Live Music and Development: A Double Standard of Noise Pollution in Vancouver

Beyond the highly publicized and debated issues that pertain to Vancouver’s visual and physical space, mainly focused on the Downtown Eastside, there is a competition for sonic space that has gone largely unnoticed. Noise Pollution caused by the rapid development of condominiums dominates Vancouver’s soundscape, while the relatively minor sound intrusions of live music — in the streets, in public venues, or private spaces — is regularly restricted by city officials. This discrepancy exists largely as a result of Vancouver’s Noise Control by-law, which has a strong bias towards developer-friendly regulations, and shrouds musical/cultural sound policy in a cloud of ambiguity, hyper-regulation and selective enforcement.

In the spring of 2012, the City of Vancouver’s engineering department passed a revealing by-law. It stated that no longer could bagpipes or percussion instruments be played in the streets of the city. The engineering department claimed to have based their decision on “noise concerns”, but whether or not they were conscious of it, their disruption of legitimate street music was actually ideologically motivated. There is a trend in Vancouver toward anti-cultural and pro-developer policies concerning noise.

Bagpiper at Granville and Georgia. Photo Credit: Alex Eng

The ban didn’t last long as the decision was quickly reversed due to public outcry. But, why was this ban ever implemented; and perhaps the bigger question, why was it the engineering department, of all possible arms of municipal bureaucracy, that wrote this by-law?

This recent event draws parallels with an anecdote mentioned in Barry Truax’s Acoustic Communication:

“The Vancouver Soundscape” reports the 1971 conviction of members of the Hari Krishna sect under the local noise by-law (of the older “nuisance” variety) for their street singing, while across the street, the construction noise was measured at over 90 dBA.” (world soundscape project 1978a) …Such laws have been regularly used, not to prevent loud noise, but to control “undesirable” elements in society from being too conspicuous. The opposite, the toleration of high levels (as in public entertainment using heavy amplification), occurs when no vested interests are threatened.”[1]

So it would seem as though this is not a recent shift in policy, but rather part of a longer history in governmental preference for the noises of construction and development over unsanctioned music. As Truax notes, the Hari Krishnas were much quieter than the construction site, much like an affected bagpiper noted last year: “Bagpipes are not really that loud. When my next-door neighbour starts his lawnmower, it’s far louder than I would be if I blew my bagpipes up.”

The Olympics and City-Sanctioned Noise

During City-sponsored events such as the 2010 Winter Olympics outdoor “celebrations”, bylaws were ignored or waived by the very people who are meant to enforce them. These included Califone and Wilco’s outdoor nighttime show at David Lam Park in Yaletown (Feb. 13th, 2010), nightly fireworks shows, and the massive street parties that happened through the night.

Construction of The Olympic Village 2008. Photo credit: Christian Campbell

Expo ’86 and the 2010 Winter Olympics were used as a platform to showcase the city. In an attempt to show that the Best Place on Earth is not No Fun City, the government not only allowed but also organized these outdoor “cultural” events. It was essentially an elaborate (and often ineffective) advertising campaign designed by Vancouver developers and city councillors. The city was bending its own noise restrictions to allow these events. By making Vancouver seem more fun and culturally supportive than it actually is, they hoped to attract real estate investment. If the fun-loving, celebratory city that the municipal government of Vancouver presented to the world during the Olympics was actually the kind of society that the City wanted to create, why uphold to policies that stunt cultural expression?

As a musician, organizer of cultural events, and activist for affordable artist-run studio space for interdisciplinary artists, I watched the handling of the Olympics closely to see if it meant that a shift in policy at City Hall was on the horizon. Had Vancouver “grown up”, I asked myself, and become like many other progressive cities in North America like Montreal, New York, and Portland Ore., where the noise of development was often challenged or at least accompanied by the sounds of live music? By all accounts no, things went back to how they were before, with examples such as the aforementioned bagpipe controversy as well as the hyper-regulation and ongoing harassment of independent music and cultural venues while the sounds of jackhammers and wrecking-balls continued unabated throughout Vancouver.

