Mental Health and the Music Industry. An Interview with the Founder of Blue Rhythm

Mental Health and the Music Industry. An Interview with the Founder of Blue Rhythm

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“I kind of knew what I wanted for myself and I just didn't care how much effort it took to get there.” Ambitious from an early age, Alexandra’s early exposure to the challenges of addiction combined with a passion for the world of music led to her wanting to set up better mental health support for artists. Here she chats through her founder journey and the unique challenges of the space.

The first thing I wanted to ask is what your education background is, and what decisions you made about what you wanted to study. 

I did high school in the States, and then went to New York for CITYterm, which was a semester-long experiential learning program before my final year of school. It was a liberal arts style program. You would be sent out into random places in the city and they could say ‘pick out three buildings that you like’. Then we’d come back and have to write 3,000 words on whichever building we chose. That’s not an amazing example, but essentially it was designed to be very exploratory and we were guided to learn by doing and learn by experiencing. 

I’m originally from Texas, so going to New York was kind of far, but for me that made me think, well if I can go to New York I can go further. So I visited St Andrews in Scotland and that’s where I ended up going for Uni. Originally I was looking for a course that was more music business focused, so I looked at NYU and USC, but then I worried, what about at the end of four years, if you decide that you don’t actually want to be in music? So I looked to do something that I could still be involved in the music business, but I didn’t have to just major in that. I was also super interested in international politics, so I did International Relations and Management at St Andrews.



Nice, I follow your thinking! St Andrews is a very different place to New York… How did you find it?

Yeah, well the great thing about St Andrews, is that because it’s a very small town in the middle of nowhere, the students really make everything for themselves. The students organise most of the events, parties etc. and they put on this show every year called ‘Don’t Walk’, which is like the largest UK student run charity fashion show [famously believed to be the place Prince William spotted Kate Middleton]. I worked my way through that, starting in my first year and up until the end of third year when I was a Director for it. 

That was a great way to connect to the music business because I booked AJ Tracey and Louis The Child to come and play at the show, and we’d have designers donate clothes. It was like building a festival event. It was a full time role on top of uni, but I like to keep busy. Every summer was then dedicated to internships wherever I could find one. I’d also started doing concert photography in my last year of high school because I was going to loads of gigs and ran out of money, and found out that you could do that and be at the front of the concert shooting. I’d always been into photography anyway so I got a job at a small online magazine in my city and just went to loads of shows and got to take pictures for my favorite bands! 

“I basically was going to loads of gigs and ran out of money, and found out that you could do that and be at the front of the concert shooting.”

 

I’m quite impressed that you were so proactive in your approach to working and getting internships – that obviously set you up to be in a good position when you graduated to go into your career quite quickly. Were you naturally ambitious to go after these things?

I think a lot of that is, growing up I’d see my mum unhappy in the job that she was working after my parents got divorced. Having to suddenly, after 30 years of retirement, go out and start a new career. I knew from the start that I wanted to work, and I wanted to work hard. But I also wanted to love what I’m doing. It needed to be something I’m passionate about. I kind of knew what I wanted for myself and I just didn’t care how much effort it took to get there.

“I kind of knew what I wanted for myself and I just didn’t care how much effort it took to get there.”

 

What was the thing that made mental health an interesting area to you? Was there something specific that you witnessed, or an experience that clued you up on that side of things? 

Yeah I grew up with my dad who had to confront issues with addiction and it was something that was not talked about at the time. I don’t think people knew about it, or even really acknowledged that people don’t choose addiction, it just takes over a person. So a lot of my childhood was growing up quickly and trying to shield my sister from it. And then, when I started shooting for gigs or working on different internships, I’d be sent out to get vodka because that was supposed to make an artist feel happy to finish a 14 hour shoot, for example. I just started to observe the same patterns and felt like… these people I’m really inspired by and look up to, they don’t really know how to get through the day sometimes. And I mean I’ve had my own mental health journey, and I think that it’s difficult to navigate for the average person. It doesn’t even matter what it’s about – it’s hard to find the right support and working in music and hearing and observing so many things from artists – the lifestyle of artists is often so unsustainable, and we’ve known that for quite some time.

