FREAK Shots: Death or Sobriety

Researchers at the Center for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University recently found that the death rate of rock and pop musicians at a given age is double the rate of the rest of the population, even 25 years after they first achieve fame — due, largely, to drug and alcohol abuse.

Rock ‘n’ roll and R&B musician Andre Williams was known throughout his career for his drinking habit, but at 72, he’s finally sobered up.

He admitted to me before a concert last weekend: “I’m not having any fun.”

Since so many musicians die young or wait until they’re much older to (often reluctantly) sober up, the incentives for being a sober musician must not be great.


Alcohol, a recent study shows, is among the top song muses, and it’s often used by musicians — even orchestra members — to ease occupational stress.

While sobriety, according to another study, makes you drink more coffee and smoke more cigarettes and takes about five years to become permanent; but it may make your voice sound better and you’ll likely get more jokes.

What is it about their occupation that so many musicians are never incentivized to try it sober?

David Reilly

Incentivized? What does that mean? How ya livin?

Some people can control and enjoy their drinking, others can't. Some people can play music sober, even if they used to play it drinking or drunk. Others can't, or maybe they have not really tried. Maybe it's an excuse. (Maybe they still drink on a night off.) Although not as lame an excuse as "I drink because the work available to musicians does not properly compensate us." That's pathetic.

The above goes for drugs too.

Was it Dennis Miller who said: "No heroin? There goes my record collection." Who can judge if the lives and families wrecked and the loss of a full life of great music are worth it?

Long long ago, i used to smoke hash to play. Made it feel much easier. I'll never know if it made me play better. I do know it kept me from really pursuing the study of music. The amotivational syndrome is not a myth. Now, sober, when i hear something i want to play, i sit down and make myself learn it. That said, i am not a performing musician, just a hobbyist.

Do what you need to do and pay the price (and the cab fare as needed). Just don't expect incentives or make excuses.


David Reilly

Mike- 2 months! congratulations!

don't drink, don't use, no matter what. you won't believe how good life looks at 22 years. andre williams has not been sober long enough -after 60 some years of drinking- to remember what fun is.

the more i read these comments the more i am struck by the fact that people THINK THEY NEED TO DRINK. where did this come from? marketing? get over it. it's just not true.



As a music journalist who tours the US with national bands, I can say there are a bunch of different factors involved.

1) What came first, the chicken or the egg? Many musicians make it in the industry because they are already alcoholics. Being in a bar and socializing aren't just recommended, it's almost required when you're starting your career. Those who go, play the show, don't hang out, don't go out when they're not playing - they don't make it very far.

2) Ease is a big factor. You're in a bar, someone offers you a drink, you drink the drink. Free drinks are free drinks.

3) Very few are encouraged to drink because of stage fright. Rather, the opposite is true. Many will not drink before they perform, and some are even forced by management not to drink until after. They sound like crap when they're drunk. That's not to say it doesn't happen, but the real drinking comes after the show. Anything before will be sweated out on stage. The drinking after the show is in large part due to the social situation. I would say loneliness is a much bigger factor than nerves. The road is a very cold place at times, and when you're stuck in close quarters, living uncomfortably, and surrounded by people who want to be near your fame rather than be your friend, wouldn't you want a drink, too? Many drink simply so they can go to sleep at night. When the majority of the hours you sleep are on a moving bus or worse, in a van, sleep is a valuable thing. As for drugs, many turn to them as a way of coping with the above mentioned reasons, but as a way of avoiding a hangover the next day.

I'm actually writing a book about the real life of touring musicians, so I'm glad to see there's this much interest regarding comments.

And, for the person who posted before me asking about "religious" musicians, they're not above it, they just hide it better. No one takes a second look at a drunk rockstar, but a drunk "christian rock" star, that's a big deal. They drink on their bus, and generally not to the level of other rockers, but a good bit of them do drink, and some do drugs as well. I've found that the "born again" Christians are generally the ones who are devoid of any alcohol or drug use. This is typically because they were saved from their habits more than anything.



Being raised by musicians in a family of genetically predisposed alkies, drinking is off the table for me. I think playing music comes down to feeling without inhibition/fear; for some people that takes a drink, others have learned to get there without it.

That said, I partly agree with John Musci (post #9) that art is about interpreting ones subjective vision of the world (which consequently means being sensitive). However, I think the caricature of 'artist' is sometimes employed to rationalize irresponsibility or narcissism.

Chris Clarke

If becoming an alcoholic would turn me into a half way decent musician, I would be there tonight. Regretfully, if the talent isn't there, booze won't fix it. But for those who have the spark, I would argue for the environmental explanation. 90% or more of working musicians regularly perform to drinking audiences, and want to be in tune with them. Do the statistics hold true for religious musicians? I suspect not. And it's worth remembering that Stats like '50%' or 'double' only focus on one side of the coin; Using the same figures we can also extrapolate that lots of working musicians survive this lifestyle remarkably well, given the pervasive nature of their environment. Drinking every time you worked could kill you a lot quicker if you were a Cop, a trucker, a doctor, a pilot ...

Mann Well

Steve Pesce is right, above; much of the stress has to do with the fact that success in music depends on the public's approval. This increases if you are personally invested in the composition and part of your agenda is to do something "different" or original.

