Colorado Music-Related Business|

Photo: Spencer Hughes (The Hollow) | By Cleo Mirza, Westword | For sober musicians and music fans, going to a concert can present a serious challenge. With drugs and alcohol being normalized and even glorified in the music industry, many believe that going to a show puts their sobriety at risk. Venues rely on liquor sales to turn a profit, performers can often be paid in drink tickets, and a hard-partying lifestyle is encouraged to maintain a rock star persona.

Enter Sober Sessions, a new concert series presented by nonprofits The Phoenix and Music Minds Matter with help from the Denver Music Advancement Fund. Sober Sessions offers sober and sober-curious folks an alternative concert experience. Free to attend for anyone with 48 hours of continuous sobriety from alcohol and non-prescription drugs, the first Sober Session will take place at the Phoenix’s Denver headquarters on Saturday, May 13. The event will start with a panel discussion about recovery and mental wellness, followed by performances from El Javi, Alysia Kraft and Kayla Marque, with special guest There’s an Ape for That spinning records between sets.

We sat down with Vince Huseman, the Phoenix’s community engagement manager, and Spencer Hughes, co-founder of Music Minds Matter, to find out more about their partnership and how Sober Sessions is rethinking the typical concert model.

Westword: What is your personal relationship to sobriety, and how did that lead to your current positions at the Phoenix and Music Minds Matter?

Vince Huseman: I’m six years sober now, abstinent from drugs and alcohol. I had a severe addiction to drugs and alcohol throughout my early twenties. Luckily, through treatment and a strong connection to community — specifically the Phoenix community — I was able to build a strong support network around me and get some good sobriety time under my belt. So I found Phoenix as a team member about eight years ago and was like, ‘I need to stick around, because there’s something special about this place.’ I ultimately became a volunteer for the Phoenix for a couple years until they hired me on full-time a little over four years ago. So a long struggle with substance abuse, and a very strong connection to the mission of sobriety and recovery.

Spencer Hughes: My journey with sobriety is an interesting one, and a different one than Vince’s. But in sobriety, we don’t compare. If you’re doing it, you’re doing it, and good on you. I just celebrated my first anniversary of being sober from alcohol. That was a massive accomplishment. My journey with sobriety started last year at a music festival in Fort Collins called FoCo MX. I’ve played music locally in a band called The Hollow for quite some time, and we played a music festival in Fort Collins Friday night, and [Music Minds Matter] had an activation on Saturday afternoon. I went hard in the paint Friday night and went to bed when the sun was coming up, and had to be at the activation in just a couple hours. I went to a brunch spot so I could get two mimosas in, just to kind of stop the shakes from happening, and showed up to the activation for the nonprofit. We had about forty musicians show up to talk about their struggles with mental wellness, and I was showing up in that kind of state, and it was pretty eye-opening to me. The imposter syndrome set in. I needed to walk the walk in order to be able to show up authentically for the music community. So I made the decision to do one dry month, and I accomplished that but it was very challenging, so I did two months, and even after June it was still very difficult. So I made a goal to be sober from alcohol for a year, and I’ve accomplished that. It’s just incredible to partner with Vince and the Phoenix and be able to show up for our sober music community.

Why do you think so many people in the music community struggle with mental health and substance use issues?

Huseman: According to a study from Tulane University School of Social Work, which was created in partnership with Send Me a Friend — an awesome organization created by Anders Osborne that is now under the Phoenix umbrella — musicians may be up to three times more likely to experience mental health problems. They’re more likely to feel depressed when they’re not being creative, since making music is fundamental to their central identity. For musicians who may be inclined to seek help, financial concerns and irregular schedules can be a barrier. As far as why it seems so much more prevalent in the music community, I think that’s hard to answer, but it goes back to it being glorified in music. All the great parts of the “sex, drugs and rock and roll” lifestyle are highlighted, but really, the results of what that lifestyle brings you are not highlighted. The music industry is heavily rooted in substance use. Venues make their money off of alcohol sales. That’s a tough environment for a musician to stay sober.

Hughes: Vince is absolutely right. The evolution of musicians is fascinating. It is no mystery that the music industry has been dominated by men for a very long time. The stigma around men and mental health is that men don’t often talk about their mental health. So when you have those numbers, in an industry dominated by men who don’t historically talk about mental wellness or sobriety, the next thing you do is lean on the bottle or other substances, rather than sharing with bandmates or mental health professionals. It’s an unhealthy way to cope. We all have our reasons for using and misusing, and for us, we’re just hoping to provide that safe space for folks who are no longer interested in that kind of lifestyle. … Just because this is the way it is right now doesn’t mean this is the way it’s going to be forever.

On the other hand, how do you think music can actually help those struggling with mental health and substance use issues?
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[Thanks to Alex Teitz for contributing this article!]

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