This concert is hazardous to your hearing

Recently I have thought a lot about hearing damage. This has been triggered by my regular disbelief at the insane volumes at gigs here in Berlin.

In 2002 I was lucky to have a three-day workshop on the biology of the ear. It was part of my sound engineering and music technology course, and was an absolute eye-opener. Immediately after this, I got a pair of professional ear plugs. Since then I don’t leave home without my ear plugs – they’re on my key chain, so I always have them.

However at times, even when wearing hearing protection, I still find myself overwhelmed by the sound levels at concerts. There was a particular gig at the Panorama Bar in Berghain a couple of years ago which really stands out.

It was so loud that there was, literally, small pieces of the ceiling falling on the dance floor. I had bits of grit and concrete falling on my head. Even moving to the back of the room, and wearing ear plugs, it was still overwhelming.

I remember at some point being at the bar and noticing that none of the bartenders were wearing ear plugs. It flabbergasted me. These poor staff likely spend multiple long shifts per week having their hearing destroyed by punishingly loud music. It amazed me that club owners aren’t providing proper hearing protection to their staff.

Apart from that particular incident, I regularly notice how few concert-goers are wearing hearing protection at substantially loud gigs. And it’s worth noting that, in the case of drug consumption, it’s even harder for someone to be aware of the damage being done.

An epidemic of hearing loss?

I recently went to a hearing specialist for a check up. My compulsive use of protection has paid off – my hearing is very good for my age.

He said that their chain is expecting to expand continually over the coming years as younger people need hearing aids. A depressing thought. This is a public health issue, and one which will be costly to the public health insurance system.

He said there are regulations about volume levels at bars and clubs. However in a lot of cases he thinks these limits are probably ignored.

What to do about it?

I think there’s a huge lack of education around this issue. Nightclubs and music venues should really:

  1. provide free foam ear plugs at the door – although as these are essentially disposable, it’s not environmentally ideal;
  2. sell reusable pro ear plugs at the door – preferably at cost price instead of for-profit;
  3. display posters warning about the dangers of continued exposure to loud sound pressure levels; and
  4. provide quiet areas where people can give their ears a break from loud volumes.

I was even thinking that venues should display SPL readings so people are aware of the actual volume. Once they know what these numbers mean and how long they can be exposed to these levels for before suffering hearing impairment, then they can make better decisions about protecting their hearing.

What do you think? What ways can we address this issue? I feel it’s something that needs to be discussed more by people in the industry.