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Silent discos bring the party to the people, one headset at a time

If you want to hear what the music is all about, you’ll have to don a set of wireless headphones.

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If you want to hear what the music is all about, you’ll have to don a set of wireless headphones.

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 curb the vibe — 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. 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 get entranced and lost in it. There's something kind of intimate about that.

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.

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. 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 5 years ago? Because electronic music has gone crazy in the last year or two, with Ultra Music Festival, Electric Daisy Carnival, the Identity Festival. It's gotten to the point where there's a 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, has kind of replaced the jam scene of the late '90s, of everyone going to see Phish and Widespread Panic. Now everyone's going to see Bassnectar and Pretty Lights.

Silent Disco

The party, with DJ Wick-It The Instigator and others, starts at 9 p.m. Nov. 10 at the Ritz Ybor, 1503 Seventh Ave., Ybor City. Tickets are $16.

Silent discos bring the party to the people, one headset at a time 11/03/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 2, 2011 5:51pm]
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