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Silent Discos Are Not Silent Enough, Residents Of Edinburgh Complain

Officials in Edinburgh are looking into how to quiet silent discos, after residents complained that the tour groups make too much noise. Other residents say they're happy to see the tours. Here, one of the groups is seen on a tour operated by Silent Adventures.
Silent Adventures
Officials in Edinburgh are looking into how to quiet silent discos, after residents complained that the tour groups make too much noise. Other residents say they're happy to see the tours. Here, one of the groups is seen on a tour operated by Silent Adventures.

Edinburgh residents are asking local lawmakers to clamp down on silent discos — gatherings where people don wireless headphones to dance. Critics say the discos aren't as quiet as the name implies, and that they can be a public menace when crowds rove the sidewalks, belting out lyrics to classic songs.

"Silent discos are not silent," Jo Mowat, a city councillor in the Scottish capital, told the Edinburgh Evening News.

"There is a lot of whooping and screaming, especially when you have 40 women on a hen party," Mowat said. "There is also the safety aspect, as who is going to have to step in the road due to the groups taking up the pavements?"

In an email to NPR, Mowat says the council has received complaints from residents and the community council — and that the unique makeup of Edinburgh's Old Town also plays a role.

The historic area "is built to a medieval pattern with narrow pavements and closes (alleys) and can get very clogged in the summer," Mowat says, "and still has a residential population whose voices need to be heard."

Silent discos have run afoul of local authorities before. The Swiss city of Lausanne famously chose to ban the "noisy" events in 2016, and Salzburg, Austria, clamped down on a long-running silent disco back in 2014. In both of those cases, the discos were held outdoors, running until 4 or 5 a.m.

Both Mowat and Councillor Claire Miller say the city council isn't likely to ban silent disco tours outright. There are other ways to address the problems, they say, including encouraging tour operators to adjust the way they operate.

"Silent discos are a fun trend," Miller wrote via email, "and we're seeing a number of them in Edinburgh during the festivals as a quirky way to enjoy yourself while seeing the city."

It's a trend that's growing, according to a report the council received on Monday, which compiled residents' complaints with walking tours like the silent discos.

"The risk to attendees if they walk into traffic and fail to hear approaching vehicles" was one top complaint, followed by "noise nuisance."

The city council is limited in what it can do: While the law allows it to regulate "street trading," tour operators aren't compelled to get a license if they book their clients online.

One of the most popular Edinburgh silent discos is run by Guru Dudu, an entertainer who now travels through Europe and Australia, leading packs of dancing people on city streets. His first tour in Edinburgh was at the 2015 Fringe Festival; to meet demand, Guru Dudu now employs other disco tour guides, as well.

In a nod toward public safety concerns, a disclaimer on Guru Dudu's website warns participants, "Please be mindful of your personal safety and the safety of others while on the tour. The headphones decrease your ability to hear regular noises on the street."

Another popular service is Silent Adventures, which operates in Edinburgh year-round and offers multiple one-hour tours on the weekends, at a price of 14 pounds (about $18). Like other companies, it offers seasonal discos — including a Christmas approach called Silent Lights.

View this post on Instagram Launch night of Silent Lights on Edinburgh's George Street. Guess the track! A post shared by Silent Adventures Edinburgh (@silentadv) on Nov 19, 2018 at 10:48am PST

"We were very disappointed" to learn that the Edinburgh Council might curb silent disco tours, says Jay Feeney, director of Silent Adventures, in an email to NPR.

Noting the proliferation of silent discos during the city's famous Fringe Festival, Feeney says, "some of the visiting operators chose to take very busy and varying routes across the city which were, from time to time, rather obstructive."

His company begins each tour with a safety advisory, Feeney says, adding, "We also have a zero tolerance policy on alcohol."

Questions about the not-so-quiet roving discos prompted a debate on the Evening News' Facebook page, with many people airing their support for the open-air parties.

Keefe McKie wrote: "I work smack bang in the centre of town and see the silent discos on a pretty much daily basis. Aye it can get a bit loud at times but people are blatantly having fun."

And David Liddell wrote, "Good to watch and seeing folks having great fun. During the festival saw one group stop at a young lady in a wheelchair after they put headphones on her it was a delight to see the smile on her face."

But on the other hand, "It's not so fun when it's your window they sing Journey's 'Don't Stop Believing' outside" three times a day, Adam Burns wrote.

While Edinburgh's lawmakers consider how they might address residents' concerns, the city is also planning to hold its own silent disco, as part of the upcoming New Year's Eve celebration, titled Hogmanay 19 (using the Scots word for the final day of the year).

The city's website promises people attending the three-day festival, "Whether your taste is indie or Europop, Silent Disco has a playlist for you. Don your headphones on Market Street, choose your channel and get ready to learn some groovy new moves this Hogmanay."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.