'A huge elephant in the room': How the return of raving is causing burnout in nightlife workers

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  • Jyoty Singh, Posthuman's Joshu Doherty and Local Action boss Tom Lea reflect on the pressures and unexpected consequences of going back to work.
  • 'A huge elephant in the room': How the return of raving is causing burnout in nightlife workers image
  • The return of nightlife is causing burnout in workers across the industry. Over the past year, the gradual return of clubs across Europe and North America, as well as parts of Asia and South America, has had some unintended consequences. After 18 months of no gigs, many nightlife professionals were eager to return to normal as quickly as possible. But some are already burned out. They're wondering if all the talk of change so rife during the pandemic has had any lasting impact. Earlier this month, Tom Lea, who runs Local Action Records, tweeted his concerns on the issue. He later elaborated for Resident Advisor. "I work with, and speak daily to, a wide variety of artists," he said. "Some playing out multiple times a weekend, others barely booked and others somewhere in the middle, and the vast, vast majority of them have felt burned out. I can barely have a conversation with anyone in music right now, whether it's an artist, manager, label owner, whatever, without it being brought up. It's a huge elephant in the room." This is understandable. 18 months of lost income, as well as the continual uncertainty of virus mutations and clubbing regulations, means that many nightlife workers are unsure how long this window of opportunity will last. "A major problem is, because while some DJs obviously carried on gigging throughout the pandemic, most of us didn't, so we have 18 months of lost wages," Joshu Doherty, half of the duo Posthuman and the force behind the I Love Acid party and label, told RA. "Seeing constant videos on Instagram of headline DJs playing to huge crowds, when they're not getting bookings themselves, is devastating personally as well as financially. I've had numerous artists begging me for gigs, even offering to play for free, just to get their names back out there." But Doherty doesn't think we should just blame the big artists. "On the flip side, the few big headliners who are friends of mine, because of that lost time, and the worry it might all be gone again soon, they're finding it hard to say no to anything. They're burning the candle at both ends far more than pre-Covid-19." Of course, it's not just headliners who are feeling the strain. The DJ, presenter and curator Jyoty, AKA Jyoty Singh, told RA that she was "running on empty last week and my manager booked off 3 days of 'no work' in my calendar in advance. But to be honest with you, on two of the three days I just did my regular amount of work. I think it's such a hard cycle to break when you work for yourself and nothing is guaranteed." Doherty agrees. "As a promoter, I've done eight events across five cities in four months. This is definitely at the upper end of the amount of parties I would normally promote, and not sustainable without completely burning out." In electronic music circles, a huge part of the pandemic dialogue was around creating a more sustainable nightlife economy, which, as Doherty points out, might have been more focused on celebrating local talent. But, in his opinion, this hasn't been the case. "I thought that the return to clubbing—the hunger from everyone having missed out, all those promises 'I'll never take it for granted again!'—might lead to more celebration of local scenes and acts," he said. "Instead, it seems to have accelerated headliner culture even more. I suspect there are numerous factors behind this: many of the independent promoters and smaller venues never resurfaced." Singh also recognises that, on the one hand, she is disappointed to see that "promoters seem to be doing the same old thing when it comes to booking names." But at the same time, she doesn't have the luxury of being able to try and break this cycle. "I notice that I'm too scared to say 'no' because I'm petrified of another period of time where the clubs will close and I will go back to making my money through brand deals, etc., which I simply don't want to do too much of," she said. While what Singh and Doherty describe feels specific to the nightlife economy, Lea sees it as representative of a larger shift in arts cultural production more generally. "It's the pace of the whole ecosystem," he told RA, "from artists feeling obliged to breathlessly scramble for a photo or gig video every time they want to post about a release, to the perceived shelf life of releases themselves, to the sheer amount that an artist is expected to do to promote something." He added: "The other week, we literally had a magazine ask us what UNIIQU3 had coming up next, three weeks after she released an EP that she spent the majority of a year working on. That attitude of always looking at the next thing and always focusing on scaling up with every single release or show has become way too normalised, and it's really unhealthy." The BBC recently published results from a survey by UK-based charity Help Musicians that identified that more than "83 percent of professional musicians [were] unable to find regular work" while nearly "nine in ten were earning less than £1,000 per month, and 22 percent were considering giving up music altogether." These results, at once shocking and unsurprising, suggest a work culture where artists are constantly scrambling for the next paycheck. Lea underlines that a lot of burnout comes from relying exclusively on gigging. He implores "artists to keep an eye on other revenue streams: right now the average artist is making 90 percent-plus of their income live, when really it would be much healthier if that was 60-70 percent." Indeed, the pandemic gave some artists, such as Singh, time to pause and search out new creative avenues. "I made more money during lockdown than before," she said. "I even quit my full-time job at the height of the pandemic. I didn't really talk about this much because so many people were having a tough time and it didn't feel right to celebrate. I think a lot of this also has to do with the fact that I also host, present, curate, stream, moderate, program and consult." This may not be realistic for most artists (especially up-and-coming ones), and the onus shouldn't be on artists and promoters to break a cycle that has ultimately been created by major labels and streaming platforms. But the alternative, the endless and relentless churn of releasing music for gigs, is also worrying. On the topic of wellness and mental health, Doherty points out that although there have been more conversations recently, they ultimately haven't led to any material changes. "And I doubt it will, when there's money still to be made," he said. Lea feels similarly uncertain. "I don't have the answer there and it's definitely not easy," he said. "But whether it's taking time to focus on production work, trying to build your Bandcamp catalogue, looking for some remixes or simply getting a part-time job (not a last resort by the way: I know touring artists who have taken on work for a couple of days a week and it's made them way happier), I'd encourage everyone to look for some alternative revenue streams that means if they do need to jump off the treadmill for a few months, they can." Photo: Alexander Popov