As a new survey reveals the stresses and strains of a musical career, are we doing enough to support musicians?
Graham Sheffield
29th August 2014
As a new survey reveals the stresses and strains of a musical career, are we doing enough to support musicians?

Being a musician can be one of the best jobs in the world. Musicians have the opportunity to do something they love, play with like-minded people and connect with audiences who share their passion.

Throughout my career, whether as a music student at Edinburgh University, as a producer on Radio 3, as music director at the Southbank Centre, artistic director of the Barbican or in my current role as director arts at the British Council, I have had the pleasure of getting to know many, many musicians. I see first-hand the fulfilment they derive from earning a living through music.

However, as any professional musician will tell you, a career in music is not all about parties and ovations ‒ indeed very far from it. From one day to the next, the music can stop, whether that’s due to physical or psychological health problems or a life crisis. And few musicians have the resources to keep an emergency cash cushion tucked away.

Part of the reason for this is that freelance life makes it hard to save for a crisis ‒ or for retirement. As the 2012 Musicians’ Union (MU) Working Musicians report found, over 56% of the 2,000 musicians surveyed earned less than £20,000 a year and only 35% could afford to pay into a pension scheme.

Ronnie CarrollIt’s little wonder that musicians sometimes get into difficulties. And when that happens, Help Musicians UK steps in. Last year, we helped 670 musicians who needed expert healthcare advice, 320 professional musicians who were coping with an illness or accident, 64 musicians who were facing a long-term or terminal illness and 524 musicians in retirement.

Our work gives us a broad idea of the kind of problems that musicians face, but we wanted to delve deeper to discover more about the unique stresses and strains of the profession and plan how we, as the charity for musicians, can do more to help. The more we understand, the more we are able to provide appropriate support.

Find out how you can get involved in the Hearing survey

So earlier this year Help Musicians UK carried out an online survey of professional musicians, focusing on their health and wellbeing. Among the 552 respondents, 59% worked in classical music and 21% were orchestral musicians. Jazz and folk musicians were also represented, together with professionals working in pop, musical theatre and other genres.

United VibrationsIt will come as little surprise that antisocial working hours (84%), money problems (82%) and work insecurity (79%) were the three most common problems that musicians experienced.

The impact of these pressures on musicians’ health and wellbeing is striking, with depression, loneliness and relationship difficulties standing out as concerns for the majority. Among the musicians surveyed, 75% had experienced performance anxiety, 48% had suffered from RSI (repetitive strain injury), and 47% reported hearing problems.

In general, musicians are a pretty resilient bunch and the survey feedback suggests that many see these problems as an inevitable downside of their chosen profession. However, as musicians need to perform consistently at the highest level, it’s also clear that admitting to weakness can be difficult or even professionally damaging.

In the words of one respondent, ‘Getting a freelance musician to admit to another musician that he/she has a problem at all, and is not wonderfully busy and musically fulfilled at all times, is fairly unusual, I think!’

Musicians need somewhere they can turn to in confidence, which is where Help Musicians UK comes in. We offer confidential advice, backed up when needed, with practical financial support for musicians who are experiencing a crisis.

MandhiraBut we want to go further. Not enough people know about the support we offer and too many musicians are suffering in silence.

We already partnered with the MU and Bapam (the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine) for a Wellbeing Week in August with events in London and Birmingham and we have more plans in the pipeline.

Right now, we’re keen to discover how we can help musicians to deal with the problems highlighted in this survey before they threaten or end a flourishing career. We’ll be introducing new and innovative ways to do that. We want musicians to enjoy full, active, healthy careers and achieve their potential so we can all continue to enjoy a thriving musical culture in the UK.

If you need our help or know someone who does, please get in touch. And if you’d like to know more, please contact us at or visit our Working and Retired page for more information.

Your can find the original interview over at Classical Music.

Are you a professional musician in need of our support? Find out if we can help you