A silent disco or silent rave is an event where people dance to music listened to on wireless headphones. Rather than using a speaker system, music is broadcast via a radio transmitter with the signal being picked up by wireless headphone receivers worn by the participants. Those without the headphones hear no music, giving the effect of a room full of people dancing to nothing. In the earliest days of silent discos, before 2005, there would be only one channel available to listen to music through. Over time, the technology moved along to where there were two, and later technology allowed for a third channel that three separate DJs could broadcast over at the same time. Silent discos are popular at music festivals as they allow dancing to continue past noise curfews. Similar events are “mobile clubbing” gatherings, where a group of people dance to the music on their personal music players.
An early reference in fiction is the 1969 Finnish science-fiction film Ruusujen Aika (A Time of Roses), where characters wear headsets during a party. The concept was used by eco-activists in the early 1990s, utilizing headphones at outdoor parties to minimize noise pollution and disturbance to the local wildlife. In 1994, the Glastonbury Festival linked its on-site radio station to the video screen sited next to the Main Stage, allowing festival goers to watch late night World Cup football and music videos on the giant screen after the sound curfew by using their own portable radios. The idea was the brainchild of the project manager from Proquip, who supplied the giant screen, and engineers from Moles Recording Studio in Bath, Somerset, who were working with Radio Avalon. In May 2000, BBC Live Music held a “silent gig” at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, where the audience listened to a band, Rocketgoldstar, and various DJs through headphones. In May 2002 artist Meg Duguid hosted Dance with me… a silent dance party at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago where she created an outdoor club installation complete with velvet ropes and glow rope in which a DJ spun a transmission to wireless headsets that audience members put on and danced to. Duguid threw a second dance party at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago the following year, entitled Dueling DJs where two DJS simultaneously spun two separate musical transmissions various wireless headsets that audience members put on and danced to. This performance was repeated the following year (2004) at the Chicago Cultural Center. The term “silent disco” has been in existence since at least 2005 with Bonnaroo Music Festival advertising such an event that year with DJ’s Motion Potion, Quickie Mart and DJ medi4 and headphones provided by KOSS. In the Netherlands, the traveling arts and culture festival De Parade already featured a “stille disco” [silent disco] earlier, for example in 2003. Dutch DJs Nico Okkerse and Michael Minton have been described as “the pioneers … in the legend of silent disco” because they started “stille disco” events in 2002. Okkerse claims his company 433fm.com “created Silent Disco in 2002” and its site does have photos from such events going back to at least 2003. HUSHconcerts (previously, Silent Frisco) was the first company to produce a multi-city Silent Disco tour in 2008 with Silent Soundclash kicking off at Winter Music Conference in Miami, followed by Atlanta, Athens, Savannah, Wilmington NC, Charlottesville Va, Baltimore, New York City, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. During this tour, the company became the first to produce American silent discos on a beach (Miami Beach) and a boat (the Rocksoff Cruise in New York Harbor). The Oxford Dictionary Online added the term “silent disco” to their website in February 2011. As interest has increased, there has been a rise in the number of companies organizing parties and providing events with wireless headphones. Some companies have offered home kits.
Another type of silent party, known as mobile clubbing, involves the gathering of a group of people in an unconventional location to dance to music which they provide themselves via a portable music device, such as an MP3 player, listened to on headphones. These flash mob gatherings may involve hundreds of people, transforming public spaces into temporary clubbing areas, in which dancers listen to their personal playlists. To an observer it would appear that the participants are dancing for no apparent reason. Mobile clubbing events are organized using mass-emails, word-of-mouth or social networking websites such as Facebook, or a combination of these methods. The first event, organised by London-based artists Ben Cummins (also founder of Pillow Fight Club) and Emma Davis, was at London’s Liverpool Street Station in September 2003. Over the next five months there were a further five events at other London train stations including Waterloo, Charing Cross and London Bridge. By the end of 2008 there had been more than twenty of these events at similar venues throughout London, mostly train station concourses or other public spaces that lend themselves to expressive dancing and rapid dispersal. An event in 2007 at Victoria Station, London involved 4,000 participants. The event was broken up by police two hours later.
A headphone concert is a live musical performance where the audience, in the same place as the performer, listens to the music using headphones. The idea was born in 1997 when Erik Minkkinen, an electronic artist from Paris, broadcast a live concert from his closet on the Internet to three listeners in Japan. The concept led to a decentralized organization called the closet, which allowed anyone to set up a streaming or listening room. The first audio headphone concert in front of an audience was held on March 20, 1999 at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. The American psychedelic band The Flaming Lips used an FM signal generator on the site and distributed mini FM radio receivers and headphones to each viewer. A normal loudspeaker system was also used so that sound could also be felt. This continued on their “International Music Against Brain Degeneration Review” tour with mixed results, with technical issues, including dead batteries and drunk audience members struggling to adjust the correct frequency. Another helmet concert was presented at the Cardiff Chapter Arts Center in April 2000 by Rocketgoldstar. Subsequent helmet shows used specially designed 3-channel wireless headphones, better on-site custom transmitters, and no live speakers or live sound in the venue. The Glastonbury Festival 2005, the Shift Festival 2010 in Switzerland, the Van’s Warp Tours 2011-12 in North America, Sensoria 2012 in Sheffield, UK, the 2012 Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee and the Hoxeyville Music Fest in Michigan. In 2012, Kid Koala performed a “helmet concert tour for space cadets” around the world. A variant of the helmet concert involves groups competing for the audience, who are able to choose the frequency of reception of the group. In August 2008, the Band’s first silent battle was held at the Barfly Music Hall in Cardiff. The event featured groups going head-to-head, with a scene at each end of the venue, allowing participants to choose the group they wanted to listen to.
Theater and performance companies are now starting to exploit silent disco technology. In 2009, with the help of SilentArena Ltd, Feral Productions began using an experimental approach – a mix of narrative performance, sound art and guided exhibition. Their first performance, The Gingerbread House, took audiences to The Courtyard, Hereford, on a journey through a multi-storey car park in the center of Hereford. In 2010, their second show, Locked (Rapunzel’s Lament), took place in a children’s playground, also in Hereford. Silent theater techniques are now used by companies in Liverpool, Birmingham and Glasgow. In 2015, the Lincoln Center organized a production of the Rocky Horror Picture Show using Quiet Events Headphones, where an audience wearing headphones could switch between audio for live performance and the soundtrack of the movie version projected behind .
Street artists have used the concept as a solution to overcome bans on amplification and loudspeakers on the street. In 2016, the Irish band Until April started using it for their street performances during their tours in Germany and Switzerland.