Indie Queen Santigold Chats Why Musicians Today Are Burning Out Like Never Before Saying: ‘It’s A Cultural Crisis.’

Indie Queen Santigold Chats Why Musicians Today Are Burning Out Like Never Before Saying: ‘It’s A Cultural Crisis.’

In another universe, Santi White might be about to hit the road for her Holified Tour right now. Instead, the musician — who performs as Santigold — is talking to Rolling Stone about what she calls a “cultural crisis.” As she was preparing to tour on the heels of her new album, Spirituals, Santigold came to the sound realization that the trek was unsustainable, both financially and for her mental health. She made the difficult decision to cancel the run, and she was far from alone. Shawn Mendes, Justin Bieber, Animal Collective, Arlo Parks, and Sam Fender recently canceled their tours completely as well, while others — including Wet Leg — nixed tour stops, all citing burnout and/or mental-health reasons.

There are a slew of factors taking their toll on artists, she says, from the monetary and emotional costs of being on the road to the pressure to get back to the way things functioned before pandemic lockdowns. And the burnout has followed in a big way.

Over Zoom, Santigold explains how the pandemic created a perfect storm that exacerbated an already inequitable deal for those who make music for a living. “There’s in our country [a belief of] ‘Fuck the people, it’s all about money,’ right?” she says. “So that we jump right back in and get back to work: No conversation, no support, no anything to help people process what we just went through.”

The demands of the modern music business added challenges for mothers like herself, who have to care for their children while touring is paramount. “There’s beyond no support,” she says. “It’s horrible for women in this industry.”

We discuss ways other countries approach work-life balance for creatives and beyond; Santigold notes that “America’s losing.” “I don’t know any other job that you have to pay to do your job and end up in debt,” she says. “That’s telling all these new generations of brilliant, amazing potential artists: Don’t choose this job. And they won’t, and we’re going to lose out culturally from that.”

In a wide-ranging and brutally honest conversation, Santigold details the challenges that are leading musicians to kill tours in favor of their well-being, and some key changes she hopes to see.

The letter you posted when you canceled your tour struck a chord in my heart and for tens of thousands who commented — we’ve all been struggling with the pandemic. But for musicians it was a different beast: Everybody rushed back on the road, and that contributed to artists’ burnout.
It starts way before the pandemic. It starts with the fact that the system was already broken. People were just trying to hang on, prepandemic. As the music business has been changing over the years, there’s been hurdle after hurdle for musicians. That includes streaming and us being left out of that equation as labels and everybody else were ready to grab their piece of the pie and basically throw us under the bus. So then everyone said, “Oh, well, artists can still make money touring, right?” We can make money touring, but is it enough money to sustain us? I don’t think it ever was.

People are broke and people are struggling. And then you’re trying to set tickets that are reasonable. And you’ve got these third-party tools who are marking them up, at 100 bucks or whatever. The festival tickets are insane. The people aren’t coming to the shows or people aren’t buying tickets.

And then there’s in our country, you know, “Fuck the people, it’s all about money,” right? So that we jump right back in and get back to work: No conversation, no support, no anything to help people process what we just went through. So you’re going back to work, everybody’s broke, everybody’s fucked up. All of a sudden it isn’t working like it used to work. And even when I say it worked, it never was ideal for me, because the stress and the strain of touring never matched the level of the reward.

[Touring is] literally crisis management. It’s all day, every day of crisis aversion. It’s literally like, “Oh, just pulled up to this show, and I lost my voice ‘cause I’m so fucking tired.” And then I have to disappoint all these people. “Oh, somebody’s plane didn’t arrive with our tour manager and all of our costumes” — it’s just literally nonstop. Everything’s fucked up. Then you go onstage, and you’re like, [screaming] “Hello!” to 30,000 people. … It’s a very different requirement energetically, spiritually, mentally to have to carry that night after night after night, five shows a week, at least.

The landscape is very different right now for several reasons. One, because of insane inflation, and especially gas prices are like six times what they used to be, and we drive around the countries that we go to, whether it’s Europe or whether it’s here. Tour buses have also gone up, flights have gone up. And availability — everybody’s touring right now, and some people have canceled tours because they couldn’t even get a bus.

