One of the interesting aspects of festivals becoming more and more embedded in our culture is the advancement of live music staging and technology. While silent discos aren't unique to festivals, their ever increasing proliferation has helped transform silent partying into a fully-fledged industry.
Directly confronting issues such as noise curfews, concert technological limitations, and security, silent discos are a distinctly modern approach to partying and the relationship between artist and audience.
To explore this growing aspect of music culture, we reached out to HUSHconcerts CEO Robbie Kowal and got some insights into something you haven't thought enough about.
This is what he had to say.
For anyone who hasn't been to a silent disco, describe what it's like to be in a space that's mostly quiet and then put the headphones on and be transported into the party.
The first thing you see is the person smile, like a light has come on. To watch all the action and not know why and then put on the cans and hear the full spectrum of sound and be in total sync with everyone else (including the DJ) can be a profound moment. It looks like a Eureka! moment. Which is basically what I felt at Bonnaroo in 2005 when I first tried it.
Do artists approach their sets differently when they're played over headphones?
They definitely should and most do. Consider how music has changed in the last decade due to better production software utilizing more robust bass frequencies and better sound systems to accommodate those sounds. This bass music movement has created whole communities of artists and fans built around a reliance on subwoofers like deep house, minimal house and dubstep. It's a physical experience as much as musical, where the audience have their chakras massaged by bass frequencies in a predictable build-drop-wash-build cycle. This music doesn’t have to have much mid-range, vocals, or instrumental sounds to be very effective.
Then you have silent disco with no subs. You could play bass music, but to no advantage over other styles since there’s less of a physical experience. This then favors DJs that can keep people interested and excited without bass and that tends to favor styles that are more 'storytelling' and 'interactive' and certainly styles that take themselves less seriously.
What seems to work well are things like hip hop, funk and soul, mashups, pop, indie-rock, remixes, and of course, disco. We still have a lot of club DJs playing traditional dance music, but they don’t have any advantage over more esoteric styles. What’s great about this level playing field is that it empowers DJs to be more creative and daring. They can go deeper into rarities and unusual progressions and styles and know that people will still be listening and enjoying it. This is why we encourage themed sets like our famed East Coast vs West Coast vs Dirty South hip hop night, Daft Punk vs Radiohead, LCD Soundsystem vs Talking Heads, 70’s vs 90's etc. Or in a situation like BottleRock we could make it more general mainstream club music vs anything but that. Think 'old school vs new school'.
What headphones does your company use and why?
We use RF headphones (as opposed to Bluetooth or WiFi) since you get better reliability and range. We have five custom models we use for different types of event and all are modified for the specific setting, be it festival, corporate, or conference. For BottleRock we typically use our Mark 4 model that has big bright lights on the side. We also have a newer headphone we may debut this year but that is TBD.
What is HUSHconcerts' history with BottleRock?
We have been in the mix since the very beginning, although we have only thrived since Latitude 38 Entertainment took over. We were actually booked by the old promoters for BottleRock 1, but canceled a week before that debacle. In year three Anchor Brewing brought us to work with Lat38. Since then, our activation has been one of the most fruitful collaborations we have enjoyed with any of our clients.
We love the event, we love the audience, we really love the team at Latitude 38, and we especially love how much freedom we are given to curate and create magic.
Our main area has always been in front of Chardonnay Hall with 600+ headphones. In 2017, we added Miner Family Winery Stage for one night, using 4,460 headphones to break the US silent disco record to watch Big Boi and The White Panda perform. Last year we moved to Lagunitas stage for the closing set with The White Panda (again) and Warren G on 3,000 headphones. This model worked so well that we will now run all three nights. In terms of headphone volume, BottleRock Napa is our biggest festival activation of the year and certainly one of our favourites.
What makes this year’s silent disco different from previous years at BottleRock?
This year, besides the main activation Silent Disco powered by Kaiser Permanente, we are doing three nights at Lagunitas Stage with Paul Oakenfold, The Crystal Method and, yes, The White Panda. We established that we could make a quick changeover at Lagunitas from live to silent last year, so they are giving us three nights for this one.
At the Silent Disco powered by Kaiser Permanente (our main activation) we will have some special bells and whistles this year including the first-ever appearance of a silent disco legend, DJ LOGIC from NYC. Logic and Motion Potion (HUSHconcerts founder) were actually America’s first silent disco DJs back at Bonnaroo in 2005. Having them both on the same stage will be really special.
Are there any specific aspects of BottleRock in particular that you find to be the reason why silent discos have been such a success here?
The BottleRock Napa team is such a joy to work with, and they really seem to trust us. They empower us to curate a lineup that celebrates a wide range of Bay Area DJs and styles of music. We have crews from Napa, East Bay, San Francisco, and Marin every year and we constantly rotate new talent to ensure new communities can contribute.
In terms of how we curate, remember that BottleRock is one of the rare large US Festivals that is custom tailored primarily for adults. While it’s inclusive and all-ages, the main booking ethos seems to speak to a more mature audience then something like, say, Coachella or EDC. Our main activation compliments this by giving a little touch of EDC inside of the greater whole. You see a lot of parents and their teenage kids getting down. We’re also so central in the event that you can’t help but walk by and gawk, or come in and join the fun.
One thing that is overlooked is the impact a silent disco area can have on an event’s safety and security. Can you go into this in more detail?
The original idea around our Miner Family Winery Stage and now Lagunitas stage late shows was to give folks something to do rather than everyone leaving at once, which somewhat mitigates traffic. A silent disco also is a safe space that attracts folks that may be in altered states. They can come in, dance, and just lose themselves in the music.
The intimacy of the headphone exchange helps in ensuring safety as well. When someone collects their headphones, one of our staff interacts with them one on one and looks them in the eye. If someone is in a bad way, we can flag it, and get them help from medical or security. For our camping festival staff (not BottleRock) we actually do Narcan trainings to identify and treat opioid overdose risks.
Listening to music on headphones is usually an individualistic act, how do you make sure the sense of shared experience isn't dampened when everyone is wearing headphones?
The headphone aspect does give a more immersive experience, but it’s also a more direct connection to the artist and those on your channel. Everyone in the venue on that channel is hearing exactly that same thing, and not a filtered version that has bounced off walls or over people chatting. And, if you choose to have a conversation with someone, you just take off the headphones. We have been told by young women that they love it because they can dance and enjoy the music without constantly being hit on. The DJs can also play up the social aspect by playing and encouraging sing-alongs, call and response, raps etc.