The Unsustainable Artist: Tom Larkin On Mental Health In The Music Industry

    Cover image by Home Surgery Recording.

Hailing from New Zealand and travelling all over, Tom Larkin is a music industry specialist whose work spans across three decades. Working as a manager, producer, drummer and songwriter, Larkin’s livelihood is built on the foundation of the hardworking individual—with everything from running his own projects like VVV MGMT and artist development agency, SIGNAL—hallmarking his day-to-day routine.

With five #1 studio albums under his belt with his band, Shihad, and production credits for bands such as Calling All Cars, High Tension, The Getaway Plan and more, Larkin’s industry experience has seen him collaborate with several top international producers and mixers. From songwriting to artist management, Larkin knows the music industry and gets it.

Like many of his peers, Larkin has had his own experiences with mental health and the crisis’ that come too often for creatives. From breakups, death, divorce and mental illness, these events come hand-in-hand with the internalised problems many people in the industry face, where support for mental health and creativity is scarce. Giving a workshop on mental health recently at Collarts, Larkin shares the unsustainable ideas of perfection versus creation, and how you should listen to feedback over criticism.

When did you first become passionate about mental health in the music industry?
There’s two factors to how I became involved. The first was that I had a parent who had bipolar disorder, where I grew up around that condition. My reality was defined by bad mental health and I didn’t know it—I thought it was just normal. The second was going out into the music industry.  I soon recognised what I’d grown up with was in fact very common there, but not in other vocations. So having grown up with a parent who was untreated and undiagnosed, and then recognising the damage that lack of support did was critical. Moving into a producer and manager role, I suddenly realised that there’s so many people sacrificing their time and energy to become these great artists, only to have it fall to pieces because the environment of the music industry is toxic and that there’s attitudes that are not sustainable.

When you say the music industry is toxic, what do you feel contributes to these factors?
Well, we’ve got to address the income. It’s very poor. There are very few artists that actually manage to get their business up to a sustainable micro-business level, where it’s in that 300,000 to 1,000,000 gross income bracket per year. Very few creatives get to that point, so really when we talk about a musicians income we also discuss this statistic of very low success. Even if someone is perceived to be wildly successful, they’re often not earning past someone with a reception job—and still they are seen as wildly successful. There’s not a lot of money in those small stages, so it’s often driven by people who have to play music, have to write songs and have to be creative to get by. Most are not well-tuned to the business side of it, and even their ability to hold down a normal job is highly at risk.

“Between 18-25 minimum are the years you should attempt the highest risk, because if it doesn’t pay off, you can recover very easy and build a great life for yourself from that point. At this point in your life, right now, it’s okay to take risks. But it’s about balance.”

 

What conversations should be happening in the music industry right now to create discourse around mental health?
There’s two sides to this: one dealing with the artist and two, dealing with the music industry. Mental health in the music industry is both environmental and predisposition collided together. Unfortunately, this industry has no regulation, no skill-based training or anything like that. There’s no qualifications to engage with the music industry. We have such a low life expectancy at just 57, and such high incidents of mental health crisis’ that this has to change. We have a responsibility… to provide those in the industry with support and to train themselves to recognise these factors. If you’re a primary school teacher in the state of Victoria, you have to undergo two days of intense psych training before you’re allowed to teach primary school. An artist manager, who will be dealing with adults and possible mental health situations, has zero training and zero qualifications. Responsibility also falls on us as creatives, to understand our own proclivities and recognise the practice of good mental hygiene versus bad mental hygiene.

When you first began working in the music industry, what was the most stressful part you had to navigate?
It was resources. A lot mechanical problems like getting promoted and getting tours are just gone. My phone—if you sent it back in time to back then I would have asked what voodoo is this shit—and now everyone has got it. But when you’re a younger student, you have the gift of time. When you’re older, you develop responsibilities—from businesses to relationships, to children or your own health—whatever it is, there’s more. And when you’re young, it’s the lack of it. Now the expectation around where you’re supposed to be in life by the time you’re 30 or 40, that’s changing. Between 18-25 minimum are the years you should attempt the highest risk, because if it doesn’t pay off, you can recover very easy and build a great life for yourself from that point. At this point in your life, right now, it’s okay to take risks. But it’s about balance.

