“it’s basically like listening to the same ten trombone blasts on repeat over the entire workday”

Photo by PoPville flickr user Matt Steenhoek

“Dear PoPville,

I’m writing for advice about excessive noise levels that DC police have repeatedly refused to address.

Each day (every day) on the corner of 15th and Penn a band with a full drum kid, three trombones, and, occasionally, amplified vocals plays for about 6 hours. It’s a commercial district where DC law imposes a 65 decibel noise limit (DC Rule 20-2701.1) which applies to “Noise resulting from musical instruments, loud speakers,” and other sources (20-2800.1).

The trombones and drums clearly exceed these decibel limits (trombones produce sound between 85-115 decibels and drums are even louder). (In addition to being extremely loud, the band only plays four musical sequences, so it’s basically like listening to the same ten trombone blasts on repeat over the entire workday.)

Hundreds of people in my offices and in the five surrounding large office buildings have called in noise complaints over the last several months. (See the Washingtonian article–from May–mocking one office for their complaints.)

DC police regularly respond that they are unable to measure the decibel levels of the band and hence cannot tell whether they are breaking the law. In essence, they shrug their shoulders and say they won’t do anything about it.

We are all sympathetic for the guys in the band, and understand where people are coming from when they ask what the big deal is. But it is exceptionally distracting and people are very frustrated with the band itself and with the response of the city and the police. The police are basically allowing four individual street vendors to break the noise ordinance at the expense of several hundred workers.

Thus far, neither the city nor the police (nor direct outreach to the band itself) have helped. Any advice?”

51 Comment

  • DC simply doesn’t enforce the Noise Act. If you google it, you’ll see hundreds of complaints (and one civic association formed just for the purpose of complaining) about the lack of enforcement. I live in a residential neighborhood with a loud bar and there is no way to get ABRA/DCRA/MPD to enforce the Noise Act. They each say it is the others jurisdiction and/or they don’t have the decibel meters they need to substantiate a noise complaint under the Act.

    • I would say “DC’s authorities have more important things to do!” except that we’re having gunfights on playgrounds in Columbia Heights and people tripped out on synthetic drugs murdering people on metro trains. So, they’re clearly not doing those things either.

      • clevelanddave

        I would say your answer is nonsense. It quickly disintegrates “because X is more important you can’t do Y and Z.” We have laws. Take them off the books or enforce them. We seem to be capable of issuing parking tickets and solving murders, why can’t ABRA do their jobs and fix a widely reported, chronic complaint?

  • Can those affected pool their resources together and rent or buy a decibel reader? Not sure how much that would cost or where to get one, but if you have “hundreds” of people getting annoyed, it would be worth it to research it. Once you have your noise meter in hand, make an appointment with the police and hope they start writing tickets for these yahoos. Good luck.

    • Would a decibel reader be accurate on a busy city street? Would you be able to know for sure if you were measuring the noise from the band and not from traffic on the street?

    • Or hire a professional to measure it who could draft a report and speak to qualifications, calibration, accuracy, etc.

    • You can buy a decent one for under $20. Amazon will have to you tomorrow.

    • Don’t even need to buy one — there are a number of apps for that.

  • lol….. I read the Washingtonian article. To this band I say play on.

    • Ditto! I say keep playing! You people really need to consider moving out to the far burbs and find jobs out there in the quiet suburban office parks. You’ll be happier and won’t need to spend your time complaining all the time about every little city issue that bothers you.

      • clevelanddave

        I would say you don’t have to listen to it all day every day. Either it is a violation of the law or it isn’t. Are you saying that if you don’t like the lack of responsiveness of government agencies you should move- or do you have rights and a reasonable expectation that you will be responded to? Jeez.

  • Take up a collection and pay them to play somewhere else.

    • In the article the stockbrokers tried that, but the musicians claim they’re making $200 per day, each.

    • Sounds like Skadden Arps already tried that. They offered $200 a week, but the “band” claimed they make $200 per person per day. These aren’t musicians if they’re only playing four songs on repeat. They’re just annoying street performers who are making a buck and not caring one bit that they are interrupting people’s workdays (in the article, they gleefully claim they are louder than the speakers at the Verizon Center- ugh). The article confirms that they’re obnoxious and not willing to compromise. They need to be fined out the wazoo until they get the picture. Living and working in tight places like cities only works when people are willing to be civilized/respectful. It quickly becomes a pain in the rear when you have people like this who think they are entitled to be a noise nuisance. My sympathy for the OP and his/her colleagues.

  • Dribble skunk musk on their corner. If they move 50 feet, get that spot.
    There are ways for musicians to turn down the music. Mutes for the horns, brushes for the drums. Or just not putting every ounce of muscle into every minute. They bragged in that article about being able to blow away any other music, volume-wise. They might be earning money, but they’re also getting a kick out of annoying the suits, it’s clear.

    • yes I also found that the article implied they enjoyed pissing off the people in the offices.

    • The article really made the band sound like entitled jerks. No one would begrudge them the chance to play all day if they weren’t making a point of disturbing so many people with the volume.

