‘And me I’m in a rock ’n’ roll band’: on pill-testing and valuing musicians

When I first saw Australian band Ammonia perform live, way back in the late 90s at the Corner Hotel in Melbourne, they played their hit song ‘Drugs’ with gusto.

The gig was a ripper. ‘Drugs, and money,’ screamed Dave Johnstone, lead singer, his sneakered feet pounding the stage. ‘But there’s nothing I’m gunna do about it.’ Us punters in the crowd bounced on the pub’s sticky floor, cheering them on.

I listened to Ammonia’s song on my smartphone after the intention to hold a pill-testing trial at the Groovin’ The Moo music festival in Canberra was announced. The song’s crunchy guitars and irreverence had me hooked again. Switching between singing about drugs and money, and drugs and guns, the singer sounds like he’s had enough, and almost fatalistic, but in a darkly humorous way. It’s the kind of humour born from hanging in there when times are tough.

Now, over twenty years later, Australians still pay money for drugs, over-the-counter, or illegally. And songs can be downloaded almost instantaneously from the internet. But these days health professionals work at music festivals to help check illicit drugs for harmful and unexpected ingredients.

The pill-testing trial at Groovin’ the Moo was described by the Australian Capital Territory’s chief health officer and police commissioner, and by paramedics and drug reform advocates, as a ‘tremendous’ success. As previously reported, more participants had samples tested than was expected by the organisers, and half the drugs tested contained no psychoactive substances at all, and two potentially deadly samples were removed.

Checking illegal drugs for dangerous and other ingredients can help to reduce the risk of adverse reactions and prevent death.

The pill-testing trial is an important milestone in Australia for helping to save the lives of people at music festivals who may use party drugs. Based on scientific evidence, discreet and humane trials like that at Groovin’ the Moo represent what is possible when the performance and enjoyment of music is treated with respect and compassion.

But checking drugs for dangerous ingredients at festivals may also play a valuable role in improving the overall conditions of work for musicians – conditions that can have a big impact on their health, and how they are valued more broadly by society.

The work of musicians, like many writers, actors, filmmakers and other artists, is often part-time or casual. Career pathways are uncertain. The financial stress of low pay and of job uncertainty in the music industry can have a big impact on health, particularly mental health.

Trouble with money can contribute to difficulty sleeping, excessive worry, and other issues that lead to poorer mental health. While the relationship between creativity and mental health is complex, research does find that people working in the entertainment industry experience greater levels of anxiety and depression than the general population.

There are other problems related to working conditions in the music industry. Musicians are often harassed by drunk people in pubs and clubs. Relatively greater access to alcohol in venues can cause issues, with many workers in the entertainment industry drinking alcohol at higher levels than the general population. Drinking too much alcohol can make stress and anxiety worse, especially for young people.

Outside music venues, family, friends and peers who don’t understand the life of an artist may not be supportive of a career in music, either. Being valued for one’s work is an important part of someone’s overall health and welfare – and for bouncing back from setbacks and adversity.

It’s also reasonable to argue that musicians face greater risks of problems associated with legal and illegal drugs than people working in more stable industries. For example, workplaces that find ways to support their employees often have employee assistance programs and other confidential sources of support that are easy to access. There may be programs to help increase exercise or information sessions on managing stress, as well as access to mentors and coaches, and other opportunities as part of daily work.

Many workplaces will have more support available than the bars, clubs and venues where musicians perform, or the spaces where they rehearse and conduct other business.

To be fair, it’s a big leap to make from a pill-testing trial at a music festival to improved working conditions that better support the health and careers of all artists. Many social, economic, cultural and political factors influence creative practice.

And no magical quick fix can solve other realities, like that unsettling feeling of rejection artists experience when sales are down or another funding application is rejected. Having multiple jobs or getting by with a small income are the norm for many artists. Some people may simply be uninterested in health and professional development, too.

However, an attempt to reduce the risk of health problems that can result from illicit drugs does suggest that the work of musicians in Australia is being treated with more care, and in turn, more respect. When musicians are respected, there is an opportunity to value them as people holistically – people with careers, bills to pay, health to be managed, family to look after, and, hopefully, more songs for the great and diverse soundscape of Australian music. Musical performance becomes so much more than a product to be sold and consumed.

Australian musicians and the many workers in the music industry are, of course, resilient. I can still enjoy listening to Ammonia and other bands, with or without trials like those at Groovin’ the Moo. Despite all the instability and challenges facing musicians in Australia, their skill and tenacity keep bringing me foot-stompingly awesome music.

Perhaps one thing everyone can do to better support and value musicians, writers, filmmakers and other artists is buy more of their work. Supporting local artists has become so much easier in the click-to-pay-online era.

And simply providing some words of encouragement when a friend chooses to make that big jump into the joy, and uncertainty, of arts practice. Even just a few kind words might make all the difference.


Image: Bro tags ceiling fan during 9 Shocks Terror’s set at Thrash Fest 3 at the Babylon in Minneapolis, MN on May 4, 2002  Jason Penner  / Maximum Rocknroll

Ben O'Mara

Ben O’Mara is a writer and health worker living in Melbourne and Canberra. Ben’s stories have appeared in The Guardian, The Age, Eureka Street, Kill Your Darlings and Meanjin. Tweets: @benomara

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