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Real Talk: Depression

An anonymous musician talks us through the hard realities that many touring DJs face up to.

Real Talk is a series of artist-penned essays that appear on XLR8R from time to time. 

In our latest edition, we offer something a bit different to the usual format: its author is a well-known touring DJ who has been working the international circuit for over a decade (and built a sizeable discography in that time), whose identity will remain undisclosed. The piece focuses on the plights that people in such a position face—on the road, alone in the studio, and anywhere in between—and the lasting impact it can cause.

It's a subject that has come into focus much more in recent years. Respected figures such as Prosumer and Benga have spoken out about their individual experiences with depression, and new documentaries and think-pieces on the subject are popping up all the time; however, real awareness and understanding is still lacking in much of the electronic scene, as well as the larger global population. It is for this reason that we present this today.

There’s been a bit of talk over the past year or so about the issue of DJs and depression, or DJs and mental health in general. A few have come forward and opened up a bit about their struggles and how it has impacted their career. DJs as diverse as Avicii (though I hesitate to label him an actual “DJ”) and Danilo Plesow (a.k.a. Motor City Drum Ensemble) have either ended their careers prematurely, or issued public statements describing the pitfalls of the international DJ's lifestyle and its detrimental effects on mental health. I have much more of a kinship with Plesow than Avicii. We play the same sort of circuit, and musically are no more than a stone’s throw away from each other. Also, I’d make the distinction that our relationship with the music is vastly different to someone like Avicii or other top-tier commercial DJs.

For me, dance music and its culture have been a sanctuary, a home for an outsider who has never been interested in fitting into mainstream culture. As both a producer and a performer, dance music has provided me with an artistic outlet that I can’t imagine living without, and at times, frankly, a reason to continue living. I fully acknowledge and am eternally grateful that I am living a sort of dream life, supporting myself through music production and performance; however, at the same time, the lifestyle is fraught with mental health pitfalls. Extreme sleep deprivation, mood-altering substance use and abuse, difficulty maintaining relationships, increased social media pressures, over-saturation of the market, long periods of isolation, and constant career instability: these are the topics that make up a large majority of conversations I have with fellow DJ friends.

It is hard for me to publicly detail my own experiences of living with severe depression without addressing what I would call the “DJs Complaining Effect.” I’ve enjoyed a successful career that has spanned over a decade at this point, earning both critical success in terms of recorded output and a solid place in the mid-tier DJ circuit. I make enough money to support myself without needing to work an outside job. DJing has literally showed me the world, and I’ve made loads of amazing friends along the way. The times I have tested the waters a bit and come forward as someone who suffers from depression (I have a diagnosis of Major Clinical Depression) have been met with lots of empathy, but also a fair amount of suspicion and outright hostility. Some seem to find it offensive that someone in my position would not only admit to suffering from this very real, clinically diagnosed disease, or worse yet, that the very lifestyle I have worked so hard to achieve could be contributing to it.

This is reflective of prevailing attitudes toward mental health, and depression in particular, in the larger public arena. There is a common misconception that equates depression with situational sadness. Depression is an organic dysfunction of the brain that has no redeeming qualities. It keeps people in isolation, often fearful of “bothering” others with their situation. Depressed people have a very difficult time coming forward—responses like “I was really depressed when my boyfriend broke up with me, I just went to the gym and worked it out,” or “you need to get out more/take a bath/stop thinking about it” are rooted in a suspicion that depression is a failure of character, a sort of weakness that the sufferer just has to break out of. Add into this equation that the sufferer of depression is someone who travels the world getting paid to play music for other people in nightclubs, and empathy can be pretty hard to find.

"Spending weeks in countries where you don’t speak the native language, where you don’t really know anyone, can be extremely difficult. It’s a strange existence, spending day after day alone before finally arriving at the gig, having people vie for your attention, only to talk at you in the most impersonal ways."

Depression unequivocally is a measurable dysfunction of key processes in the brain, and these processes are directly influenced by lifestyle. Let’s start with sleep deprivation. Sleep is essential for mood regulation and it is during prolonged sleep that the brain does most of its major healing and repairs. Most people can relate to staying out too late and how miserable they are the next day at work. As you get older, feeling bad the next day then extends into a couple of days. I have long lost track of those sorts of subtitles of adequate sleep.

