Last week Arcade Fire played a huge outdoor show in Hyde Park. For many the band’s thrillingly visceral performance was blighted by a poor sound system. Our reviewer Damian Jones was far from the only one to comment that “the sound was a bit ropey.”
Commentators on our Facebook page left missives such as: “Cool gig, shit sound”. This year’s Wireless Festival also had a noticeably quieter output than previous years. I noticed TV On The Radio’s set had a distant, airy quality to it, as if we were watching the band on a cinema screen. The audience’s banter was noticeably louder than the band themselves.
This isn’t the first time sound levels at outdoor shows have been called into question. Who can forget The Killers’ bombastic Glastonbury set in 2007 that was turned into an audio damp squib by the quietness? Fans shouted “turn it up” as the band played. Indeed, Glastonbury council monitor the sound levels in Pilton, and have laid down strict guidelines about how loud things get.
A year later, much was made of the sound levels at Reading, with Tim Jonze in The Guardian calling the festival’s main stage output “supernaturally quiet”.
So what’s going on?
It seems there has been a real reduction in the output levels of sound at gigs in the last five to 10 years – but few in the industry are willing to admit it. Of all the venues and promoters we contacted, only David Phillips, head of music at Koko, spoke to us about the issue.
He said: “The Arcade Fire show had an amazing line-up and people paid good money to hear the show and in the end people just couldn’t hear it. I remember seeing Basement Jaxx at Wireless one year and it was like watching a PA, not a live show, the sound was so quiet.”
According to Phillips, the problem stems from councils setting fines for artists who go above a certain previously-sanctioned sound level. “The promoters end up bowing down to whatever the council says, because they get worried about being sued,” he says. “It’s like going to an art gallery and half the painting is covered up. Someone, somewhere has said, ‘This is as loud as it can get,’ but in truth, it’s not loud enough.”
This last sentiment seems to be felt by many of us who come away from a gig, not with our ears ringing but with a sense of disappointment that we could have stayed at home and heard more by turning the sound up on our stereo.
With the cost of gig and festival tickets seemingly climbing ever higher, is it time promoters started listening to gig-goers’ complaints – and turned the volume up?