Coping with Conflict in Music Groups

Musicians' Assistance Program

Volume CI, No. 2February, 2001

Jackelyn S. Frost, CSW

Music groups often must cope with conflict among their members, or psychological difficulties experienced by individual members. Yet while musicians have devoted much time and energy to develop their creative talents as performers, and may also have developed a sophisticated approach to the business side of our industry, they are often not prepared to address the difficulties of functioning as a group. When disruptive times occur, as they inevitably will, seeking outside assistance from a counselor can help prevent (or at least reduce) the creative, personal, physical and financial toll these moments take on the group and its musicians.

Businesses in a wide range of industries take advantage of psychological insights into group dynamics to improve how they function. Yet the music industry has been slow to do this. There is little effort to support and develop musicians’ interpersonal and psychological skills, and improve their interaction with others.

While musical genres vary widely, most music groups face fairly similar issues. A major problem area, often, involves leadership issues of responsibility and authority. Bands can often benefit from help to develop their skills in problem solving and goal setting – two areas that frequently give rise to conflict. Groups often have more difficulty resolving business conflicts than musical differences of opinion. Other sources of difficulty for many groups are interpersonal communication styles and individual issues including depression, substance use and divorce. These problems can become even more intractable for groups that tour.

A counselor can play a useful role as a consultant, coach and educator. And since music groups operate in ways that are quite similar to family units, in terms of their communication patterns and dynamics, consultations can sometimes have a family counseling flavor.

Such interventions can prevent long-standing, unresolved conflicts among group members from resulting in a band’s break-up. Resolving these conflicts also can help the band to fulfill its potential, or can help it get back on the road to growing creatively. And while change is never easy, members will get better at resolving problems as the group’s communication skills improve.

Many people experience change of any sort to be potentially threatening, at least at first. And, depending on the power dynamics of the group, being open with other band members may make you feel vulnerable at first. However, the counselor can help minimize such discomfort by being aware of these concerns and establishing certain ground rules, especially of confidentiality, stressing that members have a responsibility to keep what is said in a group meeting as a private and personal communication. If these feelings of discomfort persist, lack of trust may be a key issue for the group to address. The counselor can also help to ensure that each member has an opportunity to be heard.

If it becomes apparent that an individual band member needs help with issues such as performance anxiety, self-confidence, physical health, depression or substance abuse, these can be addressed in one-on-one meetings with the counselor or through a referral to an appropriate treatment setting.

The group in treatment may benefit from receiving training from the counselor on specific topics – such as problem solving, communication styles, teamwork principles or leadership skills. Specific issues such as resentment and repercussions resulting from members’ lateness may also be addressed.

Reducing stress on the band’s members in these ways can help improve their psychological and physical health. Incorporating these new skills and knowledge into the group’s life can help it function better and play a key role in its ultimate success.

If your group is interested in seeking confidential assistance to begin to address conflicts, communication problems or other issues, call the MAP office at (212) 397-4802 and schedule an appointment with a social worker. MAP’s services are free.

This column is based on material from the following articles: John Hipple, MD, “Consultation with Musical Groups,” in Medical Problems of Performing Artists, Vol. 13, No. 3, Hanley & Belfus, Inc., September 1998. Susan D. Raeburn, PhD., “Psychological Issues and Treatment Strategies in Popular Musicians: A Review, Part 1,” in Medical Problems of Performing Artists, Vol. 14, No. 4, Hanley & Belfus, Inc., December 1999.