Peers for Fears
Artist manager Damian Morgan writes about the stresses of the music industry, and how attending a Tonic Rider Peer Support Group helped.
I had my first ever daytime panic attack in February 2020. I was on a packed tube train from Fulham to Euston, squeezed up against the doors, convinced I was drowning in my own body and about to die. I’m 6ft 4 and felt like I was folded into the doors and ceiling, with bodies pressed up against me; trapped. I’d had night terrors before, and fairly frequently, but this felt very different. A living, brightly-lit nightmarish, airless hell. I got off at the next available station and composed myself.
We don’t have the tube in Manchester (where I live), and you can step off a tram into the outside world (and of course the smoke from the factories, the cobbles, and the wild whippets… something there for my London-centric friends). But here I was in London, far underground, feeling the weight of the concrete and streets above me, sitting on a bench, counting to 10, thinking of green fields and trees, and trying to stop panicking about, well, panicking.
Times were hectic then. I was managing three acts, working a full-time job, and under pressure from all sides. I was having sleepless nights over an upcoming US tour for The Orielles – the joy of work visas and obtaining funding… anyone who’s done this will feel the pain! – and it felt like I wasn’t doing anything particularly well. Home life was stressful too, and my eldest son needed lots of support entering his GCSE year. I was doing well at getting through the days and getting work done, but clearly this anxiety attack was a sign that something wasn’t quite right. My underlying mindset was that I wasn’t getting any support from anyone when I suggested things might be getting a bit too much, and I felt isolated and overwhelmed. I was on my own. Independent managers just are.
I left the UK for the US in early March, after elbow-bumping friends at an event because this silly flu thing was going around – Covid-something-or-other? The US tour began, and then lockdown hit, and we had to come home. Two dates in, while in New York, the city went into lockdown, and we had to get home pronto. My last memory of NYC is being in an almost empty Times Square; empty apart from a line of TV News crews filming how empty Times Square was!
Lockdown began and we all had to adjust how we worked. I was dealing with all the same workload, plus teaching at home, and BIMM (the college I work for) was taking everything online. It was full on and stressful. No time for self-care. During this time, I was sacked (via email) by another band I’d been managing, which was upsetting, and the attitude of the label I had worked with closely for years was one of ‘tough shit, suck it up’. I was even told by a few industry colleagues to put my children last. Incredible. I had a massive feeling of rejection, isolation, injustice, and like the world was falling away beneath me. More frightening was that I felt suicidal. I considered ending my life to bring a swift end to how I was feeling.
It wasn’t the first time I’d felt this. When I was 14, I wanted to kill myself. I was bullied at school for being the class ‘weirdo’ – I was an indie music fan and vegetarian at an all-boy’s grammar school. That feeling of exclusion and peer isolation can be silent and often invisible, yet also powerfully destructive for those who experience it. I remember being openly excluded and isolated as a child, other kids rallying my peers to hate me: a deep social rejection.
I sought help for my recent troubles. I did CBT counselling for a few months, which really helped, but I needed to get rid of the pervading feeling I was on my own with this.
I’d been aware of Tonic Music for Mental Health for many years, having put Terry Hall forward as patron, and provided acts for their events over the years. However, I’d never really considered using their services before. I spoke to Tonic founder Steph, and she suggested accessing the new Tonic Rider Peer Support Groups. I signed up. I was nervous at first, as I wasn’t sure about opening up to a bunch of strangers via Zoom.
In fact, it was that distance that really helped initially. Being amongst a group of peers from all walks of the entertainment world, who were all so open and honest, was incredible. We all bonded very quickly, and over the six weeks that the Peer Support Group ran, we became a tight-knit group. I looked forward to seeing them all every week. And even if that week had been a ‘good’ one, just being there for others, and hearing their stories, was so worthwhile, and in fact vital. When a few of us met at the 100 Club a few weeks after the end of the sessions, we felt like we’d been friends for life.
What did I get out of it? Aside from the obvious chance to talk openly and offload – with guidance from therapist and music-industry professional Adam Ficek – I got confirmation that this industry we work in doesn’t need to be as toxic as it has a reputation for being. We still don’t talk enough about mental health, and there’s still very little proper support for those suffering with depression, anxiety and mental health issues in what is a fragmented industry full of freelancers. Furthermore, we almost celebrate and reward toxic, bullying behaviour in this industry; behaviour that is very much out-of-step with other creative industries. This needs to be called out and tackled. Now.
As I embark on another six-week Peer Support Group (with the old gang!), I can’t thank Tonic Rider enough for their support and guidance. Tonic does fabulous and much-needed work, in a stressful world.