Silent discos: Strap on your headphones and get ready to dance
If a beat drops in a club, but there are no speakers, does it make a sound?
It does if you’re wearing headphones.
That’s the concept behind silent discos, a surreal new type of rave that has popped up at huge music festivals in Europe and America over the past decade. Hundreds of revelers are given wireless headphones, with music by one or more DJs pumped in on multiple channels. If you remove your headset, the effect is eerie — hundreds of revelers singing and shuffling to the music, with nary a note to be heard. It sounds crazy, but in cases where noise restrictions would otherwise limit the party — rooftop parties, college campuses, after-hours raves — it makes perfect sense.
Memphis-based Silent Events Inc. stages between 80 and 100 silent discos per year in the United States, including what may be the first one in Tampa, on Nov. 10 at the Ritz Ybor. (Tickets are $16; click here for info.) The next day, the company will bring more than 1,000 headsets to its biggest disco yet at the Bear Creek Music and Art Festival in Live Oak.
We caught up with Silent Events owner Ryan Dowd for a primer on how silent discos work.
Who came up with the idea of silent discos?
It started in Europe, and that’s where the name comes from — they call clubs discotheques. Evidently, there were some people throwing a music gathering at a wildlife refuge, and they couldn’t have amplified music after 9 o’clock. The story goes that they bought 20 or 30 wireless headphones and whoever wanted to stay up could stay up. It was a small gathering, but that’s kind of what spawned it.
The experience of listening to music is different when you have headphones on, isn’t it? It’s like you’re in your own little world.
Oh, absolutely. Laying in your bed, listening to The Song Remains the Same by Led Zeppelin, or Dark Side of the Moon — it sounded like you were there in the room with them, or you were at that concert. Something about not hearing any other sounds except that music, you’re able to kind of get entranced and lost in it. I’m with you — there’s something kind of intimate about that.
That brings up the notion that it’s antisocial. A lot of people are like, “Oh, since it’s so intimate, and it’s just you and the headphones, it’s antisocial.” But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. You’re able to slide off your headphones and literally, in the middle of the dance floor, 10 feet from the DJ, talk to a friend, using an inside voice. You’re not screaming, going “WHAT?” It actually ends up being a lot of people talking.
Do DJs have to re-learn how to DJ for these events?
It’s not so much that they have to re-learn, as we take them out of their comfort zone. They’re used to having a monitor below them or next to them with the music blaring. That’s the only thing we take away. They monitor themselves using our headphones. So sometimes, the only change that a DJ has to learn is, sometimes he’s going to have our headphones on, listening to what the crowd is listening to, and sometimes he’s going to have to slide an ear off and cue his upcoming track with his headphones, that he would normally do during a normal event.
In terms of getting feedback, when a DJ drops just the smallest note or song or piece, it’s instantly picked up by the room. Nothing is lost. DJs will sometimes take off their headphones just to take a break, and listen to people singing along with the track, and look at me, like, This is awesome. And the other thing is, people forget that the headphones are on. So you forget how loud you’re being.When people try to speak to their friend next to them, they end up screaming or shouting. So you get, “OH MY GOSH, THIS IS THE BEST SONG EVER!” Those verbal outbursts would be completely lost in a club setting.
What kind of music are we talking about?
All of it. You see a lot of guys showing up with a Macbook with piles and piles of music on it, and drawing from that. The average guy you’d get for an average gig pretty much has a pre-set playlist. We play literally every demographic of music. We’ve even done a live band. I would say house, trance, dubstep is really big now. The music that I think works the best for silent discos is mash-ups, where you play two songs that you’re familiar with, but you shape them and mold them together. We’ve found that when people have headphones on, they forget they’re on, and they’re singing along with these songs. It kind of turns into a karaoke vibe, with 300 people singing Baby Got Back.
Is this something you could have done five years ago? Because electronic music has gone crazy in the last year or two, with Ultra, Electric Daisy Carnival, the Identity Festival. It’s gotten to the point where there’s a pretty big-name DJ coming to town here almost every week.
It did work five years ago, because we did it. But I don’t know that it would have worked in a club setting. We did a 17-city tour last year, from Miami up to New York. I don’t know that you could have done that. Electronica music, for me — because I worked in the southern jam-band circuit five, seven years ago — it’s kind of replaced the jam scene of the late ’90s, of everyone going to see Phish and Panic. Now everyone’s going to see Bassnectar and Pretty Lights.
It does seem like there’s some connection beteween jam music and electronic music, like kids are shifting from one to the other. It’s often the same kind of music fans, who would have gone to the early days of Bonnaroo, and are now going to Electric Daisy Carnival.
I think people like music that you get lost in, for that 10 minutes of “I don’t know what song this is.” Electronica music does that a little bit, especially some of the bands, like the Sector 9s of the world, the moes, the P-Grooves. There’s times where even their audience — who knows every note they play, every song they play — they’ll go off into space, into the improv-jazz-freestyle. I think people like that. And electronica still kind of does that. If a DJs playing a track that he created, and you don’t know what’s next, that’s why. When they’re creating a new song in front of you, that’s what brings people in.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Photo courtesy of Silent Events.