I just got back from two weeks on the road, a trip that incidentally started three days after a serious break-up; so, a common but stressful life event occurs, the end of a long term relationship, and three days later I am on an overnight flight to Europe, arriving at 6AM after sitting upright in an airplane seat all night. That night of my arrival, I had a gig and my set time had me ending at around 6AM. I then had a late morning flight, so after the gig I went back to my hotel room, took a shower and headed back to the airport. By the time I arrived at my hotel room in the next city, it was late afternoon, so I took a nap, ate dinner in my room, and headed out to the club. I repeat the same process for three days, ending up in Berlin, where I then had a set time that my brain could not comprehend—10AM.

All of this hectic travel and extreme sleep deprivation takes place in a weird sort of isolation, one that is punctuated with intervals of being the center of attention. I travel alone, for the most part. I enjoy being alone—it is not much of a problem for me. But even for me, someone who enjoys traveling alone, the social isolation can be hard to take. When on the road there are days that go by when I don’t have any real conversations with anyone. This can be exacerbated by language barriers. Spending weeks in countries where you don’t speak the native language, where you don’t really know anyone, can be extremely difficult. It’s a strange existence, spending day after day alone before finally arriving at the gig, having people vie for your attention, only to talk at you in the most impersonal ways.

"The actual DJing, the set itself, is the reward, it is not the job. For me, after all this time, I still love DJing, maybe now more than ever. It can be a transcendent experience. The communal aspect of a public space filled with people who are all locked into the same musical experience is the reason why I got into this in the first place."

It is extremely gratifying, after all this time, to have fans express how much they love your music. I will always appreciate that, but much of the time it’s just some wasted dude yelling in my ear about how he knows one of my other DJ friends, or how he has my first record but thinks the rest are crap, or just general nonsense that I can’t understand. The actual DJing, the set itself, is the reward, it is not the job. For me, after all this time, I still love DJing, maybe now more than ever. It can be a transcendent experience. The communal aspect of a public space filled with people who are all locked into the same musical experience is the reason why I got into this in the first place. So, after the rigors of everything it took to get to the DJ booth, this is most often a peak experience. Very shortly after, however, I am back in the deafening silence of the hotel room, alone, wondering what just happened.  

This is where all the appeal of the afterparty lies. The temptation of substances and prolonging the night with them is extremely difficult to resist, and I know few DJs who have wrestled with this problem if they’ve stuck around long enough. It’s a classic progression. It starts as “just the weekends, at gigs,” progresses to “getting through Monday,” and can end up a daily habit. It works for a little while. You can arrive at the gig, pretty wrecked from lack of sleep and travel hassles, and have a bit of your substance of choice to power through the gig. It’s a game of quickly diminishing returns. Aside from the performance aspect, that you aren’t actually DJing quite as well as you think you are, there is a heavy price to pay both the next day and in the long term.

After surviving the rigors of the road, the more difficult time, at least for me, comes when its time to go home and return to “reality.” For me, being on the road is a rollercoaster of long periods of loneliness, sleep deprivation, and insane travel schedules punctuated with the peak experience of finally playing a set. For the most part, it is a good time, devoid of any real world responsibilities like paying bills, maintaining relationships or cleaning the apartment. The return home can be brutal, even when I’ve been looking forward to it for weeks.

I call it “Post Tour Depression.” It is a massive come-down, sometimes inexplicable considering that it is a return to regular sleep, good food, and social interaction. Some have hypothesized that the massive rush of feel-good chemicals that come from performing night after night becomes literally addictive, and when it’s taken away, there is a withdrawal period. Whatever the cause, coming home is a real wake-up call. If I’m gone for long periods of time, I come home acutely aware that life has gone on for my friends while I was away. Sometimes I don’t get invited to things like birthday parties or dinners because people just assume I’m not home. I start to get this envy for "normal life," wishing I had a regular job to go to, a place where I can interact with others even in the most superficial fashion

"For those of us that still hold on to a belief in the music as an art form, it can become an anxiety inducing nightmare to sit in a studio, day after day, knowing that you’re very economic survival hinges on your ability to produce something that people will respond to favorably."

Instead, I go to my studio. I sit in a windowless room alone trying to produce a steady stream of music that hopefully someone will want to release. At this point, it is simply not reasonable to expect to be a DJ who can be booked away from home without being a producer who releases music that gets some sort of worldwide recognition. There are some exceptions, but they are not the norm. It is easy, when you first start getting some hype and the DJ bookings are rolling in, to stay on the road, come home and spend a few days recovering, head back out on the road, and have a significant period of time go by where you have not produced any new music. It is a dangerous trap, because at some point you fall off the radar and are left stranded, with booking agents telling you they can’t really do anything for you until you release some new music.

