It’s like thousands of crickets. All chirping at the same time inside your ears. The concert finished a few hours ago, and Roberto Gañán, singer and guitarist from Ska-P, is in his hotel room, alone, and trying to sleep in a fetal position. He takes some medication. He manages to get a few hours of sleep. The next day he’ll be playing with his group in another city. The crickets will return.
The frontman of Ska-P, who is 50, suffers from tinnitus: a buzzing or ringing in the ears. Between 15 and 20% of the population has this condition in Spain, although it does not trouble the majority. For many musicians, however, given that they are regularly exposed to high decibel levels, it can be a serious problem.
“Pulpul,” as Gañán is known, suffers from a severe case of tinnitus – so much so that he had to quit for two years to focus on treatment. “I got very scared,” he explains. “I spoke to my bandmates and told them, ‘Guys, I can’t do this anymore. I have to stop. I need this to stop.’ These crickets are killing me.”
He ended up spending “a lot of money” on treatment. He was desperate – he was willing to listen to anyone who had a proposal that would improve his life. He traveled to a clinic in Dusseldorf, Germany. “They put me in rooms with waterbeds, it was all very relaxing,” he explains. “The doctor linked it to stress and anxiety, more than to do with playing. He started to inject botox behind my ears. But no change: my crickets were still there. Not one of them went.”
In Spain, meanwhile, he was treated with laser light, medication, homeopathy, psychological treatment… A lot of investment but scant advances.
Many international music stars have publicly spoken about their hearing problems: Pete Townshend (The Who), Noel Gallagher (Oasis), James Hetfield (Metallica), Phil Collins, Ozzy Osbourne, Eric Clapton… Some have had to stop playing for a time, such as Brian Johnson from AC/DC.
In Spain, the condition particularly affects musicians from “the old school,” bands who started in the 1980s and 1990s. “We used to rehearse in a small room with inhuman levels of volume,” explains Josele Santiago, who has enjoyed a solo career and also sang and played guitar for Los Enemigos. “I didn’t start using protection until it was too late.”
Santiago, 56, has lost the high frequencies in both ears. “I don’t trust what I hear when they mix my records,” he explains. “And when I’m in a conversation with three or four people I’m lost. I’m like a grandad. You get scared that you’re going to go deaf, of course. And when it’s most bothersome it can make you bitter too. Living your life in a bad mood all day is no way to be.” He adds that he has “got used to living with these sounds.”
Doctor María Teresa Heitzmann, a specialist in tinnitus who works at the Clínica Universidad hospital in Navarre, explains that right now, “there is no pharmacological treatment or surgery that can successfully treat tinnitus. There is, however, a treatment to rehabilitate the channel that is not working properly and make it work well. This is done in a way so that the tinnitus that is reaching the brain and is perceived as discomfort is no longer perceived as such and is ignored. This is what we call habituation.” Basically, the idea is to get used to the sound, ignore it, live with it but not pay it any attention.
The bassist and singer from Boikot, Juan Carlos Cabano Juankar, 52, was diagnosed with tinnitus 10 years ago. “The problem is that when we started to play, we didn’t know about any of this,” he explains. “We had no information. When they told me that I had it, the first thing I tried to do was stop it getting worse. I’ve been wearing earplugs for a long time now and I rehearse away from the drums.”
When he was suffering the most, Juankar tried to get part of his treatment covered by Spain’s Social Security system, “given that it’s a work-related ailment.” He was unsuccessful. “I’ve played in countries such as Switzerland, France and Germany and there’s a lot of awareness of this problem. They have a program where veteran musicians visit rehearsal rooms and warn young people about the importance of protecting your ears. What’s more, in most concert venues and festivals there are dispensers for the public containing ear plugs. I’ve never seen those in Spain,” he explains.
Paco López, the director of the ARTE association, which represents technicians in the arts sector, is calling for the condition to be classed as an occupational disease. “Artists and technicians are exposed for long times to very high levels of noise, and that causes a gradual deterioration of hearing,” he explains. “We are calling for the corresponding treatment to be granted for the care of aural health.”
Guillem Arnedo, the president of the Union of Professional Musicians, agrees. “It’s clear that this disability should be covered and have economic compensation, as is done in other countries in Europe. In the coming days, an inter-ministerial commission will begin to establish the Artists’ Statute, and this proposal will be on the table.”
“Stress, anxiety, lack of sleep… These are situations that cause tinnitus,” explains Doctor Heitzmann. “And people exposed to noise or loud music have more chances of getting it than the rest of the population. Loud noise or intense music is damaging to the ear. They cause acoustic trauma.”
This also applies to those who listen to music at a high volume. “Even though it is getting better, I believe that there is still not enough education in this respect,” the specialist explains. “I feel sick when I walk past a boy or girl who has the music in their headphones so loud that I can hear it from two meters away. The consequences of this, should it continue, will be major.
After a lot of treatment without any results, the Ska-P singer saw some improvement. “I found a specialist who taught me to ignore it,” he says. “It hasn’t cured the problem, but this has been the closest I’ve been to having someone explain it to me.” He has been taught that “‘this is like walking into a room with a television that’s on but you can’t access it. It really bothers you and you cant turn it off, even if you try to you can’t. You could die trying to. But if you turn around and grab a book and start to read, that television will disappear. Well that’s what we’re going to work on.’ And it’s gone well for me. I still have my crickets and when they chirp I take notice of what I was told: my brain is going elsewhere and will no longer be taking any notice.”
Other sufferers explain that they tend to isolate themselves to avoid noise and that sometimes they are so sensitive to an everyday sound it affects their mood. “The other day I went into a café in the morning and they were getting breakfast ready,” explains the singer from Boikot. “The simple sound of a spoon touching a cup was like being kicked in the brain. I had to leave the bar.”
In 2022 all of these musicians will be back on tour, ready to feel the adrenaline from performing at a concert. But all of them will be wearing their earplugs.