Dying To Work In Music | Part 2: Stress

Staying Healthy In The Studio
By Jack Ruston

Photo: Brett Sayles

The studio should be a place of calm, but it’s hard to relax when your financial security and self‑worth are constantly on the line.

“Impostor syndrome, fear of failure, need for approval and reassurance, regular subjecting to judgement and criticism: these are all constant, and that can be traumatic” - Trevor Coley.

In this series of articles, we’re looking at the worrying decline in our baseline level of health, and how the studio lifestyle can contribute to that. Last month, we saw how sleep deprivation is normalised within the studio world, and how it contributes to poor health and ineffective working. But it’s not an issue that exists in isolation. Lack of sleep overlaps one of the most pervasive problems in the modern world: stress.

But haven’t we always been stressed? Not in the same way. Historically, our sources of stress tended to be relatively infrequent, unexpected and dramatic. Our response, which hasn’t really changed at all, is a poor match for the low‑grade drip feed of chronic stressors that manifest themselves in our modern world. We have no appropriate physiological answer to the client who hasn’t paid our invoice for months on end, while our own bills keep landing on the mat. Our ancestors worried about the fates of 100 people, within a radius of 100 miles, but now we fixate on global concerns — issues over which we have very little individual control. There isn’t always a direct link between how hard we work and how financially successful we will be. We can’t just chop wood and carry water to improve our lot. In music, our work is often a core part of our identity: we base our self‑worth on the success or failure of products that exist in a market that’s famously impossible to predict.

A professional songwriter comments: “It’s a problem when we can’t separate our self‑worth from the financial success of our art. We need to become more ‘outcome independent’. This is really key in an industry that relies on luck and timing much more than the aesthetic quality of the music itself.”

The physiological changes that serve us in a life‑and‑death situation come with a matching price tag: if they keep happening, they can harm us. Chronic stress drives Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, cancer, issues with hormone function and mental health — almost every bad trip to the doctor you can think of.

Do It All

Many jobs are stressful, and it’s not as though professional audio has some unique claim in this respect, but most people in the industry have little in the way of job security, savings or a corporate structure to protect and support them if they need help. Financial worries, time spent away from family, the pressure of trying to do the work as well as run the business, the long hours that we’ve already discussed, the burden of feeling responsible for a client’s hopes and dreams as they overextend themselves financially to fund a project that logically stands little chance of financial success: these things weigh a lot.

Anyone who has been self‑employed knows that sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach, the quickening heart rate when you finally turn your attention to the cashflow and discover that the cash isn’t flowing.

While some audio professionals still work as employees of established businesses, enjoying the rights and protections that those organisations offer, the vast majority of people trying to survive in this industry are self‑employed. Many run their own small facility, either on their own property or in a rented space, and operate as a one‑man‑band. Where in the past the burdens of creative responsibility, arduous working hours, financial matters and business development were shared out between different members of a team, these days the assistant, engineer, producer, studio manager and business owner are often one and the same person. There’s a huge workload to be tackled, and that’s before anyone has devoted time to the business itself. And of course the reason any of us start a studio is because we’re interested in the craft of audio work. We don’t do it because we love VAT returns or chasing invoices.

As we devote our energy to the art, we neglect the business. It may be down to wilful procrastination or just lack of hours in the day, but ultimately we’re not looking ahead for the inevitable bumps in the road — most of which are financial. Anyone who has been self‑employed knows that sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach, the quickening heart rate when you finally turn your attention to the cashflow and discover that the cash isn’t flowing.

Most audio engineers also have to deal with all the headaches and financial worries of running a small business.Photo: Mikhail Nilov

Grant Stang says: “In between trying to be an engineer and a producer, I’m also trying to keep the studio booked, as well as having to be a building manager dealing with leaking roofs, lawyers and landlords. It can be very frustrating, but I have to take a practical view to keep things afloat. To cap it off my computer switched off this morning and now won’t switch back on!”

Tim Bazell echoes these concerns: “The main source of stress is chasing payments and having to manage my career alongside the actual work. The work is the thing I care about. All that other stuff gets pushed to the back of the queue.”

