Armin van Buuren: Avicii's tragic death has made me more aware of mental health

The Dutch DJ says discussions on burnout and wellbeing have risen to the forefront of the dance music industry

From left, DJs Steve Aoki, Armin van Buuren and Avicii in Miami, Florida in March 2013. Getty Images
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April will mark five years since Avicii's death in Oman.

The Swedish DJ, a superstar in the electronic dance music world, was only 28.

While his cause of death was not initially announced, it was later reported that he died by suicide.

A statement from Avicii's family published after his death said that "when he stopped touring, he wanted to find a balance in life to be happy and be able to do what he loved most — music.

"He really struggled with thoughts about meaning, life, happiness. He could not go on any longer. He wanted to find peace. Tim was not made for the business machine he found himself in; he was a sensitive guy who loved his fans but shunned the spotlight."

Known as a musical visionary, Avicii (real name Tim Bergling) created songs that fused EDM with other genres, such as the bluegrass folktronica track Hey Brother. He also helped EDM become more mainstream with hits such as Levels, Lonely Together and Wake Me Up getting radio play.

Although it has been five years, his legacy has not been forgotten. Fellow DJ Armin van Buuren says Avicii was still able to leave his mark on the industry even after his death.

“Tim's passing was a massive tragedy. It was something that was very hurtful,” van Buuren tells The National at Ultra Abu Dhabi, which took place at Etihad Park last weekend. “I cried when I heard that news. He was such a genius. His music will be remembered for ever.”

Van Buuren, 46, has been one of the world’s top DJs for more than two decades, with a career that began in the late 1990s. And he knows better than anyone just how physically and mentally exhausting it can be.

The Dutch spinner has ranked No 1 in the DJ Mag Top 100 list a record five times, including four years in a row in 2007 to 2010. He placed fifth in the list last year.

But he says being a top draw for concerts, clubs and residencies around the world can have its downsides and it wasn’t until Avicii’s death that the industry realised it needed a shift in how mental health was prioritised.

“Mental health is now an issue and people are aware. When I started DJing, this was never a topic. You're like, 'Oh, I'm so tired'. [People would reply,] 'Oh, stop whining man, they're paying you so much money and you're on a private jet. What are you complaining about?' and that's the biggest pitfall.

“I think that's the biggest danger of this industry — no matter how great it is — is that it's very difficult for most artists to say no and to choose for themselves.”

Avicii had made it known how difficult it was to be a DJ consistently touring the world and how that lifestyle negatively affected his health. He retired from touring in 2016 after going on a cross-country road trip with his friends and reflecting on that experience.

“Two weeks ago, I took the time to drive across the US with my friends and team, to just look and see and think about things in a new way. It really helped me realise that I needed to make the change that I’d been struggling with for a while,” Avicii wrote in a letter on his website.

“I know I am blessed to be able to travel all around the world and perform, but I have too little left for the life of a real person behind the artist.”

I was too much of a people pleaser, trying to not disappoint festival owners, not disappoint my fans, wanting to say yes to everything
DJ Armin van Buuren

This is something van Buuren admits to previously dealing with as well. He says that before the pandemic, he felt he couldn’t say no to things, even if it meant the possibility of burning out. Where the Dutch DJ would normally do between 120 to 150 shows a year, he’s cut that number down to about 70, becoming more selective with where he plays.

“I think it's really important to find that balance for yourself. And to be honest, right before Covid, I didn't have that balance even though I had just released an album called Balance,” he says. “I was too much of a people-pleaser trying to not disappoint festival owners, not disappoint my fans, wanting to say yes to everything.”

However, Avicii’s death and the pandemic changed how van Buuren chose to use his time, instead investing it in himself. He has given up alcohol, started going to therapy and meditates every day. He also has plans to go on a four-week trip with his family to Canada in August, generally a busy month for DJs.

“I realised that in 10 years, I'll remember the camping trip but I probably won't remember all the festivals that I played,” he says. “So I make it a priority now to spend time with my family and put my family first.”

He hopes that aspiring DJs also learn to pay attention to their mental well-being, because the road to stardom is quite often not an easy one. The record producer says that the job is great and he advises those who are interested in a music career to go for it, but warns there are some things to keep in mind.

“Sooner or later, every artist will run into that wall and then you need a good team of people around you to support [you] so you can stay in contact with your own soul,” he says.

Van Buuren says that having a strong support system is vital but not everyone may be as lucky, especially if they are new to the industry. He expresses his gratitude towards his team but also recognises that Avicii had a role in creating that awareness.

“I'm blessed because I have a great team and great management. And they're super honest with me and they look after me. But if you're a young and upcoming artist, that maybe not the case,” says van Buuren.

“But I have a manager who says ‘yeah, is this what you really want?’ and checks in. I think that's all thanks to Avicii.”

Updated: March 09, 2023, 11:11 AM