Minimalism. Less is more – not a concept generally associated with the music business. But the success of Austin’s Ghostland Observatory may cause more than a few people to reevaluate the idea.
In less than two years, the electro-rock duo of Thomas Turner and Aaron Behrens has gone from relative obscurity to drawing big crowds wherever it plays.
They’ve done it without the benefit of a manager or publicist, with virtually no press and very little radio airplay, and without following a traditional touring model. And success hasn’t come from 21st century sources like MySpace or YouTube either.
So what’s the secret? The granddaddy of all marketing tools – word of mouth.
Paradigm’s Jackie Nalpant, the band’s agent who was introduced to them by Cheryl Waters at KEXP in Seattle, puts it simply.
"They don’t shout, ‘We’re the best band in the world,’" Nalpant told Pollstar. "They just show you."
Ghostland Observatory, which came together in 2004 and released its first album in 2005, is very much a partnership, with Behrens’ energetic vocal delivery and guitar playing a perfect counterpoint to Turner’s restrained musical intensity. Nalpant said she thinks the band’s sound and live show is a perfect 50/50 combo.
"It’s almost a perfect morphing. Prodigy did it – the morphing of dance and rock – but this seems to be a little more raw. It’s more like White Stripes meets techno.
"Aaron is so amazing, but Thomas is really spectacular at synthesizers. The two of them are really pretty much at the top of their game. It’s great to see how it’s grown without going through any of the traditional channels."
She credits the band’s success to Turner, the cape-wearing half of the duo, who in addition to drums and synths, handles business matters for the band.
"He’s had a vision – and I’ve got to tell you – he’s been right. And when things weren’t going to go, he switched it around. He knows what he’s doing and he doesn’t waffle. He’s got strong faith in everything and if it’s not going that way, it’s not going that way. We don’t do it," Nalpant said.
"It’s all about the point of attack," Turner told Pollstar. "Picking certain places that you want to create a big boom in and letting those places spread – key places like Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and obviously our hometown.
"And then you kind of fill in the blanks in-between – the Midwest, the West Coast and the East Coast."
Nalpant couldn’t be happier with the results.
"The strategy has been spectacular, and I have to give it all to Thomas. We tried one time to get in the van and go to the club, and it sucked. They hated it; it’s not what they do.
"We’ve done festivals because we don’t want anybody to get half the show – we’re able to bring the lights and the lasers, which are all a part of the process now. The expenses are high, but like New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco, we should be able to go in, do 1000-plus seats and make it a real show."
Turner said he and Behrens feel they owe fans the best show they can give them, even if that means fewer dates. Of course, there’s some strategy there, too.
"When we bring our full production, you’re talking about a very expensive laser and light show. So when we tried to do small tours, we couldn’t take that type of show.
"I said, ‘I don’t want someone who pays for a ticket in one town to see a show with just a couple of lights and two guys on stage and the next city we play we have a full-blown laser show.’
"So we decided to just strip it down, fly in and do only big shows and let the buzz spread from that. That way whoever does get to see a show is blown away by the production and then as things progress, we’ll able to bring the full blown-production everywhere we go."
For Nalpant, the real proof of Ghostland Observatory’s touring hat trick is the numbers.
"We’ve gone from making $100 a night to where we’re able to do these really big shows in selected markets, which will continue to grow. That’s all Thomas’ doing. I’ve never done that before. We’ve gone from $500 to $20,000 and we’ve never gotten in the van but once."
So far this year, the "selected markets" Ghostland Observatory has played include the Sasquatch Music Festival, Lollapalooza, the Wall of Sound Festival, the Monolith Festival, the Treasure Island Music Festival and the Austin City Limits Music Festival – the last three all in one weekend. The band was also tapped to step in at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q in Austin when White Stripes canceled at the last minute.
Ghostland Observatory recently filmed an episode of PBS’ "Austin City Limits," becoming the first synth-based band to do so. The show’s producers were so impressed, the performance is being released on DVD in October, two months before it airs – another first for the venerable series.
The duo has a handful of dates on the books for the rest of the year, including gigs at the Voodoo Music Festival in New Orleans and Vegoose in Las Vegas. After that, Turner said they’ll head into the studio to finish a new album they’ve been working on for release early next year.