FEATURE: And Dream of Sheep: Why Sleep Deprivation and Pressure is Damaging Musicians’ Health



And Dream of Sheep:


Why Sleep Deprivation and Pressure is Damaging Musicians’ Health


ONE of the growing problems I am discovering…


ALL PHOTO/IMAGE CREDITS (unless stated): Getty

in the music industry is the poor emotional health of artists. I have discussed mental-health in depth, but this is a lot less complex – how so many musicians are not getting a lot sleep and, because of that, it is impacting on their career. Not only does a lack of sleep cause discoordination, fatigue and depression – it creates physical issues and can affect health in the long-term. I will bring in an interesting argument/article that theorises the benefits of insomnia; how it can promote creativity and is beneficial to musicians. To me, where I will bring in some supportive pieces, there is too much pressure from the music industry. I will bring in ‘periphery’ concerns such as high rent prices and competition but, from a health perceptive, it is troubling seeing so many musicians unable to sleep adequately. One of the biggest contributors to the problem is the amount of stress a modern musician faces. The need to get gigs and earn a crust means (musicians) have to work longer hours and are unable to switch off. Music has, over recent years, become a digital-heavy industry; one where artists can control their environment through laptops and technology. Social media is a useful tool for artists: the fact they are spending so much time on it is having a detrimental effect. To maintain a career in music – without considering success and growth – the sheer determination and work ethic is driving many to extraordinary lengths. I have spoken to a number of musicians and there is a direct connection between their sleep problems and the hours they have to pull.


Social media is a great way of getting music out there. It gets sounds to the people readily and quickly but so much of it is tied to popularity and marketing, Musicians cannot put a song out there and see it grow – able to sit back and have other people do all the work. You can say that has always been the way with music but the growth of competition, combined with the digitisation of music, means so many of us are unable to extricate ourselves from technology. I will go on but, to bring some black-and-white science to the fore; here is an interesting article that shows the extent of the problem.

The National Institutes of Health estimates that roughly 30% of the general population suffers from sleep disruption. According to the American Psychological Association, most healthy adults do best with 16 hours of wakefulness and an average of eight hours of sleep per night. However, individual needs can vary from requiring as little as six to up to 10 hours of sleep per night. Sleep requirements do not decline with age, though the ability to sleep soundly may.

Sleep experts cite stress as the number one cause of acute sleep problems. You’re worried about an upcoming gig, which causes you not to be able to sleep, and pretty soon you are also worried about not getting enough sleep. In this way, anxiety and insomnia exacerbate each other. Yoga, meditation, and other mind-body relaxation techniques can often help you cope.


 Travel, especially when you cross time zones, can upset your biological (circadian) rhythms. Compound that with being in a strange place, and you have a recipe for exhaustion. Environmental factors like a room that’s too cold or hot, noisy, or bright, may be beyond your control on the road.

Inadequate sleep will reduce your musical abilities, overall wellbeing, and quality of life. Numerous studies have proven that inadequate sleep can cause reduced cognitive functions, such as those needed for effective concentration and decision making. It can affect your irritability, patience, and ability to get along with others”.


A little later, when bringing in a competing article, there are some interesting arguments that state a certain rationing of sleep can be beneficial for a creative brain. I worry success and survival is tied to numbers and scoreboards. There was, years ago, far fewer new musicians operating away from the mainstream. There was not the same problem we have now with artists having to sacrifice health and happiness in order to make a go of their chosen careers – by the same token; we are in a position when anyone can come into music and that, in turn, provides a huge and bountiful market for the public. Take a case-study of Musician A. She/he will release a new song and put it out to the world. It does not end there…over the course of days/weeks; Musician A monitors how it is doing and ensures the song gets out to radio stations and promoters. It is not over then. After that; they have to make sure the song gets on playlists and is shared on social media. Visibility is so much a part of the musician’s career. Many feel, if they take time off from social media and connecting with the digital world; their music will suffer and they will be overlooked. I am in the same position: writing endlessly in the hope someone, somewhere will see my work and give me an opportunity. Competition so stiff and vast, every artist around feels insecurity and is expected to work themselves half to death. Is that pressure coming from the artist or the industry?


