By Jocelle Koh

It’s not easy being an artist, albeit an independent one in 2021. Long gone are the days where record deals are guarantees to success and physical sales were the only metric for financial viability. While the advent of the internet has made music more accessible than it has ever been, it has also had a massive impact on how listeners value and consume music.

This, on top of the fact that the music industry has had a long history of confusion between the self and ones’ art, blurred personal and professional boundaries and a constant tension between honing ones’ craft and having it exploited at scale…sometimes it all gets a bit much, and that’s more than okay.

On the first episode of Season 2 of the Level Up podcast, we invited music therapist Asami to help us dive deeper into the topic of mental health for artists. Not just any music therapist, Asami is the founder of Shapes and Sounds, a resource platform that creates a safe space for Asian-Australians to speak openly and engage in tailored discussions on their mental health. Thus we felt her expertise was keenly suited to help us break the ice on this topic, and provide artists everywhere with advice on how they could feel better supported in their mental health.

And being an INDEPENDENT artist, that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. Add on the need to be an entrepreneur and be on top of your personal finances, run a team while staring financial instability in the face every other day, it’s no wonder you’re stressed.

“We ask so much of our artists, you want them to make music that sounds good. And that music also has to be meaningful. And it has to be related to like, a traumatic experience. And, they have to have a social justice cause now…they have to do everything.” Asami says.

To combat the pressure and expectations to take on everything all at once, Asami recommends prioritising yourself first and foremost; not as a creator or an artist, but as a human. She suggested a short mantra to help artists to re-align their conversations around self-worth:

“I am so intertwined with my art and my music, but I’m also worthy, just as I am. So if the music stops, if no one likes my music, like, I’m still, I’m still okay. I’m still a human with human needs.”

Taken from Shapes and Sounds website

Asami also pointed out that taking care of your human needs is a priority because it is also essential for the continued progression of ones’ craft.

“Don’t forget that you are your brand, which means that if you burn out, then the beautiful craft and the beautiful music and the art that you make also disappears. So even if it means stepping away from making stuff for a while and creating, if you need to take care of yourself, that’s got to be your number one priority.”

Furthermore, we went deep into how Asian culture and heritage often has another layer of impact on how we deal with trauma, and the importance of acknowledging that.

We felt Rina Sawayama’s song ‘Dynasty’ summed up intergenerational trauma perfectly!

“People just persevere. And grit is huge. I think the sense of perfectionism and over achievement is huge as well. Like this need that to… prove our worth, that we have to be grateful for every scrap of anything that we get thrown our way…”

“Prioritise yourself more than anything, you do what you need, it doesn’t matter what you know what your ancestral culture tells you, it doesn’t matter what the Western world tells you, it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, if you look within… take a moment to ask yourself, what do I need? Then that’s the answer.”

We also shared with Asami some of the greatest challenges independent artists face nowadays, and picked her brain on how one could change their mindset or seek help in productive ways.

Financial Instability

Financial instability was one of the top-of-mind issues for us, as the COVID-19 pandemic has been most unkind to artists due to the demise of the live music scene and lack of overall support towards the scene.

“I hear this a lot amongst creatives, like about, you know, it’s not for the money I don’t do it for the money. It’s not important to me, which I think is very, very good. And of course, it’s not just about the fame and the money and all that kind of stuff. But I think being really clear with your budgeting, how much do you need to survive as a human being in this world?… I think that’s so important.” 

Taken from Shapes and Sounds website

Increased Self Reliance

Being an indie artist, one feels responsible for everything. From the business aspect of what you do, to making sure you’re staying authentic in your music, sometimes it seems like you’re the only one who can keep moving things forward. Asami unpacks potential reasons behind this mindset:

“I think many artists and creatives, maybe no one has really understood them, and no one has really valued them. So then over time, you start to learn that I’m the only one that can support me. So therefore, I will do everything myself. I think just exploring that helps you to see some stuff that’s going on for you in terms of a resistance to help as well… take a moment to explore why … of course, there are many things you will have to do alone, especially in the early days. But connection, and groups and teamwork and support is so invaluable.” 

Talking openly about Mental Health

As public figures, the lines are blurred between what you should be sharing and what should be kept private. There has long been a pressure from media and society to ‘overshare’, and even an argument that the lives of artists ‘belongs’ to the public. To combat this pressure, it’s always important to remember your agency in any situation.

“When it comes to talking about mental health, I think it’s really important for us to remember that you have control in who you choose to hear your story. And not everyone has the right. And not everyone has the privilege to hear your story as well. So you can be incredibly discerning about who your audience is. And that’s often a really key indicator of success for how supported you feel in your mental health.” 

Taken from Shapes and Sounds website

Dealing with Traumatic Experiences

Artists live openly and experience things in many senses more deeply. Given that and the fact that the music industry (like many others) is also a space prone to exploitation at times, there are many times where one will have to face up to traumatic experiences from the past and how it’s blocking your path. But Asami wants everyone to know that this is far from a journey one will have to take alone.

“You’re not alone. And don’t do it alone. There’s no need to push through trauma, supports are available. And yes, they cost time and they cost money. But there’s nothing more important than them feeling safe and taking care of yourself.” 

One of the most poignant messages Asami shared during our conversation was that “we often get stressed about being stressed when we could just be stressed”. It’s a lot to digest, but long story short, we all could do with some space from our inner monologues at times.  

Most importantly, know that you are not alone in the challenges that you face. Be kind not only to others, but also to yourself. The art you create has value, and so do you.

Watch our video interview with Asami!

Don’t forget to check out Shapes and Sounds for tailored resources and access to a community who can truly support your mental health! Follow them on Instagram or head on over to their page to check out what programs they have available.