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Experiential Is Not Dead. I Had One.



Nathan Phillips, co-founder / creator at THAT, part of M&C Saatchi, dwells on a most real-life, musical experience in Connecticut

Experiential Is Not Dead. I Had One.
“Nobody enjoys sitting on a stoop or looking out a window at an empty street. Almost nobody does such a thing.”
- Jane Jacobs

All the quarantiners tweeting that “experience is dead” are wrong. I know because I had one.

It was exactly the type of experience the experts expect to be dead. An experiential event. For a product. I was invited over email by people I didn’t know to a building I had never been. It was in Williamsburg. South Williamsburg. I mean, no way this would ever happen during the pandemic! Right?. But, it did. And this experience was as crono-safe as it was awesome. Real life experience design isn’t dead everybody. And I learned that maybe people have been doing it wrong.

In most designed experiences pre-Covid, you line up to see “The Thing”. The Rain Room, The Orange Room, the tiny little room. But, we pretend that the two hour line isn’t part of the experience, but it is. When you think about all those experiences we’ve had to wait for, when we picked up tickets, or god forbid had a lanyard; there is a part of the experience that we love at the end, but overall it sucks.

In some extraordinary experiences, Sleep No More, Love Has No Labels, or erm… Blue Man Group, you’re never really sure when the line starts or ends and the experience begins. In Disneyworld, the Magicband tracks you, so you’re always locked into a personalized narrative. Creepy sure, but a good experience should be a little creepy. Any well-designed experience should make you feel like you have a job to do and you might fuck it up. Like you’re on someone else’s turf with rules you don’t fully understand. An experience is about manufacturing serendipity so people believe that anything can happen, (even if most things can’t).

Experiences are important because no one can quarantine away our deep human need for “shit to do”.

The basic list of human needs includes food, shelter, water and “something to do on Thursday night”. So we line up. And now that we can’t line up like we used to, the prognosis is that experience is dead. No, it’s not. Lines are dead. Being bored is dead. Covid could force people to design better experiences by reminding us that most of the parameters we encounter designing an experience are arbitrary. You know that thing where you join a line on the sidewalk outside a popular ice cream place, and then someone comes out and tells everyone that the line is supposed to be on the other side of the door and please leave room on the sidewalk, so the whole line has to find a way to break apart and re-form in an equal opposite formation on the other side of the door? Covid is doing that with everything.

The experience I had on Friday night was centered around listening to an unreleased album called Slingbaum One in what appeared to be an abandoned building. To be honest, I would have enjoyed the experience of crossing 2nd avenue, so a listening experience was VERY exciting. After 20 years living in New York City, these last two months have been my second longest sojourn outside of my home ever and I’m a mess. The first time I left New York was while I was performing in Vegas and that sucked even with 24/7 clowns and strippers. This time I’ve been in a cul-de-sac in Connecticut with ticks and network television aficionados. I’ve been one of the folks (lucky, lame, loser, winner) that has spent two months hunkered out of Brooklyn. I can tell you that I don’t have any complaints and wouldn’t think of sharing them if I did.

But, if I did have a complaint, it’s that I fucking hate Connecticut.

I hate all places that aren’t New York City, but I hate Connecticut the most. It’s not the place or the people, who like anywhere and anyone are equal parts lovely and despicable. It’s that I hate being in a place that isn’t New York and Connecticut is not New York. It’s like The Upside Down, but the Demogorgon has whales on his pants.

I believe there to be an invisible line surrounding the five boroughs, over which food halls become food courts and walking isn’t required. My dog shit on a guys lawn the other day in Connecticut and he was so mad he lowered his mask to show me his scowl. I had to apologize by explaining that I don’t remember how “lawns work”. Fuck that guy. I’ve seen turkeys on his lawn and he didn’t say a word to them. Connecticut is the place I’m held, waiting to learn how this interminable period ends. I’m not suggesting Connecticut is anything like a prison. It’s not. But, it’s not New York. I miss New York.

When I got an email invitation to listen to Slingbaum One, I began to plan a breakout.

Slingbaum One is one of those special musical moments that happens once every five years. Musicology, Black Messiah, The Songs in The Key of Life tour, Chinese Democracy (kind of), that time Rahzel and Mike Patton toured together. It’s the type of event that hasn’t really happened since Prince died.

The TL;DR on the album is that a mysterious producer has pulled together a legit supergroup including D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Ahmad Jamal(!), Damon Albarn, Syd, FKA Twigs (cuz why not) and a host of others. The album has three tracks coming in at a total of 15 whole minutes and it’s a vinyl-only release for sale for more than $50 and won’t appear on streaming platforms. What a hoot.

After pre-ordering the album long before the quarantine, I received a most unexpected email a few weeks back. There would be a “listening party”.