We can’t eliminate stress from our lives. Life, by its nature, is stressful. But there are some things we can do to mitigate it — and if we don’t take those steps ourselves, no‑one is going to do it for us. As Emre Ramazanoglu points out: “Nobody cares about your health in this business. They just want the job done when they want it done. It falls on us to make that extra effort to look after ourselves.”

Set Boundaries

“There is no ‘clocking off’,” laments one of my contributors, who did not wish to be named. “Artists and their managers expect to be able to get hold of you in endless ways, at all hours of the day and night.”

Some set boundaries intuitively, but others find it very difficult to say no. We need to find the balance between ‘being the cog that fits’, taking some risks and reaching our full potential, and simply giving too much of ourselves. We need to establish some ground rules around when we’re prepared to work, for how long, how frequently and at what level of financial compensation. In practice these things tend to exist in a range, depending on the client and the nature of the work. Ultimately we need to ensure that we’re not unhappy with the exchange, not sitting there resenting the client for the rate or hours we’ve agreed.

This is a good moment to offer the following caution. We are often promised that giving a client a favourable rate, or no rate at all, will be of great benefit to us in the longer term. We will be in prime position to capitalise when that client ‘makes it’, and will enjoy extensive ‘exposure’. In practice, the only exposure we ever enjoy in these situations is exposure to a terminal lack of cash. Artists who ‘make it’ then work with the favourite production teams of the A&R who sign them, not with the plucky, local home producer who did their demos. I have been on both sides of this equation at different times in my career. If you want to do a job for little or no money because you want to do the job, go for it. Don’t do it because you think it will further your career. It almost never will.

Work As Part Of A Team

One of the producers I spoke to anonymously for this article told me: “The move towards home studios has made a lot of us increasingly isolated. There’s less community, less social interaction. It’s not ideal to always be at home. It can be stressful for us and our spouses.”

If we can reintroduce some of the teamwork that benefitted the traditional record‑making process, we can reduce our stress significantly. Romesh Dodangoda explains: “One thing I have learnt is that you can’t always do everything yourself. By having a team, my sessions don’t need to run late into the night. Everyone gets to go home at a decent time. If it was just me doing it all, it would be so stressful and could potentially have a negative impact on the session, and the artist.”

Working in a team can help us feel less stressed.

Another advantage to teamwork is that it allows us a greater degree of social connection. We are less isolated when we work in a team. Loneliness is a surprisingly significant risk factor for chronic disease. We are social animals, and being separated from our group represents a great danger in our primal subconscious — a significant stressor. Trevor Coley sums things up thus: “Humans are social, tribal creatures, designed to collaborate. We innately communicate via body language and vocal inflections, and sitting alone behind a computer screen day‑in, day‑out deprives us of that behaviour. We’re becoming the human version of the depressed polar bear caged in a zoo. We’ve taken what was always a collaborative, in‑person, group‑based experience and turned it into something which is often solo and remote. We need to spend more time together, in person: social gatherings to chew the fat, going to gigs with fellow producers, engineers and artists; a regular get‑together to remind us that we’re a welcome member of a bigger family — that we’re valid, wanted and needed.”

By taking on an assistant, for example, we are able to increase our social connection, reduce our stress and increase the number of hours a client is able to work, if for instance your assistant can continue with overdubs in the evenings. We will need to factor in the cost, but it might well work out favourably for anyone that has a facility available for use while they take some valuable downtime.

Our breaks should be non‑negotiable. There’s a tendency for band members to take turns doing overdubs while the engineer remains chained to the desk. Sean Genockey states: “The engineer can get forgotten. While the band, and sometimes the producer rotate in and out, the engineer has been glued to his chair all day with no breaks.”

Tim Bazell has a similar experience: “We’re expected to gratefully take part in this unfair exchange, to just do whatever it takes. It’s not the band’s fault — they have their own harsh realities to face, and of course they’re going to try to get the most out of each and every day. It’s down to us to set some boundaries.”

