Collective Grief and The Music Industry

Battle scars, grief and trauma run deep in the music industry.

My own experience includes ongoing, deep psychological wounds. The music industry spat me out twice — traumatic immediate loss of income, identity, purpose and imagined futures built on integrity, hard work and visions that failed to materialise.

I can now pinpoint, in the rearview mirror, both the summer of 1993–94 and the spring of 2008 as defining perceived industry ‘failures.’ Cognitive neuroscience research explains the influence past experiences have on behaviour. Often unconscious, these psychological and physical triggers explain the negative effect on our wellbeing. Counselling, emotional maturity and deep healing served me well for the fresh trauma and grief of 2020.

Attending a local Brisbane music industry function recently, my body reminded me of how precarious our mental health and wellbeing is — the return of social anxiety was a reminder how confidence sapping residual trauma and unresolved grief can be.

Spectator Jonze Potrait

My personal wish is to move forward within collective music industry spaces with equanimity. To not reopen old wounds of anxiety, self-doubt, criticism and judgement and be empowered. I have a conscious choice to continue to transform my own lived experience, pain and trauma into connection and community.

The recently published Can Music Make You Sick? Measuring the Price of Musical Ambition by Sally Anne Gross and George Musgrave is essential reading for everyone creating, or supporting those that do, music. Their research informs a broader discussion of work, definitions of ‘success’ and the precarity of economic stability that feeds an industry in a crisis of stress, anxiety and depression.

Myth of the Future

Gross and Musgrave argue that the ‘most profound myth is that of the future.’ A systemic ‘achievement-expectation gap’ exists where the music industry does not often (if ever) give back what we imagine it ‘might’. This ‘gap’ between an imagined future and the reality of precarious income, anxiety and pressure becomes the shaky foundation of the lives of musicians, their families and all those self-employed industry professionals that scaffold their careers.

“Instability for musicians to transcend financial precariousness; the industry itself seems predicated on blurred lines and perennial uncertainty.” Gross and Musgrave (p 59)

These imagined ‘successful’ futures have always been a mirage. It is the ‘hidden reality’ of an economy built on ‘hopes and dreams’ and a flawed meritocracy that was already broken — even before a global pandemic.

The entire music industry is grieving

The cost of not grieving the collective loss of opportunities, livelihoods and imagined futures will be profound. Healing is mandatory to shift the collective toward positive possibilities — without healing so many will dwell in trauma, negativity, anxiety, depression, loss and failure.

I believe acknowledging, accepting and ritualizing our collective grief could be the creative force that turns so much pain and loss into resilience and inspiration.

“Our hope is that more leaders will come to recognise that painful emotions need not be debilitating or destructive; indeed, these emotions can be reframed as constructive, positive and creative elements of life.” Dhanaraj and Koehrieser

A recent McKinsey and Company article “The Hidden Perils of Unresolved Grief” suggested that the cost of ‘unresolved’ grief on any individual, or company, in lost productivity and performance is pervasive and expensive.

Grief is experienced from the loss of one, or more, deep-seated human needs.

McKinsey and Company September 2020

In the article Dhanaraj and Kohlrieser suggest a model for resolving grief: awareness; acceptance and reconstruction.

If we can be open with each other, our minds and hearts through the painful awareness of our collective reality the next step is acceptance.

To accept reality requires will. A willingness to process what we’ve been through in 2020 and come to terms with what we’ve lost. This will be painful — reliving the emotions that we are fighting to supress and deny. A willingness to express emotion requires vulnerability, collectively and as leaders in the music industry we resist this. Accepting the reality that dreams won’t be realised is deeply scary and unsettling. It can drain our emotions; energy and we can lose our sense of self and identity.

With the losses of 2020 we have doubled down on Gross and Musgraves “Myth of the Future’ and the collective pain of the loss of deeply cherished hopes and dreams along with income. Acceptance itself won’t end the grief, as a collective we need to create personal meaning from the losses.

Grief expert, David Kessler suggests a need to reposition grief, and work through a process to reconstruct and resolve the grief with new narratives. Individual artists, managers and small business owners need to gently remain aware of the grief being experienced. Take the time to accept it and do the work to reconstruct the pain to a renewed sense of purpose and belonging.

I worry as the music business re-ignites, that without the time and space to collectively and consciously heal, the toll of trauma, anxiety and depression will become insurmountable.

The Australian music industry is the sum of its parts. The collective can play an important role, for what is mostly thousands of personal processes, in healing.

Dhanaraj and Kohlrieser propose that leaders can embed a spirit of awareness, acceptance and action in the collective by: setting the right tone; recognising the grief of the collective and creating collective rituals.

Music industry leaders, peak bodies and bureaucrats need to set the right tone to rebuild a resilient healthy future for the whole sector. They need to continue to recognise what thousands of individuals and their families are enduring. Leaders need to avail themselves with warmth to those in the frontline of the sector working through their grief. Prompt the difficult conversations, talk about the negative effects and embrace (not control) the healing process.

Critically, the music industry needs ritual

Rituals are powerful and can signal recovery and transformation. To move forward as a collective the industry will need to heal the grief. In my opinion, it will NOT be on/offline award ceremonies, corporate events, conferences, endless webinars or virtue signally that will ultimately transform lives.

Resources for time and safe spaces are required. Whereby we can connect, reflect, laugh and cry without criticism or judgement. Without government advocacy pressure for answers, outcomes or agendas.

With support from industry leaders and funded organisations we can collectively articulate and recognise the grief and loss fuelled by the pandemic — and collectively transform our grief into creative, collaborative force and inspiration for years to come.

Leanne de Souza is an owner and Non-Executive Director of Nightlife Music — a B2B music-tech platform, with the crowdDJ interface, are the market leaders in licenced background music for public performance in Australia and New Zealand.

In 2020 Leanne is also engaged as: :

A Guardian of Purpose for BIGSOUND50 artist Lydia Fairhall — collectively exploring artist empowered next-economy models for contemporary music.

Chair for the Advisory Board of the Electronic Music Conference (EMC). A Trustee of the Qld Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) and completing a Bachelor of Arts (Media and Digital Cultures) at University of Queensland.

I am a non-Indigenous Australian. I pay my respects to the Turrubul and Yagera/Yugura Peoples as the custodians of the lands where I work, study and live. I acknowledge that sovereignty was never ceded.

#alwayswasalwayswillbe

Governance | Leadership | Advocacy | Strategy | Research | Undergraduate at UQ | music, books, conversation, alchemy, justice and champagne