It didn't take long for recriminations to start flying, after the sad news of Amy Winehouse's death. There were tweets asking why the label had let her go on tour so soon after getting out of rehab (though, of course, a label can't stop an artist from touring) and, according to the Independent, her label, Island Records, had criticised her management for letting her tour. Yet anyone who's ever known someone close to them descend into addiction would be aware that alcoholism and drug use are monstrous beasts that can be next to impossible to battle, both for the person in the throws of it and the people around them. And when the battle is lost, everyone is left asking themselves what more they could have done.
We don't yet know the cause of Winehouse's untimely death, but the issue of "duty of care" has been debated in the music industry before. Two years ago, after the death of Michael Jackson, the In the City music conference featured a panel about it. Former head of Island Records Marc Marot announced that he wanted new guidelines which could mean artists whose health is damaged by substance abuse or self harm, rendering them unable to perform, could face suspension from their label. He spoke about having halted the recordings of one of his artist's albums after realising she was suffering from anorexia, and making sure she got professional help. Chris Difford of Squeeze pointed out that, back in the day, his A&R man was actually his supplier of drugs, and manager Colin Lester said it wasn't up to him to sort out his artists' personal problems.
A manager I know who managed a drug-addicted artist explained the moral dilemmas he was faced with, describing how, on a trip to New York, his artist was determined to go out on the streets to score drugs. "What was I to do?" he asked. "Either I could let her endanger her life, going to a dangerous area and not even knowing what was in the drugs she scored, or I could sort it out myself through a reliable dealer." Keeping her captive against her will would've been illegal. It's possible that having a fully booked schedule of appearances may also play a part in such decisions, as well as the fact that a manager is employed by the artist – not the other way around. Not complying with the artist's demand could end up getting you fired.
In the UK, substance abuse is prevalent in all sorts of professions (media included). When I first arrived here we sometimes used to joke that while it used to be the case that record labels and managements worried about their artists' rock'n'roll lifestyles, now the artists fretted about the chemical intake of those charged with looking after their careers. How could they turn around and criticise the artist for using drugs when they did so themselves? And would they want to? Wouldn't that mean that they had a problem themselves? Drug addicts are notorious for being in denial.
Being on tour can be particularly bad for artists with a predilection for drugs and/or alcohol. There can be long periods of waiting around in strange dressing rooms and hotel rooms, nerves that need to be calmed before going on stage, then the hours of trying to wind down after the emotional high of the show – and there are plenty of hangers-on who are ready to supply the artist with controlled substances, hoping to walk away with a wild story to tell all their friends about how they partied with someone famous.
All of this is exacerbated by the fear the drug-addicted artist has of not being able to perform – both literally and creatively – without the "aid" of these substances. It's no surprise they choose to ignore the huge amount of time-wasting their addiction is responsible for (let alone how drugs and alcohol can make you think you're writing something great when it's actually rubbish).
We all become culpable by glorifying drug addiction among artists and praising autobiographies by stars such as Keith Richards, calling their drug abuse legendary. While discussing the issue of the tiresomely named "27 club" a record label executive posed the rhetorical question: "How many artists do you know who created their best work after getting clean?" Well, I know plenty of artists who descended into drug abuse and never created anything worthwhile again, if they created anything. I know plenty of artists hooked on drink and/or drugs who never produced anything worthwhile at all, and I know plenty of artists who never abused drink or drugs – and yet they created great music. Even the greatest artists have only a few truly great albums in them. The ones who have more are usually extremely productive during a relatively short time (Stevie Wonder and David Bowie come to mind).
The "duty of care" the music industry should provide is to truly acknowledge addiction as a disease, as Russell Brand pointed out in his poignant tribute to her, not a path to greatness. Unfortunately it's a disease that is rarely recognised as such by the person in the throws of it. It's true that you can't save someone who doesn't want to save themselves A recovering addict once told me that there are five steps to recovery:
1. Realising you've got a problem
2. Realising that you can't deal with it on your own.
3. Picking up the phone to call for professional help (and this has to be done by the addict; no one else)
He said that usually the addict has to go through these five steps a few times before they settle on step 4. He also said that more often than not the addict has to hit rock bottom before they get to step three, and that no one but the addict can force any of these steps to happen. I guess Marot's suggestion would speed up the process of hitting rock bottom, but would it be taking the "tough love" concept too far?