It is a subjective debate and it is not easy to answer. I feel there is more weight on the latter’s scales. Of the artists I have spoken to; they always come to the same conclusion: if I do not concrete my whole being to music, I will risk losing fans/following. That is paraphrasing, but the general gist is obvious: artists are sacrificing their free-time and health in order to maintain a music career. It is hard to say exactly how damaging the issue of insomnia and physiological strain is putting on the individual. It will vary person-to-person but it is clear something constructive needs to happen. I will move on to the cost of living, anxieties and relationships – before then; I found an interesting piece that explained why early rising can benefit the creative drive:


We’ve all been there. You’ve just gotten home from work, maybe you still need to make dinner for yourself and all you want to do is sit on the couch and flip through your favorite TV shows or dig into some Netflix. You’re not alone. This is absolutely how everyone else feels after a long day at work too. Most work days, about 5 hours in- I am mentally fried. Later that night I go home and try to work on some memorization or sing through some music and it feels almost impossible to focus or retain information at that point. We only have a few good hours of focus in us per day. Make sure you’re using them wisely! Get up a couple hours before you have to go to work, and start hashing out some art! It’s the best way to truly make progress. Don’t wait until the day is over and you have nothing left to give. Put your passion first.


When do you receive the most phone calls and texts? Generally after you and everyone else gets home from work. If everyone else is still sleeping or getting ready for work, chances are, you are going to get way fewer distractions. Hearing your phone buzzing or getting endless messages and e-mails can disrupt your practice in no time. Getting up earlier gives you the feeling that you have stolen some extra hours just for yourself.  Jump into your day with music FIRST.  There will be plenty of time to watch cute cat videos on your phone later.



I don’t know about you, but I tend to let a lot of guilt creep up when I feel like I don’t give much focused attention to my art. I feel like it’s slipping away from me. I feel like I should be getting more done, or be further along in my studies. This is all part of the emotional roller coaster that we artists get to ride for our entire life!  Weeeee!  If I have already gotten events created, pictures posted, blogs written, songs practiced, and created posters for my next gig by the time I get to work, I come home feeling WAY less guilty. I don’t have to be a zombie attempting to practice after work AND be really sad about it too. Boom goes the dynamite.


If you have a solid reason WHY you need to be getting up in the morning, you’ll absolutely do it. I know that I wake up every morning wanting to get ready to make more music. You can either make art now, or make excuses later on. Period.


It is truly amazing how much you can get done even if you wake up only 1 hour earlier than you did before. Maybe it’s the proximity to my coffee pot, or maybe it’s just that my brain is so fresh, but I can get about two or three times as much done BEFORE work, as I do after a long day.



Life is a series of tasks.  If you hop out of bed in the morning and you get straight to doing the work you were born to do, that creates a ripple affect in entire your day.  You will be more present at work and you will have more energy to manage the rest of the items on your daily to-do list. Bodies in motion tend to stay in motion. So start your day strong and create all the inertia that you can.

Some of the above is true and, by putting in an extra bit of work at the start of the day means there is time near the end to get to sleep early – decompress sooner than usual. The flaw with that debate is you are not gaining any more sleep-time. Perhaps there is the tactical psychology behind the reasoning – the consistency and quality of sleep is improved if you can detach in the evening hours – but I worry these points are a rather subjective and flawed viewpoint. Another article, from The Guardian a few years back, brought actor/musician Matt Berry together with Glass Animals’ frontman, Dave Bayley:

"When you're sleep-deprived I imagine it's quite similar to having taken certain drugs," says Bayley, who has a degree in neuroscience. "The logical side of your brain is slowly withering away because there's not enough energy to power it, and all these crazy ideas start happening that your brain would normally suppress. I find the brain a mystical beast. It's so bizarre and interesting."


IN THIS PHOTO: Glass Animals' Dave Bayley

Berry had a similar experience in his studio, which has neither windows nor clocks. "It was kind of dreamlike. Sometimes I'd go back the next day and think: 'Wow. Some of it doesn't sound like me.' There are things I wouldn't have done during the day – lots of things coming in and out of focus."

 Some studies have suggested a correlation between creativity and sleep disturbance, known as "creative insomnia", although this has been disputed. There is, however, plenty of anecdotal evidence from musicians. Artists such as Chris Martin, Moby, Tricky and King Krule have all talked about finding sleepless nights inspiring as well as tormenting.

