skip to main content

For most of the 20th century, borderline malnutrition was practically a badge of honour in the music industry. From David Bowie surviving on milk, peppers and cocaine in his Thin White Duke period, to The Clash singing of “drinking brew for breakfast” on Rudie Can’t Fail, a poor diet was just one strand of rock’s self-destructive aesthetic – enforced by the dismal motorway cafes that awaited touring bands of every stature.

From hedonism to health and fitness: how musicians’ lifestyles have been transformed

But eras change, and attitudes with them. The stars who once pushed their bodies to extremes now swear by mineral water and macrobiotic diets, and that shift in ethos is echoed at every level of the food chain. “Musicians have moved on,” considers Dave Webster, MU National Organiser, Live Performance. “The drunk touring band is a cliché, especially with the strict driving rules now in place. The raised awareness regarding fitness, good diet and the effects of drugs and alcohol are something people take far more seriously these days.”

So what is the reason for this transition from hedonism to healthy living? Perhaps one factor is watching the first wave of hellraisers burn out, cutting short both their careers and lifespans. But another, suggests Diane Widdison, MU National Organiser, Education and Training, is the increasing awareness of nutrition’s benefits. “More musicians are looking at the research that has been done into the importance of nutrition for athletes, and realising that there are many similarities in what the body needs for optimal performance.”

The temptations of touring

Dave also believes the shift is down to fiercer competition in the modern music industry, where a drunk or lethargic band will lose ground to more capable rivals. “Delivering consistent performances is so important. Especially with the growth in social media, which now dictates that a poor performance on one night can influence subsequent performances and future sales.”

When rehearsing on home turf or recording in the studio, an artist can control their intake. But at a time when the music industry is weighted towards live work, many musicians struggle on the road, with their eating habits often deteriorating at the precise moment when they desperately need optimum nutrition. “Touring is bloody hard work,” explains tour manager and drum tech Charlie Wray. “You need proper fuel. Passing out is not cool.”

Live performance: making good nutrition the norm

As MU Live Performance Official, Kelly Wood has seen the challenges first-hand. “Artists that normally maintain a healthy lifestyle and diet at home can struggle to do so when on the road. Many artists drive and tour manage on top of playing shows, and eating isn’t always prioritised, so late-night takeaways and fast food can become the norm.”

Armed with a little knowledge of nutrition and its effects on the body, however, musicians can start to make better choices. Processed food should be avoided: it’s packed with sugar and sodium, which can cause bloating, mood swings and constipation. On the flipside, as the building block of muscle and bone, protein is a vital part of the mix. “Make sure all your meals and snacks contain some protein, to balance blood sugars and keep your energy up,” suggests nutritional therapist Caroline Davies. “So you could start the day with porridge or overnight oats, adding seeds, nuts and berries, perhaps a dollop of Greek yoghurt. Or consider taking a blender with you and making smoothies for all the band. Make sure to include veggies, and some form of protein powder, like hemp or pea.”

How to eat healthily and avoid junk food

The testimony of touring musicians suggests junk food is usually bought on impulse when there’s no other option. As such, it pays to be prepared. Maxwell Hughes, former mandolin player with The Lumineers, travels with baby food pouches, which he’s found to be the most practical way to boost his vitamin intake. Consider a mini fridge or cool box to keep fruit, vegetables and salads fresh. “Stock up in advance on healthy snacks to avoid giving in to temptation at service stations,” adds Davies. “Such as unsalted nuts and seeds, fresh and dried fruit, and protein bars. If you have a fridge, keep it stocked with carrots and cucumber to snack on, adding hummus or nut butter to make for a more filling snack.”

Liquids are just as important. “We all know that too much alcohol will affect performance and energy levels,” continues Davies, “so try to increase your alcohol-free days. Dehydration will reduce focus, so carry refillable water bottles and aim for two litres a day. Herbal teabags will help as an alternative to conventional tea and coffee, too.”

Dietary requirements

If eating well on the road seems hard enough for musicians with no dietary requirements, where does that leave those who – whether for ethical or health reasons – need specialist food? On a positive note, bands touring domestically report being well catered for. “Lots of high street places have decent vegan options now,” says Wray. “Pizza Express and Papa John’s have vegan cheese.”

“Wetherspoons is a reliable favourite with plenty of choice,” picks up Lauren Tate, who fronts hard-rockers Hands Off Gretel and recently released her solo album, Songs For Sad Girls. “We never struggle in the UK. But the same can’t be said for Europe. We’ve just returned from tour and although we requested vegan hot food on our rider, the food supplied was really disappointing or missed altogether, with people pointing to curled-up cold meat, cheese and a salad bowl on the bar and asking if it’s okay.”

The vegan challenge

“The French are slowly getting it,” says Matt Millership, who leads alt-blues duo Tensheds and plays with Jim Jones & The Righteous Mind.  “You can pick up vegan cheese in the supermarkets – veg ravioli is my hot tip. Spain and Italy are a little behind, though. Sometimes it’s just a ‘no’. Other times, you can see the chef taking the meat out of the dinner. But they are getting there, albeit slowly.”

The key is to have a touring menu planned, says Veronika Klirova, who is principal second flautist for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and runs yoga classes for musicians. “Plant-based food is definitely best for improving focus and attention span.

I used to feel so tired when I ate meat and dairy. I try to have at least one meal a day made up of grains, beans and vegetables – cooked, raw and ideally also pickled.”

Finding specialist food on tour

When your demands are more specialised, it’s even more important to come prepared. “I carry plant-based milk with me, and also nuts and seeds to snack on,” says Alex Gold (aka Darling BOY), whose roles include musical director of All Or Nothing: The Mod Musical and multi-instrumentalist for Supergrass drummer Danny Goffey. “I absolutely swear by wheatgrass, a fantastic natural detoxifier.”

Musicians with diet-related medical conditions should ask ahead for local recommendations or a rider to accommodate their needs. “I’m fortunate that I can provide venues with a dietary rider that suits me,” says the British bluesman Laurence Jones, who suffers from Crohn’s disease. “Even if that means eating plain foods, it keeps me healthy on the road.”

Online options for a healthy diet

Technology can also be a road warrior’s friend: browse the countless nutrition-based apps; get Uber Eats or Deliveroo to deliver direct to your dressing room; familiarise yourself with sites such as food waste recycling service, Too Good To Go; or join a Facebook group to trade local knowledge and recommendations, from Coeliacs Eat Out Too to Vegan Musicians, Crew and Managers On Tour (founded by Polly Phluid of The Spangles). “I use the HappyCow app,” says Klirova. “It’s a community-driven space with users adding tips on plant-based eateries and options all over the world. I’m also a member of the Birmingham Vegans Facebook group. It’s a great place to ask questions and get advice.”

These lifestyle changes might take a little effort, says Diane Widdison, but the payback could be a renewed energy and appetite for your career. “Food is fuel for the human body, and therefore what we eat and drink really impacts on the way we feel. The musician’s life can often be hectic and chaotic, but time invested in eating healthily will be rewarded by improvements in physical performance and mental wellbeing.”

Latest news and features

Silhouettes of crowd in front of a small festival stage in blue light.

Association of Independent Festivals Endorses MU Access Rider Scheme

The Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) has endorsed the MU’s Access Rider to its membership and will be holding a session to explain what access riders are, why we need them, and why festivals should adopt them as a standard part of all contracting.

Published: 03 June 2024

Read more about Association of Independent Festivals Endorses MU Access Rider Scheme