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A Lifetime of Listening

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Jenna Paley became an audiologist because she fell in love with the ear: the transduction of sound waves to become meaningful pieces of information, and the profound role hearing plays in our ability to connect with other people. She is a hearing doctor, who specialises in working with music biz professionals, and she runs Project Decibel.

“In graduate school, we learned mostly about hearing loss treatment – for example, what do we do when we lose our hearing?” opens Paley. “Having several friends in the music school, I took more of an interest in hearing loss prevention - specifically in the music industry. I was disappointed by the lack of education there was for music industry students and professionals around hearing, and without quite knowing exactly what it would be, I incorporated Project Decibel.”

Paley was fortunate enough to spend time studying with leading audiologists in the field who have paved the way and created space and inspiration for more audiologists to practice hearing loss prevention. I ask her, in a nutshell, what Project Decibel is all about.

“I specialise in working with music industry professionals to create individualised plans to make sure their ears are protected, both while they do their job, and are enjoying the thing they love most,” she says. “My goal is to prevent hearing disorders to ensure a lifetime of listening.”

I put it to Paley that with major stars – Coldplay’s Chris Martin being one – now revealing that super-loud shows, and generally not taking care of their ears in the past, has led to hearing loss, and at times, tinnitus, we really should be talking about it more. How can the general public learn more, and what can we all do to help raise awareness?

“[smiles] Ah, I love this! This is exactly my mission with Project Decibel, to create a community around hearing loss prevention,” Paley explains. “We are currently focused on forming partnerships with leading music industry organisations to make hearing wellness more accessible, and more affordable. In addition to working with MusiCares, a Recording Academy organisation, we recently finalised a partnership with BMI, an extraordinary music rights organisation. It’s partnerships like these that allow us to reach more people, and provide more on-site hearing tests, wax removal, and ear mold impressions for custom earplugs to those who otherwise would not be able to access it.”

And the best way to help raise awareness is to have Project Decibel at your next event, Paley says. Hear, hear! (sorry...)

“We are open to traveling all over the world to provide these services, and all we need from our partners is a place to set up! In addition to our partnerships, we also have a wealth of information on our website. Instead of scientific white papers, our website is filled with videos, sound files, and graphics explaining things like how our ears work, music induced hearing disorders, how loud is too loud, and what hearing loss sounds like. I wanted to create content that was focused on the facts, and simple to understand. We also have a goal to create more content in 2019, do interviews with leading audio engineers, 3D scanner companies, and other organisations getting involved in the Save The Ears mission.”

Project Decibel’s ‘we come to you’ model is really cool - allowing for a more affordable and accessible service. I ask Paley how it all came about.

“The concierge model has been awesome. When I first started working in the music industry, I found the biggest barrier to access to hearing wellness was the fact people need to schedule appointments during normal business hours, and then go to a doctor’s office, which was overly complicated and intimidating, especially for musicians that have irregular schedules,” Paley says, making a very good point. “I kept hearing, ‘I’ve been meaning to do this for 10 years, and just never wanted to, or had time to go into a doctor’s office’. At that point, I knew that I needed to be 100% mobile, so I packed up my clinic into a road case, and have been on the move ever since.”

Inspiring stuff, and further proof of Paley’s dedication to her work. In addition to being a concierge for her clients, flying to see them during rehearsals or at venues, or on the tour bus, she also sees plenty of creatives at music festivals.

“It allows more people to access our services, as well as be super convenient for the majority of industry members who are constantly on the move, and don’t have time to make an appointment with an audiologist,” she says. “Last season, we had an official presence at six music festivals - Lollapalooza, and Austin City Limits, for example - with a booth in their backstage artist area. In addition, we were at almost 10 other festivals on behalf of clients, to see them in their green rooms. It’s great to be able to connect with artist management, engineers, crew, staff, and security, and see how excited they are about us being there - another big thank you to our partners for making it happen!”

Conversation turns to IEMs, and how important now it is for artists to wear them from a protection perspective as well as an audio perspective.

“As a doctor, my main concern is hearing loss prevention. That being said, I also do a lot of IEM fittings. In-ear monitors aren’t inherently hearing protection devices, because they too can get dangerously loud, and you have the ability to turn them up just as loud as you would a floor monitor,” she explains. “However, if worn properly, they definitely give you the best opportunity to protect your hearing by blocking out stage noise, allowing you to keep your monitor mix low. I highly recommend them for all performers, and anyone
who is on stage.

“There are two things I require of my clients who are getting IEMs: a hearing test (also done onsite), and their commitment to turning them down as low as they can without compromising their ability to perform. From an audio perspective (I am no audio engineer), in-ears have several benefits: reduced risk of feedback and vocal fatigue; a cleaner stage; and the ability to move around freely, without losing your mix. Overall, I highly recommend new artists to get in-ears as early as possible, and make sure you have a hearing test during your fitting!

“If you don’t have an audiologist or feel you need some additional support,don’t hesitate to reach out to me via our website - I am always available for phone and Skype appointments.”

One of Paley’s main partners is IEM specialist, JH Audio. Her relationship with the team is second to none, and they work closely together.

“Kevin [Glendinning, JH Audio artist relations] is a treasured colleague, and close friend of mine. We’re both based out of Chicago, and see a lot of clients together. I think we would both say we make a pretty great team,” Paley says. “We have a mutual respect for the role we each play in the process, and have definitely gotten into a routine when we see clients together.

“We also have the same values: be professional, keep confidentiality, do a good job, and be kind. He has played a big role in Project Decibel; as an official advisor to the company, he has helped me figure out how to reach more people in a way that resonates with them. Kevin is the best, he goes above and beyond for all of his clients, whether you are a global superstar, or just a music lover looking for great headphones.”

Only a small percentage of Paley’s clients have had a hearing test within the last five years of seeing her, let alone in their adult life. Why is that, exactly?

“I think most of them are nervous during the test, as most would be during any test, because there’s the potential you’re going to get some bad news,” she admits. “There is new research to suggest that the ability to hear speech in noise is the first thing to be injured by excessive exposure to loud sound. However, most of my clients are surprised to see their results are generally positive with hearing within normal limits.

“It’s one of my favourite parts of the job. Most people feel empowered to protect their hearing, knowing they still got it! For those who have some injury, we talk about how to prevent it from getting any worse. It’s never too late to start protecting what you have!”

Her clientele is an even split between new artists and those with established musical careers, which sounds pretty healthy to me; and beyond that, Paley works with music students and faculty, management, crew, security, engineers, and plain old music lovers, as well. I ask Paley if she’s had a standout moment in her career to date?

“The public announcement of our partnership with BMI was definitely a moment I will never forget. It was my dream that large music organisations would join our mission, and it was pretty crazy to see it happen so fast,” she reflects. “I’d definitely like to thank Nina Carter for taking the first step in making sure BMI artists have a place to go for their hearing care. There have been so many great memories along this journey, I’m so lucky to literally do what I love.

“It is my dream that more people start talking about hearing wellness this year, and to grow our community at Project Decibel. To me, the most important thing is the ongoing conversation that we have as a whole, with our partners, and my clients. My hope for 2019 is to create more partnerships, maybe even some internationally, and to give more people access to hearing wellness.”