Lots of DJs have ghost producers now, or they rely heavily on sample packs and other technology shortcuts that make it easy to produce a steady stream of mediocre tracks. For those of us that still hold on to a belief in the music as an art form, it can become an anxiety inducing nightmare to sit in a studio, day after day, knowing that you’re very economic survival hinges on your ability to produce something that people will respond to favorably. Throw in the fact that the market has reached a breaking point of seemingly unending next-big-thing 20-something year old producers, and that no one actually buys music anymore, and you realize that the game is really about producing in order to get DJ gigs. It is the reason that many of the conversations I have with my DJ friends inevitably turn to plan-B-type discussions, either graduate school or some entirely different non-music industry related job options. It’s a volatile market that rewards social media savviness over substance, hype over actual DJing skill. I’m not complaining about it, it is simply the nature of the game.

Speaking of social media, it is a bit of a nightmare for the DJ-producers who don’t have a team, who simply want to make good music and prove themselves in the booth (most of the bigger DJs, the top-placers in the RA poll, have teams working for them). It has increasingly become part of the “the job” to maintain a constant social media presence, ensuring a steady stream of videos that feature the highlight of a DJ set, a breakdown in a track that leads to a peak hands-in-the-air moment. But none of this is a representation of reality. It is a game, a manipulation, and we all know it. But still, there is the pressure to participate. Lately it has also become an anxiety landscape of being careful to not say the wrong thing. Careers have been ended, some justifiably so, by saying the wrong thing and the attendant rapid backlash.

"In most cases (myself included), if you were given the opportunity to be in the sort of position that I am in, but were told that it would wreak havoc on your emotional and personal life, many would opt in, figuring the sacrifice was worth it. But, these are real sacrifices, of the very things that make life worth living."

Recently I arrived at a gig in Switzerland, and the promoter asked if I would meet the opening DJ for dinner. This opener was another American, an up-and-coming producer who was enjoying his first moment of hype. The promoter told me briefly that the guy was having a hard time on the road and had asked to meet me. I met him at dinner and he outlined a common tale of woe for someone in his position. He’d been on the road for a few weeks, his girlfriend had broken up with him, he missed his friends, and he was losing his mind, wondering if it was all worth it. He said he was extremely depressed and didn’t know if he could perform.

Herein lies the crux of the dilemma. In most cases (myself included), if you were given the opportunity to be in the sort of position that I am in, but were told that it would wreak havoc on your emotional and personal life, many would opt in, figuring the sacrifice was worth it. But, these are real sacrifices, of the very things that make life worth living. At the end of the day, without meaningful relationships and human connection, depression is a natural outcome. It is not a necessary outcome, but these conditions will either greatly exacerbate an underlying propensity for mental illness, or it will in fact bring it on altogether.

If social support, meaningful relationships, a healthy diet, a restful sleep schedule, and predictable structure are the means to ward off or help bring someone out of depression, the typical DJs lifestyle is inherently geared towards bringing it on. None of this is meant as a complaint on my part. As I stated, I am living the life I dreamed of. But I am also suffering badly, much of the time. I’ve sacrificed a marriage, relationships with my kids, important family life events, and participating in the lives of my friends all in the pursuit of this dream. I suffer in silence, mostly because of the stigma attached to depression. It is a stigma that is hard enough for “normal” people to overcome, but as a DJ with a decent public profile, it is a barrier I am not willing to breach (hence the anonymity of this article). And I am not alone. I have many successful DJ friends who live on the verge of constant emotional crisis, all for the reasons I have outlined. The rigors of touring, the wreckage it infects on your personal life, the increasing pressures of studio productivity, and the flood of ever increasing DJs vying for the same slots can be overwhelming.

I have written this not as a grandiose complaint, or an attempt to elicit sympathy for, let’s face it, a relatively minuscule and idiosyncratic part of the population. I’m sure it will be met with plenty of keyboard warriors and their vicious “you poor baby and your first world complaints” type criticisms; but, depression is a serious condition, one that leads to immense suffering and sometimes death. Like comedians, who have a long history of coming forward as tortured depressives, there are a lot of DJs who suffer from depression and other mental health disorders, which are greatly exacerbated by the lifestyle.

I would argue that there are many in dance music culture in general who suffer the same fate, who are seeking relief in the clubbing experience. I love the culture, I love DJing, I love the music, and I think it all can be transformative, literally saving lives; however, it is important that we change prevailing attitudes toward mental illness and the stigmas attached. Openness can lead to healing. And, perhaps if you, like me, were attracted to music because of its transformative nature, then there is reason to believe that it can give meaning to people who feel like they have none.

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