      • IDK, I think the outplaying comments in the article came after Skadden threatened to hire a string quartet to get their spot first. I pass them every day and they aren’t normally playing at “intentionally disturbing people” volumes.

  • There is a similar band or the same band that plays frequently outside the Farragut North stop throughout the afternoon and into the evening. It’s absolutely above 65 decibels. My office is on the other side of the square, and I’ve had to move conference calls to an interior office so that their 4 song loop wouldn’t be background music when we’re trying to talk to the court or clients. I can respect that busking is their job, but it’s beyond just being distracting – it’s interfering with my job at a volume that is against the law.

  • I’m sure people are laughing at this, but as someone who has trouble concentrating at times, i would find this awful. The people busking aren’t any more or less entitled to earning an income and their lack of understanding is a bit much, per the article. Granted, the lawyers don’t deserve special treatment either. what is a nice thing to hear for a 4 minute walk to Starbucks is a lot different when you hear it all the time. I’m sorry to the people who have to live with this.

  • Get noise-cancelling headphones. I work near three active construction zones (think digging out multi-floor parking garages through bedrock right outside my office window) and near a favorite metro stop of the Nation of Islam. I don’t think I could make it through a single workday without them. They have the added benefit of silencing your annoying coworkers.

    • Those headphones are good for solitary occupations/tasks, but not adequate for meetings or phone calls.

      • Sadly, I’m fully aware of the limitations of headphones. Obviously, they don’t do much for calls and meetings, and they don’t stop my building from shaking violently from construction But, it helped with my productivity when I’m working on projects by myself. It’s a start.

        • Tsar of Truxton

          If you get Bose noise cancelling headphones they work for calls as well. Meetings are still an issue though.

          • That won’t actually solve my issue with calls. People on the other end of the line can very clearly hear the construction noise, so it makes it difficult to communicate on the phone even if I’m using headphones. I’m guessing if the buskers are actually as loud as they claim, they might also be audible on phone calls.

    • Side question here – As someone who is about to have the building outside my own office window torn down – do you have recommendations for brands/styles? I’m so nervous about how I’m going to get anything done this winter. I’m already an all day wearer of in ear headphones, but I don’t think the ones I currently use are going to cut it…

    • People only know about Bose off-hand, but there are plenty of companies that sell noise cancelling earphones that are highly rated and cheaper. Do a bit of internet research and you’ll come up with a good brand. And if you want, you get to take an adventure in the curious world of sound equipment geeks, who are utterly obsessed with earphones.

  • No thanks to the person who wants to ensure that DC doesn’t start developing a little more character and culture. When you go to Chicago, New Orleans, New York, etc. you hear music everywhere. And it’s wonderful! When you come back from one of those cites it feels like DC has no soul. Everything is sterile and bland by comparison. There should be more music and more art, not less.

    • I assume there is a reasonable middle ground.

    • As a musician myself, let me just say these guys ain’t musicians. Just because you’ve worked up four crap pieces and play them over and over doesn’t mean you’re a musician and it doesn’t make what they’re “playing” music. They’re just street performers. Yes, there are legitimate buskers out there, but they’re not it. These guys are rude and just out to make money. They should make their money in a way that is not creating massive aggravation for everyone around them.

    • since when is a city’s culture and ‘character’ defined by the number of crappy street performers? i suppose the museums, the mall, the murals, the architecture, the waterfront, the lectures, book readings – and the music played *inside* venues – don’t count?

  • ….you counted the decibels? Isn’t that distracting you from work just as much as the band?

  • Well, good luck but I have to say if big law powerhouse Skadden can’t do anything about it, especially with their rolodex of the local DC ruling class, then I don’t think you will have much luck either.

    And “sure” they make $200/person, or $600 a day playing at that corner.

  • Why not start counting the dollars as they get tossed in to their collection plate? If those guys are bringing in $200/person per day, I sure hope they’re reporting it to the IRS and paying taxes on it. I would think about turning them in if they were around so much. I sympathize with the OP. It’s terribly annoying and I wish more people would be considerate of everyone and stop blaming the victims

  • Busking is not a crime.
    DC, sadly, also isn’t a music city.
    Turn up CNN some more and you’ll hardly notice.

  • Sheesh, don’t get between Skadden and its 16 hour days, huh? They sure know how to bolster their reputation as a bunch of whiny workaholic killjoys.

  • There a free apps that measure decibels. One even combines a photo and the decibels to capture the perpetrators.

  • it doesn’t sound like they’re “sympathetic to the band members” at all. the members have families to feed, bills to pay, and other obligations just like everyone else. that you feel inconvenienced by this, while at the same time either ignorant or apathetic to the band members’ need to earn income are great privileges that not everyone has. stop feeling sorry for yourselves and get over it.

  • I’m sorry but if I can hear the music in my office, it’s too loud. I don’t give a **** about the decibels.

  • Can’t you have a noise clause in your lease with the building owner? This could be your option to void the lease. Also, make sure that the local city council member is aware of your issue and possible threat to find office space in a “better” locale. Council members hate learning about high rent tenants leaving the city. If you can’t conduct a meeting in the business district because of a band playing outside, then it is not a business district.

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