Can Minneapolis make earplugs cool?
Artwork by Emily Utne
This week's City Pages cover story explores the new Minneapolis ordinance requiring free earplugs in music venues. We talked to musicians, scientists, and activists to understand why it's so essential to protect our hearing at concerts, and evaluated the earplugs themselves. No one's required to wear them, but this story might change your mind.
"Just a screech," says Twin Cities rapper P.O.S. describing the moment he temporarily lost his hearing. "Then a little click, pop, and then it was gone."
The 32-year-old Doomtree rhymer (his real name is Stef Alexander) was touring with post-hardcore act Underoath about five years ago when a problem with a wireless rig during soundcheck created a piercing feedback loop.
"It took like three days before [my hearing] started coming back in," he says. "It was painful -- a lot of pressure. It felt totally wrong."
Since that incident, Alexander has suffered from vertigo-like symptoms, a side effect of hearing loss after decades of performing loud music live without hearing protection.
P.O.S. is far from alone. Musicians are 1.45 times as likely as non-musicians to have hearing problems, according to a German study published in April, and not surprisingly, 3.6 times more likely to have noise-induced hearing loss. In 2006, a University of Minnesota study found that 64 percent of participants showed signiﬁcant threshold shifts -- a hampered ability to hear normally after attending a concert -- compared with 27 percent among those using earplugs.
Eventually, even going to a bar was too harsh for Alexander's naked ears. "If I walk into First Avenue without putting my earplugs in before, just walking in will give me rings for two days," he says.
Although P.O.S. says he still performs as loud as he ever did, he now uses a pair of custom-fit earplugs. The plugs diminish the punishing volume of his shows with experimental electronic group Marijunana Deathsquads, and make it easier to separate out what each member is doing.
The hearing loss Alexander has sustained is irreparable. All he can do now is protect what's left.
"I've been trying to tell every musician I know to get 'em," he says. "They changed the game for me."
P.O.S. performing at Soundset 2014 with his custom earplugs in.
Photo by Anna Gulbrandsen
Hearing damage is inevitable in our world filled with noisy blenders, snow blowers, earbud headphones, car stereos, sporting events, and emergency sirens. As we age, these blasts of decibels weaken microscopic hair cells in our ears, called stereocilia, that don't regenerate. All of this is going on in our lives even before we step into a concert experience with My Bloody Valentine, Skrillex, or even Haim at cilia-blasting volumes.
"It's like the blades of grass on your lawn," says University of Minnesota audiologist Sarah Angerman. "If you walk across your lawn once, those blades of grass will temporarily dampen, but then they'll pop back up. But if you were to take the same path every day, eventually those blades of grass would die."
The stereocilia cells can die faster in people who have a family history of hearing loss, people who smoke, and folks with other medical conditions -- like P.O.S., who relies on a load of medications related to long-term kidney issues. But regardless of how fast high-volume music kills these cells off, the consequences can ruin your life permanently.
Boston post-punk band Mission of Burma prematurely disbanded because guitarist Roger Miller's noise-induced tinnitus -- a constant high-pitched ringing in the ears -- was so prevalent. Now Miller wears heavy-duty rifle-range earphones to perform. Canadian synth-pop star Grimes recently canceled tour dates because the ringing in her ears was so severe that she couldn't sleep. In an extreme case, a British man took his own life after a bout of tinnitus reportedly brought on by volumes at a Them Crooked Vultures show.
Despite stories from noise-induced hearing loss veterans and medical evidence, the threat of permanent hearing loss still goes in one ear and out the other for many concert-goers. Take a look around the next time you're at a show -- only a scant few will have earplugs.
Next: How the Minneapolis earplugs ordinance became reality.
"You can protect your hearing in less time than it takes to destroy it," says Brian Felsen. He's a "socially conscious" clothing entrepreneur with a company called Locally Grown, Globally Known, and he splits his time between Minneapolis and Los Angeles. In his youth, Felsen had a passion for high-end car stereo competitions, and the rumbling subwoofers and high-powered speakers caused substantial damage to the hearing in his left ear. It prompted him to become an advocate for noise-induced hearing loss awareness, and gave him an idea: Minneapolis should become the first city to offer free earplugs in every club.
"I realized that it was going to be pretty hard to impossible to get people to regulate the exact decibel levels in a facility," he says. "So [the earplugs] ordinance is meant to get the conversation started, [to get] people to think about their hearing health."
In collaboration with the locally based Miracle-Ear Foundation and 3M, Felsen brought the earplugs idea to former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak's office in 2013, where he was advised to draft a regulatory ordinance. Felsen helped council member Jacob Frey introduce a measure that amended approximately 200 current Minneapolis Class A and Class B liquor licenses. The new provision requires clubs, bars, and restaurants to furnish free earplugs to patrons. It passed unanimously this April.
