A Sound Foundation: Changing mental health in the music industry
In this piece, Keller Medlin dives into the endemic mental health issue plaguing the music industry, and the need for a fundamental shift in how the issue is handled and what its causes are.
Guest post by Keller Medlin of Soundfly’s Flypaper
Another year, another tragic death of a popular recording artist. Most recently, DMX was the artist to transition before his time. Whatever the circumstances around his death, there’s no denying X struggled with addiction his whole life. Like so many other artists, fame and fortune don’t seem to stand a chance against the trifecta of anxiety, depression, and addiction.
Why do labels, executives, and the industry as a whole continue to sweep this under the rug? The argument of exploiting talent is too easy to make. I would suggest that these same executives and industry power players are in the same situation — just to a lesser degree and less conscious of it as needing changing.
In my 10+ years as a producer in the industry, I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve met that truly seemed aligned, free, and happy. I’ve been around platinum hit songwriters who are always on edge, frustrated, and disrespectful. Well known producers who have egos so fragile they can hardly work with anyone. And we’ve all been around difficult artists who think they’re sent from God.
But I don’t want to talk about these clear examples. I want to address the subtle disturbance that seems to permeate through every individual participating in this industry. There are tons of great people working to make a living in music or already “at the top.” These people are everyday hardworking individuals that just happen to be participating in a broken system that makes them feel like they’re perpetually not good enough.
This is where it all starts. This is how anxiety, depression, and addiction take root and sprout into a full-blown problem in an individual. If we start to address the patterns and routines at the most basic level, we can start to shift the prevalence of these terrible afflictions. So what patterns and habits do you want taking root within you?
You’d never know it from a casual conversation at an event or show. No one says anything while they’re trying to impress you with their resume or while you’re playing “who knows who.” But we’ve all felt it at some point. We’ve all lived with this for far too long. And it needs to change.
What exactly? The default mode of operation of never feeling good enough in the music industry.
It’s possible to stop believing the thoughts you have about yourself that make you feel bad. To start becoming aware of what beliefs you’ve unconsciously adopted about what it means to be successful. And to scrutinize meticulously the patterns and habits you’ve developed that aren’t serving you.
Before you write off the statements above, consider for just 60 seconds if any of that is true, even part of the time. In the end, only you have to live with yourself 24/7, so if you want to dismiss what’s happening in reality and continue feeling mediocre most of the time by all means stop reading here.
But I don’t want you to. You’re selling yourself short and have so much to feel great about. Your gifts of creativity need to be shared with the world and you are only scratching the surface of your potential.
I was able to turn what was a brutal, self-destructive relationship with the music industry into a beautiful, carefree enjoyment of my creative outlet. I want this experience for everyone in music because creating music is one of the most beautiful, uniquely human things we can do.
I’m not trying to convince you of a viewpoint or get you to believe anything. My only intention is to offer my own experience as a pointer to what might be happening for you. If it’s helpful, I’m glad. If not, best wishes for you and forgive me for not providing value.
Cracks in Your Foundation
You can’t start from anywhere other than where you are. Let’s take a look.
For me, when I first started trying to make it as a producer in the music industry I was like a paper bag in the wind. Blowing about aimlessly, I was excited when I had a perceived success and depressed when I had a perceived failure. Rejection emails, being ignored, and not getting noticed stung badly and I paid a heavy price.
For me, the cost of “trying to make it” as a producer was my mental health. I was anxious, on edge, and at the mercy of external events. Not a great place to be.
One day it hit me that I had a choice. Call it grace, intuition, or whatever vocabulary word makes sense for you, but what I experienced was an overwhelming sense of calm right in the midst of a perceived failure. I noticed that I could choose how I wanted to feel by letting negative thoughts pass without clinging or identifying with them.
Then, I could consciously affirm that the external event had nothing to do with me. In fact, there was no “me” to be hurt unless I decided to feel hurt. I realized I had a habit of feeling bad when certain external circumstances didn’t line up with what thought (my mind) was telling me would be optimal.
I understood that we give ourselves permission to feel good or bad depending on what’s going on outside of us. But we can give ourselves permission to feel good at any time!
Events are just perceptions taken in by our senses and processed by our mind. But we are watching all of this taking place, mostly unconsciously. We are the awareness that notices the mental gymnastics that go on trying to justify, resist, and desire outcomes.
We don’t have to believe the thoughts we’re having about ourselves!
What a relief! But once this became clear to me the real work began. Old habits die hard and I had a long road ahead of me.
My foundation was shaky so I knew I had to make a change. Building a strong foundation starts with observing how your mind currently works. What patterns do you have when certain things happen? Do those patterns feel good? If not, perhaps it’s time to examine them and change things.
For me, that change came in the form of what I came to call my mental toolbox. It’s ironic since the thing causing my problems was my mind. Nonetheless, the brain is good at systems and processes. I created various tools to use in certain situations that helped me stay grounded, feel in alignment, and enjoy my work freely.
Once you’ve rooted out the patterns and habits that don’t serve you it’s time to change them. Using various tools, you can shift into a healthier relationship with your mind. One where you are in the driver’s seat and not your conditioned mind.
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Expectations are like playing the lottery. You have an idea that it’s going to work out great, but you’re usually disappointed. So why do we hang our emotional hats on unconscious expectations?
We unconsciously believe that we aren’t good enough unless such and such a thing happens. We expect that working hard on a song we love will get us millions of streams. We think that if we invest a few hundred dollars in promotion we’ll become a popular artist. When things don’t work out the way we think they should in our head, we get discouraged. Why is this normal?
