The death of 28-year-old star producer/DJ Avicii comes as a shock to many. It’s also easy to reduce to another example of party world excess, or to say it’s just about big-money EDM and pop. But it should be a bigger wake up call than that.
To me, the most alarming reaction I’ve heard from the electronic music world is, “oh, who’s that?” – not from people who genuinely don’t know, but from those who are making a show of pretending not to know. And the reason that should be unsettling is, it allows people in the larger industry of electronic music to try to separate themselves from their own connections to this story.
Some of the warning signs that we got from Avicii are relevant to all dance music – including the bits that like to style themselves as underground. Some relate to the dangers of the industry around music, and its priorities. Some are personal ones, for anyone working in music and creative arts. And some of those speak on a pretty basic human level to asking ourselves what we’re doing with our lives. These are not questions any of us should be somehow “above.”
They’re also relevant to music technology, because our business is fueled by the music industry, because we’re personally often involved in this other world, and because we have self-care challenges of our own.
But, okay, let’s back up. If you genuinely don’t know who Avicii is – which in today’s heavily fragmented musical world is very possible – here’s a quick review. (Yeah, Wikipedia is your friend, too.) His real name was Tim Bergling, hailing from Stockholm. While he wound up with a long string of blockbuster hit singles, he started out making music with more of the profile of a lot of typical readers of, like, this site. He was posting remixes in forums at age 16.
You either know his music, or you’ve heard his music without knowing it – even the most disconnected from popular culture can do a quick YouTube search now and go, “oh, that song” with a few of them. He’s one of a handful of people who made dance music as big as it is at the moment, especially in the US market. And he had that sort of magical talent with both sound and hooks that I personally think is tough to argue with (even if people do out of some reflexive snobbishness). It’s immediate; it reaches people.
But whether this is your music or not, watching this kid play around with a Game Boy and smiling in front of a DAW arrangement – of course, this is us. You might not be a guy or white or Swedish or Grammy-nominated or played in front of huge crowds in Vegas or even know how to operate a CDJ. But I know if you read this site, you know that feeling of being excited about some new music well enough to start to tear up even for the passing of a perfect stranger.
You can bet that a lot of discussion this week will center on Bergling’s health.
Mental and physical health are about more than just party culture. One of my personal heroes growing up was Jim Henson of The Muppets fame, who’s about as far from Ibiza as you can imagine. I even met him as a kid in Indianapolis and took a photo with him. And part of what I loved about Henson was his endless devotion to his work. And as a kid as well as in adulthood, I’ve always been able relate to this desire to be consumed by creating things.
I was just twelve when Jim Henson died, but part of what I understood at the time was that this drive also took his life. (He was in production at the time, and even delaying seeking treatment seems likely to have advanced the course of the bacteria that killed him.)
So, when processing the news about Avicii, the first question we ask I think shouldn’t be “is this the sort of music I like?” or “is party culture too much about excess?”
I think we should ask, “are we taking care of ourselves and other people, in terms of their health and their happiness? Who and what are we working for, first?”
As I write this, there hasn’t yet been a discussion of an immediate cause of death, but Avicii’s health problems have been public for several years now. Billboard has an overview:
Heavy drinking at least appears to have been a factor early on. That is itself significant, because both in his native Sweden and in my native United States where his career took off, prohibitions in the music scene have focused on the drug MDMA (or even, perversely, marijuana) but largely ignored alcohol. That’s something that has been criticized by many health advocates. (Without stepping into the ecstasy debate, it’s worth checking out the cannabis debate – as its history in the USA is beyond bizarre.)
But that’s just one factor, if an important one. Touring itself seems to have been a culprit. And there are many more signs something was wrong with Avicii and deeply troubling about the world around him that advanced his decline.
If you want to get fairly depressed, you can watch the documentary True Stories that came out last year for a vivid picture:
This was a message that Avicii the artist wanted to get out. He was even brave enough to actively promote segments from the film that put him and his promotional team in a pretty bad light. From DJ Mag in November, you can watch some utterly chilling moments with his doctors and with his publicist:
This isn’t just about whether someone was drinking too much at one point. In this segment, it’s clear that Avicii and his team sometimes chose keeping up appearances and continuing work at the expense of getting complete medical treatment or recovery.
That is an important, important point. Lots of people can abuse alcohol or drugs or engage in self-destructive or suicidal behaviors. But – coming back to my Jim Henson example – it’s also possible for any of us to get sick and then fail to get treatment. Sometimes a few hours’ delay getting to a doctor can be fatal, even for a health adult with no history of substance abuse.
So, what does it mean if we’re part of an industry, or talking to professionals, who actively encourage us to do something that harms us? What does that mean about musicians – or fans? That motivation can be as much about money as it is about something like substances. It’s not to ignore the substance question (someone’s making money on that, too, ahem), but to try to understand a deeper sense of what this is about.
As I write this, Avicii’s site hauntingly still shows the text posted as he announced his retirement from live shows and touring:
WE ALL REACH A POINT IN OUR LIVES AND CAREERS WHERE WE UNDERSTAND WHAT MATTERS THE MOST TO US.