Everyone’s flooded the market, so then you can’t get the venues that you normally get. Normally I do one day down, two shows, one day down. And that generally makes it so that my voice doesn’t go away, but also I can pay the bills. But I noticed on this last tour, “Why are there all these spaces in the tour? Why am I not playing this city and this city that I always play?” They’re like, “There’s no availability because everybody’s booking.”

So that changes routing.
And that affects the bottom line, too, because if you’re not doing enough shows in your tour, then you’re not able to pay for the tour. So there’s gas, and basically just with the inflation alone that eats up profit. But then to not be able to put on as many shows, well, that adds to it. We put anchor dates on the tours that are festivals or private gigs, so that we could offset — because I’m selling, I don’t know, max, maybe 4,000 [capacity] venues, which is not small, but it’s not going to be like I’m rolling in the dough.

I’m out there because I want to see my fans. That’s what we’re doing it for. It’s not because it’s like a big payday for us, right? So the festival that I had in front of a date struggled; we had to move the date to the spring because it’s not working. A lot of festivals aren’t working.

And then a lot of the promoters are having a hard time. So the guarantees are getting smaller. They’re offering us less money, but the prices are going up. Fans can’t afford it. It’s just a perfect storm. And we’re heading out depleted. You put out a record for free, basically. It costs you a lot of money to make the record, videos cost money, marketing costs money, but you put it out, and you give it away for free. And then it’s like, “Now go find yourself some way to eat.” Artists all have like 80 jobs. Because we’re like, “Oh, let’s [go on] social media, and let’s make this and let’s try to do this and try to do merch” — you’re trying to find a way to eat, right? And then you’re exhausted. And also the amount of content that you’re expected to make constantly.

TikTok has been added to the social media demands, too.
That’s who’s making money, the people who are creating little sound bites of content. Nobody cares about the artists anymore. … Had I gone on tour, everybody else would have made money — my managers, crew, agents, everybody else makes money. It’s only the artists [not making money]. At the end of the day, if there’s nothing left, we get nothing. But we need to do it to keep our profiles high. You need to keep the momentum going, stay in people’s faces.

And that’s why you see that it’s not just at lower levels, middle levels, that people are having trouble. You’re getting people like Justin Bieber or Shawn Mendes canceling tours, because that itself is unsustainable. … The rate of consumption is the problem. The expectation that entertainers are supposed to be constantly putting stuff out, constantly staying in people’s faces, constantly vying for people’s attention in this completely oversaturated world where the attention span is deemed to be, like, two seconds long, that you have to put out an album every year, come up with content, be on Instagram all the time. That’s an unsustainable pace and it’s unhealthy.

Being an artist nowadays is being this false version of perfection that we promote through Instagram, through our socials. It’s like Wizard of Oz. They’re behind the fucking screen falling apart, trying to keep up this image. And people need to take down the sheet because it’s unsustainable.

If we can’t portray ourselves as real humans, it’s going to be hard for people to rally behind us and say, “This is the same problem that we’re all having across the board — it’s human beings, the value of humans versus corporations.” It’s actually the same issue. And the laws that have been allowed to exist, that are unethical regarding workers — we are workers.

We recently published a story on younger artists who said they were lucky if they broke even on the road — but because this is their passion, they’re still willing to go into debt to do it. But if it’s difficult even as your career progresses, what’s this going to do to future artists’ well-being?
I was talking to a friend of mine, too, who has a lot of really young friends. And he’s like, they all rushed out on the road because they heard it was the only way to make money. And they’re coming home in debt. We’re already broke when we start out, and to then go out and try to put [out] your art and have to incur debt. I have incurred so much debt putting out this project. Everybody I talk to, people are like, “I’m on the road, I’m losing so much money” — we are paying to do this job. I don’t know any other job that you have to pay to do your job and end up in debt. That’s telling all these new generations of brilliant, amazing potential artists: Don’t choose this job. And they won’t, and we’re going to lose out culturally, from that.

Whether it’s government, whether it’s religion, whether it’s anything else that people cling to, it’s falling apart. The only thing that have is truth — that’s what art has been for me throughout my life. It’s been where people can tell the truth and move culture forward, and bring to light things that people haven’t been able to pinpoint or say exactly or feel. It helps people connect to what’s real. And then we can have conversations and move forward.

