Last Thursday amidst pounding rains of the apocalyptic derecho that slammed New York City, a few hundred 20-somethings oddly clad in fedoras, boas and fake mustaches waited to get into a Gothic Revival Synagogue on the lower east side of Manhattan.
Sound like some dystopian religious event? Not even close. The line winding down the street was actually to see a secret concert of the Icelandic indie-folk-rock band Of Monsters And Men at the the Angel Orensanz centre, New York’s oldest surviving synagogue-turned-performing arts venue.
If “secret” and “Icelandic indie-folk-rock” don’t tingle your inner hipster, don’t fear, the whole concert was themed like a 1930s circus and for those lucky enough to score tickets, completely free.
Despite the extremely cool theme, what made this event truly unique happened before fans even got to the show. The concert is part of the newly formed The Music Experiment, a series of free, secret shows sponsored by Intel and MTV Iggy that are focused on seeing just how well social media and live music mix. Earlier this week, hundreds of people tweeted #musicexperiment, with each tweet zooming in on a map, eventually revealing three destinations around the city where the free tickets could be picked up. Combined with TV spots and a slightly mysterious website, The Music Experiment is a huge transmedia project.
If nothing else, The Music Experiment is indicative of the increasing awareness of the music industry that social media has become the unequivocal heart of contemporary trend setting. It was just over a decade ago in the plaid haze that was the 90s that you would burn your friend a CD if you wanted to share your new found enthusiasm for a band, say Sugar Ray. These days, fans make and break artists through their opinions via Twitter and YouTube and can instantly show hundreds of people what their listening to on Spotify. Music Experiment is proof that heavyweights like MTV have taken notice of this trend and see social media as a shortcut to popularity for new artists and events alike.
Nevertheless, MTV certainly took a risk putting together such an event, the success of which completely relied on Twitter users spreading the word. But from the packed concert hall and the smiles that seemed permanently imprinted on almost every face in the audience during the course of the three hour production, that wager seems to have paid off. Big time.
With tickets in hand and explicit directions to dress like they were attending a 1930s circus, attendees were immediately presented with a beautiful and hauntingly eerie scene. Scantily clad cigarette girls offered guests cleverly disguised candy cigarettes, as a mustachioed ringmaster boomed welcome from the stage. The venue itself was responsible for much of the palpable sense of awe, combining large dimmed chandeliers with bright blue and red projector lights that gave extra emphasis to the Gothic and religious architecture of the surroundings.
But perhaps it was the audience itself that really made the night what it was, as the vast majority of those in attendance responded to the attire request with surprising enthusiasm. Men walked around in everything from top hats and checkered jackets to flamboyant rainbow jumpsuits, as their female counterparts flaunted long pearl necklaces, short skirts and lots and lots of feathers.
After inviting the audience to explore the space, which included an open bar with complimentary wine and beer, the ringmaster began introducing the acts of this Vaudevillian enterprise. The performances, which included a knife thrower, a contortionist and yes, even a burlesque show managed to hold the attention of the crowd who seemed to temporarily forget that the indie rock concert they thought they were attending had turned into an episode of Boardwalk Empire on acid.
And lest the audience need reminder of the true theme of the night, social media was once again fully integrated into the experience. The walls of the former synagogue lit up with projections of Instagram photos of the event, taken by audience members just moments before. Music Experiment motivated picture taking by giving away an Intel Inspired Ultrabook to the Instagrammer with the most likes on his or her photo. Once again, MTV and Intel showed a keen understanding of how to use the performance to garner a large chunk of web popularity.
Finally, after about two hours of circus side shows and constant reminders that MTV and Intel had been courteous enough to sponsor the event, Of Monsters And Men finally came out. Fans were given animal masks to increase the night’s surreal motif, which combined with the free flowing alcohol created such an enthusiasm that it would have been hard to convince an outsider that the crowd was there for a folk band from Iceland.
That isn’t to say the band didn’t perform well. The indie darlings played most of their recently released debut album My Head is an Animal and sounded identical to their recorded selves, something so unfortunately rare these days that it is certainly worth a big heaping of praise. Singles “Little Talks” and “Mountain Sound” were played with an extra bit of gusto, possibly just enough to forget that OMAM sound like some unreleased Edward Sharpe b-sides.
And yet, despite a solid performance by the band, it was clear by the end of the night that the show was not really a music concert at all, but some sort of elaborate ploy to get fans to attend a whole new kind of marketing event. In just a matter of days MTV and Intel had pulled off an immensely successful secret concert, but more importantly had demonstrated that they too wield the power of Twitter.
Of Monsters And Men’s performance last week just begins The Music Experiment’s four concert nationwide lineup scheduled over the next few months with a show in Chapel Hill featuring Santigold, one in Portland with The Jezebels and a final event in Los Angeles with an as of yet unreleased performance. Each concert will have its own theme and the same ticket distribution system via Twitter. With a reliance on secret shows its uncertain exactly how widespread a campaign like this can be. What is clear is that companies like MTV and Intel are beginning to wise up to the fact that if they want to reach the lucrative demographic of teenagers and 20-somethings, they will have no choice but to do it on their terms. And as this performance demonstrates, that’s exactly what they plan on doing.
Some photos of the event, below:
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