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Musicking, the tortured artist and the need to get through.

This blog continues on from my previous writing surrounding identity and how this can help or hinder mental health.

One study that is close to my own experience involved 96 Indie musicians (this term used to mean non-major label, these days its more of a genre thing) and explored how the musicians established, maintained and restored a strong sense of self and identity in their lives. The research identified themes such as the constant identity tensions bound up with the love-hate attitude towards being a musician; the emotionality and vulnerability of solo song writing; the tensions of being in a band; and the struggle with authenticity and performing. These are all struggles that I can relate to!

The study also explored how the musicians presented themselves within the framework of social influence (other people), regarding the social demands of ‘who they want me to be’, versus ‘who I am, or want to be’. The research also highlighted the ongoing and unresolved struggle of the musicians’ identity and the importance of identifying themselves as ‘tortured artists’. Despite identifying as ‘tortured artists’ they also illustrated how their somewhat passive acceptance of these commercial musicking tensions exacerbated their insecurity and hopelessness at times.

Overall, this seemingly passive acceptance did fuel a resilient need to heroically conquer artistic depressions, difficult band-work or stage fright. Despite the study being limited to one specific area of focus and one particular genre (already immersed within an independent, outsider cultural ethos) the study illustrated another link between mental health and identity construction within the popular musician community and how they accept their struggle yet remain deeply committed to getting through!

Another study of identity and jazz musicians (I put these in the bracket of popular musician…although a jazz musician would probably lynch me for this!) explored two big reflective questions (jazz is? and jazz life is?) when attempting to separate the music from the musicians’ identities. Jazz is? was found to mean improvising and composing; swing; collective processes; and instrumental differences.

Jazz life is? was found to contain the meaningful themes of social context; professional context; being in a group; and the relationships surrounding self and others which all held a deep significance for mental health and wellbeing. The study also highlighted a conflict between the individual and collective factors of creativity with the conclusion of the jazz musician identity being one out of a possible choice of many possibilities.

Both of these studies provide an insight into how two different groups of musicians define themselves and their identity, first the Indie musicians with their sense of exile, tortured artististry and secondly the jazzers with a focus on the social contexts and creativity. Both of these identity factors are innately tied to mental health especially if we view ourselves as outsiders and tortured artists! I think there was a time in my own musicking development where I did derive a great deal of my identity from being an outsider (through choice) this resonated with the sub-culture of my favourite bands and the ethos they presented. It also manifested in the clothing and attitude.

Surprisingly, my experience of my jazz self is also steeped in an alternative outsider perspective due to the very nature of the music itself. I’ve always felt jazz (the stuff I like anyway - Bebop) to be akin to punk in that sense. A challenging music of anti-establishment, a unique club that ‘not anyone can join’…perhaps that’s just me and my grandiosity. I think rebellion, outsider status and identity can be closely linked within the field of popular musicians (that includes jazz in my mind) although we often assume ‘music’ is a about the sound, we do overlook that music can also be about the ‘look’, the ‘vibe’, the ‘ethos’ the culture whether we are listeners or musickers.

If you are a musicker, you can come and join up with other ‘musickers’ and be rebellious, an outsider or a community embracer in the Peer Support Groups offered by Tonic Rider.


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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