Responding to speculation after a series of cancelled shows in Europe this weekend, Detroit Techno pioneer and Metroplex founder Juan Atkins has revealed that he has been coping with “total kidney failure” caused by diabetes.
To summarize the press statement, Atkins has been traveling with gear necessary to take ambulatory peritoneal dialysis treatment while on the road DJing. Flying from Detroit on February 27th, Atkins’ condition became so grave as to necessitate emergency medical treatment in Frankfurt. Later attempts to play in Berlin, Germany, Tessaloniki, Greece and Milan, Italy resulted in similar health crises. En route to Milan, Atkins was finally “transferred to a private Clinic on Monday where he stayed under strict medical control until Wednesday the 4th of March, when he could finally fly back to Detroit.” It was subsequently announced that Atkins has been forced to cancel an upcoming appearance in Australia as well.
Our thoughts and prayers are with Juan Atkins, but if this is true (there is no reason to believe it’s not), it’s terrifying. To travel the kind of miles that a touring DJ logs with such an illness – even when carefully managed – puts a tremendous strain on an already delicate organ. We don’t need to look far for examples: it wasn’t even a year ago that Frankie Knuckles (who had multiple health crises caused by diabetes) passed away. One’s health – much less total kidney failure – is not something to be trifled with.
Yet “trifling” with it – or at least doing the best you can to cope – is exactly what many older DJs on the scene today have to do.
I’ve been meaning to write about this for awhile, and the news about Juan Atkins’ unfortunate health crises is as good of an opening as any. Health and the toll taken by a life on the road is rarely spoken about, yet it’s something that effects everyone in this industry, or will before too long.
Put another way: you may not care about this when you’re twenty-five, but by forty you might not be able to care about anything else.
Live To Play, Play To Live
This is the music industry’s new paradigm: disregard record sales, forget all about royalties and earn your livelihood from live performance. Artists in nearly every genre of music these days are frightfully reliant upon the single revenue stream that comes from gigs. It’s a revenue stream so large that in all but the most exceptional cases it dwarfs all the others.
And this is where it the paradigm falls apart (or, rather, fails the people it’s meant to serve). Have you ever wondered why some folks in their 40s and 50s stay on the road for 30 to 40 weeks per year? Some do it because they love it, sure. But it’s the truth that many have no other choice.
What happens when you’re sick? What happens when you’re old? How does one “heal” back pain that comes from crouching over a mixer, exacerbated by the first of several plane rides in the course of a week? How do you stay healthy in a profoundly unhealthy environment – and how do you recuperate from the natural wear and tear such a life causes? How many people can comfortably afford to take an unscheduled break?
I want to state clearly here that I’m not privy to Atkins’ finances. I hope he has a million dollars in the bank, but the fact is that most of the pioneers of electronic music do not.
The Vicious Circle
One of Atkins’ contemporaries that I do know personally has recently had a myriad of health problems, all of which can be traced back to a slipped disk. Hours in the air, hours in cars, hours leaning over low tables turned a painful but relatively straight-forward problem into a nightmare of pinched nerves, CAT scans and full diagnostics. More hospital bills meant more debt which meant more gigs which meant more hospital bills. The worse it became, the more difficult it was to take time off to recuperate.
This is the vicious circle. It’s surely even more vicious when you’re talking about diabetes or some other permanent or long-term ailment that can only be managed, not cured.
This is obviously not something exclusive to DJing – this is the new normal for many in careers which no longer offer much in the way of benefits – but I think there’s still a shock of recognition when it’s made known that having your name in big letters on a poster doesn’t necessarily equal millions of dollars or even a pretty good living.
As we saw with Atkins, these ailments are usually kept confidential, until they aren’t. A similar case can be found in the public record with Miguel Migs, though, who was forced to cancel gigs owing to significant back problems initially cased by crouching over low tables (Migs is a tall guy) but complicated by everything else that comes with life on the road.
The usual chorus of message board weenies wondered why Juan didn’t simply turn around and go home when things went south. Why did he tried to stick it out and make the gigs anyway? From what I’ve learned from his contemporaries over the years: if he had the privilege to cancel everything without a second thought about lost income, he’s in a minority. The current emphasis on gigs as an artist’s primary revenue stream has already forced this situation on many DJs, who confront the logical conundrum of working while ill, working-more-to-work-less, and getting sicker while you’re working to hopefully, at some point in time, get made whole again. Sound nuts? It is. It’s also the new normal.
I wish Juan Atkins absolutely the best of everything in this world. I hope he has several millions in the bank, and that he plays exclusively because he wants to, not because he has to. I also know that if that’s the case, he’s part of a very small minority who can comfortably afford unscheduled breaks. There is no old folks home for DJs, and there also aren’t paid sick days. This is the new paradigm for the music industry, but behind the “glamour” of the DJ, the human cost can be devastating.