The music industry has come on hard times of late as it relates to mental illness. The rigors of demanding tour schedules and temptations of the lifestyle on the road, among many factors, have led to suicides of some well-known artists. Now, an indie label is taking steps to take care of its own.

Toronto indie label Royal Mountain Records, whose roster includes artists like Alvvays, Dizzy, U.S. Girls, and Calpurnia, is taking an unprecedented step. This past week, they created a fund to assist their artists in getting treatment for mental health and addiction issues.

Mental health fund

As of Feb. 1, every Royal Mountain signed act has access to $1,500 to use at their discretion on mental wellness. No strings attached, all completely confidential. The memo that went out to the artists stressed that the money is “out of our pocket and will NOT be a recoupable label expense. To reiterate, the bands will NOT need to pay the label back for these expenses.”

The head of Royal Mountain, Menno Versteeg, is also the frontman for local Toronto rock outfit Hollerado. Being in the industry himself, Versteeg is pure in his intentions of bringing this to his label. As he puts it, “it’s the right thing to do.”

“It’s literally an everyday occurrence where you run into something,” he says. “In every band you know, there are people who are in art because they have something inside them that needs to come out, and often a professional helping that thing come out will serve a totally different purpose than it coming out just through your art.

“I don’t want to say it runs deeper in any industry — I’m not friends with a lot of bankers so I don’t know — but there’s a normalization of mental illness in the arts. It’s like, ‘Of course that person’s suicidal, he’s an artist.’ That idea that great art comes through pain, there’s a lot of truth to that, but that doesn’t mean that you need to live in pain your entire life and exist in pain.”

Versteeg has benefited personally from therapy in recent years, whereas in the past, on an indie musician’s income, seeing help was “never an option.”

Mental health fund

Menno Versteeg and Hollerado performing at the Commodore Ballroom in Toronto

How’s he able to do it now? He insists it’s because of his wife – actress Annie Murphy, who plays daughter Alexis on the hit CBC sitcom Schitt’s Creek — and her “a good job” over the past few years that he can afford to seek help. Before that, it was spending 15 years in a touring band that almost split up a couple of times due to its members’ inability to deal properly with various afflictions. Quite recently, circumstances unexpectedly saw Royal Mountain Records were repaid a debt that had been “totally written up as a loss.” This prompted Versteeg to call up his accountant and ask, “what can we afford?”

As it stands, $1,500 per band is allocated, which is by no means a cure-all, albeit a great start. The label’s goal is to increase the fund to $1,500 for every individual on the roster, including “full health benefits … very much our long-term goal,” the memo explained. “In future years, we plan to increase the fund to the point where we can include budgets for dental, physical therapy and pharmaceutical costs as well.”

Royal Mountain’s initiative has prompted two private donors to contact Versteeg and offer “significant” dollars to the wellness fund, so there is already great potential for growing it. Ideally, Versteeg says, he’d love to see it turn into a resource that all Canadian musicians could access. But he also understands the limitations that a label like Royal Mountain has vs a multinational behemoth like Universal Music. Thinking small picture is a matter of necessity, and reality.

“By no means can I expect to solve any of these problems, but I’ve literally seen them in every shape and form, in myself and in the bands I’m in and in the bands I work with,” says Versteeg. “The music industry is late nights and long days and hard work for low pay and big highs and big lows. That’s just built into it, and people want to be part of it because they love music and they love the emotion behind it. And these are all things that lend themselves to this stuff … It’s not my job to be, like, ‘You need help.’ But I want people to know ‘This is real, it’s there and if you need it or maybe your bandmates think you need it and they can convince you, here’s some money. It’s there.’

“Basically, the first step was just doing it — having the money there and ready to go and encouraging the bands to use it. That’s the hard part ahead. There’s been an incredible response and now people know it’s there, but let’s see how many who need it are going to take that next step.”

To no one’s surprise, the reaction from Royal Mountain’s roster and their associates has been swift and grateful.

“I think it’s great. I think we should take this and run with it and do more with this concept,” said Brian Borcherdt, who has released two albums as ‘Dusted’ through Royal Mountain, during his hiatus from local electro-punk duo ‘Holy F—k’. “For musicians, a lot of things are not available to us, regardless of the mental health conversation. On top of everything else that makes our careers difficult and our lifestyles difficult, there’s really no infrastructure to, you know, go to the dentist. We’re already kind of having a hard go, and you can’t just moonlight as musicians while working day jobs that have full coverage for these things. So it puts us in a difficult situation.”

The memo that went out to Royal Mountain’s artists especially resonated with Taylor Brode, who manages recent Royal Mountain signee Orville Peck. She has been affected personally by mental illness, being diagnosed with bipolar disorder 17 years ago, and has experienced the lack of mental health support available for those in the music industry, especially in the U.S., where she resides.

“It brought tears to my eyes because no one is doing enough about this,” she said from Chicago on Friday. “A lot of artists think if they treat it their creativity is going to go away, but they addressed that. They actually said in the email that went out they ‘We think this will help our artists become better artists,’ and I just thought that was an amazing thing to say. I’ve never heard anyone put it that way.

“And I’ve never seen a label this involved. I’m really proud to be working with them. Maybe this will make other labels do this.”

Versteeg is modest about his efforts. It was only through delicate urging and the potential of attracting more resources that he even decided to publicize the label’s mental wellness fund at all, but he concedes that “if this raises the bar just a little bit, where other labels do it or bands are asking, ‘Why doesn’t my label do this?’ or other labels are, like, ‘Maybe we should do a little something,’ then wow.”

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