The Mp3 Experiment Seven

Created by: Charlie Todd & Tyler Walker
All music by: Tyler Walker
Brainstorm Committee: Jason Eppink, Katie Sokoler, Charlie Todd, Tyler Walker
Shot by: Matt Adams, Dan DeStefano, Keith Haskel, Kristopher Knight, Lisa Nussbaum, Chloe Smolkin
Photography: Brian Fountain, Ilya Chigirev, Chad Nicholson, Thomas Robinson, Ari Scott (full flickr sets for each photographer at the bottom of this post)

For our latest mission, over 3,000 participants downloaded an MP3 file and pressed play simultaneously in retail stores in Midtown Manhattan. The masses converged on Bryant Park where a series of fun activities unfolded, culminating in a huge “mummy dance party.” This was the 7th installment in our Mp3 Experiment series.

Enjoy the video above first, and then go behind the scenes with our photos below. We’d like to thank Bryant Park for generously hosting the second half of the event and all of the stores for putting up with the unauthorized first half.

Here’s a bonus video, containing footage we didn’t have room for in the main video:

pre-mission documentation team meeting
I was thrilled when the good folks that run Bryant Park agreed to host this year’s Mp3 Experiment. It’s an incredibly gorgeous space right in the heart of Midtown Manhattan. I figured it would be exciting to have participants converge on the park from all directions, so we had everyone start the experiment in various retail stores surrounding the park.

There are dozens of stores in the area, including several huge national chains. While we were a permitted event in Bryant Park, we obviously did not have permission to stage our event in these stores. I wanted to make the actions in the stores as peaceful and subtle as possible.

It was tough to know how large to make the starting zone. I didn’t want the stores to be too crowded, but I also didn’t want participants to be so spread out that they would not see each other. Of course, I also didn’t know how many people would attend. It seems like we did a pretty good job of filling all of the stores on the map, big and small. A few of the larger stores like The Gap were perhaps a bit excessively crowded.

Participants were told to blend in like normal customers before the experiment started. Unlike the past few years, participants wore no identifying clothing. Ideally you wouldn’t be able to tell participant from non-participant until the experiment began.

Young participants in Staples
Everyone pressed play at exactly 6:00 PM, their watches and phones synchronized to a clock on our site.

“Hold a product in the air, as if you are in awe of it.”
The theme for this year’s experiment was “Steve’s Birthday.” Steve, the normal narrator for our Mp3 Experiments, was replaced by his brother Mark who informed us we would be surprising Steve at a location to be announced later. First we had to do some birthday shopping. Participants were told to do simple things like “pet a product,” “neaten up a display,” and “find a product that’s close to $21 without going over.” Perhaps the most fun was slow dancing with a product.

The reactions from the employees in the stores varied. Many thought it was absolutely hilarious. The people who worked at Champs were especially happy about it.

Champs employees laughing
Some managers didn’t find it quite so funny, but we were only in the stores for about seven minutes; hopefully it didn’t put anyone out too much. After all, we did straighten up lots of displays!

I got a nice email from a Sephora employee:

I work at Sephora on 42nd street near Bryant Park. Saturdays are usually really dead for us. We get a few people but not a lot. At first just a few people came into the store, and then my co-worker said over our walkie system, “All these people all wearing headphones! And they’re just standing around! This is freaking me out!” More and more people came in wearing headphones and soon our little store was full. Many of my co-workers became extremely paranoid. My friend taps one person and goes, “Is this a cult?”

6pm over the walkie: “They all just lifted up a product at the same time!” When everyone started slow dancing with lipsticks and lotions, etc. I lost it laughing, and my co-workers were epically confused. When everyone began to leave, I waved goodbye. One girl said, “Thank you!” I said, “No, thank you!” My manager gave them a round of applause. At the end my co-workers were just trying to make sense of it all, one guy thought it was an epic ploy to shop lift. My friend goes, “Were we just Punk’d?” and I said over the walkies to everyone, “No guys we weren’t Punk’d. We were Improv Everywhere’d.” Needless to say I think you earned a fan or two from my store today.

