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Sex, drugs and death.

From last week’s blogs exploring fame and the ‘rock n roll’ world of musicking, we could assume that the hedonistic and high-risk taking cliché of popular musicians could have some truth in it. I certainly came across many individuals that would fit into this category in one way or another!

Digging into the research again and staying in the area of ‘sex, drugs and rock n roll’ one, slightly dated but huge piece of research (Life expectancy and cause of death in popular musicians) that I found particularly interesting looked retrospectively at 13,195 deceased popular musicians.

The research examined whether the classic script of sex, drugs, and other factors such as failed rehabilitation and industrial bitterness had any basis in reality. Drawing upon a collection of existing studies and autobiographies, the research also (like other studies) discovered an increased mortality rate in popular musicians compared with the general population.

The study also examined the link between nurture and nature, and suggested how ‘popular musicians as an occupational group are highly vulnerable to the vagaries of their workplaces and their inherent personal vulnerabilities’. This conclusion was drawn from factors such as violent deaths (suicide, homicide, accidental death, including vehicular deaths and drug overdoses) alongside liver disease reported to be double the rate of the general population. 

Furthermore, within the popular musician demographic, the age of achieving fame and success were found to be big indicators of mortality, illustrated by the high correlation between childhood adversity and substance abuse, which shortened life by up to 25 years! In a sense, the study reaffirms the unique interaction between the environment and adverse childhood experiences alongside the ethos of the popular ‘genre being a lifestyle rather than a type of music’ which poses increased risk, particularly for popular musicians. 

Although powerful and insightful we have to remember that the research is based around the lives of deceased musicians’ biographies which is often considered to be lacking in academic rigour or relying on weak psychological autopsies or sensationalistic amplification to sell more copies.

Another limitation is the lack of clarity in the definition of fame and what this meant to the musicians themselves and their behaviour. Whenever we talk about fame, risky behaviour and all of the stuff mentioned above, we have to take it all with a pinch of salt. Most of this research is far removed from the reality of the mess of what it means to be human and the interaction between nurture and nature.

There’s an abundance of researchers that write about this stuff in a clinical fashion but it rarely hits the spot, as it has very little grounding in the real world. So chew this stuff over and hold it lightly! As a caveat there are some chaotic individuals in the popular music industry who may well score highly on some of the tests and research studies we have looked at here! We all know someone, somewhere that would tick this box.


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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