External events have nothing to do with our worth as a person. We freely give our power away to chance, creating a void where a whole person used to be. When we act from a place of diminished power we do not serve the world with our gifts.
Consider this radical idea — if something doesn’t work out for you, it wasn’t meant to! You’re always on the right path as the harmony to life’s melody. Our limited minds cannot grasp the magnanimity of what we are so when something doesn’t work out, we should actually thank life for moving us closer to the next thing that will work out.
“If something doesn’t work out for you, it wasn’t meant to! You’re always on the right path as the harmony to life’s melody.”
Here’s the thing — we don’t get to decide what works. This is true in business and in most things about our lives. The only truth we know is our experience. But what’s real for you might not be real for the next person. It’s totally possible for two people to have opposite reactions to the same external event.
Do you want to suffer all the time when things don’t go your way? Or would you rather be steady no matter what happens, graciously celebrating each moment as a gift we’ve been given during our limited time on this planet.
It might sound corny to you and that’s fine. Your ego will want to attack anything that might dislodge its hold over you. But let’s be clear — “you” are not in control. Your mind is running the show on autopilot while you helplessly flail about from one emotional experience to the next.
If you want out, it starts with recognizing how things have been, what your habits are, what your unconscious expectations are, and accepting all of that humbly, without judgment. Because it’s not your fault. We’re all conditioned by our families and by society. Only the ones who put in the hard work to break their conditioning experience true freedom. Otherwise you’re living someone else’s idea of how life should be lived.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “How Being Busy 24/7 Can Actually Hurt Your Career.”
Okay so we’ve taken a good hard look at who we’ve been and what our habits and expectations are. So how do we start to break our conditioning and change into who we’d rather be?
Breaking conditioning starts with acceptance. Once you truly accept who you currently show up to the world as, you can move forward. Have compassion and peace with yourself. In the end, the idea you have about yourself about who you are isn’t objectively real anyway, so why make a big deal out of it?
Once we’re free of identification with old habits and can accept them as not who we are, it’s important to develop your awareness. Notice how you can notice thoughts coming up without thinking they’re “you.” Become aware of your emotional states that seem to arise for no good reason. These are all natural experiences of being human.
Your conditioning lodged itself over years and years of repetitive thinking, so it won’t be an overnight process to dislodge strong habits. The good news is that you now have a superpower in the form of awareness and belief. You no longer have to unconsciously believe the thoughts that come up. You are no longer at the mercy of your mental images and concepts.
Notice this. Feel this deeply and be at peace.
What you can believe, is that you are a whole complete person right now in this moment. You don’t need anything external to happen in order to feel good. Let me say that again:
You don’t need anything external to happen in order to feel good!
There is no objective definition of success yet we’re conditioned to believe in someone else’s idea of what success means. Do you want to be a slave to other people’s old ideas that make you feel worse? Of course not, so stop agreeing with the thoughts you have that make you feel like you aren’t good enough just as you are.
Use whatever tool works for you to continuously replace the thoughts that want you to believe you aren’t good enough. Affirmations work well, meditation can work, exercise helps; anything to create some space between the thoughts, habits, and conditioning, and your awareness of them.
Root Out Your Desire
So what’s important to you? Do you want a million streams? Tons of followers online? More money? Drill down into these desires and understand where they come from and how they’re causing you to suffer.
When you desire something external to happen, you unconsciously are agreeing to feel less than whole until such and such a thing happens. It’s great to have ambition and goals, but being attached to them for your emotional and mental wellbeing is a recipe for suffering.
How are you going to feel in the meantime until you reach your goal? Most of us feel like we aren’t good enough unless we get what our mind tells us we want. As someone in the music industry this is devastating as most people don’t reach the proverbial mountaintop of fame and fortune.
“You can feel great about yourself with zero people hearing your songs. You can share your gifts with the world without clinging to the reactions of others.”
Even at the top the desire game doesn’t stop. If you win a Grammy, you’ll desire three Grammys. If you earn a million dollars, you’ll want $10 million. Once the habit of chasing desire is securely rooted in the beginning of your music career, it stays that way unless examined and changed consciously.
Maybe it’s time to reevaluate our intentions and turn away from external metrics. Consider basing your goals on how you want to feel instead of what you can obtain or accomplish. You can feel great about yourself with zero people hearing your songs. You can share your gifts with the world without clinging to the reactions of others.
When you shift into alignment with how you want to feel instead of what you want to achieve, you change the foundation of your experience with music. Re-build your foundation from a place of “I want to feel _____” instead of unconsciously adopting the path others tell you to be on.
The thing is, the external metrics and results will take care of themselves. You don’t have to force anything to happen when you create from a place of joy and contentment. What you can control is your effort and the beliefs you have about yourself. Everything past that is a bonus level.
This article only scratches the surface of what is a severely underserved topic. The music industry has so much life giving energy to share. It’s unfortunate that anxiety, depression, and addiction are so prevalent. But we can make a change by first changing ourselves and our approach.
I hope you can discover for yourself this radical shift of perspective from unconscious beliefs into grounded awareness. Choosing how you feel is possible by choosing what you believe. You don’t have to believe thoughts. You don’t have to do what someone else thinks you should do.
Have the courage to decide for yourself what’s meaningful and important based on how you want to feel. Creating and sharing musical gifts are a beautiful aspect of being human. If you honor and respect the process in and of itself without attachment to external achievements, you will find a more peaceful, resonant relationship with yourself and with music.