Not All Musicians Live Fast and Die Young

Despite the popular notion that musicians have carefree, creative lives, research suggests that some of them show many of the markers of traumatic occupational stress. Nicolas Nadjar/iStock

Rest easy, blues, jazz, country and gospel fans. A series of studies has found that although the "live-fast, die-young" stereotype of popular musicians does hold true to a surprising extent, musicians in these four genres might be the exception to the rule — they tend to live just about as long as the general U.S. population does (about 79 years). So chances are you won't wake up one day to the terrible news that your favorite gospel musician has met an untimely demise.

But the rest of you — especially rap, hip-hop, punk and metal aficionados — might have cause for concern. The same studies found that musicians in these genres are typecast as risk-takers for a reason: They have significantly shorter life expectancies than the average Joe. They also have higher rates of death by accident, homicide and suicide.

But is it because punk-rockers and metalheads tend to be more hard-living, nihilistic types than holy-roller gospel singers? Or is it just because blues and gospel have been around for decades longer than rap and hip-hop and, therefore, those musicians, as a whole, have actually had the chance to live long lives?

Jim Morrison, at the tender age of 24
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

It's probably a little bit of both, says study author Dianna Theadora Kenny, a professor of music and psychology at the University of Sydney in Australia. Kenny used a sample of 12,665 performing pop musicians who died between 1950 and June 2014 — basically, all artists who performed nonclassical music. She painstakingly separated them into 14 musical genres and compared their ages and causes of death to those of the U.S. population over the same time span.

She found that musicians as a group die much younger than the average population — up to 25 years earlier in some genres. Suicide, homicide and accidents (including overdoses) cause far more deaths among musicians than they do in the general U.S. population. The rate varies widely among genres, but overall, musicians across these seven decades were five to 10 times more likely to die accidentally, two to seven times more likely to commit suicide and up to eight times more likely to be murdered.

Kenny's research does show an eye-opening drop in age of death among musicians in genres like rap and hip-hop, but it's important to keep in mind that these are newer musical categories. While it's true that no rappers have yet claimed senior-citizen status, it isn't because they've all been murdered — it's because geriatric rappers don't exist yet. All rap and hip-hop deaths have been early deaths.

The fact remains, though, that of the rappers and hip-hop artists in Kenny's extensive sample, about half of them have been homicide victims. "The cause of death is the critical factor," Kenny says over email.

Despite the popular notion that musicians have carefree, creative lives, Kenny suggests that some of them show many of the markers of traumatic occupational stress, including shortened life expectancy, increased morbidity and higher suicide risk. Many musicians struggle financially for their entire careers, and others deal with massive success, intense public scrutiny, crazy schedules and performance anxiety. Combining all of this with unlimited access to drugs and alcohol can obviously be a recipe for disaster.

Kenny hopes that her findings will serve as a wake-up call to the music industry to start taking better care of its artists. It might be true that musicians are inherently psychologically vulnerable and predisposed to substance abuse and risky behavior, but the industry, she says, has a responsibility to protect them from premature death.

Kenny's work will be published as a chapter in "Coping, Personality and the Workplace: Responding to Psychological Crisis and Critical Events," which will hit bookstores in November 2015.