A few years ago, Menno Versteeg saw a therapist for the first time. A 20-year veteran of the music industry, both as frontman for the soon-to-be disbanded indie-rock group Hollerado and as head honcho at Toronto’s Royal Mountain Records, Versteeg had long bought into the conceit of the tortured artist – that great art needs to be suffered for. Mental health be damned, fist fights, addiction and extreme anxiety were the price to pay for the right to earn a meagre living as a touring musician. “I could never afford any type of professional help,” he says with a shrug.
But when his wife, the actress Annie Murphy, landed a role on the CBC series Schitt’s Creek, Versteeg suddenly found he had the means to seek support. So he finally spoke with a therapist and the results were miraculous. “I’m like, ‘This stuff actually works,’” he laughs self-effacingly. “It’s not witchcraft! I would’ve loved this when I was 22."
So when Royal Mountain, which oversees over 25 artists, including breakout acts Mac DeMarco and Alvvays, finally turned a small profit, Versteeg vowed to help the next generation of musicians get the help they needed. “You go to the doctor to get a checkup for your body,” he explains. “Why getting a checkup for your head isn’t seen as just as important blows my mind.”
Last January, Versteeg became an industry pioneer and created a first-of-its-kind mental-health fund for all artists on his label. At $1,500 per act, it’s not a ton of cash, but, he points out, it’s enough to make a big difference. “Almost everyone on this label is living on the margin. It’s a pretty hand-to-mouth existence,” he says. “When you have to choose between rent and your own wellness ... no bands go to the dentist.”
As a confidential, non-recoupable lump sum, artists needn’t disclose how they spent the money. But Versteeg says over half have reached out to personally thank him. One, in particular, sticks out. “I had a person in a band, I won’t say who, write me to say, ‘You helped me save my own life.’”
His anecdotal evidence echoes data emerging from around the world. In a 2016 study conducted by the British charity Help Musicians UK and the University of Westminster in London, researchers found that nearly 69 per cent of the more than 2,200 participants surveyed had suffered from depression and over 70 per cent had panic attacks or anxiety. Likewise, a recent survey by Sweden’s Record Union, a distribution platform for artists’ music, revealed that 73 per cent of the nearly 1,500 independent artists surveyed had experienced negative emotions, such as stress, anxiety and depression in relation to their music creation.
Last year, the East Coast Music Association conducted a mental-health and wellness survey among members of Atlantic Canada’s music industry. Of the 50 respondents, 40 per cent said they had been diagnosed with a mental-health disorder at some point in their life, 26 per cent had attempted suicide and more than half of respondents said they live below the poverty line. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, poverty can be a significant risk factor for poor mental health.
“It’s a three-pronged issue,” says Michelle Anbar-Goldstein, a clinical social worker at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), who is married to a touring musician and record producer. The first issue: A lack of education and awareness regarding mental health issues. “Substance use, for example, is an accepted part of the industry. If you’re a touring musician, it’s accepted to have a binge-drinking lifestyle. Many artists don’t realize this isn’t a normal thing for people their age to do.”
“Second, there's a lack of resources. Most of these artists are essentially contract workers without benefits,” Anbar-Goldstein says. “They don't know what's available and they don't have any connection to tell them how they could seek help if they need it. And third, there's a convoluted notion that if you become healthier mentally, you're going to become less of an artist.”
In conceiving the mental-health fund, Versteeg also hopes to address these issues by creating a list of mental-health resources across Canada and abroad, and making it available to artists both on and off his roster. “Generally in millennial culture, therapy is becoming more accepted,” he says. “People don’t want to see their friends dying.”
While he believes the industry at large is far from putting artists’ well-being above commerce, and current government funding is not vast or comprehensive, he’s proud to report that a mix of fundraising and private donations have allowed him to keep the fund running into 2020.
“The one thing I've learned is that this affects everyone in my life, in varying degrees,” he says. “Every band has at least one person who could use some professional help. Some need rehab, but some just need to learn how to better express themselves to their bandmates.”
“I run Royal Mountain as artist-first,” he says. “We don’t spend money on fancy couches, we spend it on the bands – that should include their mental health.”