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The Highs and Lows of the Live Performance
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performing on stage to a huge crowd would be one of the scariest things imaginable! I have done some public speaking and been on the radio, and that is absolutely fine. The idea of being in the spotlight and having to perform would be too much. What happens if my mouth dries or, if I were a singer, I forget the words to a song? That idea of leading a set and interacting with the audience…I would not vibe off of that experience. Chris Hawkins (BBC Radio 6 Music) has been behind some great documentaries in his time but, as part of a new series, Playing Well, he investigates live performance and the science behind it; how there is this addictive high and a sort of dependence. This BBC article explains more:
“A new Radio 4 documentary tracked the stress levels of musicians as they took to the stage. Presenter Chris Hawkins explains why they found the experience can be addictive... and dangerous.
Lots of singers have a ritual before heading on stage.
As a DJ, I've seen the group huddles, the performers who go quiet and the ones who get nervous - but I've never appreciated the sheer toll live performance can take on the body.
As part of Radio 4's new Art of Now series, Playing Well, I've been talking to musicians about mental health - and when we were given the chance to measure the stress involved in playing a gig, we got some surprising results.
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Our guinea pig Marcus, from the band Pagans SOH, had to agree to a testing regime that involved giving 12 saliva samples on the day before, the day of the gig, and the day after.
"Interestingly, the day before the gig was very normal, which is a great sign for Marcus it means he's healthy," said Professor Catharine Loveday, who led the study. "He woke up and his cortisol went up just as it should do.
"The day of the gig, already in the morning it was quite disrupted [and] after the gig it shot right up by about seven nanomoles. That's really quite a large leap".
In the first episode, Hawkins discussed the life of the late Frightened Rabbit lead, Scott Hutchison. The musician took his own life last year and, whilst he was adored and seemed happy on stage, there was a certain sense of expectation and pressure on his shoulders; maybe a false sense of happiness and fulfillment. It is well known that a lot of musicians struggle with stage fright, and they struggle to get onto the stage and play. Having to summon the energy to gig so often can take a lot out of them and take its toll. Others love that buzz and feed off of the adulation and electricity. If I was a performer and had that confidence, I think I would feel that rush and carry it for quite a while. I wonder what happens when artists sort of ‘come back down to Earth’ and the endorphins wear off?
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One would assume that touring would be more brutal on solo artists, because they lack the support of a band and are often alone before and after gigs. I think it does depend on the person as to what affect gigs have. I have been to a fair few live shows, and I can imagine how demanding it is for every musician to perform their role. Even if you perform in a genre that does not necessarily require a huge amount of energy, there is still that physical demand of repeat gigging; having to hone your craft and deliver these great shows time and time again. If you are an artist who exerts more energy, the stamina needed to keep going for even a single gig is immense. For sure, the buzz of playing helps with endurance; the connection with the crowd can give incredible strength but, when it is all over, one has to decompress. You then need to rebuild and do it all over again. It is not only the effect the actual gig has that can cause problems. Consider the travel between gigs and how exhausting a commute can be. There is a lot of preparation and rehearsal needed so, before an act even gets to the stage, they have already sweated and struggled. In the case of artists like Scott Hutchison, one has to balance the thrill of adulation and applause coupled with the vast gulf between life on the stage and in a private light. Often, artists tour so much because they want to distract themselves from problems, or they suffer from mental-health issues and perform to get a high. That high can be addictive and, like any addiction, the crash that one suffers can be horrendous.
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Also, bands are often in close confines with one another and, even if they have a great connection, there are always going to be tensions and problems from time to time. I think we all see artists play and, from a gig-goer’s view, it all seems pretty cool and something to be idolised. That may be the case with some, but how many of us consider the mental and physical impact involved with performance? Many performers get incredibly stressed before they play and have to carry that through a gig. Stress not only affects the mind, but it also affects the body and can be very dangerous. I have looked at the ups and downs of touring before; in that case, it was more to do with the physical repercussions and whether we get this idealised impression of touring. Mental illness is being discussed more. Musicians are opening up more and we have a greater understanding. It can be risky revealing the darker side of gigs, seeing as that can backfire. People go and see an artist so might not be willing to do knowing it is harming them. I have never really considered the short and long-term affects of touring and pushing too hard. Now, with so many artists about, there is competition and a lot of demand. Streaming and social media means music can reach anyone in the world; this means even smaller artists will get a lot of requests and feel the need to play as many gigs as possible.
