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Popular musicians’ high-risk behaviour and premature death.

Staying on the path of the recent topic of touring and substance I’m now going to explore the often-speculated notion that popular musicians’ lifestyles and culture are linked to high-risk behaviour, sensation seeking and the impulsive pursuit of novel, intense and complex experiences.

In a retrospective study of pop and rock musicians between 1956 and 2006 (Life Expectancy and Cause of Death in Popular Musicians: Is the Popular Musician Lifestyle the Road to Ruin?), mortality and (ACEs) adverse childhood experiences (bad things that happen to us when we were kids) were found to directly influence risk-related behaviour and premature death. This statistically high mortality rate was also found to vary according to sub-genre of music played, nationality and levels of fame, and it was subsequently linked to high-risk behaviours such as drug and alcohol use. It’s worth noting, that this relationship between mortality, high risk behaviours and ACEs has also been identified in non-musician demographics. Anyway, these researchers suggested that...

‘Pursuing a career as a rock or pop musician may itself be a risky strategy and one attractive to those escaping from abusive, dysfunctional or deprived childhoods. Consequently, an industry with a concentration of individuals having acute and long-term health risks is perhaps not unexpected’.

The study also found a huge contrast (mentioned in previous blogs) between solo and group performers, with solo artists, who lack protective peer factors, fairing worse in regard to higher mortality rates. This research does complement other retrospective papers focusing on links between fame, rock, punk, rap and R&B musicians. The study also highlighted that experiencing between three and twenty-five years of fame exposed musicians to significantly higher levels of mortality (1.7 times) than non-musicians demographic in the UK and USA! Fame, fame, fatal fame so say The Smiths!

My own experience surrounding my (lightly held experience of) fame and media exposure did prompt unhealthy behaviour in terms of hedonism and high-risk behaviour (I won’t go into it here). It’s a very nuanced area in regard to how this ‘fame’ behaviour reacts with personal wounds and the occupational environment, but I do often find lots of my psychotherapy work focuses on this when working in clinical practice.

The first part of this ‘work’ is to spot it and then cultivate some reflectivity around how it can impact relationships. There has been some clinical research surrounding this but it is generally always written from the perspective of outsiders who have never been on a personal musicking journey so I can’t bring up any robust studies right here, right now. 

Despite this lack of insight, I will talk more about this interesting area next week.

On a parting note, I often wonder whether levels of media exposure and grandiosity can hinder a musicians’ enthusiasm for mental health support. 

Once again, if you are interested in this area, go and listen to some of the Tonic Music radio shows where I interview ‘famous’ musicians, we often dabble within this area.


Adam Ficek hosts a monthly show 'Tonic Music' on Totally Wired Radio, where he talks to various guests about music and mental health. You can listen again to any of the previous show on the Tonic Music Mixcloud page.


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