Anti-noise legislation: how smaller music venues can protect themselves
Small music venues can be noisy places. As regular gig-goers will attest, that’s kind of the point. For decades, the back rooms of pubs and bars have provided a place for artists to learn stagecraft and perform in front of an audience.
But as residential developments push up housing density in UK city centres, some venues have been hit by noise complaints from residents.
In the UK, local authorities have significant powers to deal with these. They can impose strict licensing conditions or even revoke venue licences altogether.
Legislation introduced in 2013 made it easier for developers to convert commercial spaces like office blocks into residential premises. So, with city centre development set to continue, how can independent music venues protect themselves?
How much of a problem is noise?
For people affected, anti-social noise can be an enormous problem. Quite apart from the immediate distress it can cause, some research suggests a link between noise pollution and health issues like heart disease.
Anti-noise legislation exists to make sure noise that is genuinely causing a nuisance can be stopped. And as the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health found, that legislation gets used a lot.
It’s research asked 150 local authorities in England and Wales (that’s 43% of the total) about noise complaints. And it found that, over a 12-month period, there were 10,442 noise complaints relating to licensed premises such as pubs and clubs.
What damage can a noise complaint do?
In an economy where small music venues face significant commercial pressures, noise complaints create an additional headache for stretched venue owners.
“It’s hard to talk about noise without examining a whole chain of factors,” explains Mark Davyd, founder and CEO of the Music Venue Trust. “At this level, running a live music venue is generally a not-for-profit business.”
“There’s an enormous amount of pressure on venues. Touring budgets have been cut, yet the industry still wants venues to take on the risks of helping new bands develop. At the same time, music venues don’t receive the same levels of public funding as other arts venues.”
It’s something of a slippery slope, with noise just one of many factors affecting venues’ prospects.
“A noise complaint can be the last straw,” confirms Mark. “When margins are so thin, venues don’t have the leeway to comply with even minor licensing adjustments.”
Take anti-noise measures early
In this climate, it’s wise to be proactive about noise — even if your venue has never received a complaint.
Consider using a sound level meter to monitor noise levels outside your venue. Professional sound meters are best, but you can use smart phone apps to gauge sound levels. Try dB Volume Meter (Apple) or deciBel (Android).
Even on a tight budget you can take measures to minimise how much sound escapes your premises:
- Make sure doors and windows stay closed during performances. If customers tend to enter and leave frequently, install door closers to keep sound leakage as low as possible.
- Fit acoustic seals around doors and windows. You can buy kits to install yourself for around £100.
- Evaluate where speakers are located. Speakers attached to walls and ceilings may vibrate the structure of your building, transmitting noise externally.
- Install sound absorption materials beneath your stage, and make sure there is some kind of anti-vibration material on top.
- Think about installing noise limiters. These restrict volume without interrupting the sound. If acts provide their own amplification, you can also install a cut-out system, activated if the volume exceeds a defined level.
- Evaluate noise levels during the sound check for each event. Set a maximum volume level and then restrict who has access to volume controls on the amplifiers or mixing deck.
- If you are concerned about noise from customers leaving, put up signs and get staff to ask people to be quiet on the way out. Some venues have even experimented with handing out lollipops at closing time!
- Think about the small things, too. Ask local taxi firms not to toot the horn when picking up customers. And don’t carry out noisy tasks – like tipping bottles into the recycling – late at night.
If you are considering a larger investment in noise control, speak to an acoustic consultant. These experts can determine the most cost-effective ways to control sound levels. Look for a consultant from the Institute of Acoustics or the Association of Noise Consultants.
They may suggest measures such as:
- Installing acoustic double glazing, which weakens sound as it travels through the glass. You can increase sound insulation further by adding secondary glazing to your existing windows.
- Building a lobby or entranceway, so customers have to pass through two doors to leave. This will dramatically reduce noise escaping through your entrance.
- Upgrading your walls using lining systems, soundproofing panels and acoustic wool.
- Reconfiguring the layout of your venue to direct noise away from the places where it tends to leak out. For instance, repositioning a stage can have a significant effect on how sound escapes a room.
As you implement measures like these, you may become more conscious of how noise from your venue affects your neighbourhood.
Whether you need to take direct action to reduce noise or not, keep a log of everything you did to assess it or manage it. In the event of a complaint, an activity log demonstrates that you are proactive in managing your venue’s noise.
Build positive PR and work on relationships
While making alterations to your premises is well and good, it’s usually impossible to reduce sound leakage to zero. Even then, residents may complain about customers making noise as they leave.
This means you need to be prepared on another front. Try to build up some positive PR that you can draw on in the event of problems.
If your building is physically attached to another, go and have a chat with your neighbour. Building a relationship makes it more likely that they’ll come to you with any complaints, rather than going straight to the local authority.
Then think about how loyal customers can help. With a little effort, you can turn their enthusiasm to your advantage.
“In the UK, we’re terrible at praising,” explains Mark. “We don’t say enough about how much we love having a library, an arts centre, or a music venue. Venues need to take the initiative in showing how much value they give the local community.”
Try to mobilise your regular customers. For instance, Mark co-owns the Tunbridge Wells Forum. By asking social media followers to post reviews on TripAdvisor, he was able to get the venue listed as the town’s top attraction.
He says it’s about playing the long game: “It may seem irrelevant right now. But if we ever have a noise complaint, the council’s attitude will be influenced by the fact that we’re rated as the number one thing to do in Tunbridge Wells.”
There’s strength in numbers, too — because when it comes to nuisance noise, a single complaint can shut down a venue. “You’d be amazed at how often a perceived noise problem relates to one angry, vocal person in the community,” says Mark.
“If you can encourage your customers to tell the local authority how happy they are to have a local venue, you can redress the balance. Can you get someone who lives near the venue to write to the council each day? Because that’s what the people who complain do!”
Finally, it’s important to stay aware of planning developments. “Monitor what changes are going on locally,” advises Mark. “Are any offices being converted into residential properties?”
Many local authorities allow you to track planning applications online or set up email alerts for local applications.
Creating a voice for venues
When faced with noise complaints, venues can feel isolated. But support is available. “I would encourage all venues to join the Music Venues Alliance,” says Mark.
This informal association aims to stand up for the interests of small venues — not just in relation to noise issues, but regarding all the pressures facing venues.
“As it grows, this group will help us to achieve some legal balance, by representing a large network of venues,” explains Mark. “But in the short term, it’s a good way to connect with other people who’ve handled noise in a sensible way. Other venues can learn from those experiences.”
Download a copy of this advice as a handy one-page checklist for your venue