Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall recently revealed how she had permanently lost the hearing in her left ear three years ago, after initially experiencing tinnitus. She has pulled her summer touring dates, over concerns that she could also lose her hearing in her right ear. Hearing loss might not be a particularly glamorous subject, but it’s an important one for musicians and other music industry employees. You’ve heard of your favourite bands and artists going on ‘vocal rest’ — but is it time for ‘hearing rest’ to become an industry safety standard?
One early sign of hearing loss is tinnitus, which affects about one in eight people in the UK, and is described by the NHS as “the name for hearing noises that are not caused by sounds coming from the outside world”. Tinnitus can start suddenly, and usually sounds like ringing, buzzing, whooshing, humming, hissing, throbbing, singing or music. While it is common and not usually a sign of anything serious, if you have tinnitus regularly or constantly then you should visit your GP.
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No wonder so many people are affected by tinnitus considering over one million Brits are exposed to levels of noise at work that put their hearing at risk. SAE Institute Music Business Programme Coordinator and Audio Production lecturer Dr Mike McNeilis says: “At the moment, venues are required to protect their staff but are only advised on how they can protect their audiences. The HSE does outline recommendations to support audiences, but until it becomes formal legislation, there will always be variation from venue to venue.”
“At SAE, we ensure that our audio students are aware of health and safety regulations before they visit live venues. We bring in companies who customise ear plugs for our students, so that when they gain experience as live sound engineers, they are protected from potential hearing damage.”
While employers have a legal duty to make sure adequate ear protection is provided for staff, those who haven’t received formal education in the music industry might not be aware of some of the risks that accompany watching or performing live music.
Customised ear plugs are one way that artists can protect their hearing. Sheffield-based drummer, DJ and musical director Dominic Ridler has always taken great lengths to protect his hearing. Despite performing for over 10 years, he has never experienced any significant hearing problems. He says: “As a musician, hearing is vitally important as is it is the most important sense. People often associate wearing earplugs with typically loud instruments or genres, such as drums or playing in a rock band, but ultimately, musicians from all walks of life, all instruments, and all sorts of ensembles can be exposed to constant loud noise that can cause hearing loss and tinnitus through constant rehearsals, and gigs that might last a few hours.”
About five years ago Dominic invested in some custom moulded earplugs. Although they cost over £100, he sees them as a vital “investment” into his health. Moulded earplugs improve sound quality, and if you are a member of the Musicians’ Union then you could even benefit from discounts through the Musicians’ Hearing Health Scheme.
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It’s not just artists like KT Tunstall or Dominic that are at risk of hearing problems due to live performing. Anyone who tours with an artist could be at risk. Andy Battye spent 30 years as a guitar technician, touring with acts such as Metallica, and is now based in Sheffield. He found his hearing impacted by regular flying as well as frequent touring. He says: “I have had endorsements from Ultimate Ears (in-ear monitors) and found that they made touring much easier, with your eardrum being subject to a much lighter load during shows and soundchecks.”
You will often see young children wearing headphones at gigs and festivals, but very rarely do you see adults in crowds wearing ear protection. Particularly if you attend a lot of live music events, it could be a worthy investment if you want to continue hearing your favourite acts long into the future. But it's not just live music where there are risks of hearing loss — recorded music can cause issues too, which is why many modern phones have ‘safe’ listening levels.
Tom Nash, 24, is a music producer and engineer who has experienced intermittent hearing problems since he was eight or nine. He says, “The issues I have are in the shape of my ear canals and ear wax build up, which causes mild tinnitus; the biggest issue is being fully blocked in both ears and both inner/outer ear infections if not checked up on.”
Having tinnitus impacts his work as a producer. He says, “I'm mostly doing mixing/post so it's something I can brush off in a minute or two and carry on with my work, but if it was to happen in a recording scenario I could miss something important during a take, as when the brief hearing loss/ringing occurs it draws all my focus away.”
Tom has regular appointments at Rotherham Primary Ear Care once every month/two months, where he receives microsuction treatment. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation about tinnitus treatment online. “When I started researching options for my issue with ear wax build up, the most frequent recommendation was a form of removal called 'syringing', which in very recent years has been gradually phased out by the NHS,” he says. “Microsuction is seen as a much safer option as there's minimal risk in all aspects: infection, inflammation, eardrum perforation.”
As well as correctional procedures such as microsuction, another method to prevent hearing problems is taking regular breaks away from any form of loud noise. But this is easier said than done if you’re a DJ playing all night in a club, or you’re a self-employed producer where time is money.
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London producer Tre Lowe, co-founder of ‘Body Groove’ hitmaker group Architechs, first experienced tinnitus aged 15, after a reaction to a drug while recovering from an appendectomy. Tre says: “Being in a band wasn’t the thing that affected my tinnitus much, even though studios were loud, it was actually DJing that caused the issues. Being so close to monitors in an already super loud club, having headphones on constantly; not being able to take breaks during three - five hour shifts, two - three times a week. My tinnitus, which was initially a tiny ringing sound that I could only hear in a super quiet room, became super loud, multiple frequencies, plus a rumbling sound. Added to that, I also developed hyperacusis — extreme supersensitivity to noise — so I eventually had to give up DJing for good. I was lucky my hearing was still great but didn’t want to risk any damage to it.”
He launched a campaign Make Noise For Tinnitus! because he does not feel that there is enough education regarding tinnitus and its connection to permanent hearing loss. He says: “The level of ignorance around what is an easily preventable condition is shocking! I remember I told music and DJ friends I would go on TV to talk about tinnitus, they thought I was mad. I even questioned myself… but then I thought about the suffering, and knew I had to do it.”
“That's the problem — these industries are too “cool” for their own good. So many DJs have hearing problems, be that tinnitus or hearing loss, but no one wants to talk about it. Very few want to wear earplugs because it gets in the way of the music. Earplugs getting in the way of the music is nothing in comparison to having to give up a career you love, due to sheer ignorance. I think this needs to be taught to young musicians and singers, to record labels, to managers, in music engineering schools: all DJs should be required to wear them, or at the very least, have their hearing tested every six months, along with regular screening for tinnitus. We need to normalise hearing health.”
Vocal health is already a priority for musicians; artists such as Miley Cyrus, Adele, Sam Smith and Céline Dion have been open with fans about the impact of extensive touring on their vocal chords, and many acts have taken time out from live shows to recuperate or undergo surgery. Although KT Tunstall fans will no doubt be disappointed that they won’t get to see her on tour this summer, hopefully they will avoid giving her an earful after she has chosen to put her health first. Maybe her decision will create a precedent across the music industry for better aural care and education. If you listen carefully, it’s certainly needed.
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Words: Beth Kirkbride
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