Why Are So Many Musicians Drug Addicts?


It’s common knowledge that many musicians, especially performers, are plagued with drug and alcohol addiction. From Bix Beiderbecke in the 1920s to Amy Winehouse in the modern era, high-profile musicians have often had high-profile struggles. What’s more, every local performer who’s been playing out for even the shortest time can tell you that it’s easy to find strung-out musicians. While meeting someone who smokes cigarettes is rare in much of America nowadays, finding a musician on much harder stuff is so common it’s a cliché.

Why do so many musicians have drug problems? Why musicians, but not carpenters, or firefighters? What are the differences in lifestyle between musicians and other professions that make addiction more likely? I’m quite the connoisseur of cheesy rock autobiographies, and here are the eight reasons rock stars give for their spiraling addictions. (For the purposes of this article, the term “drugs” includes alcohol):

1. Environment: Playing at night, surrounded by the drunk and high, does not promote a culture of abstinence.

2. Wealth: Most well-known musicians are relatively rich, and the wealthier they are, the more sustainable their bad habits are. Drug dealers, like every salesman, prefer to target the rich, because they have the means to buy often and in large quantity.

3. Benefits For Dealer: The social benefits of being around musicians are very high. Supplying a superstar with drugs would mean entrance into their inner circle, and drug dealers often go after the famous just as businessman target the rich. This is what led to the downfall of legendary jazz singer Billie Holliday.

4. Permissiveness: Because of their unique skills, musicians can be very difficult to replace, and are often given a blank check on what would be fatal offenses in other jobs. There’s a story about Elvin Jones, John Coltrane’s drummer, in which Jones crashed Coltrane’s car in a drug-induced stupor. Instead of firing Jones on the spot, Coltrane refused to discipline him at all, saying, “I can get another car, but not another Elvin Jones.”

5. Youth: Musicians are young, immature, and inexperienced, and thus make stupid decisions that are magnified by their money and fame.

6. No Health Necessary: Young musicians, in contrast to athletes or dancers, don’t need to be at peak health to perform. Sure, you play better that way, but it’s not a necessity.

7. Peer Pressure: The qualities and characteristics of many drug abusers, such as taking risks and being fearless, are celebrated among the young. Without taking drugs, many musicians will not be perceived as cool. Often friends of drug addicts are also users.

8. Life On The Road: Spending all of your time touring is not a recipe for building solid personal connections, and drugs can be used to fill the void.

(Sources: Stephen Pearcy, Peter Criss, Duff McKagan, Anthony Kiedis, Ozzy Osbourne)

All of these reasons are actually one and the same. But before we can find out why musicians seem to use drugs more, we need to ask the most basic question: why do people use drugs at all? The National Institute on Drug Abuse says:

Drugs contain chemicals that tap into the brain’s communication system and disrupt the way nerve cells normally send, receive, and process information… The result is a brain awash in dopamine, a neurotransmitter present in brain regions that control movement, emotion, motivation, and feelings of pleasure. The overstimulation of this reward system, which normally responds to natural behaviors linked to survival (eating, spending time with loved ones, etc.), produces euphoric effects in response to psychoactive drugs.

The conventional wisdom says people use drugs because they are genetically predisposed to use them. After using, they get “hooked,” and their body’s wiring changes, making it impossible to quit. However, this explanation doesn’t hold water, because why would so many more musicians be “genetically disposed” to drug addiction than the general population?

Another way to look at the issue is simply that people use drugs… because drugs make them feel good. I know, shocking. Can you even call that a disorder, doing what makes you feel good? The alternative is way worse. Is it possible, then, that people stop using drugs… when something else makes them feel even better? What if using drugs is not just irrelevant, but actually ruins the better alternative?

In the late 1970s, a Canadian scientist named Bruce Alexander decided to test just this. Alexander took issue with the conventional view of drugs as addictive; he was aware that drugs have been used without addiction in various cultures throughout history. Alexander took two groups of rats and fed them morphine-laced water for six weeks. He then moved half of the colony into cold, clammy lab cages, and the other half into a splendiferous paradise called “Rat Park.” Rat Park had everything: space, nourishing food, sexy rats of both genders, and secluded nurseries. The rats in both areas were given a choice: continue to drink the morphine-infested water, or regular filtered water. As Alexander had hypothesized, the rats in the dingy cages overwhelmingly chose to keep their habit, and the rats in Rat Park wouldn’t touch the morphine with a ten (inch) pole, no matter what seductive technique the scientists tried to get them to habitually use it.

Now, back to humans – who, it turns out, are statistically just like the rats in this regard. It seems that when people have solid reasons to stop using drugs, they do. Most addicts actually seem to age out of drug use by thirty, and do so of their own choice. In general, they quit due to things such as marriage, parenthood, legal reasons, or financial issuesContingency management, in which rewards are given to sober recovering addicts over time, has proven to be one of the best treatment options.

The reverse is also true: people use drugs when they have reason to do so. Drugs make people feel good; if most people around are using and the side effects are minimal, there is little reason not to use. Most addicts who don’t eventually quit come from broken backgrounds that are hard for average people to fathom. They have given up the possibility that life would be better without drugs, are scared, or lack skills for the transition, and so they continue to use.

People learn behaviors based on incentives, or things that motivate someone to do something. Go back and read the list of explanations of addiction among musicians. The picture should be clear: musicians use drugs because they have plenty of incentives to use drugs, and not very many to eschew them.

The incentive is the essence of learning. Look closely at some other habits people have, both positive and negative, and why they are adopted:

· Obesity generally spreads among friends. Once your friends become obese, it becomes more accepted, and the incentive to remain in shape is gone.

· In general, people join groups — gangs, terrorist cells, religious groupsGreek life — not just because they believe in the mission of these entities, but also because they are looking for friends, an excellent incentive. When people choose to move on from these organizations, it is usually because they are entering a new phase in their life, and chasing a different goal entirely.

· The biggest incentive for people to stay in poor relationships and bad marriages is fear of loneliness.

Trying to adopt a behavior, even in drums and music, requires good incentives. This is the thesis of this site: if you have good incentives, you are primed for success. If you have a poor mindset, and no incentive to change, no habit you form will last. It is a simple lesson, but an important one, and bears remembering in any endeavor that you undertake.

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