When music at festivals becomes noise

Afrofest Music Festival in Toronto, Canada, has been told they can no longer organize a 2-day festival as a result of noise complaints. The alternative is a one-day festival. City councilors, neighbours, and a festival organizer are arguing about music levels. Or noise levels. So, when does music becomes noise?

Some call it music and others call it noise. Most likely your audience will call it music and the neighbours of your event site will call it noise. You want to make sure you keep both parties happy. After all, complaints might jeopardize your licenses and permits. This seems to be the case for Afrofest.

Can you hear me?

Can you hear me?

Afrofest Music Festival

Afrofest has been going strong for 27 years and attracts around 60,000 visitors each day the festival takes place. According to CityNews Toronto the city received only 8(!) complaints and there is apparently no real proof that the festival exceeded the noise limits. But noise isn’t the only issue according to a city councillor:

“The last couple of years we’ve had problems. We’ve had problems with noise and we’ve had problems with the ending hour closing on time.”

So what is the noise limit in Toronto? As an event organizer you need to apply for a Noise Exemption Permit if you want to exceed the sound level of 85 dBA. Obviously it is not as straight forward as that. It depends on where your event takes place. In other words: the proximity of your event to your neighbours.

Noise levels and festivals

Noise is measured in decibels (dB). An 'A-weighting' sometimes written as 'dB(A)', is used to measure average noise levels. A 'C-weighting', or 'dB(C)', is used to measure peak, impact or explosive noises.

To give you an idea of dB-levels you can think of music at a wedding, which is around 80dB(A) or 85dB(A), according to some sources. Obviously this depends on the venue you are looking at, but at 80dB(A) people can still talk to each other. Grandma might struggle a little bit but the rest of your wedding guests should be fine.

So if 85dB(A) is the level for music at a wedding than surely it should be a bit more for a music festival? Again, that depends. From a licensing point of view the advice given by experts is that any exposure to noise above 85dB(A) can cause damage to someone’s hearing. Some even say that exposure to noise above 80dB(A) is dangerous. I guess that is where Toronto’s City council comes in. They have a responsibility to protect citizens.

Here is a brief overview of dB-levels:

Is your noise level at 85 dBA? WHAT?   

Is your noise level at 85 dBA? WHAT?  

  • 0 = hearing threshold
  • 10 = rustling leaf
  • 30 = human whisper
  • 60 = normal conversation
  • 80/85 = dangerous level
  • 90 = heavy goods vehicle
  • 100 = maximum volume on an iPod
  • 110 = nightclub / rock concert
  • 120 = jet engine

You should provide ear protection to your staff regardless of the noise level. According to the HSE (2012) event producers must provide ear protection at 85dB(A). Make sure you inform your staff and volunteers about the decibel levels at your event and provide them with ear protection!

Yesterday Afrofest released a statement that the city of Toronto has granted them a license for a 2-day festival in July. I would have loved to be part of that meeting. Politics, health & safety, permits, demands, concessions, and a festival organizer who just wants to get on with it.

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