How to Survive as a Solo Musician: Disappear, Annoy Fans, and Paint

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Performers who go it alone tend to die sooner than those in bands. But the ones who live a long time—think Bob Dylan, David Bowie, and Patti Smith—have a lot in common.

bob dylan old ap solo 615.jpg
Chris Pizzelli/AP

For 10 years, Keith Richards topped the list of stars most likely to die. "That was the only chart on which I was number one for ten years in a row," he wrote proudly in his memoir, Life. Yet he stayed alive, despite his notoriously self-destructive life style. What saved him—a superhuman liver? Blood transfusions? Turns out it might have been his band.

According to a recent study of 1,489 rock and pop stars, bands can save lives. The study found that over the course of 50 years, solo performers were twice as likely to die than stars who were part of a band. Why would this be? We know bands are full of strife, including Richards's own. But they also provide a support system that helps stars cope with the difficulties of fame. Getting a lot of money and attention may not sound too trying, but the rock n' roll lifestyle can be chaotic.

Being part of a band eases the stress and isolation of fame because you have a buffer between you and everyone who wants a piece of you: needy fans, pushy press, hostile incumbents, hurtful critics, greedy record labels, or unscrupulous managers. You can face these constituencies as a united front, hiding behind your cool sunglasses or private in-jokes.

Solo rock artists, on the other hand, have no such buffers. They expose their inner pain and desires, face the criticism, and deal with the sharks in the industry, all on their own. And as their fame rises, they become increasingly isolated from friends and family. Think Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston. In contrast, band members have their support of their bands to help them fight their demons, like Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose band kicked him out for his drug use and later participated in his rehabilitation.

Bands also allow you to separate the private person from the public persona. You can give Nine Inch Nails to the public and keep Trent Reznor to yourself. You can be a loyal family man in a band notorious for its sexual exploits (like Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones) or become a practicing Buddhist in a band that sells irreverence for a living (like Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys). An upshot of this group identity is that setbacks belong to the band, not to you. Not so for the solo artist.

Yet if going solo is so much more stressful than being in a band, how do you explain the longevity of solo acts such as David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Patti Smith, all of whom are over 60 and have released new material in the past year? Take a close look at the careers of these artists, and a few common themes that can account for their long-term success:

Take breaks

Leonard Cohen spent five years in a Buddhist monastery. Bob Dylan used his motorcycle accident in 1966 as an excuse to stop touring for nearly eight years and have four children with his wife. Patti Smith moved to a Detroit suburb to start a family. And Bowie had been lying low since 2004, in what everyone assumed was permanent retirement.

We know from psychological research that a long leave of absence can alleviate job stress. One study of teachers by Professor Haim Gaziel of Bar Ilan University in Israel found that sabbaticals reduced teachers' feelings of job burnout and intentions to leave their careers.

Why is a hiatus so important? First because it asserts the artists' independence from their audience. In his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan recalled being introduced at the Newport Folk Festival: "Here he is ... take him, you know him, he's yours." Dylan was outraged. "What a crazy thing to say!" he wrote. "Screw that. As far as I knew, I didn't belong to anybody then or now." Taking yourself out of the public's view is a way to remind everyone exactly whom you belong to: yourself.

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Ruth Blatt is a writer based in Chicago. She is working on a book about teamwork lessons from rock bands.

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