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How loud is too loud? Telluride thrives on music festivals, but some locals want to turn down the volume

Complaints over noise divide the resort town of Telluride, where hosts of dozens of annual concerts now must submit sound-management plans.

Crowds fill the park in Telluride's east end for RIDE Festival in 2015. (Dylan Langille, RIDE Festival)
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“Window rattling.” “Wall shaking.” “Ear Shattering.”

Those unpleasant-sounding descriptors have turned into fighting words in Telluride, where they have been directed at a sacrosanct part of this mountain town: music festivals. Those festivals have been a big part of Telluride’s mystique since Telluride Bluegrass twanged into being in 1973, followed by the Jazz Festival, Blues & Brews, and most recently, the RIDE festival.

The high-decibel acts at some of those festivals have grown too loud for some ears. Residents in the east end of the box canyon that cradles Telluride have complained that some of the music blasting from the Telluride Town Park over 13 days each summer shatters the peace in their nearby dwellings and disrupts their lives.

The festivals have grown bigger, louder and longer, they say. The RIDE Festival – the new kid on the musical-event block – has drawn the most fire with bands like Widespread Panic, Gov’t Mule and Thunderpussy that cash in on big noise.

The jam band Widespread Panic at RIDE Festival in 2015. (Dylan Langille, RIDE Festival)

“The Ride is painfully, unbearably, intolerably loud,” Telluride resident David Coder wrote in a recent letter-to-the-editor of the Telluride Daily Planet.

He went on to describe noise levels that shook walls in his home to the point that pictures fell to the floor.

“Think enhanced interrogation, where the CIA pumped loud music into prisoners’ cells to drive them to ‘I’ll talk, I’ll say anything you want’ desperation,” Coder wrote.

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“They have a valid complaint. They own their houses. They pay taxes,” said RIDE promoter Todd Creel, who will put on his 9th RIDE Festival this summer. “But it is a live music venue.”

The complaints have not only raised a digital ruckus in the Planet and on a Telluride Facebook page called Telluride Sweet Rants and Bitching. They have caught attention at the Telluride Town Hall.

Town can come and turn down the volume

At a recent town board work session attended by complainants, music-at-any-decibel supporters, festival promoters and a sound expert, the growing problem did not fall on deaf ears. The town decided to ask promoters to do things a little differently at this year’s festivals.

“I don’t think it was a surprise that we have had complaints in the past two years,” said Telluride Mayor DeLanie Young, who has worked at every Telluride music festival, including the RIDE Festival, for the past 13 years. “I know definitely we have had instances when the music got too loud.”

Young came up with a compromise that will at least get both the lower-the-volume folks and the bring-on-the-noise crowd through the summer. She secured promises from festival organizers that they will voluntarily submit sound management plans. The town will have the right to reduce sound levels during the RIDE Festival if it is too loud. The town will also assess the sound situation at the end of the season and decide if more needs to be done.

The board members did not agree to suggestions that they hire sound experts to monitor and police the decibels.

Craig Ferguson and Steve Gumble, directors of the Bluegrass Festival and Blues & Brews, were at the meeting to explain what kinds of measures, such as adjusting the angle of speakers and tweaking the soundboard, to mitigate how much sound leaves the park.

Creel vowed to take similar measures to address the noise complaints. He said there are many things he can do using modern technology to lessen noise outside the park but still have it heart-thumping loud enough for festival goers.    

Blues rock artist ZZ Ward plays for the crowd at the RIDE Festival in Telluride on July 14, 2018. The festival grounds are at the east wall of the box canyon that defines the town. (Linda Carlson, RIDE Festival)

Complaints about the festival noise had been trickling in to the town over the past several years as tens of thousands of music fans trek to the town’s park for the sounds. But the whole matter blew up initially when Pretty Lights brought crashingly loud electronic dance music to the park in 2015 and 2016. It was so loud that Pretty Lights was not invited back. (Resident complaints over the thundering bass of electronic dance music at the Vertex festival in Buena Vista in August 2016 ultimately killed that event after one year.)

The gripes in Telluride were revived recently when the town granted the RIDE Festival a third day of music. Shortly after, an east ender put pink door hangers on knobs in that part of town. The notices exhorted the town to “Please Lower the Volume.”

“Most residents appreciate the contributions these festivals make to our community,” the notice said. “But we don’t want to be blasted by ear-shattering, building-rattling decibel levels. And the excessive volume is not necessary for the festivals to thrive.”

Musicians greet crowds gathered on the RIDE Festival grounds in 2016, near the edge of the box canyon that defines Telluride. (Provided by RIDE Festival)

 Opponents of that idea jumped on Sweet Rants. The sound spat – in 250 comments — got as nasty as anything currently boiling in the national political arena. A go-back-to-where-you-came-from barrage of criticism was directed at those wanting to dampen sound. The anti-noise crowd likened what they suffer through to “an invasion of privacy.” The mid-range commenters wrote that they didn’t want to hear any complaints that could rein in the town’s beloved festivals. The one point of agreement was that Telluride would not be Telluride without the festivals.

“Oh my God, it’s a concert for god sake a few days per year. Put some ear plugs in,” wrote Derek Levesque.

“The music that comes to town park is part of Telluride’s DNA,” commented Kelli Gleason.

“When I hear the sound from the park, I think of a vibrant tourist economy, the 10,000 people who walk past my place each night is a saving grace for our town and our economy,” wrote Ross Caswell.

Telluride as seen from its namesake ski resort in September 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The ire was directed at a self-described “unorganized group of Telluride residents” behind the door hangers. That includes Seth Cagin and Marta Tarbell who are asking the town to set decibel levels for all music festivals.

“We are rocking the boat,” Tarbell admitted after the onslaught began.

Tarbell and Cagin have lived in the east end for 28 years and previously owned and operated the Telluride Watch. So, they are no strangers to controversy – or the town’s music-festival identity.  

In 2016, the town had done a sound monitoring study after a new stage was built at the park. That study, which measured sound at many points around Telluride, found, not surprisingly, that some of the music coming from the park is LOUD. It also found that the level of noise is affected by many variables – not just how high a band’s sound engineers crank up the volume or where they aim speakers. Wind, buildings, foliage and weather can also have impacts.

Creel admits his RIDE Festival can be high decibel. But he blamed the whole brouhaha over noise on a small group of older and very vocal residents. Still, he said, he will work to address their concerns. The volume will be turned down a tad this summer.

“We all need to play nice in the same sandbox,” he said.

Campers fill up the festival grounds for RIDE Festival 2016 in Telluride. (Provided by RIDE Festival)

That sandbox includes another Telluride institution, KOTO-FM. The local public radio station receives nearly a tenth of its annual budget from liquor sales at the RIDE Festival so station supporters don’t want that to go away – loud or not.

KOTO board president Mark Izard said part of the reason some residents may be feeling so rattled over festival noise is because they may be suffering overall festival burnout. Telluride has dozens of other festivals every year that celebrate everything from fire to mushrooms to ideas.

“When you live in a town with festivals every weekend – sometimes with two or three stacked in one weekend,” he said, “a lot of residents are pretty much done with festival after festival after festival after festival.”

That’s even if they aren’t ear-splittingly loud.


CORRECTION: This story was updated March 12, 2020, at 9:54 p.m. to correct the name of the publication owned by Seth Cagin and Marta Tarbell. It was the Telluride Watch, which now is a part of the Telluride Daily Planet.