Can Silent Discos Save Outdoor Entertainment?

The quiet riots may seem like a fad, but they’re one answer to noise complaints

Here’s a thought experiment: If Diplo is DJ-ing a sick set but no noise is coming from his setup, is Diplo DJ-ing a sick set at all? Depends. If he’s headlining a silent disco, the answer is yes. If he’s not…well, bummer.

At silent discos carefree concertgoers sing like no one can hear and dance like no one is watching to live music piped through wireless headphones (which are provided). The concept has found a home on the music festival circuit, but for those who may not roam from SXSW to Bonnaroo like a carpetbagger in a flower crown, the why behind the what is understandably fuzzy.

As it turns out, that adage about necessity being the mother of invention is the reason. According to Robbie Kowal, DJ and cofounder of the San Francisco-based company HUSHconcerts, necessity did indeed birth the silent disco craze—at least in part. In 1998, he began producing a variety of outdoor music events in the Bay Area, resulting in NIMBY gripes from unamused locals. He found a solution while DJ-ing one of the first silent discos in the United States, at Bonnaroo in 2006. “Neighbors will turn music into noise and noise into nuisance,” he says. “If there’s no sound, how can there be a nuisance?” Silent discos were a happy middle ground: Grumblers could enjoy REM sleep while concertgoers enjoyed R.E.M. bass lines.

Kowal and company have been “hushcasting” in L.A. since 2011 and are closing out the summer with two choose-your-own-channel shows: Talking Heads versus LCD Soundsystem on the roof of Hollywood’s Montalbán Theater (September 18) and Radiohead versus Daft Punk at the Santa Monica Pier (September 19). If it weren’t for silent disco, neither location would be an option. “The west end of the pier is one of the most beautiful places in L.A.,” Kowal says. “You can’t get a loudspeaker there, but we can do a disco at sunset.”