In the parlance of blog Hipster Runoff, Empire of the Sun is a "highly bloggable" band.
Its debut album, "Walking on a Dream," was released in March 2009 and has sold less than 30,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. None of the tracks has gained significant radio play. And digital sales are solid but not spectacular, with the album's title track selling 80,000 and a second track, "We Are the People," moving 47,000. Yet the band managed to pack the headlining dance-stage slot at Lollapalooza and sell out two nights at New York's 3,000-capacity Terminal 5, as well as book four nights at Los Angeles' 1,300-seater the Music Box at Henry Fonda Theater.
The buzz started even before the Australian altronica duo released a record in the United States, according to Astralwerks/EMI senior director of marketing Risa Morley. "They already had huge YouTube views," she says. (More than 5 million and 6 million, respectively, for "Walking" and "People.") "There was a groundswell of online buzz from Australia and the U.K.; they were getting covered in NME. That gave them a bounce in the U.S."
As word of the band crossed the ocean, domestic blogs began picking up tracks. That led to Empire of the Sun landing at No. 21 on Hype Machine's list of the top 50 artists of 2009. The band also scored synchs in "Entourage," including a mention when a character was asked what he was listening to, and a Ralph Lauren Rugby commercial. But plenty of bands score blog buzz and synch deals, while few can sell out two nights at Terminal 5 the first time they play stateside. So what is it about Empire of the Sun?
"It's been a bit of a shock," Luke Steele says in his laid-back Aussie drawl. Steele, who also fronts the band the Sleepy Jackson, first met Empire of the Sun partner Nick Littlemore (who also fronts dance music duo Pnau) at a bar in Sydney. They worked together in their respective spare time for five years to produce their debut. First released by EMI Australia, the album has been certified double-platinum by the Australian Recording Industry Assn. (140,000 copies sold).
Steele's visibility was boosted again when Jay-Z requested his vocals for a track ("What We Talkin' About") on the rapper's "The Blueprint 3"-which Steele says he managed to turn around in less than a day. But Jay-Z's album was released almost a year ago. Given the fast turnover in music, are fans really that loyal with memories lasting that long?
Empire of the Sun manager Pete Lusty thinks more people in the States actually have that album than its numbers reflect. "A lot of people in the U.S. probably downloaded the album for free," he says. Lusty also thinks a steady stream of unauthorized remixes has kept the band top of mind for many blog readers.
"Every day people are sending us remixes," he says. "We get 20, and one is good and 19 aren't, but there is nothing we can do. It's frustrating for artists because they have to spend so much time listening to these remixes, but we can't change it."
Instead of exercising control over the remixes, Steele prefers to control the band's elaborate live show, which features costumes, dancers and synchronized visuals. (Littlemore doesn't tour with Empire of the Sun.) "We tape all the shows and watch them afterward to try and make things better," Steele says. He notes that the shows have managed to break even thus far, due in part to the fact that home label EMI Australia is funding the tour.
Steele's next task is deciding whether to keep working the States or return home and record another album. After the run of shows in Los Angeles (Aug. 11-14) and an Aug. 15 date at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, no other dates are planned.
"This thing has taken on a life of its own," Morley says. "They could do a larger tour, they could do another album . . . we'll see."