How would the comparative incidence of alcohol/drug use pan out between cover band musicians versus those that compose, arrange and perform their own music? After all, you would think that if the settings are equivalent (bars, parties, clubs, etc.) and access to alcohol is equal, you are essentially controlling for most factors involved. The only significant difference would be that the musicians either perform their own compositions or play other people's music (cover songs).


I think anxieties are the main cause of drunk musicians. I play and sing in private and I think my performance is way better sober. Being an amateur musician in a social setting in my teens and 20s often involved drinking.


I think it is the wrong question – they are never disincentivized to try it sober. I can’t drink at work, if I could, I would – not all the time, but sometimes (Friday afternoons come to mind). If my clients and peers were similarly inclined there would not be any negative connotation or possibly perceived decline in performance. I also have to get up and be productive in the morning, when in my experience a hangover is most obtrusive and impacts productivity most, as the day wears on, it goes away. A musician will typically perform closer to end of their waking day, allowing more time to sleep through it, and/or recover through other means. Add-in a generally more flexible and shorter working time (performance time) and I think you are closer to the reason there is no disincentive (or at least a lot less) to drink for musicians versus other portions of the population.


Another statement of the obvious from John Moores 'University'.

steve pesce

That's okay, most of their music is lousy anyway.

Mann Well

Based on personal experience as a musician, I agree that opportunity + setting are fomenting circumstances, enhanced by the cultural association between alcohol and "recreational" drugs and celebratory occasions. A commonplace custom thrust upon us without asking was that our contract "riders" generally specified some quantity of beer or alcohol per band member (was this because of the average musician's needs or the low price this measure of hospitality incurred upon the promoter/bar, or both?).

I hate hangovers so I have never enjoyed being "drunk" and I never enjoyed any drugs, having only tried a few. The thrill for me was always the music and the stage. When I performed regularly I would have one or two drinks per show. These days I might have one or two per month (generally “festive” occasions and football games).

I feel that in my case it had to do more with facing the stress of performing and looking for a quick way to dull that "edge" and soothe my nerves, as thrilling as it may have been to face crowds who often paid to see our band, in order to overcome the challenge without going spastic.



It's been a while since I've seen such insightful comments on a Freakonomics post. It's interesting to see so many good reasons brought up....


I don't know for everyone, drinking until getting lightly buzzed (1 - 2 drinks is enough) frees up my mind enough to be able to solo in a jazz band. When completely sober, I don't solo as well. Having said that, more than 1 or 2 really hinders my ability to play, especially the complicated passages.



How many times can you play "Blackbird" without drinking?


some have to be drunk to play their music. others need to be drunk to listen the same music. what about drinking in concerts ? im not drinking alone at home while listening CDs.


Alcohol if consumed correctly, can really help get your GROOVE ON!

Makes you more SOCIABLE too.


I recently attended a Ryan Adams (great song writer/performer) concert in Atlanta. He has a history of getting drugged up and ending concerts short. Well, he is supposedly been clean for around a year. However, he once again, awkwardly ended the concert after about an hour. The music that he did play was amazing, but I suspect the recent blunder was a result of a recent fall from the wagon.

John Musci

Art emerges through pain, and when the creative endeavor proves insufficient to soothe that ache, the artist takes to the bottle. Indeed art and alcoholism are both symptoms of the same illness: a bone-melting sensitivity to everything beneath the sky. To admonish an artist for drinking is to tell him he should only feel half of the time.


Seems to me that at least one factor at play here, is that many musicians who eventually get recording contracts, have had to work extensively in places where there is a lot of drinking -- i.e. nightclubs, bars, etc. For that matter, a lot of musicians without recording contracts, who don't play clubs, still end up working gigs where there's a lot of drinking going on (weddings leap to mind).

Having done quite a bit of stage work, I also wonder if the pressure/stress of performing in public (which, if acute enough, is known as "stagefright") encourages drinking as a way to cope. My own personal (and therefore anecdotal) experience, however, suggests against this: most of the actors I've worked with were not big drinkers. If there was any drinking goin on in the shows I was in, it was at cast parties -- i.e. AFTER the show -- not before.

Still, there might be something to it.


The "incentives" don't vary. We all have neurotransmitters. The disincentives vary.

We in the non-creative fields have enormous incentives to AVOID drug and alcohol abuse -- work and family expectations being foremost, along with social opprobrium if our habits are exposed -- whereas being a musician (or an artist, I suspect) removes a lot of those disincentives to use and abuse.

As a young weekend warrior of substance experimentation and music scenes, I can tell you that I'm perfectly grateful I have to get up on Monday morning. My artist friends have a lot more to resist than I do; their work doesn't discipline them so much. And don't tell me that they should have endogenous discipline; most people don't have any at all. (There are countless studies out there of how people behave differently when somebody is watching vs. when they think they are alone.)

We as humans are drawn to the sirens of substance use universally -- just our disincentives vary.

Non-creatives also calculate on a longer time-span (i.e. most people are expecting to live until age 80). So for musicians, I suspect they are:

(a) calculating on a shorter time span, both in terms of impulsivity and in terms of rationally expecting to live shorter (this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, of course, but live-fast-die-young is a cultural meme among the creative set -- hence why some go clean when they become family-men or -women, and suddenly have a vision of the future),

(b) as mentioned above, not subjected to the same social pressures that the rest of the population is (this comes from the Department of "Duh").