Randy Blythe, frontman of the US metal band Lamb of God, remembers the first time he performed live sober. It was 18 October 2010, and the band were opening for Metallica in Brisbane, Australia. “I was thrown into the lion’s den,” he says. “On stage in front of 14,000 people, weeping uncontrollably – thank God I had long hair so it covered my face. I got sober on tour, surrounded by free drugs and alcohol. I felt if I could do it out there, I’d be able to maintain it anywhere.”
Substance abuse and addiction can affect anyone. But with its tendency towards hedonism, the music industry can be dangerous for those who struggle with alcohol and drugs. We have watched many stars succumb to addiction, not to mention those who work behind the scenes. My own alcohol problem started before I became a music journalist, but I took full advantage of the late nights and heavy-drinking culture that came with the territory before I finally stopped. Now, as Covid-19 has forced a pause, change is afoot to help those who need it.
Music Support, a UK charity that specialises in mental health and addiction in the music industry, runs a regular training course on mental health first aid. Part of the course touches on substance abuse. During the pandemic, the Tour Production Group (TPG), an association of live music touring professionals, asked Music Support if they could develop a course devoted to this issue.
The result was a four-hour addiction and recovery training workshop, designed to help people working in music to understand addiction and feel confident about helping others. Since the workshops began in 2021, Music Support has trained more than 100 people, and heightened interest has led to the number of sessions doubling, from monthly to fortnightly.
“This is something the industry is now demanding,” says Matt Thomas, co-founder of Music Support and a music industry veteran who struggled with addiction himself. “If we want to continue to be this creative, wonderful industry, we’re going to have to start getting better at [supporting mental health], or we’ll lose more people.”
“So much is misunderstood and not said about addiction in the music industry,” says Norman Beecher, the senior learning and development specialist at Music Support, who runs the workshop. “There’s almost this unwritten rule that drugs and alcohol are a necessity if you’re a musician or in the music industry. It’s a narrative that needs to change.”
Part of that change means challenging cliches, such as the romanticised image of the intoxicated musician. “It’s the glorification of rock’n’roll,” says Aðalbjörn “Addi” Tryggvason, frontman of the Icelandic metal band Sólstafir, who got sober in 2013. “You think you’re supposed to drink a bottle of bourbon a night. I thought you couldn’t be confident, or into it, without being drunk or high on drugs.”
“There’s this cultural mythos of the artist as an alcoholic, a drug addict,” says Blythe. “I was nervous at first [when sober] that I wouldn’t be able to write. In fact, it unlocked sort of a creative switch in my brain.”
Mike Kerr, of Royal Blood, agrees: “I had an entrenched belief that being hungover or intoxicated was great for creativity.” But once sober, he wrote the rock duo’s third album, Typhoons, an expansion of the band’s sound that continued their streak of UK No 1 albums. “People could hear I was using my whole brain,” he says.
The music industry is full of high-risk situations when it comes to substance abuse and addiction. For many, touring is the most challenging aspect of what they do. “I didn’t start drinking until I started playing music,” says country music singer Morgan Wade. “Touring is lonely: you go out and kind of cut yourself open for all these people. It’s loud and fun, then you go back to your bus, you’re hyped up and alone. That can be hard.”
“It’s been six and a half years now, and I’m still not used to it,” says Nita Strauss, the guitarist in Alice Cooper’s band, of being sober on the road. “On my solo tours we have instituted a ‘no alcohol on the bus’ policy. I don’t mind if my band and crew drink. But if I open the fridge and it’s full of it, it’s very difficult.”
While the artist has to deal with the highs and lows of attention, it’s important to remember those not in the spotlight. “There are a lot of people on crews, in management companies and record labels, who have died,” says Thomas. “It wouldn’t even be known that this is what they died from because there’s so much shame and stigma around it. It’s covered up.”
Duff Battye runs a PR company, Duff Press, representing bands such as Def Leppard, Kiss and Slash. “I felt like I had to go away from the music industry when I got sober,” he says. “My perception was that partying was part of the job. I wasn’t sure people would understand.”
“I recall going to an awards show and they came round with 10 glasses of champagne and one glass of juice,” says Beecher. “That needs to change. It needs to be 50:50. So people start thinking, OK, I have a choice here.”
Beecher says he moulded the workshop to promote understanding that not everyone who drinks to excess is an addict. “We’re not saying people shouldn’t drink,” he says. “What we’re saying is, let’s have a balance and not glorify this.”
“We’re not anti-alcohol, anti-hedonism, anti-anything,” adds Thomas. “What we are is pro-education – and choice.”
The music industry was hit hard by the pandemic. But, for many, one silver lining of the global crisis has been connections made online.
“The ability to jump into a meeting with people in five different parts of the planet is powerful,” says Christopher Tait, the keyboardist in Electric Six. Christopher runs his own organisation, Passenger, which supports sober musicians on tour in the US midwest. “I think people are connected in ways they never have been.”
Another online support group started up during the pandemic is the Back Lounge, created by Suzi Green, a tour manager who has worked with artists such as PJ Harvey, Placebo and Katie Melua. Green is also part of the TPG and helped to get the addiction and recovery workshop going.
“The back lounge on the tour bus is where all the interesting conversations happen,” Green says. “It’s mostly people who work in touring and events, from all over the world. Sometimes it can go deep and dark, but it always ends with people laughing; it’s meant to be uplifting. Addiction came up a lot, and the stigma of being in recovery.”
As Thomas says, it’s also crucial to quash the stigma of addiction as a “moral failure” within the music industry. “The idea that someone who is in recovery is a liability is probably the biggest misconception. Someone in a healthy recovery will be the most reliable employee of the lot.”
Opening up communication, challenging stigmas and making people aware that help is available all bode well for the future. Meanwhile, attitudes are shifting. “As a kid, I remember hearing about Aerosmith being sober and laughing – ‘What a bunch of losers!’” says Tryggvason. “Nobody is laughing about this today.”
“I’m glad I got sober in 2010 and not 1990,” says Battye. “When I came into the industry it was like the wild west. I was told off for not going out enough; part of my job was get journalists drunk at lunchtime. Now I can’t remember the last time someone had a drink at a work lunch.”
“I think there’s more awareness among young people today that it’s not cool to be a drunken mess,” says Blythe. “It’s rare that I see a really hard-partying younger band in our scene. They are the outliers, whereas before they were more the norm.”
“I used to get applauded for downing a drink on stage and fooled myself into thinking that was part of what people came for,” says Kerr. “But ultimately, people come to watch us play and have a good time – and how I have a good time has changed.
“It’s gone full circle: the reason I started playing is because I love it. Now I’m back to where I started – where people can come to watch me just lose myself in the music.”