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Can Minneapolis make earplugs cool?

Categories: Your Hearing
City_Pages_Earplugs_Cover_Story.jpg
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."

POS_Soundset_Anna_Gulbrandsen_2014.jpg
Photo by Anna Gulbrandsen
P.O.S. performing at Soundset 2014 with his custom earplugs in.

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.

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19 comments
darrencolons111
darrencolons111

Sound penetrating in your ears is the most irritating thing. It is hard to sleep with snoring sound and hard to concentrate on work if unnecessary sound keeps disturbing and yes in concerts it is the most important thing to carry with you. Loud noise makes a person deaf.

http://www.aussieearplugs.com.au/

swmnguy
swmnguy topcommenter

I spent my teens and twenties going to punk shows and working in fabrication shops.  Now nearing 50, I've got hearing loss. Some sound frequencies sound to me like my eardrums are ripped paper speaker cones.  When I'm coming down with a cold, I'll get tinnitus as soon as an antihistamine wears off.  It's not cool, and it was so pointless.  We knew way back then it would be dangerous but we were young, stupid, ten feet tall and bulletproof.

Now when I go to clubs, sporting events, or deal with bands or other loud noises either through work or for fun, I carry my Surefire Sonic Defender EP7s.  Even some plays are over-amplified and cut through my head.

With modern sound technology that kind of noise is completely pointless and stupid.  With a good line-array PA system, a competent sound man can create even coverage with articulation so you can hear everything and it's good and loud, but it doesn't damage you.  I stayed away from First Avenue for years because their sound system was terrible and the front-of-house engineers were worse.  They were half-deaf so they just turned it up.  The speakers would drown each other out and all you could hear was very loud sludge.  It sounded better upstairs behind the plexiglass than it did down by the mix station, which was so ridiculous it enraged me.  I've been back a couple times recently and while it was still louder than it needed to be for safety, the sound quality was vastly improved; a combination of better equipment and better/wiser personnel.

I bring my own earplugs because I'm already injured and I expect other people, and clubs, to be irresponsible in the name of thrills and profits.  But clubs should absolutely be required to provide them, no question.  A big box of good-enough foam earplugs costs about 10 cents a pair, so a box of  200 pairs is about $20 on Amazon.  That's what, 3 beers?  They spend more on fire extinguishers and nobody complains about that.


teddy-D
teddy-D

Good article. This is why I pushed for The Depot Coffee House providing free ear plugs for all its all-age shows. Especially for younger ears this is a super important precaution. I hope that the move towards headphones with outside noise reduction vs. drowning out noise with blasting ear buds is better for our ears as well. Time will tell I suppose.

barvazo7
barvazo7

Great article - Just one issue.  OSHA standards are outdated and not really applicable for hearing loss and tinnitus prevention.  NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) are much better for your ears.  85 dBA for 8 hours plus everytime you increase sound level by 3 dB you cut safe listening time in HALF.

Hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing, screaming, buzzing in the ears) are horrible things to live with. Why take the risk?   Turn it down a bit, move away or use some kind of hearing protection.    Check out www.dangerousdecibels.org

Joanna Waits
Joanna Waits

...i do, but lots of people don't even think they need them, and that's a problem.

Lizz Draves
Lizz Draves

YES! I always forget to bring them, this is great news.

LittleBoots
LittleBoots

Enough with the nanny state Minnesota. You want to know what's really cool? Legal marijuana in Seattle.

jj3322smith
jj3322smith

I am a flight attendant. I couldn't live without my ear plugs. I wear them at the train station and on the train too. I just wish someone/company would make smaller plugs for the female ear, and in colors other than neon. 

Mike Geronsin
Mike Geronsin

Bring your own earplugs. Don't force clubs to provide them.

Hannah Krutsch
Hannah Krutsch

If I'm wearing them, then obviously they are cool

Sco Kel
Sco Kel

Unfortunately minneapolis doesn't make anything cool. Only more expensive and less fun.

Ray Gilman
Ray Gilman

What a bunch of fuss muffins. Oh I went to a rock concert and it was loud imagine that.

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