Therapy, meditation and rock 'n' roll

An Ottawa-raised musician has created a fund for the artists on his label to help them handle the burnout and stress that comes with life as an independent musician.

Member of band Hollerado creates mental health fund for artists on his Royal Mountain Records indie label

If Menno Versteeg has learned anything after two decades of touring in the group Hollerado, it's the importance of avoiding burnout and taking care of your emotional well-being.

The Toronto-based, Ottawa-raised musician is in town for the annual MEGAPHONO music festival and conference from Feb. 7-9.

He took part in a panel discussion Thursday, discussing this very subject.

Versteeg's label, Royal Mountain Records, appears to be the first to create a mental health fund for its artists. Each band has access to a $1,500 pot of money for therapy sessions, meditation classes and possibly medication, too.

"For now, it's pretty simple. If they want to go see someone or get treatment they do that and then they send the receipts to our accountant," said Versteeg, who's working to figure out whether he can legally cover prescription drugs.

Unlike conventional benefits programs whose costs are partially covered by employees, Royal Mountain is reimbursing artists out of pocket with no strings attached. 

Versteeg said $1,500 per artist was the most the label could afford, but he's hoping to one day come up with a more formal benefits plan. 

We're all best friends but we fought like brothers.- Menno Versteeg, founder of Royal Mountain Records

"I've been on tour for literally the last 20 years of my life. I guess [the inspiration was] seeing first hand that it's important and then also having a record label with all these other people who tour just as hard or harder than I do and realizing there's a lot of these people who could probably use this helping hand and can't afford it."

Independent bands can rarely afford the dues associated with joining the musician's union, Versteeg said.

Preying on artists

In his band's case, a caring and experienced producer intervened when things got ugly.

"In the early days of Hollerado and we were touring hard ... there were times where we almost actually murdered each other. We're all best friends but we fought like brothers ... We couldn't afford a real therapist or anything but a producer ... sat us all down and he's like, 'All right guys, we're talking about this.' And we just worked it out," said Versteeg.

Making matters worse, he said, is a music industry riddled with toxic personalities preying on artists.

"It's a strange business. It really is filled with all types of people."

Also participating in the burnout discussion at MEGAPHONO was Ben Leikin, a mental health supervisor at Ottawa Public Health.

This kind of fund can go a long way to address someone's emotional needs, Leikin said.

Ben Leikin supervises Ottawa Public Health's mental health team. He was a panellist at the MEGAPHONO music festival and conference on Thursday. (Mat Dunlap/MEGAPHONO)

"Anybody who's at that early stage, starting to feel like something's not quite right, something's going on with me, go [get help] early. The earlier the better. We often talk about the metaphor of a broken arm. Everybody knows what to do. They know that if they don't go get help at the E.R. and they don't get it set in a cast, the bone is not going to fix itself," he said.

"So we have to think about our brain in the same way, that if something is going on we've really got to seek out that treatment. Fifteen hundred bucks is going to go a long way to help people."

And if there's any doubt about the need for this fund, Leikin pointed to a 2017 study out of the United Kingdom.

"It found that musicians were three times more likely to experience depression compared to the general population, and the big finding from the study was that the lack of financial means to get support was one of the biggest barriers to getting well."

Another barrier, Versteeg said, is the misconception that artists need emotional torment to create great art. 

"If you get treatment and ways to deal with [those emotions], you're just learning how to deal with them. It's not like you're becoming dead inside or something. Your art is still your art. The idea is ridiculous that you have to be in pain to be making art."