Feel the Noise


My spirits were lifted this morning by a local feature posted on TV2 last night:

Total ban on loud music: harbor will seize Soundbokses
TV2.dk, June 8

A “Soundboks,” if you’ve been fortunate enough not to have learned from experience, is an industrial-strength speaker that can generate massive sound from a relatively small cabinet. Designed by a trio of Danes who wanted a compact portable speaker that could make itself heard even in large, crowded, noisy environments, the Soundboks took off and is now a global brand. As they brag on their website:

Today, there are over 50,000 SOUNDBOKS speakers in over 40 countries, and we are on a mission to connect a community that is pushing the possibility of what can happen when awesome people and great music come together in epic locations.

To paraphrase Shakesepeare, let me not to the marriage of awesome people, great music, and epic locations admit impediments. The right music in the right place with the right people can be magical. Allow me only to note that not all people are awesome, not all music is great, and not all locations are epic.

Also note what Soundboks has very deliberately omitted from that gushing little paragraph of public relations cheerfulness: volume.

The appeal of a Soundboks isn’t the quality of its sound (which is in fact quite good), but the power of its sound. The purpose of a Soundboks is not to capture every nuanced tone, but to rock the hell out.

It fulfills that function admirably.

The problem described by the article is that the massive sound created by Soundbokses in public locations has been generating a lot of complaints. This is hardly news in itself: the Danish media were full of stories about the pandemic of loud music plaguing the land last spring and summer. With the bars and clubs all closed, the kids would gather outdoors and rock the nights away. Which is something they did often enough even when the bars and clubs were open. They’re kids. It’s what they do. We can’t pretend it’s a new thing:


The focus of the article is on the particular solution to this problem being implemented in Anholt Harbor, a marina on the island of Anholt in the middle of Kattegat:

It’s taking place in cooperation with the Eastern Jutland Police. The police will be present at night weeks 26-32, and they’ll be able to confiscate the Soundbokses that may be in the harbor area.

(Weeks 26-32 are the weeks of most Danes’ summer vacations.)

The article also describes new regulations in Aarhus, where outdoor speakers will be forbidden in public after 20:00 weeknights and 22:00 on Friday and Saturday nights.

The Harbormaster of Anholt, Klaus Jensen, is skeptical of the Aarhus solution:

“A time-specific ban doesn’t work. We didn’t experience that the parties started earlier. On the contrary, the parties started around midnight. It was related to the island’s pubs and bars closing,” says the Harbormaster.

The Aarhus approach also assumes that loud music is only a public annoyance at night, as though the only problem with bone-rattling bass emanating from multiple spots throughout a city is that it might disturb citizens’ sleep. That’s not the case, as anyone who’s encountered Soundbokses during daylight hours can surely attest.

Here’s where the debate gets interesting: the journalist says to Jensen, toward the end of the article, “You say there should be place for everyone. So why isn’t there a place for people with Soundbokses at the harbor?”

Jensen’s answer isn’t bad, but it isn’t complete.

“It certainly can’t help things that ten people should create a problem for thousands,” he says.

Which is true, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

One heard variants of the journalist’s question a lot last summer: “People say they have the right not to have to hear loud music,” people said, “but what about the rights of people who want to hear loud music?”

It’s a silly argument that makes a hash of what rights actually are.

I have the right to swing a stick around in the air; I do not have the right to whack passers-by over the head with it. I have the right to throw a ball around with friends in a park, I have no right to throw that ball into the face of a stranger. I have the right to go for a bike ride in the woods, but I have no right to ride it straight through your picnic.

As the popular aphorism has it, my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.

No one has a right to subject other people to anything. To claim a right to play loud music is to claim a right to make other people hear something they have no wish to hear. That’s not a right, but neither is it a crime in most cases: it’s an indulgence. Our culture recognizes the pleasure that music provides, and is willing to accommodate it within reason. There is no hard and fast line, but blasting music in public at concert-level volumes in the dead of night is not within most people’s definition of reason.

“Disturbing the peace” is in a legal infraction in most civilized countries, but the line between “peace” and “disturbance” is obviously blurry.

But I want to get back to this question of rights. We seem to have a problem understanding what they are. We’re told that education is a right, that healthcare is a right, that housing is a right, and so on. A human right. Something we’re all entitled to from birth.

But most of these things aren’t human rights at all, and can’t be, because they require the active agency of other people and you can’t call something that compels the labor of others a right.

You can’t make education a “human right” without ensuring there are an adequate number of teachers and schools to fulfill that right. You can’t make healthcare a “human right” without ensuring adequate doctors, nurses, specialists, equipment, hospitals, clinics, and so on. The idea of housing as a “human right” creates a whole cascade of questions: what kind of housing? With what amenities? Does that include electric? Cable? Wifi?

You have the human right to pursue an education, to seek healthcare, to buy or rent a home, but no right to get them, because you have no right to make someone else educate you, heal you, or house you.

To the extent a country like Denmark guarantees its citizens healthcare or education, it must ensure the existence of an infrastructure that can deliver the guaranteed services. That’s not impossible, but it requires enormous government involvement. If a given population is willing to pay the necessary taxes and put up with the necessary bureaucracy (including intrusive rules in the areas affected), there’s no reason a government can’t ensure that such things are provided to its citizens. But those are policy decisions, not human rights, and the difference is more than a mere splitting of hairs.

Enjoying music in public—whether on a beach, in a park, or in one’s own back yard (which is public insofar as sound waves are no respecters of property lines)—is a privilege, not a right, and it’s a privilege one enjoys at the pleasure of one’s fellow citizens. Abuse that privilege, and they’ll revoke it.

It’s not a violation of rights, it’s a simple requirement of human coexistence: long before we had formulated abstractions like rights or drawn up any bodies of law, we surely understood that if you annoy enough people, they’ll turn on you in a New York minute.

So three cheers for the Harbormaster of Anholt for literally keeping the peace.

Now if he could only get those damn kids off my lawn…

(Whoops!—never mind, they’re my own kids: I’m stuck with ’em.)