I don’t usually read many books about music in such a short space of time, but I have read some good non-fiction titles on the subject so far this year, which largely conclude that working in the music industry is not very good for your health.
A Seat at the Table: Women on the Frontline of Music by Amy Raphael is a collection of 18 interviews with women who work in the music industry. The interviews were conducted in 2018-19 mostly with singers and songwriters across different genres while composer Jessica Curry, producer Catherine Marks and DJ Clara Amfo all reflect on similar issues with sexism and racism within the industry. In some ways, Alison Moyet and Tracey Thorn’s experiences finding fame in the 1970s and 1980s are a world away from those of the musicians who are starting out today who face the pressures of social media, #MeToo and dwindling album sales due to the rise of streaming, yet there are also some frustrating similarities such as not being taken as seriously as their male counterparts. Raphael has clearly put a lot of thought into the range of interviewees in this collection and it would be interesting to compare this alongside her 1995 companion book ‘Never Mind the Bollocks: Women Rewrite Rock’ which includes interviews with the like of Debbie Harry, Courtney Love and Bjork.
Bodies: Life and Death in Music by Ian Winwood presents a compelling case regarding how addiction and mental health issues have become dangerously normalised in the music industry. Winwood was a music journalist at Kerrang! magazine for several years and has witnessed first-hand the toll this lifestyle takes on those involved and documents his own mental health and addiction issues. With artists more reliant than ever on relentless touring for a stable income, ‘Bodies’ lays bare how being on the road is just about the worst possible environment for anyone feeling remotely fragile. As well as the many harrowing stories, Winwood rightly celebrates Biffy Clyro for defying the odds and avoiding the path towards burnout and self-destruction by taking time out from touring when they needed to. Winwood’s strongly argued central thesis is written with real candour.
Exit Stage Left: The Curious Afterlife of Popstars by Nick Duerden is another collection of snapshot interviews, this time with popstars who are well past the peak of their fame, a sort of “where are they now?” compendium. Duerden covers a fairly broad range of pop and rock acts such as David Gray, The Darkness, Shaun Ryder, Paul from S Club 7, Chumbawumba, Suzanne Vega and Billy Bragg and career trajectories include hit wonders, sufferers of Difficult Second Album syndrome, novelty acts and those who simply fell out of fashion in a notoriously fickle industry which is only interested in chasing after the next big thing. Some of those interviewed look back fondly on their time in the spotlight and are content with working on the nostalgia circuit, while others are bitter or resentful about how they were treated at the time or have tried to completely reinvent themselves since their first flush of fame. With over 30 artists and bands covered here, the interviews themselves are fairly brief and bittersweet, and I can’t help but wonder if the most interesting stories might be told by those who would never agree to be interviewed for a book like this.
Moving away from the excesses of pop music, I have been dipping in and out of That Jealous Demon, My Wretched Health: Disease, Death and Composers by Jonathan Noble which examines the physical and mental health of 70 composers. From Mozart’s numerous ailments throughout his youth to Beethoven’s deafness and Schumann’s possible bipolar disorder, ‘That Jealous Demon’ is highly detailed and also full of the sort of trivia which might be occasionally useful for answering questions on University Challenge. Noble is a retired surgeon and his medical expertise allows him to consider how accurate some of the reported diagnoses were and how some might have fared with medical treatment today. Dense but fascinating, this offers a unique perspective on the lives of great composers and how the state of their health impacted their work.