This selective enforcement is written into the Noise Control Bylaw 6555 by the City of Vancouver. In the bylaw, the time allotted to acceptable noise created in the construction of private buildings is given specific parameters: “Construction on private property must be carried out between 7:30 am and 8 pm on any weekday that is not a holiday, and between 10 am to 8 pm on any Saturday that is not a holiday. Construction is not permitted on Sundays.” This timeframe is equal to 72.5 hours on a week with no holidays, or 43.2% of the time. Also, that allotted time can be extended by applying for a “noise bylaw exemption permit.”[2]

The City of Vancouver’s list of phone numbers to call in order to file a specific type of noise complaint surprisingly makes no reference to the noises of building construction or renovation. Furthermore, any noises created: “(a) as a consequence of the construction, cleaning, or other maintenance of any building, street, sewer, water main, electrical duct, or other public utility; or (b) by the sound of church bells, chimes, or carillons, whether amplified or not (City of Vancouver)” are exempt from the bylaws that pertain to: noises disturbing unreasonably the quiet in a street or park, or all of the decibel limits (daytime and nighttime). The exemption of church bells is certainly in line with R. Murray Schafer’s perspective in Voices of Tyranny, Temples of Silence. He notes that in the preindustrial Christian world there was nearly unquestioned and completely unchallenged dominance of the soundscape by the church in the ringing of church bells in terms of decibels.[3] In post-industrial Vancouver, private development and government construction noises dominate the soundscape, but a nod is still given to the former seat of societal power in the exemption of church bells from normal noise by-laws. Similarly, the populace largely considers development to be “necessary” and “reasonable”, and so chooses not to fight for lower sound levels from development sites, be it due to apathy or feelings of helplessness.

Compare the city’s lack of concern for development noises with the by-law’s painstaking outline of possible musical infractions: “Sounds from a radio … musical instrument or voice amplification equipment must not cause an unreasonable disturbance.” The words “unreasonable disturbance” are vague enough so as to allow the law to be interpreted by officials, denying music workers job security to the same degree that developers are offered security. What constitutes an “unreasonable disturbance”, and when will the force of the law strike? Music workers in Vancouver are always under the threat of the restriction or even the loss of their livelihood.

Noise Pollution, or Sound Pollution?

Interestingly, the differentiation between music and construction in this context is similar to the difference between what the World Soundscape Project defines as Noise Pollution and Sound Pollution. Noise pollution refers to sounds that often are excessively loud, cause irritation, and can have adverse effects on the health of the populace, from short intense noises (car horns) to long and less intense noises (traffic). Sound pollution comes from an imbalanced soundscape, when something markedly alien intrudes into the sonic territory of a place where it is not perceived to fit. A radio at the beach would probably be contributing to sound pollution, and specifically it would be a sound intrusion. The bagpipe and Hari Krishna controversies, for instance, are examples of engineers perceiving bagpipes and singing as sound pollution in a soundscape of the noise pollution that they had become accustomed to. This is likely due to sound phobia, which Truax defines as: “A sound that arouses fear or dislike in a person for any reason. The novelty of a new sound, particularly one that replaces an old, familiar sound, or sound signal, often causes such reactions.”

Red Gate Cultural Wildlife Refuge 2009, photo credit: Jim Carrico

I experienced this discrepancy in an art space that I was co-running called the Red Gate. The band Destroyer was rehearsing on the top floor. They had just received widespread attention and near-universal acclaim for their most recent album Kaputt and were rehearsing for a world tour. It was within the time frame that would have been acceptable for a construction crew to operate (early evening Friday), and yet based on one noise complaint from a neighbour our space was raided by police officers. In addition, the Red Gate building (152-156 West Hastings St.) was across the street from the Woodwards Development, which had finished three years of construction just a year before.

In this case, city policy is not pro-business, but is specifically only pro-developer, or perhaps more accurately anti- “everything else.” Noise “control” has been used as a justification to restrict independent expression even when in the name of “business”; laws favour the noise of development over the sounds of art and dissent.