Now, without art in times like these, we’re devastated culturally. And we’re saying to artists, “You’re not important, TikTokers are important.” And we’re not supporting art … and it’s a crisis. It’s a cultural crisis. What I saw when I wrote my letter, fans are ready to be there for us, and if we can let them in then we can be a movement in the way that all these other movements have risen up against corporations. I’m not saying anybody’s been successful yet, because it’s actually dangerous business when you threaten a few people’s money that have been in a position of power for a long time. …

There’s no quick and easy fix. It’s really, like, humans against the machine. In other countries, most other countries, they have grants for artists, they have support for working mothers, they have health care, they have mental-health coverage. We are fucked up, and we need to come together. If we can actually find some common ground to come together on, we’re powerful.

What was it about this tour that made you say, “I gotta stop”?
First of all, it was coming off the end of the pandemic. I’m a mother of three small children. When lockdown hit, I had two-year-old twins, and a six-year-old at the time. I was home-schooling, changing diapers, cooking, cleaning, all this stuff. I [was also] making a record — thank God, honestly, it was the only thing that kept me whole. And I get through it … and you’re still in survival mode, you’re still, like, all adrenalized.

And you’re like, “OK, now I gotta release the record,” and you go into it. It’s the same shit: Release the record. What else can you do? What else can you do? So you’re dealing with that pace, but you’re not as full, energetically. You’ve got to come up with all this energy that you don’t have in this particular instance, which is always kind of the case. But this is even way more extreme than it’s been in the past.

And then you’re like, “OK, cool. Let’s get this tour, let’s get back on the road.” And they say, “Yeah, this tour is not gonna make you a dollar.” I’m like, “I don’t understand. You’re asking me to leave my children for weeks and weeks on end and come home with no money to even pay the babysitter? Or my rent?” And so they’re like, “We’re going to make it work. … Well, we got this festival to anchor in.”

The festival falls apart. Then, “Oh, well, we’ll get this” — everything’s falling apart. And then my managers are like, “We gotta keep this momentum. You’ve got to do it.” And what Spirituals talks about is honoring your own boundaries, honoring yourself. And I was like, “How can I do this when I’ve just learned this lesson myself?” I’m just sitting there, and I’m just like, ”I have to do it. I have to do it.” And my body was like, “No.” Like, I didn’t even have a choice. I’ve had vertigo. I’ve had chronic fatigue. This is within this last few months. And that’s my body being like, “You’re beyond your means. Please listen.”

There’s also what people don’t understand in music: You get whatever you’re getting paid, and then there’s often 40 percent coming off the top in commissions. You got your agent, you got your manager, you got your business manager, you got your lawyer … that’s off the top. Then you got taxes. So, you’re getting a very small percentage of your income, which is the model that’s also probably unsustainable, unless you’re making a lot of money. So as the guarantees are going down, the costs are going up, the crew’s going up. So really, I was being asked to do something that was undoable. I had some fucking sense this time. I was like, “This is stupid. It makes no sense. And you’ve got to stop before you kill yourself.” Honestly, it’s a health issue at this point. Yeah, I get chest pains. You know, my body is telling me, “This is too much.”

A lot of people don’t realize that artists are independent contractors. There is no insurance to cover mental healthcare unless you pay for it, no vacation days, no sick days.
During the pandemic, I was so jealous of my friends with jobs and offices. … I also had twins and [felt] like nobody was in my position. I was just like, “Oh, my God, I had no idea where I was getting money from.” I had a couple things I was doing to sustain, but it was scary. They got health care, they got vacation days, they got all that stuff. [Artists] don’t have any of those things. It’s all on us.

You have an interesting perspective because you worked at a label, and you were on a major label. You now release your own work. Do you feel like you have more well-being getting out of that?
It’s not that different experientially. I never felt a real push from any of my labels. Maybe the first record … But since then, I mean, the record deals can pay a couple of months rent. Then it’s like, “Hey, we have this budget for videos. But it doesn’t cover anything. So can you go find money for your own videos?” This is from a major label on Atlantic. I’m finding money to shoot my videos.