Requiring clubs and bars to provide earplugs is not an entirely new concept. In 2002, the city of San Francisco passed a similar provision mandating that all venues with dance floors stock ear protection and water, services the venues could charge to concert-goers. But while most Twin Cities clubs have sold low-priced foam earplugs for years -- larger venues like First Avenue have made about $4,000 annually from sales -- the new Minneapolis ordinance takes things a step further to ensure that earplugs are guaranteed to patrons at no cost.
For the first year of the program, the earplugs and dispensers -- priced at 13 cents and $28 per, respectively -- will be paid for out of 3M's marketing budget. "We certainly see an advantage of people walking into those places and seeing the 3M name on the earplugs," 3M's Personal Safety Division director of marketing Jason Jones admits. After that initial donation runs out, Miracle-Ear, Locally Grown, Globally Known, and private donors will support the initiative as long as demand exists.
In early May, Felsen started delivering the gumball machine-like dispensers -- each containing 500 pairs of neon-yellow foam earplugs -- to venues. Now Target Field has 12 dispensers, Target Center has 10, and multiple dispensers are at Orchestra Hall, the Orpheum, and the Guthrie. Spots like the Dakota Jazz Club, the Triple Rock Social Club, and First Avenue have gone through a lot of little foam bullets.
"I would estimate we've given out about 750 pair," says First Avenue general manager Nate Kranz. He also noted that the club sold out of their initial shipment of hi-fi earplugs, which they began selling for $15 when the free ones became available. They're already ordering more.
Next: How loud is too loud?
"I've never heard good sounds be too loud," Ryan Olson told City Pages two years ago in an earplugs-use survey. The producer for acts like Poliça, Gayngs, and Lizzo, and a cohort of P.O.S. in Marijuana Deathsquads, said he never wears earplugs. "Sound you don't want to hear at any volume is a bad use of time. Make sure all your hearing damage is worth it."
For Crista Bell, a former employee at the 750-capacity Fine Line Music Cafe in downtown Minneapolis, earplugs are a turnoff for other reasons. "I know that I've already probably damaged my hearing, and in an industry like music it's kind of hard sometimes," she says. "[Earplugs] are either really expensive or pretty gross.... Being a girl, they're also usually really big. If they're the cheap foam ones, they need to be cut in half to fit, and then make everything sound muffled rather than improved."
Even if they wear protection as audience members, several musicians say that performing with earplugs is uncomfortable for singing and playing wind instruments, and it can distort a musician's fine-tuned connection to the music. Swans frontman Michael Gira has said it would be "cheating" for him to wear plugs -- even while performing with his legendary New York noise-rock group at volumes often exceeding 120 decibels (dB).
"Sometimes the volume/loudness of the band is the attraction," added 89.3 the Current music director David Safar in the 2012 survey. "I have been to shows and played shows that were too loud for my comfort zone. Now I try to anticipate if a show might be too loud."
The trouble is, unless you have a decibel meter in your pocket, it can be nearly impossible to know when the volume reaches damaging levels.
"People sleep on the low end," says P.O.S. "People know treble hurts when it's too loud, but people don't realize their ears are getting totally destroyed by low end. It has to be so loud for it to physically hurt. It doesn't have to be so loud for it to actually do damage to you."
The human ear can be exposed to 90 dB -- as loud as your alarm clock -- for a maximum of 40 hours per week, or eight hours a day without damage, according to the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Anything louder than that can be dangerous. Amplified rock concerts run from about 105 dB (as loud as a power drill) to 110 dB (a chainsaw) to 120 dB (a jet taking off).
More than an hour of open-ear exposure to 105 dB in a week -- long enough to check out one opening band and nothing else -- is enough to cause damage.
At metal, rap, EDM, and pop shows (because of all the screaming), experiencing 120 dB and above without plugs for even a few seconds can be harmful. When worn properly, earplugs block 15 to 30 dB, and can provide up to 40 hours of safe listening time a week.
And P.O.S. has a simple solution for musicians who don't want to wear plugs because their hearing is already messed up. "That's when you can just turn the amp down a little, G."
Next: How much do custom earplugs cost, and why are they better?
The 30-minute fitting for custom earplugs takes place at the U of M's Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences Department, a brick academic building across University Avenue from the Kitty Cat Klub. There, technicians fill your ear canals with the same goo used to take dental impressions; the sensation is a bit like going underwater.
