Self-sacrifice is emblematic of a 'push on at all costs’ culture that envelopes anyone performing at an elite level, but for women, the stakes are often higher and the pressures greater. It’s widely acknowledged that women in high-power positions fear taking a break will result in being ‘left behind.’
So as Hannah Peel announces that she has decided to withdraw from the PRS Members’ Council to protect her mental health – having been elected by her songwriter peers at the PRS 2022 AGM – we’re reminded of the extraordinary courage and self-awareness required to put your own wellbeing ahead of societal expectations.
‘We have to protect our mind and our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do,’ said Simone Biles when she withdrew from the women's all-around gymnastics final at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 – a year that saw a seismic shift in the conversation around mental health and the concept of suffering in pursuit of success.
One of the key similarities between sportspeople and musicians is the lifespan they’re given by society – a best before label that implies that any time spent away from the limelight eats into the limited supply of days you’ve been afforded to get to the top and stay there.
What Biles demonstrated is that rejecting expectations to protect yourself is powerful, not weak – especially when you’re at the top of your game. And that’s exactly where Mercury Prize, Emmy-nominated, RTS and Music Producers Guild winning composer, artist, producer and broadcaster Hannah Peel finds herself.
Here, songwriter and Members’ Council President Michelle Escoffery speaks to Peel about her boundary-breaking work, why representation is key, and her decision to step down.
Since this interview was conducted, PRS have announced that the casual vacancy created by Peel’s withdrawal will be filled by award-winning singer songwriter, Laura Mvula. Find out more about Laura's appointment, which is effective immediately.
'I've learnt in the last two years that there is only a certain amount that my brain can handle, and it's come to a point where I have to start managing my own mental health a lot better.'
Michelle Escoffery: The last time I saw you perform was at the Mercury Prize last year. You were clearly enjoying it and seeing how you directed your band was awe inspiring. What’s it like bringing the worlds of classical and electronic music together in the way that you do?
Hannah Peel: I've always been of the mindset that electronic music is no different from classical music. It's like anything. If you're scoring for an orchestra, you would have techniques of making it sound in the right arrangements and orchestrations and the voicings of those instruments. It's the same with electronic music.
The Mercurys were just mind-blowing. We put the record out ourselves during lockdown and I funded it myself, so to end up on a Mercury shortlist is pretty insane. I think it's only been done once before. I loved it, and I put everything into it. You learn so many things about the industry when you do something like that.
You ran for the PRS Members’ Council this year. What inspired you to stand?
I didn't know that I would qualify to sit on the Members’ Council. When I learnt that I would, I thought, ‘This is a real opportunity to actually shape things in our industry.’ As an independent and a self-releasing artist, it's so incredibly important that the structures in the music industry are set up so we can really work with them and earn the maximum amount as writers. I didn’t feel like there was anybody on the Council that represented me – particularly in terms of crossing genres, or going between media composing and self-releasing, and this was a way to be able to sit within a place that has often felt like it's closed-doors. There’s also an opportunity to think about the efficiency and modernisation of PRS and how being a team member could make it possible for better remunerations for our community. That was what really pushed me to say, 'Okay, I can do this, I am qualified enough.' That’s something I was worried about – being qualified enough.
Where does this idea that you’re not qualified or don’t know enough come from? You’ve done so much!
It’s mad, isn’t it? I think it's the language and the terminology. There may also be certain etiquettes, and if there's nobody else like you in the room, you automatically think you won't have the confidence to speak up. It's about fear of the unknown and, ultimately, it takes a lot to separate your brain from the creative world, as you know. You have to decide whether you're willing to put time aside to do both, when creative work can be so all consuming.
How do you think PRS can start to change that perception of, 'This isn't for me,' for creatives?
I think it takes a lot of bravery to stand for the Members’ Council knowing that it’s for three years. The simple fact is that our whole system is changing. As writers, we don't earn as much as we once did and that means that voices that would make a massive difference are being lost because you have to earn over a certain threshold to stand. I can see why that system is there, but I can also see why it causes such problems. You're missing out groundwork that is essential for shaping how we earn money. There should be a wider range of voices – there should be more women, people of different ethnicities, working class people and people from different backgrounds.
You’ve decided that you’re going to withdraw from joining the Members’ Council. Why is that?
There are several reasons. I'm extremely grateful that members voted for me – I didn't even expect to be in the top four that were nominated. I'm a producer, I'm a composer and an artist. I'm a session musician, I'm an orchestral arranger, I'm a conductor, I'm a broadcaster. I've learnt in the last two years that there is only a certain amount that my brain can handle, and it's come to a point where I have to start managing my own mental health a lot better and with a lot more care for myself, not just work. That’s incredibly important. I just don't think I could do a good enough job for those who voted for me right now with that in mind.
'It's a hard battle, and the more work that I do the less confident I feel, which is quite an odd contradiction in itself.'