Neil Rogers agrees: "I wasn’t happy being stuck inside in a studio all the time. It’s not good for you — of course it isn’t. I had to be honest with myself about that.”

Almost everyone I spoke to made similar comments. If we don’t prioritise our breaks, nobody else will. We should consider breaks throughout the day, at some stage during the week (we may elect not to work weekends, for example) and throughout the year, taking proper holidays if we possibly can. Romesh Dodangoda adds: "I really try to avoid working weekends if at all possible. I find it’s important to have that break, so that I’m recharged and ready to go again. If you take on too much, you can really start to burn out and fall out of love with what you’re doing.”

Practice Stress‑reduction Techniques

Our autonomic nervous system affects our breathing. When we’re stressed, when our sympathetic branch is dominant, we tend to emphasise our intake of air more than our exhalation. We are taking in as much oxygen as possible, priming ourselves for action. When we’re relaxed, or sleeping — when we’re more parasympathetic — we tend to skew the emphasis of our breathing towards the exhale. When we advise someone to calm down, to take deep breaths, what we’re really encouraging them to do is to lengthen their exhale, and it really does work. Luckily, our autonomic nervous system not only affects our breathing, but responds to it, allowing us to deliberately manipulate our heart rate and blood pressure.

Meditation and breathing exercises are effective ways to combat stress.

Meditation is extremely useful in this context, and has moved firmly into the mainstream as a way to mitigate stress and control our physiology. If you have the volition and opportunity to meditate, it can only be a good thing, and it’s likely more acceptable in the music industry than many others. Indeed, an engineer told me recently that in order to be considered for a job with a well‑known artist, he had been advised that he would need to participate in their daily meditation. There are various apps that do a great job of making traditional forms of meditation rather more accessible to those of us who aren’t already experienced.

But even with its clear benefits, meditation is a step too far for a lot of us. If that sounds familiar, simple breathing techniques can be extremely effective. What this boils down to is breathing out for longer than you breathe in, for example, the ‘physiological sigh’: breathe in through your nose, then pause for a moment before taking a second nasal breath in to really top your lungs off — a double intake of breath — and breathe out, slowly, through pursed lips in an extended exhale, as if through a straw. Repeat this cycle as you need to.

Use a phone app to monitor your heart rate as you do this, and you’ll see a significant drop on that slow exhale as opposed to the inhale. It’s very easy to see how, by skewing our breathing more towards the inhale, we can increase our stress (this is the point of Wim Hof‑style hyperventilation), whereas the exhale decreases it. “I’m a big advocate of box breathing,” says Jim Homes. “It really does work for me. Create a toolkit of things you can use to protect yourself against stress.”

It’s well worth taking some steps to limit the frequency with which the most common sources of stress in our lives can get to us. Often, these things come in via our electronic devices. We can use notification settings to restrict the times at which the world can nag us. Of course, not all stressors can be controlled in this way, and as always, we do the best we can.

Next month, we’ll be cracking open a can of worms as we move on to nutrition.

Tips:

  • Set boundaries.
  • Turn off all non‑essential phone notifications. Alerts are stressful.
  • Use breathwork to control your stress response.
  • Use reframing to turn stressors into challenges.
  • Shrink your world: take a break from news media.
  • Schedule breaks on a daily, weekly and annual basis.
  • Prioritise social connection.  

Reframing Stress

Stress and excitement have a lot in common, except that the latter isn’t harmful. Challenges we find threatening cause distress, whereas challenges that we perceive to be positive and exciting cause ‘eustress’. What this means is that, to a large extent, the negative consequences of stress can be mitigated by how we ‘frame’ the stressors in our lives. This may be one of the reasons why depression is associated with poor health outcomes: it makes all sources of stress become ominous, a physical threat.

On the other hand, some of us seem to be able to bounce through life seeing only the silver linings, and never the clouds. And that saying is one of many that illustrate the fact that we’ve always had this intuitive understanding that we could change the nature of our problems by looking at them differently. It’s beyond my scope to offer specific suggestions, but the Internet abounds with interesting ways that we can reframe stressors to turn them into a positive challenge.

Published May 2023