Fest Rocks With BYO Headphones

Keith Axline Email 08.31.05
Though it looks to be quite dysfunctional, this sucker sends the streaming Plug signal around the globe.

SAN FRANCISCO -- In an old warehouse-turned-art-music-commune in the city's gritty Mission district, a small post-hippie tech-punk crowd is taking in the Plug music festival. They're sprawled out on couches and chairs, surrounded by a phalanx of consoles, cables and gutted computers, and listening, intently and quietly, through headphones glued to their ears.

In some ways Plug, held here Saturday, is just what you'd expect from a music fest: rotating performances in front of a live audience, socializing and plenty of beer. But the headphones (bring your own) replace a traditional concert's amplified speakers, and much of the socializing happens over a computer terminal linked to an IRC chat room, populated by members of the global audience listening to the performances over the internet.

The organizer of the festival, who asks to be referred to only as "The Deletist," says she was inspired to bring the concept to the United States after attending a similar event in London last year.

"I just like being in your own head," she says, laughing nervously, "and not hearing dumb conversations like at other concerts."

The 24 hours of performances represented San Francisco's turn at the global le placard headphone festival, which hits cities all over the world, including London, Montreal, Paris, Brussels and Nagoya, Japan. Each city hosts a headphone party for a given period, in this case one day, before handing off the feed to the next location. Theoretically, this continues for 97 days in the hopes of providing one nonstop experience, though there are gaps in the schedule.

The idea of a live show experienced solely through headphones originated eight years ago in France when a Paris musician named Erik Minkkinen streamed a concert from his closet. As the story goes, three people in Japan tuned in.

Despite the tiny audience, the idea evolved into a decentralized organization under the name le placard, or the closet, a kind of open-source music festival where anyone can establish a streaming and/or listening room.

More than just a gimmick, the format of in-person performances experienced through headphones appeals to a certain type of performer, one inspired by intimacy and a you're-either-listening-or-you're-not audience. At a headphone concert, there's no shouting over uninterested listeners' conversations.

Though it was a rousing success in London and Paris, le placard has had a difficult time starting in the United States, with tepid responses in Manhattan and Minneapolis.

Plug effectively broke that streak.

Performances at the San Francisco festival ranged from field recordings to electronic music to the vocal stylings of Toshio Hirano, a Japanese artist who sings Jimmie Rogers covers.

Listeners were able to congregate from all over the globe in le placard's IRC channel to talk with fellow headphoners witnessing the performances in person at the warehouse. The feed even had a local pirate radio broadcast on 104.1 FM.

All the performances were relatively silent for those not wearing headphones, and the atmosphere at the San Francisco warehouse was respectful. Participants lauded the chat room's role, and said the customizable experience cultivated the more communal potentials of performance.

"It's pretty cool," said Chris Cones, 31, who performed under the name Skullcaster. "We have a chat terminal over there, talking to my friend in France."

The next placard takes place Friday in Limoges, France. The festival then moves to Meguro, Japan, for Sept. 3 and 4.

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