Hear Hear: Why You Need to Protect Your Ears at Gigs

We take a look at the importance of wearing hearing protection at gigs, and as a musician, and explain why earplugs could be the best gift you could give a loved one this Christmas

Feature by Tallah Brash | 01 Dec 2017
  • Wear Earplugs

In August we went to see the master of loud noises, Blanck Mass, at Summerhall and it was LOUD – loud to the point that it was painful to the ear if you weren't wearing earplugs. We heard their soundcheck in the afternoon from our office across the way and at points it sounded like a small jet was about to take off from the Summerhall Dissection Room, so we knew what we were letting ourselves in for.

You may be able to imagine our utter shock and disbelief, then, when we spotted the sheer number of people at this very loud gig not wearing ear protection. Yup, that’s what we were doing instead of watching the show, we were looking at people’s ears. We’re not weird, we were just genuinely surprised.

“Many people just don’t know how aurally dangerous certain environments can be,” Jay Clark, CEO of EarPeace tells us. It seems not enough people are being educated in the importance of looking after their hearing health. Hearing loss and conditions like tinnitus, often described as a ringing in the ears, are real and in some cases irreversible; as well as affecting the way you listen to music or the simple ability to have a conversation, they can also lead to sleep deprivation and psychological problems such as anxiety and depression. It’s that serious.

How loud is too loud?

So when is loud too loud? Clark explains that “any industrial environment where the dB (decibel) levels are over 85 requires protection.” To put this into context, the British Tinnitus Association's Plug’em website has a very easy to understand scale which explains decibel levels and the maximum exposure time before it becomes unsafe – it’s not just about the volume, it’s also about how close you are to the source, and how long you’re exposed to it. 85dB is the equivalent of listening to a kitchen blender for 8 hours; a live rock band at 112dB can be damaging at a listening time of just 66 seconds, and we all know gigs last a lot longer than that. Also, 112dB is just an average… some can be louder. Blanck Mass most definitely was.

“After three days dancing next to 18-wheelers converted to speaker stacks in Trinidad’s Carnival my eardrums were beaten and battered,” Clark tells us about EarPeace’s beginnings. “Recuperating on a Tobago beach I realised the ringing in my ears was louder than the waves. I turned to my girlfriend and said there had to be a better solution than foam earplugs. I was sick of the bad sound, discomfort, difficulty of use, and looking like an old man at a youthful 35. The idea was born. We needed a better ear plug.”

After countless hours of research over the course of two years, EarPeace was launched at SxSW in 2010 and “the brand promise has always been pretty simple: ‘You will hear and feel better when you wear EarPeace,’” Clark says, adding; “If people don’t feel like their experience is going to be improved by something they just aren’t going to use it.” EarPeace plugs are incredibly affordable, at around £20, and come with a built-in attenuation system with three filter settings for varying levels of sound. “Attenuating plugs actually make live music sound way better,” Aidan Culley, the Health and Welfare Assistant at Help Musicians UK tells us. “You know if you’re at a gig and the sound engineer just keeps turning everything up to the point where the vocal is lost in a haze of drums and bass? Wear proper protection and that gets filtered out, and you can hear all elements of the music.

“Steer clear of those foam earplugs, they’re not going to make music sound good and you’d be amazed how many people get put off getting proper hearing protection after using them. Fine for mowing the lawn, awful for listening to music.” Culley continues, “When you start wearing hearing protection don’t be surprised if it feels a little weird at first, and certainly don’t let it put you off. Make a habit of taking it with you whether you’re out playing or watching live music, or in the club.”

The Musicians' Hearing Health Scheme

As well as gig-goers, it is vital that musicians and DJs protect their hearing as they can be exposed to unhealthy levels of noise night after night, which can lead to loss of income as well as loss of hearing. In 2012 Grimes had to cancel several live dates reporting hearing loss and tinnitus as the reason; and Coldplay's Chris Martin has been suffering from tinnitus now for almost 20 years, and has learnt to "simply live with it." Culley tells us about the incredible Musicians Hearing Health Scheme available through Help Musicians UK which “launched in August last year and has helped almost 2,500 musicians access specialist advice and hearing protection so far.

“Back in 2014 we ran a survey of professional musicians across the UK, and almost half (47%) reported experiencing issues with their hearing at some point in their career.” He continues, “That made us sit up and take notice, so we ran another survey in April 2015 specifically looking at musicians' hearing. Those results were pretty startling: almost 60% (59.5%) of those musicians said they had experienced hearing loss or were unsure if they had, and 78% of those cited working as a musician as a contributing factor. Perhaps most worryingly, 39% of those had not sought professional help since they believed hearing problems are an unavoidable effect of working as a musician, and while 81% of respondents believed musicians should use hearing protection, only 67% had.

“So there was clearly a gap in understanding about hearing loss in the UK music community, accessibility of professional advice and ability to get hold of professional quality hearing protection. That led us to work with Musicians’ Hearing Services and the Musicians’ Union to launch the Musicians' Hearing Health Scheme.” The scheme is open to all professional musicians, DJs, sound engineers, producers and music teachers – ‘professional’ meaning they earn 50% or more of their income from music – and can give you access to specialist hearing assessments and bespoke earplugs for the cost of a £40 membership. Not bad.

Since our ear-blasting at Blanck Mass in August, we’ve been to a gazillion other shows and still can’t get over how many people aren’t wearing earplugs at gigs. If you’re exposed to loud noises on a regular basis then you need to wear protection. If your ears start to hurt when you’re at a gig, on stage, or in the practice room, then you need to wear proper protection. Ironically, the night before writing this we went to see Run The Jewels at the O2 Academy in Glasgow and FORGOT our earplugs – fortunately the venue had free foam ones available at the bar, so we used those as a back-up. It wasn’t ideal, but our ears have lived to tell the tale and it's worth noting that a lot of live music venues will have plugs available so don't suffer in silence, or loudness rather...

You get one pair of ears to last your whole life and you need to look after them, whether or not it makes you look cool. So do a bit of research, find out what’s available to you, and treat your ears to (or ask Santa for) a pair of earplugs; otherwise it could be more than just bells you hear ringing this Christmas.