It takes five minutes for the goo to set, at which point University of Minnesota audiologist and professor Sarah Angerman removes the hardened molds and sends them to Colorado Springs-based Westone, a 55-year-old company that also makes in-ear monitors for musicians, and hearing aids. The plugs are mailed back after a couple of weeks and tested by Angerman for a snug fit and proper attenuation, or sound-tapering levels.
Westone makes custom vinyl earplugs for musicians, which are uniquely shaped to fit the inside of the wearer's ear and can run $150 or more (plus $60 for additional filters set to different dB levels). Higher price equals higher-fidelity listening. Instead of just blocking the ear canal, custom plugs have a filter designed to turn all the pitches down equally and have virtually no chance of slipping out of the ear.
A more affordable, ready-to-wear option is the $10 to $20 high-fidelity, multi-use earplugs, often shaped like miniature white Christmas trees. When properly inserted, hi-fi plugs also preserve sound quality better than foam while dialing down the intensity. They're available in the Twin Cities at the Electric Fetus and First Avenue, and online through 3M, Comply, Etymotic Research, EarPeace, and Hearos, among others.
"In order to perceive vocals, we have to perceive the consonants," says Angerman. Foam plugs mute the highest frequencies the most, so hearing banter between songs and lyrics can be difficult. The natural sound distribution of custom plugs solves this problem. "The music sounds better. Your ears aren't designed to listen at that high level," she says.
Given the steep price, the demand for custom earplugs is still relatively low; Angerman says they do only a few fittings every month. For many, free foam earplugs are still the best option.
But the prevalence of sunglasses, sunscreen, and bike helmets prove safety products that play to buyers' vanity can sell well. If earplugs could become cool, entrepreneurs like Felsen, who is involved in a co-venture with Miracle Ear and is a distributor for 3M, stand to profit. He's working on branding with sports teams and musicians, and developing new colors, styles, and packaging.
"Hopefully, in time, it will be something that people will also want to pay for," he says.
Next: What other cities are getting involved?
The free earplugs ordinance in Minneapolis -- a city already nationally recognized for its parks system, bike trails, and health-minded citizens -- could be the biggest victory yet for noise-induced hearing loss advocates. For the past 25 years, the cause has gathered support from the Who's Pete Townshend, Metallica's Lars Ulrich, Chuck D from Public Enemy, Green Day, Ray Charles, and George Clinton, and spun off groups like Dangerous Decibels and H.E.A.R. (Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers).
Felsen says other cities have already reached out to him about expanding the program, and he expects to see similar measures in California and New York. He also hopes to tap into live music markets like Chicago and Nashville, and also St. Paul, where 3M is headquartered. "We can't give free earplugs and dispensers to every single venue in the country," says Felsen. "We've got to go with the major cities that can bring awareness to this cause."
After initially speaking out against the ordinance, fearing lost revenue from earplug sales, First Avenue is now working with Felsen on strategies to educate the club's patrons. "We don't have anything hammered out yet," says First Avenue executive vice president Dayna Frank. "We're working to develop a hearing protection campaign."
In theory, live music venues will understand that the longer a customer can hear, the longer that customer can be a patron. But there could be legal ramifications for these establishments as well. Last year in New York, a waitress filed a high-profile lawsuit against her employer, a bar, due to the hearing loss she sustained at work.
"If a concert goes on for several hours and it's 105 dB, if someone worked in that environment, the government would require intervention," says U of M Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences professor Robert Schlauch. "The levels exceed those for OSHA in many concert venues for concerts that go on for a couple hours."
"They all have free earplugs and have access to them," says Frank of First Avenue employees. "We always offered earplugs to any employee who wanted them. You can't force somebody. All we can do is have them available if they want to."
Like bad tattoos and wrinkles, ringing in your ears will still be with you long after you're done trying to be cool. According to Schlauch and Angerman, there's no cure in sight yet, and getting exposure to noise as a child doesn't "strengthen" the cells. Once they're gone, they're gone.
Schlauch says some animal tests indicate that hearing loss is actually far more prevalent than previously realized. Even semi-regular exposure to live music is enough to up the risk of serious hearing loss and discomfort as we age. It varies, but the extent of the damage often doesn't show up until we reach our 50s, Angerman points out. "As baby boomers get older, there's going to be a large influx of people needing hearing aids," she says.
Low's soft-to-loud 2005 song "When I Go Deaf" describes the inevitable future for many noise-induced hearing loss sufferers. "When I go deaf/ I won't even mind/ Yeah, I'll be all right/ I'll be just fine... And I'll stop writing songs/ Stop scratching out lines/ I won't have to fake/ And it won't have to rhyme." But what if it didn't have to be that way?
"When they're really young, put the earmuffs on 'em," P.O.S. says of his own children. "When they're old enough to decide for themselves, you just gotta tell 'em and hope they listen."
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