Big Concert, Very Quiet

As tens of thousands rocked out to Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers on the mainstage of the  festival in California May 27, another concert ‘round back made history, according to its organizers.   

Biggest Silent Disco
Aquagliata Photography
– Biggest Silent Disco
Approximately 4,400 people rock out in headsets to White Panda and/or Big Boi, depending on which channel, at Bottlerock Napa Valley May 27. The event is considered the largest ever in North America.

Approximately 4,400 younger concertgoers wore approximately 4,400 headsets to achieve the largest “silent concert” in North America, a capacity crowd at the Miner Family Winery Stage.

What is also known as Silent Disco – a concert without a P.A. that is broadcast solely through headphones – has been around for at least 20 years but has rarely been implemented on a large scale.

The technology has been used for dance parties, broadcasting DJs playing records or for an indie band at a tent, but rarely for a massive performance. In this case, it was Big Boi (aka one-half of Outkast) and EDM duo White Panda playing their music to the crowd, which could switch between channels, turning their headsets red or blue, depending on which side of the stage they were listening to (the performers were lit in red or blue, too, to coincide with the channel).

 There have been major congregations before. Ones in Europe have exceeded this record, and a recent event in Chicago came close.

“The difference is, those were events in themselves,” HushConcerts’ Robbie Kowal told Pollstar. “This was the first to be integrated into another event, with all of the logistical problems that come with it.”

Even though silent concerts have been around for a while, it can still be a little hard to grasp.

This event was dubbed by the San Francisco Chronicle as the “weirdest yet coolest” one at the festival: a tent filled with crowd noise and nothing else, unless the headsets were worn – then it was an immersive experience.

Kowal and partner John Miles merged their San Francisco-based companies in 2015 to form HushConcerts and have been busy providing services to mostly West Coast events.

Kowal was proud of this latest achievement, telling Pollstar about the logistical problems that needed to be resolved that day, not to mention when Big Boi and his crew showed up 10 minutes before showtime with not one, not two but four mixers to dial in.

As for the future, Kowal noted that, although awareness is growing, silent concerts as mass gatherings have the same restrictions as any other similar-sized event when it comes to ordinances, regulations and being good neighbors – aka, traffic, porta-potties, the usual stuff.

“I may want to dance around until 2 a.m.,” Kowal said, “but the guy down the street doesn’t want anything blocking his driveway the next morning when he needs to go to work.”

Still, silent concerts can change the music landscape, according to Kowal, but can also change the landscape of gyms or conferences.

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“You could have a yoga class with two instructors, or a business meeting with two keynote speakers,” Kowal said.

He added that, of the 4,400 “Hushphones” handed out, only seven were lost or broken.

“A lot of people leave forgetting they have them, or want to take them home as mementos,” Kowal said. “It’s a testament to our staff and the festival staff that so few disappeared.”