I highly commend you for putting yourself first – knowing that if you’re not giving to yourself, you’re not going to be able to give to anyone else, or to serve your community.
As creatives and as women we tend to just keep going. Is that sense of having to push through something you recognise? I remember once being told that taking a break to have my daughter would be ‘career suicide.’
It's right across our whole society. In music it's more prevalent because women have always been seen as the singers, and then you've got to be young and you've got to sell. That is shifting, I think, massively. Those preconceptions are still there in our brains of, ‘We have to keep going. I want to make sure that I'm the best I possibly can be.’ That creates anxiety and burnout when you don't even know that you are going through it. On top of that, I've definitely got to the age where my body is saying, ‘You have a decision now whether you either have children or not, and if you don't take care of yourself, you'll never be able to assess that properly.’ I've never really thought about having children at all until recently, when I just hit total exhaustion.
At the end of the day, we're doing music, we're communicating, we're having conversations, and do I want to give up that conversation? No, I do not. We want to keep going. We want to do it. I mean, that's the reason why we do music, because we absolutely obsessively love it and adore it, and it's part of our being. There are too many people in the world that do jobs that they're not good at. We have to be at a stage where we are good at our job. To sit on the Members' Council, you have to be good at what you're talking about. You have to know what’s happening. You have to be a part of the conversation and talking to the other members in order to make better decisions for us.
What are the biggest pressures you feel as a woman creating in this space?
I feel like the amount of pressure that's been on me in the last few years has grown so much. You feel like you become a representative for certain things, as well as being an artist. Coming from a working-class background and making my way through music into media music where working-class composers are not prevalent. You need money to start and have all the equipment. I've always felt like the underdog, so there is this pressure of people looking to you for things, but also feeling like you're not good enough as well. It's a hard battle, and the more work that I do the less confident I feel, which is quite an odd contradiction in itself, isn't it?
'I love the fight. I love having the grit. I love being in the depth of conversations. I love being part of change.'
Why do you feel that way?
Over last few years, there's been no time to actually sit back and appreciate that I went to the Emmys and I actually got a Mercury, and won an RTS, or even got to No.1 in the classical charts.’ Instead, I've thought, 'I'm still not good enough. I'm still not good enough. I have to keep going and going and going.' When you stop enjoying the job that you love and stop having time to celebrate with your friends when you've achieved so much, and it's taken you 20 years to get there – that's not a good place to be in.
I resonate with that. It can feel like it doesn’t matter what you’ve achieved, if you don’t keep going, you’ll cease to be relevant – but it’s not true. One day you’ll look back and see how far you’ve come. If anybody had said to me however many years back, 'You'll be sitting on boards, speaking for the writer composer community and advocating for diversity so that more voices are being heard’ I'd have said, 'No way. I write top-lines.'
When was the shift for you?
I ran a live music night called Kindred Spirit for nearly a decade. The ethos was that everyone should have a chance to showcase their music, but in the beginning, I really had to fight to break through the perceptions people had about what certain music was about. When I was trying to market it, I realised that I was constantly hitting ceilings. This developed when I found that the same thing was happening within education and that only the top two percent were breaking through and a lot of the time they come from a certain background. That’s when I began to ask myself, ‘If I’m not going to lend my voice to issues like this, how are things going to change?’ That’s what inspired me to stop standing on the sidelines and try to make a difference. I realised that my voice in this space is valuable.
Can I ask what diversity means to you?
To me, it means having people from all backgrounds representing you – be that class, or race, or age. If I was to make a Members' Council that would suit everyone, it would have a voice from every single part of the music industry in there. That, for me, is diversity. We've been shouting for women for the last few years, and it has changed things. But we've got to keep shouting about the parts of the music industry that are in the minority, that are not being heard. Maybe there's just not enough support and education to allow others to be able to step in and have the confidence to say, 'I can do this. I want to be part of that.' It's about breaking that mould and that boundary and having a voice that represents everybody.
'I will 100 percent be standing in the future, but right now I need to look after myself.'
Was there anything else at play when you decided you were going to step down?
Aside from the mental health reason, I also feel like there were other voices that were standing that were just as good as I was, and deserve a place, and deserve to be heard. I'm still hopeful that by the act of me stepping down it opens a door for somebody else to come in that has more time and can put their whole heart and soul into representing the membership.
Would you consider standing again in the future?
Yes, 100 percent.
Because I love the fight. I love having the grit. I love being in the depth of conversations. I love being part of change. That is wholeheartedly part of where I have come from. From releasing music that is completely not going to sell to a huge audience, and standing by that, and standing by that artistically. I will 100 percent be standing in the future, but right now I need to look after myself.
*The role of the PRS Member Council is to focus on ensuring that the views, concerns and needs of PRS members are heard and met. The Member Council also focuses on strategic oversight and reviewing company performance.