For this weekend only, Balado in Perthshire is transformed into the fifth largest town in Scotland as it hosts the annual T In The Park music festival. The event this year sees a zero tolerance approach from organisers with regard to festival-goers taking substances that induce legal highs. This once again highlights that, although drug usage is potentially very dangerous, there is only a poor level of popular understanding of the nature of the relationship between this and music.
There is reasonably clear evidence that fans of certain musical styles are more likely than others to use drugs, and to a very disturbing extent. A study from Glasgow in the mid-1990s found that, of those involved in the dance music scene there, 97.8% had used cannabis, 93.3% amphetamine, 91.9% LSD, 91.1% ecstasy, 85.2% nitrites, 81.5% psilocybin, and 70.4% cocaine; that respondents had tried an average of 10.7 drugs; and that out of 17 drugs, at least half of the respondents had used 15 of them within the past year.
However, the link between music and drug use is far more complex than this might suggest.
First, it tends to be context-dependant. The Glasgow study found that 59% of ecstasy users last did so in a nightclub, whereas only 9% did so at home; whereas only 3.8% of heroin users last did so in a nightclub. Zero tolerance of drug-usage at festivals or nightclubs could only reduce use of certain types of drugs.
Second, other research shows that the popularity of particular musical styles is similar among adolescents who do and do not use drugs, so that drug use is a poor predictor of musical taste: the latter tells you little about someone’s propensity to engage in the former.
Third, the stereotypes of the most “druggy” musical styles are nothing more than that: in one study I found that although fans of dance music, hip hop, and DJ-based music had tried the widest range of drugs, only fans of DJ-based music had tried significantly more than had fans of jazz, opera, and blues: there has yet to be an attempt to shut an opera house as a den of drug-fuelled squalor.
Fourth, drug usage seems to be more prevalent among fans of musical styles who tend to have personalities or lifestyles indicative of vulnerability to drug use: taking ecstasy at dance music events is more common among 16-21 year olds, those with lower levels of education, those working part-time or unemployed, and those with friends who take the drug. In other words, people with a greater statistical propensity to take drugs rally around certain musical styles, but it is difficult to argue that the music is the most probable cause of the drug use.
Fifth, research from Western Australia shows that those who used drugs in the context of dance music had a good level of knowledge about drug-related harm: on eight out of the 10 questions they were asked, more than 90% of respondents got the correct answer, so that their drug usage appears to be an informed choice.
Clearly drug usage is dangerous in any context, and the T In The Park organisers are right to take a zero tolerance approach to legal (or illegal) highs. But many of the widely-held conceptions about the links between music and drugs are questionable. A better-informed understanding of the relationship would be far more effective in reducing usage.