There’s a new trend quietly invading the nation’s biggest music festivals and DJ events— the Silent Disco. What is silent disco, you ask? Masses of headphone-donning partiers dance in-time to a DJ’s completely silent beats, no speakers or amplified sound allowed. For those taking part in the fun, silent discos offer a novel way to enjoy music and dance.
Silent discos began as a movement for environmentalists concerned with noise pollution, first popping up at outdoor festivals and eco-friendly music events. The idea was quickly adopted by after-hours DJs who wanted to find a way to keep their sets going all night and into the morning without disturbing the neighbors or getting shut down by the cops. Today, many of the largest music festivals in the world offer silent disco events as a way to bypass noise restrictions and create a more diverse musical experience.
While the technical aspects of a silent disco vary depending on the equipment used, the number of attendees, and the type of venue, most silent discos employ a fairly simple setup. A DJ uses an FM transmitter to transmit music over radio waves into wireless headphones worn by the partiers. Typically, these specially designed headphones are provided by the festival or the group promoting the event. In recent years, the format of silent discos has begun to evolve, using multiple DJs with competing beats to boost the crowd’s energy and excitement.
Companies such as Silent Frisco, 433fm, Silent Events, and Silent Arena have taken advantage of the increasing popularity of silent disco by hosting their own silent disco parties and by providing their equipment and services to major music festivals such as Bonnaroo, SXSW, Reading Festival and the Treasure Island Music Festival. The trend has even begun to bleed into the realm of live performance and cinema, with silent rock shows and silent theaters emerging in cities around the world.
THE QUIETEST DANCE PARTY EVER
THE TALE OF BATON ROUGE’S FIRST SILENT DISCO
Enter the silent disco concept: two different dance parties broadcasted to an audience through wireless headphones equipped with two FM channels, allowing participants to choose which music they want to dance to. If you want to order a drink at a reasonable speaking volume, simply take off your headphones.
Silent dance nights have swept European nightclubs off their disco balls, and the concept is spreading like wildfire across the United States. Some people think it further dissociates a performer from his or her audience, or that it removes the social element from a night out. While those are valid thoughts to ponder before you’ve been to a silent disco, the actual experience somehow proves both wrong. Not only is it a people watcher’s pot of gold, but it actually stimulates the performer-audience connection while encouraging social interaction.
I, of course, know this from experience.
This past weekend, Baton Rouge experienced its first silent disco, hosted by SimplePlay Presents and the Spanish Moon. I’m not sure what brought me there – I’m not the dancing type, and a live band generally captures my fancy more than a live electronic set will – but the thought of what I’d see when I walked through the doors was too much to pass up: two DJs jamming and a bunch of people wearing headphones; all dancing to nothing. That image alone, to me, is worth seeing at least once in my life.
Before I arrived, I brainstormed for social experiments I could conduct in that sort of environment: as two different DJ sets are being broadcasted, how likely is it for a couple to be dancing to the same music? How many people would reject the atmosphere? How many would fully embrace it, and dance as if everyone else could hear it? Who among us would sing out loud, knowing good and well that some folks aren’t wearing their headphones?
Though I envisioned the scenario, nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced upon entry that night.
Whether you’re conscious of it or not, walking into a nightclub brings certain sensual cues of familiarity: dim lighting, audible music, chatter, and people using the atmosphere as background noise. When one or more of those things is missing, it can feel like a change in barometric pressure or something…it’s a kind of strange that’s hard to put a finger on. In writing, we use metaphors to explain the unexplainable, so here’s my shot: it’s like taking a sip of orange juice when you’re dead certain the cup had milk in it. It’s not that you don’t like orange juice – in fact, you love orange juice – it’s just that it’s not milk.
I felt that I had walked in right as everyone had taken that sip of orange juice.
At the Spanish Moon last Saturday, no one was using the atmosphere as background noise, because no one had ever been in that atmosphere before. Of course, people were playing pool as always, but with headphones on, occasionally dancing. Many perched on the second floor balcony, watching for the unknown. I wouldn’t call it uncomfortable…more like tense anticipation.
We may have walked into the Spanish Moon expecting milk, but as it turns out, orange juice is an excellent mixer. After the 12:30 a.m. mark, everyone started to loosen up and embraced the silliness of the silent disco concept. Minus the headphones, what you see are two DJs onstage jamming out to nothing, occasionally yelling or singing something into the microphone. People on the dance floor periodically slipped off the headset to laugh at each other and themselves, or to ask the nearest soul, “Are you on my channel?”
Then, something magical happened: the wall between DJ and audience was shattered.
As more and more people wandered to the dance floor, a few noble souls were brave enough to sing out loud. The moment the DJs could tell a person was listening to their channel, they understood the reason that their kind lives for a silent disco gig – the microphones in front of each of them pipe directly into the audience’s headphones.
For the first time in Baton Rouge, the DJ booth was not a prison, and when Matt Cee told the crowd to make some noise, they did. And he knew it was because they chose him.
Of course, while everyone with headphones was experiencing this magical moment, those jerks without them got to see the funniest sh*t they’ve ever seen in a nightclub. If you’re too cool for anything, you’re likely far too cool for an event like this – when the audience is having the most fun, it is absolutely hilarious.
By the time I left the bar, all my social experiments had retreated to that corner of the brain where all the unimportant things go, and the only question I had left was, “When is this happening again?”
The new dance party phenomenon, which started in Europe uses specially designed wireless headphones, rather than a traditional speaker system sends people boogying on to the dance floor. Silent discos are now taking America by storm.
“People would think its anti-social, but it ends up being the exact opposite,” Ryan Dowd, owner of Silent Events, Inc., who caters Silent Disco events around the country says. “If you meet someone or give them the eye on the dance floor, there’s no way to talk in a loud, crowded club without going outside, but this way you can literally take off the headphones in the center of the dance floor and talk in an inside voice steps from the DJ.”
College campuses are now hosting Silent Disco parties for their students as well as music festivals, fairs, weekly silent nights at your favorite club, rooftop parties.
Originally created to deal with noise ordinances, silent discos help build camaraderie among those in the know. Everyone feels like they’re in on a secret since they’re all wearing the headphones. Spectators nab a voyeuristic pleasure from watching the group dance in what appears to be silence.
“I think it’s become a phenomenon because there are so many ways to enjoy it,” says Dowd. “If you don’t like loud music, you can dial down the volume. If you don’t like a certain type of music, you can change the channel. If you don’t dance, you can people watch.”
Many silent discos feature several DJs or two or three types of music like rock, rap or electronica. Silent Events even created a bilingual option for a silent dance party.
Dowd measures the success of the events when the headphones run out at the door.