Today is World Hearing Day and the World Health Organisation has taken the opportunity to launch the first-ever “World Report on Hearing”. In it, they warn that more than 1 billion young people are at risk of avoidable hearing loss, with the total number of people predicted to develop hearing loss rising to around 2.5 billion by 2050. A key message is prevention, warning of the immense social and economic cost of hearing loss if this increase continues.
Yesterday, Apple pre-empted the report by releasing findings from the first year of their Hearing Study. Their report shows that the average weekly headphone exposure for one in ten participants was higher than the WHO recommended limit. They remind listeners that “while catchy tunes can be tempting, you should consider listening to music and other media at the lowest enjoyable volume”. It’s a useful piece of research, as it is collecting real data about usage, providing some of the most accurate information we have on what people actually do.
In contrast, Spotify is still urging users to turn up the volume. Last week, at its virtual “Stream On” event. Spotify announced “a new HiFi service, which will deliver music in a CD-quality, lossless audio format”. It claims that “fans will be able to experience more depth and clarity while enjoying their favorite tracks”. To promote the new service, they’ve commissioned a short YouTube video from Billie Eilish and FINNEAS, which contradicts almost everything that the WHO is trying to do promote hearing health. It appalls me that anyone at Spotify released it. Here’s a transcript and a brief analysis of the opening conversation.
We start with Billie and FINNEAS sitting outdoors in a plastic bubble with a serious sound system, discussing their creative approach:
Billie. We like sunlight, good sound system, good bass.
FINNEAS. Big, giant loudspeakers.
(At this point FINNEAS turns the mid frequency and high frequency settings on his speakers to their maximum settings. This is a straight remake of the “up to eleven” spoof from Spinal Tap. Unfortunately, FINNEAS’ speakers only go to 10.)
They then continue to make their point:
Billie. Like very loud speakers.
FINNEAS. Every time we go with anyone else we’re like, turn it up. Please. More. Louder.
As the WHO report points out, around 1 billion young people are at risk of hearing loss because of exposure to loud music. More and more musicians are acknowledging that they have problems, with around 60% of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s inductees acknowledging that they have impaired hearing. Will.i.am, Grimes, Phil Collins, Pete Townshend are some of the increasing number who have spoken of their problems. It’s no coincidence that the WHO has named Charles Owens as a World Hearing Day ambassador. Moby has put the issue very clearly:
“When I first started playing in bands, I never wore hearing protection, and we played as loud as we possibly could. One night, I came home from a punk rock show and my ears were ringing, as they often did. And they were still ringing the next day. And the next. Ever since then, I’ve always worn some sort of hearing protection when exposed to very loud music because I realised that once my hearing is gone, it will never return.”
Whilst composers with hearing loss or even deafness may continue to create music – Beethoven was the prime example, audiences are usually less lucky. Hearing loss doesn’t just remove you from the joy of music, it leads to social isolation, increased risks of dementia and a heightened risk of many other life-affecting conditions. We shouldn’t stop listening to music, but we should take care. If you leave a venue with your ears ringing, you have done some incremental damage to your hearing which will never get reversed.
I am sure that neither Billie nor FINNEAS intended this to be the message that came across in this video. They obviously respect their fans and want them to hear their music as clearly as possible. That’s the same frustration about poor reproduction that Dr Dre had when he founded Beats. But in recording this video, Spotify has played on their naivety. What we need is for icons like Billie and FINNEAS to stand up and warn listeners about protecting their hearing, otherwise they will lose the ability to detect the nuances in their music.
One of the most effective campaigns to warn about the dangers of loud music was the one run by the RNID in the UK, back in 2014, which featured a poster campaign next to many leading music venues. Its images were shocking, but effective. It would be timely to rerun it more widely, but make it more effective by using well known musicians. Perhaps that could be something that Spotify might want to sponsor to show whether they do care about their subscribers. As my contribution to World Hearing Day, I’m offering the suggestion that FINNEAS would be an iconic choice to appear in similar adverts to make it clear that loud is not always good. He, and others like him, would be brilliant ambassadors in any campaign for safe hearing.
Here’s a few more of the original posters. How much more effective might they be if they featured Billie and FINNEAS?