Who asked for the noise?

I hope you’ll forgive another post that mentions the excellent Seth Godin. Last week he asked: “Who decided to add the noise?

Ewan Hoyle asked a similar question:

Does anyone know of any research/surveys into what level of music volume people prefer in pubs?

Pleasingly, people responded with links to research on the topic. A study from a French university found that

high level volume led to increase [sic] alcohol consumption and reduced the average amount of time spent by the patrons to drink their glass.

Another study from Glasgow Caledonian University finds that music in clubs can be used for wildly different reasons, from encouraging fights in the bar area to signalling that it’s time to leave and “helping to promote a more gradual and orderly exit procedure”.

The Glasgow study, based on research funded by the Alcohol Education Research Council (now Alcohol Research UK), concludes that

advice on music policy should become an essential component of nightlife violence reduction strategies and that appropriate training be made available to both entertainers and nightclub operators.

None of this quite answers the question: “Who asked for the noise?

Seth Godin says in the post I linked to that louder rock concerts make concert-goers think the performance was better and more noise means higher attendance. That’s not the same thing as saying that people are asking for more noise. The studies I’ve just mentioned show that music can make us drink more or behave differently. That’s not the same as saying we’re asking for more noise.

My own feeling is that clubs and bars with DJs are almost always too loud. Maybe I sound like an old fogey, but I’ve felt this way since I was a teenager. The noise is harmful and isolating. If you have to shout to be heard by someone who’s an arm’s length away, the noise risks damaging your hearing. It also destroys any chance of a natural, friendly conversation. Conversation in noisy bars is stilted for the same reason that conversation with hard-of-hearing people is stilted: something might be worth saying, but it probably isn’t worth shouting (or even shouting repeatedly). So chatting is out. No wonder people down their drinks faster. If you’re not dancing, there’s not much else to do.

Perhaps it’s the circles I move in, but I’ve never met anybody who likes loud music when they’re drinking socially. On the contrary, everybody I’ve talked to about it says they’d prefer it if bars and clubs could be quieter, or could have quieter areas where customers could go for a break. People do go to noisy places in large numbers, but then they use various tactics for handling the noise levels. We scream initial pleasantries at each other, then tacitly agree not to try talking any more. We get up and dance. We pull visual gags – that’s partly why props like hats get passed around and tried on with such glee. We go to the toilets, or smoke a cigarette outside, to get away briefly from the noise.

Sadly, I think social media and smartphones have become enablers of antisocial noise levels. Can’t hear yourself think? Wander round taking photos with your phone. Then send a few texts, read Twitter, upload your photos to Facebook or Twitpic or Flickr, see if people comment... You don’t have to engage with the people around you or try to communicate with them over the noise. Your phone helps you check out of the uncomfortable situation. That’s why when there’s a disco, the seated areas are aglow with phones.

I have no problem with things that help people cope. My problem is when coping becomes a substitute for actually doing something about it. The loud noise in clubs and bars isn’t like heavy rain or arthritis. It’s not a natural development that has to be managed. It’s the result of somebody’s decision that those noise levels are acceptable.

My original question was “Who asked for the noise?” I think the answer is “Nobody.” But the thing with capitalism is that what you ask for doesn’t really matter much, in itself. What you do matters more. You might not like the noise, you might say that you’d prefer somewhere quieter. But if the noise and consequent social isolation makes you drink more and therefore spend more, the message is that you’re asking for the noise.