We were hustling and I was on Atlantic. And so there’s budgets there. But it was still not enough. And that was falling on me. I started directing my own videos because we never had a big enough budget. Once you get in those worlds, everything’s way more money than it should cost. You get kind of less for your money.

Do I feel happy not to be on a label? Yes, I do. Because at least no matter what the struggle … at least I own my stuff. At least I own my music, and at least the money for my syncs, or whatever, it’s coming to me. That type of autonomy and sovereignty is valuable. And especially if we can create a new model — which I know that, like, Web3 is an interesting thing. [It’s] direct-consumer with your fans, and you have intimate relationships with your fans. … There’s no middleman, and we can have a conversation. “What do you like? What do you want? This is what I’m doing, anybody interested?” I think that could be an interesting future for artists.

But I also think there needs to be some huge systemic changes. [One example is] a streaming service that’s nonprofit, where if somebody streams your song, you get paid for it. Now it’s like [subscribers] pay in advance, and the bulk of the money goes to the top-selling artists —  ‘cause that’s what they’ve arranged. And this one person could be paying their subscription fee and listening to only a small artist; that money’s not necessarily going directly to that artist. It’s just so unfair, and it’s so unsustainable, and that money is no money anyway, the actual money that trickles down.

So how do you find balance, mental health-wise, when things look currently unsustainable?
Social media is a big part of this problem, too. Because if we talk about why artists feel so much pressure to uphold these false versions of themselves, it’s what social media has done to our culture. That’s why I like punk. Look, punk rock is like, “This is the real shit. No fucking glamour, let’s just keep it real.” I can’t remove that sentiment from my heart. Bottom line, I’m a fucking real person. I can’t not say what’s the truth, and I want more artists to feel freed up in that way that they can just, you know, fuck that shit. Especially women … It’s just so much pressure.

How do you feel now that you made this decision, though? Are you feeling some sense of relief?
That was a really hard decision. I’m feeling relief. I wouldn’t have been able to do this as younger me, and I don’t mean age-younger me. I mean, evolution-wise-younger me, and I’m proud of myself. … I still get show offers that make no sense every day, that my manager is like, “Can you do this?” I’m like, “I just said I’m not doing this anymore.” … I just got a book deal yesterday. I’m excited about that. I’m trying to do all these other things. So it’s very busy. I want to fill my time with things that feel more balanced. And that’s a scary leap, to be honest.

You’re not saying no to ever playing a show, though, right?
I will play a show when it actually makes sense. I just can’t do it right now. It’s zero sense in it. And I love shows, I love my fans, I would love to play shows for them. But I can’t kill myself to do that. And so if an opportunity presents itself, and it makes sense, then I’ll do the show.

Beyond the tour stress and financial stress, what other ways do you see the current situation affecting mental health negatively for artists?
I think there’s a general disconnect in people understanding what the real life is like. I think that because artists haven’t been honest, then there’s a real inability to see the humanity in our struggle. I think that’s a big problem. And I think that until people can be more honest with their fans and their audiences, then we can’t actually come together on issues like this and demand more, because it’s actually issues that everybody experiences, not just artists. And we need their support. … And there has been this thing with entertainers, where people sometimes feel like they’re owed something: I turn on the faucet, there’s water; I flick a switch, and there’s light; and I press a button, and there’s music.

Actually, somebody’s making this music, and they have to survive making this music. It’s not a fucking utility. I think our culture has just devalued music so much, where it’s like, the way that people hear music is like, “Oh, it’s background.” It’s background to the show, it’s background to the movie. It’s this little background to the TikTok crazy performance. The way that people think about music has changed, and it’s not in a good way. So, I’d like to get people to start thinking about that because that’s important.

I’ve spoken to some therapists who previously worked in the music industry. They addressed many of the issues we’ve talked about. It appears very prevalent.
I remember when I used to work at Sony speaking of this, and this is like way before any of this stuff. But still, it was in ‘98 probably. I quit there. And it was the same reason that I just quit my tour. I walked into the building every day and felt sick in my stomach. Your body tells you when it’s time to stop doing something if you listen. It was the same way with this tour. I was like, “My body is saying no.” If you can listen to that, then that will avoid the mental-health issues. I mean, obviously we all need — I believe in therapy. But when we cross our own boundaries is when we get into trouble. When we don’t honor ourselves, we carry that." -

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