"I’m absolutely fucking terrified about it—excuse my English,” says DJ Pete Tong. Constantly exposed to loud music, he doesn’t want to go deaf like DJ Frankie Wilde. Granted, Wilde’s story (in the film It’s All Gone Pete Tong, about finding a way to produce and spin after permanent hearing damage) was fiction, but the possibility of auditory injury is a very real threat for DJs, nightclub employees and partygoers.
The majority of clubbers—plus a few unsavvy club employees and local DJs—don’t practice safe listening, choosing to party sans ear condoms. Perhaps we take our aural pleasures for granted and don’t consider the long-term repercussions of 120 decibels thumping away at our eardrums.
“Hearing loss is cumulative over time,” says Dr. Kent Collins, national clinical director for SoundPoint Audiology & Hearing. However, Dr. Collins says some individuals can experience significant loss after only one rock concert or club night, to the point where it interferes with their ability to understand speech. Over the past 10 years the average age of hearing aid patients has decreased from 64 to 48. Dr. Collins says he has even fitted teenagers with hearing aids due to loud music.
Even if you’ve already suffered some hearing loss or have tinnitus (that annoying ringing/buzzing in the ear without external sound), it’s not too late to start preserving what you have left of your hearing.
One of the most prominent hearing protection campaigns is Don’t Lose the Music. Trance trio Above & Beyond partnered with the organization to promote safer listening. Unfortunately, it’s only in the U.K.; little is being done in the U.S. to protect and educate when it comes to recreational noise exposure. One notable exception is in San Francisco, where an ordinance was passed in 2002 requiring entertainment venues and afterhours premises with a dance floor and 500 persons or more capacity to provide earplugs or sell them at a reasonable price. (In addition to providing free, cold drinking water—brilliant!)
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If the occasional clubgoer is at risk for damaging his or her hearing after one night, imagine what it’s like for club employees and frequent partiers. Tong, with over 20 years in the industry, has some of the best earplugs one can get, but struggles with using them consistently. “When you get in a club with a brilliant sound system, you feel you don’t need them,” he says, adding, “I’ve definitely lost some hearing in my right ear.”
“I must say, in Europe, it’s much more regulated, so you can play only 95 decibels,” says Tiësto. His custom-molded filter-style earplugs allow him to hear people talk and spin while wearing them. “In America, the sound systems are loud, so I always wear earplugs.”
Robbie Rivera agrees. “It does scare me a lot, because some places have it just way too loud,” he says (he recently had his hearing insured). “If there’s an accident while I’m DJing or touring, if something happens to me that I can’t use my hearing to make music or DJ, I’m covered.”
“I’ve been using hearing protection whilst DJing for four years now, so that’s awhile,” says Menno de Jong, who has his hearing checked regularly. He’s also considering switching to in-ear monitors for further protection. “It blocks out part of the sound and you don’t have to crank the monitor to hear what you’re doing.”
Another big proponent of safe listening is DJ Eddie Halliwell. “I luckily realized early on that constantly being exposed to such dangerously high volumes in clubs would inevitably damage my hearing,” says Halliwell, who won’t enter a club without his ACS custom-fit earplugs securely in place. The earplugs allow him to hear music and surrounding sounds perfectly, but dangerous frequencies are filtered out. In addition, he also uses ACS in-ear monitors while DJing. Halliwell adds, “Whether you are a clubber, DJ or club staff, everyone should wear hearing protection in an environment as noisy as this.”
Serious about prolonging your own ability to experience eargasms? Consider investing in a pair of custom-molded musician earplugs so you can enjoy the music at a safer decibel level. At about $200 a pair, that’s less than you spent on a few rounds of drinks last weekend and last indefinitely. But if you can’t make the investment, Dr. Collins says inexpensive foam earplugs from your local retailer are just as effective for protection as long as they’re inserted properly.
Worst-case scenario—though it’s not a long-term solution—standing near the bar in a club might offer a tiny bit of relief; a good sound designer will make it quieter in the bar area so bartenders can hear drink orders. And if you’re really hurting, just come find me. As an avid earplug-pusher, I will usually have few extra pairs in my purse.