Barry Truax states in Acoustic Communication (2nd ed.):

“We have characterized sound as having a mediating effect on, and therefore as creating relationships between, the individual and the environment. Noise seems to be the source of a negative mediation of such relationships, an alienating force that loosens the contact the listener has with the environment, and an irritant that works against effective communication… Quantitative by-laws define noise functionally in terms of the sound’s intensity level to determine whether it is acceptable or not. The problem with legislation, of course, is finding the right cutoff point above which a sound is unacceptable enough to be called noise and therefore prohibited… By contrast to these objective definitions, the generally accepted subjective definition of noise is that it is “unwanted sound.” This definition clearly shifts the responsibility for the identification of what is noise to the listener and the level of agreement regarding prohibition to that of majority decision, as in the democratic model.”[4]

Barry Truax also writes about the industrial opposition to noise control in Acoustic Communication. He points out that cities will often choose to focus efforts against noise pollution on the noise sources in the top ten percentile. He also says:

“Statements such as ‘every dB reduction will cost American industry…’ scare people away from such approaches [as progressive cuts in sound emissions], but those making such statements never look at the other side of the cost ledger to estimate the true cost of noise in its broader effects. The 10% solution also implicitly fails to raise public awareness of the problem because it focuses on the small minority of offenders, the “few bad apples” that can be dealt with without much fuss, instead of showing the degree to which everyone is a contributor to the problem.”

But, the top 10 percentile no longer includes development and construction due to the current Noise Control By-law, signed into law incidentally by then Mayor, and former Premier Gordon Campbell.

In our industrial society, it is perfectly acceptable in the eyes of the law to make astonishingly loud noise during the daytime hours, when individuals are functioning as workers, but it is often unacceptable to make noise as individuals, as a result of celebration or expression, even in conversation [5] on the basis of the negative effect that perceived sound pollution can have on our comfort levels and sleeping habits. But our mentality in the West is not inherent to human society. Sutrisno Hartana, former SFU Gamelan professor, once told me that Gamelan is performed through the night in Java, and instead of being at risk of “noise complaints”, the players are congratulated when they hit the bronze so hard as to break it. Similarly, Barry Truax notes Samual Rosen’s observations of the Mabaan people of the Sudan:

“He reported that the sound level in the villages was generally less than 40 dBC and that the levels associated with some work activities were only 73-74 dB. The only really loud sounds were from musical activities during festivals.”[6]

This difference is not accidental, but rather a conscious effort to appeal to a deeper culture in Vancouver that favours the livelihood and comfort of what is perceived as pro-business over what is considered disruptive to business. This distinction is simply a perception however, as it does not take into consideration the business of arts and entertainment. We can see the differentiation between these two perceived forms of noise pollution written into Vancouver City By-law 6555.

What on the surface seems like a debate about what is and is not noise is underneath a debate of ideologies. As Truax points out in Acoustic Communication, what is thought of as noise is fundamentally subjective. Further, these subjective judgements can be understood both as reactions to the nature of the sound itself, and to the source activities; with the most negative reactions towards activities we find distasteful. It is in this way that a developer-funded city government can shut down venues and studios based on noise complaints, and keep laws intentionally ambiguous regarding live musical performance, and even rehearsal, while setting aside 72.5 hours a week for unrestrained construction/ development noise. It remains to be seen whether the City of Vancouver’s actions represent a markedly different perception of what is “noise” based on the ideology, backgrounds, and training of the bylaw enforcers, or the City is instead using the label of “Noise Pollution” in order to control unwanted activities.

By virtue of Vancouver City By-Law 6555, rehearsed, performed or otherwise amplified music is ideologically relegated to noise pollution. This gives officials and citizens means (and entitlement) to quash “undesired” sounds. The effect is discouragement of emerging musicians, a decrease in the job-security of music-workers, and the creation of the conditions wherein the act of making music is an act of civil disobedience. The musician by their very expression is a law-breaker in performing a selfless act, but a developer performing a selfish act is given permission to produce unrestrained noise almost half of the time. The more the musician’s impulse to express is undermined by sound phobia and in the name of noise control, the more they must assert themselves in the contemporary city soundscape. Otherwise, we are doomed to create and live within a soundscape dominated by the noise pollution of unsustainable urban development.


[1] Barry Truax, Acoustic Communication (Westport, CT: Ablex, 2011) — this book includes the supplementary Handbook for acoustic ecology.
[2] I have sent a Freedom of Information request to find out how many Noise Bylaw Exemption Permits have been awarded in the last ten years separated by mayoral terms, but I did not receive a response by the time of publication.
[3] R. Murray Schafer, Voices of Tyranny, Temples of Silence (Indian River, ON: Arcana, 1993) pp. 32 – 33
[4] Barry Truax, Acoustic Communication, pp. 94, 95
[5] Section 4 (b)
[6] Barry Truax, Acoustic Communication, p. 101