Tips of the Trade: Tom Larkin on creative process and career pressures

Tuesday, 17 Oct 2017


(Tom Larkin, photo by Kane Hibberd)

Putting yourself out there creatively is a risk - albeit often a very thrilling one - and forging a career path determined by your creativity is bold, brave, and often fraught with grown-up stress. So, is it worth it? How do you keep it all together? Recent research has brought mental health and the music industry to the forefront and APRA AMCOS has been facilitating events on staying well and keeping creative. 

Here we have a Q&A with Shihad drummer, producer and artist manager Tom Larkin on creativity, business, and being well, drawing on a combination of research, personal experience, and strategies.

Q: How did you develop an interest in mental health and the creative process?

After 29 years as an artist, and the last 10 years as a producer and manager I saw a consistent pattern in many artists I either worked with or were close to, being unable to sustain themselves due to mental health issues overwhelming their ability to bounce back from adversity or rendering them unable to undertake the work required creatively. I also felt that these struggles were regarded as collateral damage within the industry and we weren’t doing anything to address it collectively. Whether it was taking personal responsibility for our health as artists, to recognising at what point we are pushing artists over their limits, to recognising the psycho-social factors that are inherent in the music business and the effect they may have on a group of people that are required to explore their vulnerabilities professionally. 

I want to see normalisation of discussion and strategies around maintaining mental health on all sides - we should be able to talk about difficulties with as much drama and angst as talking about the flu or a cold. I hope we get there over the next few years.

Q: Do you think the idea of the ‘tortured artist’ is over-glamorised? Is it a myth?

The propensity for deep distress is not a myth. But what we now see through the statistics around artist life expectancy is that there is nothing broadly beneficial about the belief that misery and anguish as a vocational practice is in anyway desirable. 

The truth is that whilst music is a healthy outlet for those that struggle to explore and express what they have been through, being in a state of constant crisis or anxiety or depression renders an artist’s output inert. Its really when they find some kind of relief and clarity that they can make art effectively.

Q: What do you see as the main stressors in a music career that can cause someone personal anguish?

A number of factors, but among the main ones would be a lack of income stability, balancing the needs of effective creative practice against the high stress of being entrepreneurial, isolation from friends and family for long periods, and the work patterns of deep immersion and the corresponding need to recover and switch off - all of which are incredibly hard to maintain within the demands of running a business around music.

Q: How can an artist – or their team – become more aware of run-of-the-mill exhaustion and stress versus something more serious?

Working artists need to operate in extremes in order to deliver or create. An artist that is healthy puts in place a corresponding pattern of recovery to iron out the imbalance. You can recognise something serious or unsustainable starting to occur when an artist fails to come back from an extremity - be it isolation, high immersion, high risk taking, etc.

Q: Have you found in your music industry experience that there are certain points in a career or life phases when one is more apt to face challenges?

Definitely. You can track the pressures of building a micro to small business and directly correlate that to where a musician is at in their career timeline. Add to that the responsibilities people tend to accumulate as they get older and you can see that the apparent freedom of lower age gives a lot more scope for taking chances and focusing on your career to the exclusion of other obligations. Any kind of failure or public criticism can often be something that triggers shame and despondency as well. 

Q: Money is a big source of personal duress for members of the music industry. And it is hard to speak honestly about financial difficulties. Do you have tips for opening up and asking for help in financial matters? Any sources, websites, or experts that provide guidance?

Being in the music business is really managing the dynamics of colliding art with maths. You have to have equal respect for both in order to be effective, but so often people who love music rarely have a corresponding affinity for the numbers of running a business and respecting how to do that sustainably. Ultimately you have to pay equal attention to both.

However if numbers are not your strength then you should find others you trust to do that with you. At the very least you should learn about running a small business - it helps tremendously to translate the dynamics of a career path.

Q: What basic business know-how is key for the non-business type in the music industry?

That you are the CEO of your own music organisation - to be effective you need to take that responsibility seriously. Within that framework the advantages of being able to specialise and divide labour based on that is a huge advantage - try and arrange your team and your band along those lines. Usually it turns out that certain members write the music and do the art and others concentrate on the numbers and strategy end of the equation.

Q:  Can you share a few key self-care tips for songwriters and musicians? Any alternative wellness tips?

I think any routine that can pull you out of your own head and self-involvement regularly are helpful e.g. mediation / exercise / running / yoga.

Q: How can someone maintain a clear head out on the road?

Good support network, good food, having those they can trust to talk to and confide in, trying to get sleep and putting in place a method of recovery once you get home. Take time out and away.

Q:  In other interviews, you discuss artist development and, let’s say, the lack of it in recent years in the music industry. How does a young artist find a mentor? It’s kind of a big ask of someone, right?  

I think the plethora of digital training available these days makes it much easier for artists to find mentorship on a skill development level - the musicianship we are now seeing as a result of YouTube et al. is phenomenal.

I think one of the great hacks is to find a day job in the industry you seek to be a part of and that could provide (for now) a clear path to get a sense of what goes on around the art.

However I think it is up to us as a broader music community to change the culture and sensibilities around what we expect from our artists and how we can all build resources and talk more realistically around what doing this will mean as an undertaking. I think we need to think about how we can develop people to undertake a musical lifestyle sustainably rather than getting ‘famous’ or ‘killing it’.

Q: Any others websites, resources, or organisations that you can recommend for more reading and info?

I think the peak bodies in New Zealand and Australia provide a huge amount, however I think the resources are often under-utilised as many musicians actively resist training or anything that smacks of structure.

From a business level: APRA AMCOS / New Zealand Music Commission

I suggest checking out some of Gary Vaynerchuck’s work and content from a modern hard-edged business perspective if you can handle the style!

The Zebra Collective and the book Living with a Creative Mind by Jeff and Julie Crabtree is an excellent resource.

And finally, the NZ Music Foundation and their Wellbeing Service, designed for musicians and those in the music community, with a free counselling service.

 

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