Unusually, Berry set out to make music that might help other people alleviate their insomnia. He abandoned plans to theme it around childhood or being underwater because he didn't want to trigger unpleasant memories in certain listeners. "I tried to make it interesting but I've left it as blank as I can," he says. "I've used basic elements such as water and air. Other than that, it's whatever images you can conjure up from it. I'm not trying to push anything on you".


There are remedies, programmes and treatments that have been suggested for musical insomniacs – is that more a case of medicating rather than addressing? I have respect for Berry and Bayley’s experiences but they are in a privileged position. Most artists do not have the same opportunities and success as they do. The issue of sleep and an exhaustive schedule is not common to every new musician starting out. There are those who can balance the demands of the industry without sacrificing their well-being and sleep habits. The artists I am familiar with have to balance a full-time job with their music: working, essentially, two jobs in order to fund their passions. Many could claim musicians make the choice and do not have to follow their paths – that would be somewhat glib and unhelpful. I mentioned how rent prices are causing issues. We all know most of the labels and opportunities are based in London. Rent prices are much steeper in the capital than they are other parts of the country. Recent studies suggest things are levelling out but, at the moment, it is barely feasible for a musician to reside in the capital. I have seen many filled with ambition – looking to rent there – and have either found life too expensive or not been able to find a flat to begin with! Many who live outside London, where rent prices are cheaper, have the added stress of commuting and the costs associated with that.


I am looking for prices in London and the average room in a decent-ish London pad can be anywhere from £600 - £700 a month (or more; the flat pictured would cost WAY more than that per month!). Put together travel, food and utilities and the average musician does not have enough money to socialise. Cutting loose and detaching from the work environment is a great way to promote better sleep and mental-health. There is that desire to be close to London in order to be visible and local. So many musicians are overlooked if they are not within touching distance of the capital – the sight of the media and venues does not extend as far as it should! All of these elements, combined, is seeing musicians build their hopes up and dream; have those dreams eroded and return to a more ‘modest’ – and less desirable – existence. It is a vicious circle and stress that is making the issue around sleep even worse. The pressure of finance and living conditions exacerbates the issue; reduced sleep means the energy levels sap; the creative flow is limited and that can add to depression and anxiety – causing real problems and dangers. Maybe all of these issues are too weighty to deal with and cure; perhaps it is impossible to deal with every concern and create a perfect environment for a musician.



The modern music industry provides a chance for everyone to come in and get their work out to the people. The flip-side is the level of commitment needed from a musician; the amount of time the individual needs to spend on their work – and the effect it is having on their sleep/health. The less time they have for social activities (less money in their pocket) then the unhappier they will become. Of all the artists I have heard from; there is the feeling any ‘wasted hours’ – chilling or sleeping – will be detrimental to their success. We need to, therefore, break out of the head-space that puts this much pressure on the artist. Behind the digital screens and social media sites; there are few bodies and safeguards looking after the artist – whether they are rested enough and have adequate support. Many are lying awake wondering if they are good enough; if they have done enough and are worthy. I know medicines, exercise and designated time for socialisation is a good way of combating sleep issues but it is the pressures of success and physiological considerations that are hardest to treat. There is this perceived ideology social media success and streaming figures are the mark of success and popularity. The dwindling venues scene – so many great spots closing – and raising rent prices is putting fiduciary stress on the artist. Put all that together with growing mental-health concerns and it is putting so much pressure on musicians. I know it is not a simple fix but we need to realise how damaging a lack of sleep can be; how a pressurised music scene is creating more problems than productivity. There are benefits to a lack of sleep – it can lead to greater productivity – and rebalancing your sleeping habits means transposed priorities (getting more work done earlier in the day means you have time free in the evening) is a nice solution. I worry too many artists are burning out and sacrificing something as fundamental as a good night’s sleep to balance the demands of a music career. If we were able to create an industry where a musician felt less pressured and overworked; that would ease their minds and promote greater mental-health. It is a side of music we need to tackle and get to the roots of. If we do, and can prevent musicians giving up so much of their time and life; then that will create an environment where we place…


BALANCE over obsession.