I was kind of joking with my dad and I said ‘Oh, what happens one day if I’m on tour helping an artist and manager, and I have to call you because someone’s in the back of the bus and they’ve taken something’. And he said, ‘well yeah that’s something we could work together on’ because, since he went to rehab he re-trained and went on to get another University degree and a masters, so now he’s an addiction counselor, and a practicing therapist. 

It was a far-fetched idea at first and then when I was about to graduate Uni I found out that St Andrews and the UK Government have a scheme where you can apply for a startup visa. You have to submit a viable business plan and they select only a couple people to award it to. I got it, so that’s how Blue Rhythm started. 



I agree that the music industry is a very unique space. I’ve always felt that the entertainment industries are, in some ways, an exaggeration of everything else. So mental health is a challenge for everyone in different industries, but there is a unique set of challenges to being visible and having multiple identities and the different relationships that you have in the music industry that maybe you don’t have in more corporate careers. In your experience or what you’ve seen so far, do you think there are specific areas of the industry that are worse than others or spaces where it’s a bigger problem, the mental health space?

I think the biggest issue we have right now is that mental health is being talked about, to a greater extent, but the support isn’t accessible to artists themselves. We’ll see some labels training executives and mental health first aiders, and giving their employees access to mental health support, but that’s all because those companies have an HR department. Artists don’t. This entire ecosystem exists around them – you know, you can have 20/30 people relying on their livelihoods for this one person’s creative output, but that person isn’t supported at every angle to be able to maintain that. A lot of that is trying to have conversations with labels or management and talk to them about how this might help to support them.

I think in terms of genre, I’ve done a lot of research and looked into studies on it, and in terms of stats for suicide rates, alcohol dependency, it’s quite similar across the board. But the substance abuse varies as you might assume – electronic and dance music has higher rates of people surveying saying they would take something like LSD, and then when you look at the other genres it’s more alcohol based. 

A huge issue comes down to the lifestyle of artists – not being able to sleep or eat or really control your own schedule, and being quite isolated. It depends on where you are in your career, sometimes I picture an artist that’s completely isolated and it’s meant to be for their benefit, to give them privacy, but then you’re still left alone. You constantly switch between that isolation and then the build up to getting on the stage, whatever it may take to get on that stage, do that and then, a complete downhill crash afterwards, and you have to decide what to do to get you through to the next one.

 

The recovery for artists seems to be really problematic. You see it time and time again, where the individual constantly relapses because there isn’t a sustained framework for support. They often just recover and then are back on the promotion cycle. I wanted to ask functionally how you decided to set Blue Rhythm up to support people. How it works and why you made the decisions you did?

Everything I’ve done with Blue Rhythm has been very specific and very artist focused. Ultimately it should serve the wider music industry community, but artists seem to be the ones right now that aren’t receiving it. First and foremost I wanted everything to be anonymous – it’s none of my business who needs some support, so people just sign up with an email, and they can make up a fake email. Something we talked about with someone in music is that sometimes the last person an artist wants to tell is their manager or their label because they’re worried about getting dropped or appearing too needy. And that definitely depends on your relationships, but it’s the same kind of thing that you see in the corporate world where people are fearful of asking for mental health support because they think that they’ll then be overlooked for a promotion or a raise. It’s not about looking weak or fixing something wrong with you, it’s about just getting some support and having someone that can guide you. That’s partly why we’ve called everyone coaches – it’s meant to be a lot more approachable and accessible than calling someone a clinician or a doctor or psychiatrist.