Totally. When students finish school and are out there in the industry, how can they seek self-care?
In terms of steps out there for self-care, there’s zero. You need to do what’s right for you. For me, self-care was camaraderie and acknowledging very difficult things. We had team members who died, we had people going through divorces and breakups, and their were career mishaps. We had on guy in our band who had an anxiety disorder and treated it through alcohol and drugs, only to become alcoholic. At the time, we thought he was a pain in the ass and would treat him as such. But being able to watch it now, we’re able to contextualise it far more quickly and far more easier.

When you see your colleagues in that space, you’re usually trying to create something in work-mode. How can you recognise the warning signs within your team when there’s always a front of professionalism?
Touring will do that. Recording studio sessions will do that. One of the cool things is that my band is still around—it’s been like 21 years—and that takes a particular kind of chemistry that’s not necessarily common. And so one of the things about that chemistry would be, you know, there’s a certain amount of familiarity we have, like brotherhood or family. But shared experience is always how you find people—and it’s in that shared positive and negative experience when you find out what people are about.

Going off that, in your workshop, you spoke about the difference between criticism and feedback. How do you define those ideas?
Criticism is information that is defined to cut you down, to make you feel shit. Feedback is information that may not be positive, but is positive in intent. Feedback is designed to build you up with the notion of trying new perspectives or doing things differently; not settling for what you’ve got and changing approach. I think to me, it’s very easy to take feedback because if you’ve got something at some point and you’re happy with it, you share it, and the worst that could happen is that it doesn’t change. The worst outcome is that you leave it as it is—you’re ignoring the potential to explore new things. However, you do have to trust the person giving you that information: you can’t just have any person.

“Perfection never arrives. Perfection doesn’t exist. Perfection only arrives when you look back.”

 

Should young musicians realise that they can’t get to that Kanye level without all those in-between steps and facing that criticism?
Yeah, when you build a team—an artist manager, a booking agent, a publicist, a record label, a publishing company—when you start building that team, you’re building a professional feedback network. And if you choose to ignore that feedback, or at least not explore it, you’re cutting yourself off from some pretty cool perspectives. However, you must make an inventory of those people: just because they’re in that position doesn’t mean that their feedback is of quality. Sometimes those people can give you shit, damaging feedback. It’s like friends or family, or even parents. People can always get jealous or resentful, you know? You need to be sensitive to the motive and impact of the person who is giving you feedback.

If you could give someone advice on focusing on being creative, what would it be?
Avoid perfection. Go for momentum and just output; high output. Go for a number, like a high amount of songs, a high amount of ideas, just create. Just get it out. Just record it. And then collect and refine that. Don’t try and be perfect. Perfection never arrives. Perfection doesn’t exist. Perfection only arrives when you look back. I’ve got albums that I thought were not right and I hesitated at the time, and I look back on them and think: “how do I get back to that, it’s perfect.” And then you come back again and the ones where you hammered down every single thing, you come back and think: “this doesn’t sound right, this is not right” and it’s not perfect. Perfection is alienating because it’s not real… it’s a very troublesome idea.

If perfection is unsustainable, where should students aspire to be?
There is a distinction. I think perfectionism is poison, but I think high performance and high accountability in environments is critical because striving to be great and perfection are two different things. Of all of the bands that I’ve seen that have been long-term successful, they work in incredibly high-performance environments: they have high standards and high expectations of each other. So high standards and high expectations are very different from perfection. High standards in an art collective are really healthy. But perfection… that’s going to kill your creativity.

If you or anyone close to you needs help or information regarding mental health, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636. You can also check out Support Act, a mental health website for music industry professionals gaining momentum for their very own hotline. 

Does creating a difference with artists and the music industry resonate with you? Look into our Entertainment Management courses, where you learn how to manage not only others, but also yourself in the industry. Words and photography by Monique Myintoo.