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Seeing as streaming music does not generate a sustainable amount of income – how many artists could live off of streaming royalties and profit?! -, touring is the only option. The BBC article talks about the long-term impact of gigs and demand:
“In an industry which has placed an increased emphasis on live work, musicians may run into difficulty when a punishing schedule offers their cortisol levels little chance to settle down.
Professor Loveday included "recovery time" as one of her five tips for looking after your mental health in the music business - all of which are included in the documentary.
Interestingly, one of the others was "hang on to your friends outside of music" - as being grounded is a crucial way to stop the intensity of the business affecting you negatively”.
Sociability and winding down are essential for musicians to remain grounded and not burn out. So many artists are hooked on social media or suffer from anxiety. It can be hard to detach or unwind but, more and more, artists need to find some precious time to be ‘normal’ and allow their bodies and minds to re-engage and calm. I have talked a lot about the negative aspects of performance when, in reality, there are many positives. Finding that balance where artists can play a lot and ensure they look after their health is often easier said than done. We can all appreciate that.
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That classic image of the artist or band getting huge ovation and rapturous love lures many people to the industry. I have seen it enough times and can see the genuine happiness on the face of the artists. Social media is good when it comes to promoting music, yet there is this false sense of connection; it can be very isolating and lonely. I know there is inherent loneliness with touring, but performance is the chance for artists to engage with their fans; to tear down the walls and anonymity of the Internet and actually be in the same space at the same time. The rewards from the point of view of artist and fan alike is evident. Life on the road can be sweet. Artists get to see different places and be afforded opportunities to see the world they wouldn’t be able to if they were in any other career. Also, so many musicians prefer live performance and that is what they work towards. Recording songs can be great, but you never know how people will react to them and how they come to life. Gigs are essential, not only to gain fans and exposure, but to get these songs tested and feel that direct response. Aside from sweaty vans and a lot of travel delays, there are some real benefits of being on the road and taking to the stage. The sheer rush artists feel when they are in control and in the zone is impossible to beat!
IN THIS PHOTO: Wolf Alice/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
I am not suggesting one thinks twice before going to a gig; worried that the artist they are seeing is masking pain and is going to experience a massive dive. The documentary series from Chris Hawkins and the BBC is essential because it demystifies this impression we have about the ‘tortured artist’ and whether their lyrics are exaggerated and melodramatic. Often, artists have to put on a façade on stage and, as I said, many artists have different personas: a more reserved private individual and someone who comes alive and is reborn on the stage. In the second episode of the Playing Well series brings together artists such as Wolf Alice and John Grant, who talk about the intensity and realities of touring. The new Radio 4 Art of Now series, Playing Well, shows that musicians are not often as open as sport personalities and famous figures when it comes to their mental-health and the effects of touring. Maybe there is this stigma or hesitation being so frank when there is the risk of losing fans and commercial stature. Being on the stage can allow artists the chance to release and express themselves in a way that is incredibly powerful and restorative. There are also the downsides that we often ignore or are not aware of – make sure you follow the Radio 4 series, because it is very illuminating and honest. That sort of returns me to my opening lines regarding myself and the terror of live performance. I could definitely appreciate the raw power you get from any performance, whether it is acoustic or electric. There is a magic in the air that is hard to describe. Having your music instantly register with an audience must provide a massive high – and it is understandable why so many artists love life on the road. There is that often-unexplored low and risk that artists run; the mental-health problems and the stress that can take a toll on the body and mind. Any series that promotes conversation about musicians’ wellbeing should be applauded, so it is great to see Chris Hawkins and BBC Radio 4 put such an important subject…
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UNDER the spotlight.