To work for us, all the coaches have to have at least a master’s degree and be accredited to several accreditation bodies. We also do a four step interview process. To make things anonymous is not easy, even zoom for example wasn’t safe enough for us to use for remote sessions. We also wanted it to feel approachable and lower the barriers of entry into therapy and say, you can look at this as something that maybe you go to once a week or maybe you check in and that kind of speaks to what you’re talking about with the infrastructure of support. Structurally, there’s different approaches we can take but it always starts off with our assessor who meets the individual and from there looks at our portfolio of coaches and matches them. We also do screening for companies where they could get a set number of hours per month and give artists a company code to access the platform. 

Because the music industry is so unique and because of the specific challenges and obstacles artists may face, all of the coaches have to have come from the music industry and then retrained as a psychotherapist. We have coaches who were resident Ibiza DJs who then decided to give back to the artist community and retrain. This was vital because we’ve talked to artists and they said, you know, they can go to ten different coaches before finding the right one. They need someone who can understand what it means when a tour bus breaks down at 2am, and who understands that you’re there out of passion. And if you look at it objectively as a mental health professional and you say okay, you have a poor diet, poor sleeping habits… this isn’t good for you, this isn’t good for your body, etc. So it’s important to have people that are from the industry and who understand this is your passion and aren’t going to try and convince you out of it.

“Because the music industry is so unique and because of the specific challenges and obstacles artists may face, all of the coaches have to have come from the music industry and then retrained… They need someone who can understand what it means when a tour bus breaks down at 2am, and who understands that you’re there out of passion.”

 

It’s such a huge part of their identity as well, if you get to that place in the first instance, you worked hard for that! As a founder and quite a young one, what are some of the personal challenges you faced starting your own company and how have you tackled them?

I think that a lot of it has been going with your gut and realizing that one day you’re going to feel like you’re on the top of a mountain and the next you’re going to feel like you’ve made the biggest mistake of your life, and you have to be okay with that. You have to be resilient enough to move past it. It’s a conversation I have a lot with our team, because we’ll have big ups and big downs, and when I started out, I experienced all of those by myself. I just had to learn like Okay, you had this great conversation, and this is wonderful, and then the next day, you might get just horrendous news that derails months of work and it’s gonna feel like what you’re doing is a waste of time. I think that’s kind of what a lot of founders have realised; the reason you’re a founder is because you’ve been resilient enough to work through and push through, you have this idea that you’ve written down on a piece of paper and make it into something actionable and operational.

“one day you’re going to feel like you’re on the top of a mountain and the next you’re going to feel like you’ve made the biggest mistake of your life, and you have to be okay with that.”

 

There are a couple of questions I always ask people. One is what are some books that have been really helpful to you or that maybe you just really enjoyed? 

My favourite is Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and then there’s also this anthology: Empire City: New York Through the Centuries, which has quite a unique set of works about New York City, a collection of poetry and history. 

 

And then finally, who inspires you whether that’s in business or in life?

My grandfather is first and foremost one. He passed away about two years ago, but he started out at Frito Lay. He was hired after having graduated from law school and was brought on as head legal counsel, but turned it down and said: “I want to work as a delivery driver – I want to start from the bottom and work my way up because that’s the only way you can fully understand the company”. So that’s what he did. He worked his way up to the very top, and ended up being very influential in the company. His approach and outlook on life… it didn’t matter how successful he became, he always insisted “if you want something done right, do it yourself.” 

 

That attitude is maybe why he got so far because it’s like that sense of ownership.

Yeah. He would sit for hours painting the stairs outside, or breaking up peppermints with a hammer and adding it to vanilla ice cream, because he found it pointless to pay for something he could just do himself, always very insistent and determined. There’s a passage someone wrote about him, and it said, you’d walk into a boardroom and if Jack Williamson was rolling a cigar a certain way you knew right then how the deal was going to turn out. 

I think that’s why I wanted to do something on my own, and I wanted to do it right. I think that’s my biggest inspiration.

 

To find out more about Blue Rhythm, head to their website: https://www.bluerhythm.co.uk/

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