For me it’s creating music. That is what I live for, what I feel I was born to do.
Last year I quit performing live, and many of you thought that was it. But the end of live never meant the end of Avicii or my music. Instead, I went back to the place where it all made sense – the studio.
The next stage will be all about my love of making music to you guys. It is the beginning of something new.
Hope you´ll enjoy it as much as I do.
But it’s what he said in an interview in the Rolling Stone that I find most telling. And it’s actually not so much about his physical health per se as you might expect.
First, about partying, what he describes is more about personal relationships than about substances (even though the magazine’s question related to ecstasy, the pill):
“Parties can be amazing, but it’s very easy to become too attached to partying in places like Ibiza. You become lonely and get anxieties. It becomes toxic.”
Reading through this, it’s clear how traumatized he was by the experience. He also talks in the interview about not standing up to the people who told him to keep going, as seen in the documentary clip above in DJ Mag. But the part that really gets to the point in my mind is this one:
“I needed to figure out my life. The whole thing was about success for the sake of success. I wasn’t getting any happiness anymore.”
Bob Dylan has the song Gotta Serve Somebody. This whole story can speak to that: we all have some questions about who and what we serve. That’s relevant to who we serve in our music, and for those of us making part or all of our living in music (including music technology), who and what we serve in those jobs.
The press and social media present an image of touring that is, oddly, devoid of both its real pleasures and perils. (And there are pleasures, too. I know people who really do love touring, and people who can be miserable stuck in their studio.)
Just don’t think for an instant that this doesn’t have anything to do with your corner of music.
In supposedly “underground” techno (check William Morris), in experimental electronic music and art-y festivals, there are now plenty of big agencies. Five figure fees are standard stuff on even that “adventurous” or “experimental” side of things. Do the math, and you have enough of an industry around touring artists – at the same time that recorded music is collapsing – that a lot of people serve that financial stream more than they do any particular feelings about music or the humans making it. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing; it only becomes one if you aren’t aware of the potential conflict of priorities. What makes money in a tour is not always what takes care of the artist – as Avicii says, “success for the sake of success.”
It’s also easy for those of us in music technology and musical instruments to pass the buck over to the music industry at large. But we feed off those same economics and desires; we sell a lot of our tech to the people who dream of being Avicii. And we have our own demons and burnout to consider, too – obviously.
I also find myself constantly in conversations about making ends meet, about staying happy and motivated, and indeed about this question of touring and keeping up with it – or just keeping up physically with demands in general. There’s a natural human tendency to ignore our own limits and mortality and even our own moods and emotional needs. Now we have social media presenting a continuous image that’s always young, always happy – a world without sadness or death. The bizarre thing is, attempting to live in that world will actually make you utterly miserable.
You may ask yourself a series of questions…
It’s so easy to turn this into prohibitions instead of self-reflection. And America is great at prohibition. So it’s great at cracking down on the “rave” scene or whatever it may be. It’s even just as easy to ignore what Avicii loved about his music career, while focusing on its tragic end. He did say that touring had ups as well as downs.
I think it’s better to ask some questions.
What does it mean for those of us who encourage music making that we make stardom its ultimate goal?
What does this stardom do to how we value music? To what extent are we weighing that music’s financial possibility rather than how it makes us feel?
Do we insist on presenting artists only in the positive sense, without talking about their struggles?
Are we purposely leaving out real discussions of health? Of mental well being? Of aging, even?
Are we placing all our emphasis on touring and not on other activities that can support artists?
Are we taking health and happiness as part of the goal of tours, of music careers?
Do we actively promote ideas that discourage mental health?
Are we stigmatizing mental health issues in music, even when music is often initially an outlet for people to find healing?
Can we reflect on the role of alcohol as the main revenue stream in so much of live music? What about other substances (including the impact of policies around both legal and illegal substances)?
Do we have accurate information for music-goers and event organizers of what health impacts of consuming substances or other behaviors actually are? (In the age of fake news and fake science spread via online communication and hearsay, accurate risk assessment seems essential, from infectious disease to alcohol to drugs.)
I’m certainly not claiming any kind of innocence either in behavior or intention, but – this is about asking questions, not just having answers.
Are we doing what we want to be doing? Is it making us happy? (Insert Underground Resistance here.)
Are we caring for ourselves and the people around us?
And how do we make music and musical instruments something that add to that care and that don’t just take it away?
Struggling with those questions need not be burdensome. I think it can be rewarding.
Remembering Avicii should be something all of us do. He’s been one of the biggest artists in 21st century electronic music, and what he chose to do was to make his personal struggles public. That isn’t easy, and we should be grateful he’s done that. And we should make sure that the questions he asked remain part of our conversation. Because just like last year’s chart-topping pop hit, the natural tendency of the music industry will be to simply move on – and we shouldn’t let them.
My deep condolences to Tim Bergling’s family, friends, and everyone who worked with him. I hope we can elevate the cause of health, happiness, and care that he worked to raise in the midst of his struggles.
I welcome any and all comments on those topics for music, creativity, and tech – this can absolutely be an ongoing conversation.