“But how?!” I asked my standing desk I had only just purchased. “Listening requires ears. And ears require heads and heads require bodies and bodies are NOT INVITED!!”

I made a reservation the way people used to add locks to that French Bridge; just to say I did it, but knowing that c’est la vie, we ain’t gonna make it. But, as the date loomed, I mentioned that I wouldn’t be going to my quarantine pod member/wife. My usual impulsive “let’s go do this weird thing I read about on Nonsense” attitude has been replaced by an old lady in a ratty floral kimono who stands on my mind porch yelling at the neighborhood kids to “get back inside!”. Victoria sensed my growing suburb-o-phobia, (and as a lifelong city-dweller, was very much dealing with her own). She suggested/demanded we leave Connecticut after Dim Sum Club on Friday and make our way to BK to spend the long weekend amongst the huddled masses yearning to be free. I peeled the sweatpants that I’d been wearing since pre-Fauci and on Friday night we cruised up a traffic-free 95. I dropped the family off in Clinton Hill, grabbed my Bliss pen and drove to Williamsburg. Against all odds, I was having an “experience”.

I have no idea if the “New Wing Hing Fat Sprouts Corp.” is far different than the original. But, I can now tell you beyond any doubt, that they no longer sell sprouts.

My instructions were straightforward, if not a little complicated.

At 7:55 I was to ring a doorbell. The door would open promptly at 8PM. I had to have a mask on and I couldn’t fuck it up, not by a minute. I would not be let in. No experience for me if I fucked it up.

I obviously fucked it up. I was super early, but I super didn’t ring the bell. I was distracted by the Hasidic shabbat air raid siren that happens just before sundown and then at 8:02 after lingering as close to the security camera as I could I finally noticed my mistake and rang the bell. Almost immediately the thick lead gray door swung open and a nice young man in a Hazmat suit was silently glaring at me.

“Name?” He asked in what would be his only utterance of the evening.

“Nathan Phillips.” I whispered, secretly wishing I had a cooler name.

Door closed.

And that’s when it happened. The experience. I felt something. I was tense, alert. It was so very different than when that guy got mad about my dog pooping on his stupid lawn. I felt like I had done something wrong, and I knew deep down that they wanted me to feel that way. It was so New York. I’ve heard about this bouncer at Studio 54 who was a tiny guy but just a major power player who would anoint the coke angels of the 1970’s. Hazmat was like that guy. Hazmat had not admitted me to let me know I was not yet approved. It was the most emotionally complex moment I’d had during the whole Covid thing that didn’t involve ennui. I was having a (Covid-safe) experience! It had everything you need:

Weird building that seems abandoned ✓

Beautiful person in a crazy outfit ✓

A loosey-goosey immersive narrative ✓

Door opens.

He’s holding a printout with instructions so he doesn’t have to speak to me. Drop your phone in this box and do not touch anything. OK. I do as I’m told and enter into the building. As you would hope it’s got Lenny Kravitz candles with a Zoe Kravitz paint job. THEY DO NOT SELL SPROUTS. Hazmat leads me silently up some winding steps (they said it wasn’t an accessible event in the email) and into a (yesssssssss) very luxe recording studio. Surrounded by windows that look into dark rooms there is a simple folding chair. There are crystals and lots of cool glowing buttons on the mixing board. I’m having such an experience! Hazmat disappears in an appropriately mysterious manner and the music starts.

It’s ferocious, almost entirely uncatchy, very loud and massively inspiring. Badu had said online that it was done by a group of people “for the love of the thing” and you could feel it. It was courageous and it was playing out of speakers placed on a mountain of talent. It was made by bold musicians whose experiments lead the charge in complicated funky neo-R&B chaos and disorder music pooping on the lawn of pop music all day and all night.

Slingbaum One is exactly what you want from your 15 minute three track vinyl only supergroup mystery album. And it was everything I want from an experience.

How it happens matters.

Vinyl is real life music. With the volume all the way down you can still hear the needle bouncing in the groove, because it’s real audio. It skips when you jump and it isn’t compressed or translated. It is exactly what it is.

Where it happens matters. I couldn’t have streamed that 15 minutes. I was there. Hazmat was there. The air raid siren. The weird patina of abandonment and fractured hand painted signs.

You can’t stream an experience, you can only watch someone else’s experience online. The Toosie Slide is perfect for the internet, but experience happens at the speed of light and sound. You have to be there. And we want so badly to be there, to not be contained by a frame. To see and hear what it is and to be able to add to the chaos and disorder by choosing when and how we yell or cheer.

Let the virus kill the queue, kill the unnecessary product demos, kill the sweaty VR headsets. But, it can’t kill experiences.

Nathan Phillips is co-founder / creator at THAT, part of M&C Saatchi
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THAT , Fri, 11 Dec 2020 14:24:03 GMT