It’s a Saturday night, and New York City is ready to party. But on West 40th Street in Manhattan, there’s a quieter space among the hub of throbbing bars and nightclubs. About 300 people are dancing here, letting loose as if they’re dancing alone in their bedrooms and singing like they’re in the shower to music the rest of the city can’t hear.
Silent clubbing, or silent disco, gives partygoers the experience of choosing the music they dance to. Attendees get their own sets of wireless headphones, which they can tune to the DJ they want to listen to.
“I like being able to talk to anyone without having to yell,” said medical researcher Ryan Glass, who was “silent clubbing” for the first time. “But watching people dance to no music is freaky.”
The event held at Croton Lounge was organized by Quiet Events, a company created six months ago by William Petz after he bought 350 headphones, each of which cost between $40 to $50.
Three DJs and three channels were on offer that night, and each headphone flashed the light of the DJ people were listening to. The green light signified top 40 hits, red was for international music, and blue was for ’80s and ’90s songs. Because the DJs could see which channel people were dancing to, they competed with each other for listeners. And the blue channel seemed to be winning that night as the DJ enticed listeners with songs such as “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”
And so they didn’t just dance to seemingly no music. They sang too. Without headphones, all you heard were people across the room singing out the lyrics at the tops of their voices, totally tunelessly.
“Half of silent disco is people-watching,” said Ryan Dowd, whose company, Silent Events, claims to be the first to bring the concept to the U.S. “It’s great seeing people singing to the music as loud as they can.”
Famous dances also attracted listeners to the blue channel. “A normal DJ wouldn’t play ‘Twist and Shout,’” Petz said. “But now you get 20-year-olds in a hardcore club doing the twist and shout.” The room even broke out into the Macarena and the Cotton-Eyed Joe at certain points throughout the night.
Popularized in Europe in the 1990s by eco-activists who used headphones at parties held outdoors to reduce noise pollution, silent discos took off in the early 2000s across the continent, crossing the Atlantic to the United States when the concept was introduced at the annual Bonnaroo Music Festival in 2012.
Several companies now work with venues across the United States to host silent clubbing events at clubs, bars and music festivals.
“It’s really hard to get people to accept the concept of walking into a bar where there’s no music,” Petz said. “But it’s definitely growing.”
It does seem to be rather anti-social, at first. But when the headphones were removed, clubbers could talk to each other without having to yell across the boom of speakers.
Friends within groups were often tuned to different channels at the same time, until someone tapped another’s shoulder and got them to tune to another channel, or they noticed that everyone else around them was tuned to the same light. Couples would usually be dancing to the same music, but every now and then another pair would sway somewhat awkwardly as one listened to the Backstreet Boys and another to a Hindi song on the international channel.
“It’s great being able to unify crowds that usually wouldn’t resonate together,” said Sarah Thomas of the Boston-based company Silent Storm. “If a certain club is having a certain type of night and music, it only attracts one type of group. With two or three channels and different types of music, silent discos allow for a room of people who wouldn’t normally integrate to congregate.”
The concept allows for parties to be held in areas where loud music is not allowed. Headphone Disco, a British-based company, offered its first silent disco at a festival that was not allowed to have music after 11 p.m.. “It was born out of necessity,” founder Grahame Ferguson said. “They had a problem, we came up with a solution.”
Silent parties also allow for more unusual events. Silent Storm has hosted an event at the San Francisco Zoo, which allowed people to party there at night without disturbing the animals. Silent Events has held parties at John F. Kennedy Airport for JetBlue, and worked with Gawker last year to hold a silent disco at the New York Public Library. Another company, Inkahootz, created a silent disco zombie bar crawl for Halloween last year, and attendees could listen to music on their headphones as they went from bar to bar. In Cardiff, England, a silent Battle of the Bands was held in 2008, with competing bands playing simultaneously.
It’s a concept that appeals to people of all ages. Twenty-somethings can party with 50-year-olds. “The older crowd can control the music and don’t have to listen to rap music,” Petz said.
The choice of music is what appeals to most people. “You can take the headphones off, you can turn it down, you can switch channels,” said Nico Okkerse of the European company Silent Disco. “I like that it’s democratic.”
“We’re a generation of people who have a phone that’s also a computer and camera and iPod,” Dowd said. “It’s a generation that want options.” The Quiet Events staff even came up with the term “Clubbing ADD” for those who switch from channel to channel every minute.
And just as clubbers have the option of talking to people when they want to, they also have the option of not talking.
“There are a lot of upsides,” said Amy Salatski , a student from Eugene Lang College who was silent clubbing for the second time. “One of which is that there are fewer creepy guys hitting on you when you’re wearing your headphones.”