting on a plane for eight hours with your thoughts,” he says. For McGuinness, it’s felt on sleepless nights. “Never is that more apparent than when you’re lying in a hotel room trying to sleep and you realize that the reason you can’t is because of your job,” he adds. “It gives you a lot of very dark head time.”
McGuinness says social media can give the illusion that personal relationships are healthy when in reality, they’re often faltering. “[Touring] doesn’t destroy them, but a lot of people get bored when you’re not there for their birthday party or their engagement. Your friends’ lives continue without you, and when you come back they’ve all moved on.”
He notes: “Facebook makes you feel like you’re still in touch with those people, but there’s no question that you’re not, at least not in a face-to-face way.” Like Borgore, McGuinness makes a pointed effort to arrange steady, real-life interaction with friends and family.
Research conducted by the US National Library of Medicine and National Institute of Health compared two forms of isolation: social disconnectedness, defined by a lack of social relationships and low levels of participation in social activities; and perceived loneliness. It concluded that the two are not mutually exclusive and each is proven to negatively affect a person’s health. In combination, the effects are overwhelmingly detrimental.
Yet there’s a third form of isolation not as apparent as the others: isolation from nature. “You can also spend months without having any contact with the natural world,” says Moby. Sunlight increases levels of serotonin, a mood-lifting chemical in the brain, and a lack of exposure can turn into or influence mental illness.
“I try to avoid dark places – I don’t mean figuratively dark, I mean literally dark. The seasonal affective disorder that comes from touring northern Europe in the wintertime can be pretty intense.”
Like seasonal affective disorder – a mood disorder related to changes in seasons – touring artists can also feel a mood imbalance from changes in timezone. “My mood is all over the place; I feel like something is affected in my circadian rhythm,” Cameruci describes. “Sometimes I’ll come home and I’ll be really happy, but there are times I’ll come home and be really sad.”
Mental health professional John C Buckner describes this phenomenon as post-performance depression, which is a struggle in adjusting to the contrast between the highs of a successful show and the anticlimactic low that often follows. “It usually takes two to three days to become human again,” says Cameruci. “But then we leave four days later [and the cycle continues].”
Isolation and circadian imbalances can impact the ability to maintain relationships. “You come home after a great tour, and the first couple of days you don’t really feel like hanging out with your friends because you just feel miserable,” McGuinness admits. “You’re missing out on an important part of human interaction, which is the ability to be a real friend to people – it has a real effect on who you’re able to be in the relationships you want to have.”
When it comes to romance, Borgore says it’s necessary to be in a relationship with someone who understands the touring industry. Aoki agrees: “With relationships, you need physical, present time to nurture them,” he adds. “Whoever you get into a relationship with has to understand the lifestyle and the pace.”
Take for instance, the Corstens: Ferry Corsten, a Dutch DJ-producer who helped pioneer trance music, works directly alongside his wife, Lia, on his career and business. “It’s easier for her to understand the nature of our work [as DJs] because she can easily adapt to the constant change and hectic life,” he says.
They’re a team, but with two small children, long stretches away from home can be hard. “A couple of years ago, [my seven-year-old daughter] Gabby was crying so bad that I flew back from the other side of the world, just to be with her for a few hours,” Corsten recalls.
“It can be tough for me as a mother to see my daughter missing Ferry,” Lia adds, “as the grief is real and at times heartbreaking
To combat distance, Corsten takes time to eat breakfast with his daughter via FaceTime, and often shows her to the crowd and vice versa during shows. She’s at an age where she’s old enough to understand her father’s career, the Corstens say, but their almost two-year-old son Seb is still too young to feel his absence.
From family to friends to personal matters, touring affects all reaches of a musician’s life. But it can be just as rewarding as it is harmful on physical and mental health. “I can’t imagine going to the same boxed office every day from nine to five,” Borgore notes. “I think I’d go mental.”
There are many ways to stay healthy on the road: Aoki meditates, which is a “great tool for resetting and finding calmness in chaos”, he says. “I try to bring all the elements [on the road] that keep me happy and healthy at home – in my rider, I have fruits and veggies and protein.”
Cameruci practices yoga: “I’ll put my feet in the grass to ground myself in the location I’m in [to adjust to the timezone].” Moby finds 90 minutes a day for exercise – no matter what. “Exercise, yoga, meditation, diet and sobriety: without those things on tour, I’d end up a complete basket case,” he says.
One can take excellent care of the brain and the body, but it’s not always enough to combat touring’s daily stressors and temptations. “There are distractions on the road and distractions are what keep you from walking in a straight line,” says Aoki. “That’s where your mental balance gets skewed.”
Moby notes the constant pressure, from drugs to upholding an illusion of happiness. Cameruci adds: “It’s the pressure of the shows itself; it’s having to be social and entertaining the people around you, having to put on a happy face.” It was easier for him and Flosstradamus partner Josh Young in their 20s, he describes, yet now that “we’re getting older, it’s taxing us”.
It’s not easy to take a break when there’s a demand for your brand and your music. “I try to talk sense to whoever is planning our schedule that touring [too much] is not good for us, but it’s hard for people to empathize with that,” admits McGuinness. “I felt very proud of Avicii for saying: ‘You know what? This has been great, but I need my life back.’”
In March, the 26-year-old EDM superstar announced his departure from touring, writing a letter to fans that said: “I have too little left for the life of a real person behind the artist.” Avicii’s decision was a very real reminder of fame’s darker side – “it was something I had to do for my health”, he told Billboard.
“It was almost quite shocking – the decision he made to stop – but understandable when you’re involved in it,” McGuinness says. “It’s an issue for us all.”
Avicii’s departure from touring was met with more criticism than compassion: Thump wrote an article mocking him, comparing his letter to “business studies students who’ve watched an episode or 10 too many of The Apprentice and have decided that they’ll retire at the age of 35 after 14 years at Goldman Sachs”.
It’s an attitude that points to a problem with acceptance of mental health not only within the DJ community, but within the entire music and touring industry. “No one should ever be criticized for taking legitimate steps for self-care,” says Moby. “I simply am not willing to sacrifice health and wellbeing because ultimately, that’s all we have.”