Avicii's story reflects the perils that many touring artists face.
Over the next few years, Bergling became one of the most famous and best-paid DJs in the world, playing over 200 gigs per year and earning six figures at many of them. He also suffered from alcoholism, anxiety and pancreatitis, which was partly a result of his drinking. He was hospitalized numerous times, had his gallbladder and appendix removed, and experienced chronic pain for years. He mostly toured through all this, at times appearing ill on the road.
In a bid to salvage his health, in 2016 Bergling announced his retirement from the stage. Still, he struggled to rein in his relentless touring machine, which by then was earning a handsome living not just for him but for a number of people around him. "I've told them over and over I won't be able to play anymore," he tells a friend near the end of True Stories, referring to Pournouri and his team. "I've told them over and over it will kill me."
Last week, Bergling was found dead in a hotel room in Oman. We don't yet know his cause of death—and we may never know. But we know what caused his life and career to unravel. It wasn't substance abuse, anxiety or physical illness per se. It was the life of a touring artist itself, and the immense pressures that come with it.
"This could be a lot of us," The Black Madonna wrote in a string of tweets the day after the news broke. By "us" she means DJs, and she's right. Bergling's story is in many ways extraordinary, from his young age to his astronomical success to the extremity of his touring schedule. But the things that wore him down are, for many DJs, utterly ordinary. You might even call them occupational hazards.
Bergling said his main problem was that he was an introvert forced to be an extrovert. This is true of many artists—people who hole up in their bedrooms or studios for the length of time it takes to make a record are likely to have a reclusive streak. Suddenly, he was meeting dozens of new people every night and going onstage to perform for countless strangers. This, too, is true of most DJs, even if their crowds are a fraction the size of his. Another problem was the competing pressures to tour and to release new music. This is one of the most common dilemmas DJs face, eluding even pragmatic acts like Objekt, who mused about it on Twitter just last week.
For Bergling, alcohol was a salve for these pressures, and one that was virtually pushed on him. "You get to this place, there's free alcohol everywhere—it's sort of weird if you don't drink," he told GQ. "I was so nervous... I just got into a habit, because you rely on that encouragement and self-confidence you get from alcohol, and then you get dependent on it." Every DJ faces that slippery slope. Many slip down it.
It might seem extreme that Bergling kept touring through pancreatitis and chronic pain. But this, too, is not unheard of. Everyone gets sick, but DJs can't really afford to. Cancelled gigs mean lost money, sometimes thousands or tens of thousands of euros, not just for them but for their agent and the gig's promoter (to say nothing of all the disappointed fans). You don't need six-figure sums or Machiavellian management teams to create a harmful dynamic. Even €1,000 is a lot to pay for a sick day. As a result, it's normal for DJs to tour through pain and poor health.
The occupational hazards of DJing are almost too many to name. But unlike tinnitus or a bad back, these hazards arise from the desires of individuals, from the artist to the people they work with to the punters who go to see them. In other words, they're hazards in which we're all complicit, and which we need to consider as we participate in this culture.
For booking agents and managers, that means considering the longevity and quality of life of their artists, even at the loss of profit. For artists, that means prioritizing your well-being even in the face of dazzling opportunity. For punters, it means realizing that, however it might look, DJs have complex and perilous lives, a reality that should guide how you engage with them, at their gigs and online.
Of course, simple awareness won't root out these problems. But it could make it harder for more artists to go down the same path as Bergling. If Bergling hadn't been so famous, we wouldn't have known the dramas of his life. If he hadn't died, we wouldn't be reflecting on them. But as extraordinary as his story is, the things that tortured him are familiar to anyone in dance music. They shouldn't be.