Letter reproduced from Set & Turn Single magazine, issue 74, March 2012

This page will become part of sts74.htm as the website is reordered.

Sound levels at ceilidhs

I was interested in the letter from Erica Hickson in STS 73 in which she complains about the level of amplification at some dances. This is not usually a problem at folk dances and especially not in village halls but has for some years been a major issue at folk festivals. It is here that some organisers and especially certain bands and their ‘sound crews’ seem to delight in attempting to inflict permanent hearing damage. With the price of high powered sound systems being nowadays quite modest, the problem has become widespread. Many regular ceilidh goers now use earplugs as a matter of course. The root of the problem is that, faced with sound systems of awesome power, many ‘sound crews’ seem to feel they are not doing a good job unless they utilise all the available power – much as tearaways in a fast car can conceive of no form of driving except ‘flat-out’. The mentality of these people (and their mental age) seems much the same.

For some years I have been conducting a mild internet-based ‘campaign’ against what I have termed the ‘morons’ who seem unable or unwilling to accept that most dancers go to ceilidhs to dance. They do not wish to be deafened. At some ceilidhs I resort to wearing earplugs (despite that they dull the senses and totally ruin the sound quality) and I simply avoid some bands completely. At a recent late night event at Sidmouth Folkweek the sound level was so high that I became disoriented – unable to explain a simple dance to some newcomers because I couldn’t tell right from left. Exposure to loud sound is of course a well known and effective interrogation technique!

The legal position is quite clear (yet inadequate). At work, one is entitled to protection from excessive noise under Health and Safety legislation but this does not apply at ceilidhs (except maybe to those who may be deemed to be ‘at work’ at such venues) and I would judge that close to the speakers the legally permissible sound levels are regularly exceeded. In some dances of course, even if you start well away from the speakers you may have no choice but to be close to them a short time later. Normal conversation within such venues is next to impossible.

Needless to say, I have suffered from being called quite a few things on internet ‘forums’ – those places where overgrown children babble to each other constantly whilst adding to their supposed 567 ‘friends’ on Facebook .
is they who say ‘get a life’ when I complain about being deafened! Readers who are not familiar with these things can try www.mudcat.org, search for ‘threads’ on Sidmouth Folkweek and you’ll find a rich assortment of diatribe and nastiness (and quite a few sensible comments from ‘Steve in Sidmouth’!)

Recently however, a few festival organisers seem to have taken a small amount of notice and I was heartened by a recent message on the Towersey website from no lesser a person than Steve Heap. Readers will know that Steve Heap and Mrs Casey’s Music ran Sidmouth International Festival until 2004. He is sometimes viewed as an irascible man (What, another one? Ed) but he has a history of ‘cutting edge’ involvement in folk music and including being a member of loud bands. All the more telling then that the situation has now got so out of hand at Towersey and elsewhere that he states “We will continue to upgrade venues and facilities whenever and wherever we can and try to curb the volume of some Ceilidh bands.” Unlike other festivals I may discuss in due course, Towersey is an event where both local village opinion and attendee feedback appear genuinely to be valued. Once I have some feedback from STS readers I may collate my various complaints over the years together with the vitriol I have received into a dedicated webpage. It is to be hoped that once there has been further publicity we can make some progress on lessening what has become a pervasive problem.

In the longer term, legislation may be the only effective answer. Recent research shows that thousands of the youngest rave and disco attendees are risking permanent hearing impairment (partial deafness, in other words). Should adults inflict such harm on impressionable youngsters and in the pursuit of profit? This is after all the same society where you can be prosecuted for mistreating a goldfish.

The defences employed by people who are willing supplicants to the prevalent nonsense fall into three categories: claims that attendees want the music that loud, claims that it’s not possible to turn down the overall volume without destroying the balance or ‘losing’ some of the instruments and claims that it is really not loud at all, being ‘approved’ by local council Environmental Health Officers who measure average sound levels well away from the speakers. Such measurements are of course largely irrelevant. I do of course look forward to further insightful contributions from various ‘sound engineers’.

I have spoken to probably a hundred people over the years about these issues, and from teenagers upwards. None have wanted the music so loud, many say ‘it’s just the way it is these days’. Some either leave venues or simply don’t go at all. In essence, it happens because seemingly disinterested and/or inadequate folk festival directors are unable or unwilling to exercise any proper control over what happens at their events. Maybe it is time for some concerted complaints both from local residents and festival attendees?

Stephen J Wozniak


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