We all left our retail locations and were told to walk on the sidewalk, blending in with the New Yorkers and Tourists. As a sort of sequel to our Frozen Grand Central mission, all participants froze in place for exactly one minute. While we only had 200 or so in Grand Central, this time there were over 3,000 of us spread out over ten of the busiest city blocks in the world.

Participants then engaged in some silly sidewalk activities.

“March like you’re in a marching band.”

“Form a long line behind a stranger, copying their every move.”

The end of a ridiculously long line behind a mother with a stroller

“See how many strangers you can high five.”

Pedestrians watch and laugh
Participants were then told that Steve was in Bryant Park and that we were all to head there to surprise him for his birthday. We listened to a traffic safety song as we approached the park from all angles, the chorus of which was “Take off your headphones when you cross the street.” It was a little chaotic, despite the safety message. That many people crossing major Manhattan avenues is a little insane. Thankfully everyone stayed safe.

Arriving in the park
It was fun to see the reactions of the folks who just happened to be in Bryant Park when 3,000 headphone wearing individuals suddenly showed up.

A family participating together
Steve, played by Agent Walker, was sitting all alone in the middle of the lawn with a birthday hat and a cupcake. Bryant Park closed the lawn off for us right before the the experiment started.

This was Steve’s first appearance on Earth since The Mp3 Experiment III in 2006!

Participants surround Steve

Preparing for the surprise


Mobbing Steve
For the record, Steve was not supposed to be mobbed at this point. Folks were just supposed to yell surprise and wait for further instructions, but I guess excitement got the best of everyone. How can you resist the urge to run and greet an omnipotent voice?

The first activity in the park was a Racewalk around the gravel track. Of course, we forgot to specify clockwise or counterclockwise, which led to hilarious results. I was walking counterclockwise with a mob of about 500 on the eastern side of the park when all of the sudden another mob of thousands starting walking towards us, screaming, and pointing the other way. So we turned around and screamed and pointed at those behind us. It was awesome.

A couple preparing their letters
The next big activity was to work together to spell words. Participants were instructed to bring two sheets of paper with a single letter (one vowel, one consonant) printed on them. Everyone put them together in what looked like a giant game of scrabble.

An appropriate word for 2010!

Not every word made sense
Next, participants were instructed to partner up and draw portraits of each other. Once completed, everyone got a portrait of themselves, as drawn by a random stranger.

For the next activity, everyone drew one continent on a piece of paper and then passed it to someone else. Everyone continued passing and adding continents to each sheet, collaboratively drawing a map of the world. By the end, everyone had a map with all seven continents drawn by seven random people. Some were great, many were awful!

A finished map

Exchanging gifts
In keeping with the birthday theme, participants were each asked to bring a wrapped gift of something they had in their home, no longer wanted, and thought that someone else might like. Everyone partnered up with a stranger to exchange gifts. A 3,000-person Secret Santa!


For the final activity, participants found a new random partner and were told to use the roll of toilet paper they brought to turn each other into Toilet Paper Mummies.

One of our old redhead agents

3,000 mummies!

After the dance party the Mp3 Experiment came to a close. Everyone was instructed to stick around and help clean up all the toilet paper, and a really great percentage of folks not only cleaned up their own mess, but others as well. Bryant Park also had a crew on hand to help with waste removal, as they were prepared for the toilet paper insanity. In the end, we had the park looking like it did before we got there, but with many awesome new memories created.

Since we had aerial photos of the entire crowd, we were able to get a pretty accurate count on the number of participants. Agent Ann Kirschkins blew up one of Chad Nicholson’s photos and hand counted all of the heads, circling them in red. Her final number was 3,044. She added, “Of course, I defer to anyone who wants to do their own count.”

Mission Accomplished.


Ari Scott’s Photos
Brian Fountain’s Photos
Chad Nicholson’s Photos
Chad’s 2nd Set
Ilya Chigirev’s Photos
Thomas Robinson’s Photos

You can download some of the songs from The Mp3 Experiment on Tyler Walker’s site.

We regularly tour The Mp3 Experiment around the world to places like Berlin, Germany and Adelaide, Australia and to college campuses in the US like UNC and Texas Tech. If you’re part of an organization (festival, university student activities board, arts group) that is interested in commissioning an Mp3 Experiment, get in touch via our contact form.

Check out first hand reports from participants on the Recap Page.