Silent Disco

Hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, pack the place. They sway to the rhythm, thrashing their hips, closing their eyes and mouthing the words. But the place is silent. Bodies move in unison like an impeccable orchestra playing in harmony — only no one can see who is conducting. Welcome to a silent disco.

Most believe silent discos first spread throughout festivals in Europe in the ’90s with the advent of new technologies and came to the States in the mid-2000s, but others document the trend as far back as 1969. Some attribute its origins to addressing urban issues such as noise control; others point to environmental concerns associated with outdoor public performance.

But no matter where it started — or why — the idea of silent disco is a spectacularly silly, strangely futuristic one: people dancing to music on wireless headphones, broadcasted through a radio transmitter instead of a sound system.

Robbie Kowal, founder of Silent Frisco, the company that he said has “pushed the concept harder, faster and further than anyone in the U.S.,” first stumbled across the phenomenon at a festival where he was DJ-ing in 2006. He then began Silent Frisco in San Francisco and has since expanded to Los Angeles.

“What I realized immediately was that there was a direct connection between the artist and the listener,” Kowal said. “They could hear exactly what I was hearing, as an artist, which is very unusual in a performance venue. They have control of their own volume and often they have choice in what they’re listening to, as well. Those things are mentally powerful.”

Kowal insists that the act isn’t awkward, as one might expect — it’s just universal curiosity, followed by an unmatched level of enjoyment.

“The second they put those headphones on, you see their faces light up,” he said. “And that’s what’s fascinating about this. Most music events with loudspeakers — usually 10 to 20 percent of people at the event are actively listening to the music. They are distracted by other things and by other people. When you put those headphones on, it’s easy to lose yourself in the music. When we have dance music, we see 95 percent of our audience actively listening and dancing. That’s unheard of in clubs.”

After falling in love with the concept, Kowal decided to go big with it. He put on a national silent disco tour that reached 15 states in just more than three weeks, mostly in the Northeast region of the United States.

“In some of those cases, [the silent discos] were abject failures — nobody knew what the heck was going on, nobody came out,” Kowal said. “[In] some of those cases, they were tremendous successes. Either way, we kind of laid the groundwork for the growth of the concept in subsequent years.”

And the company shows no signs of slowing down. Clients range from festivals to museums, from weddings and private parties to cultural institutions. Silent Frisco has done large, corporate finance installations for companies such as Macworld, Yahoo and Google. They are even responsible for the first activation of silent disco in many unique locations — beaches, parks, mountaintops and skating rinks.

In other words, there seems to be no place that is safe from an invisible, penetrating beat, and no person safe from its charms. Kowal says that the average age range for an event featuring DJ music is 21 to 35, but when it comes to silent disco, anything goes — and everyone comes.

“Parents like silent disco because it gives them the option to control volume — they can put the headphones on their kids’ ears and know that they aren’t going to lose their hearing,” Kowal said. “Also, the events are in beautiful places, so we have a really nice mix of young people who want to party and families who want to do something interesting on an afternoon to keep their kids entertained. These are wholesome outings that everybody can enjoy.”

After having first put on a silent disco in Los Angeles for a birthday party, and noting the demand of an untapped market, the company began a monthly silent disco series at Wilshire in Santa Monica in the model of a DJ battle — two DJs spinning simultaneously to compete for listeners.

The monthly series returns tonight at Wilshire, featuring a battle between the music of LCD Soundsystem and Talking Heads, and will last for four months.

Given the receptiveness to the concept by Angelenos, the decision to bring back the silent disco was simple.

“I believe that San Franciscans are used to seeing weird, novel technology — strange people doing strange things on a daily basis,” Kowal said. “It’s just “It’s just part of our culture up here. When you see a bunch of people with headphones, banging along with the music, that’s not a typical L.A. experience. It’s a very immersive, and very communal, and a very silly and frivolous and fun thing. I think the L.A. audience doesn’t get enough of that, and we give them a great outlet.”