On paper, Porcupine Tree is a band whose success is a little puzzling. The progressive rock act’s songs are lengthy, complex works that almost defy commercial arplay. Band leader Steven Wilson refuses to give away his music and ensures his CDs are experienced as complete albums by wrapping them in elaborate packaging instead of offering them as digital bundles.
Despite these uncommmercial proclivities, Porcupine Tree has been amassing a loyal following since 1987. The latest evidence: Fans snatched up all 10,000 limited-edition copies of its new album, “The Incident” (Sept. 22, Roadrunner). They contained two CDs, a DVD and two books (one of photos, one of illustrations) that complemented the record for $109, according to manager Andy Leff. (Double-CD and three-disc vinyl sets are also available.)
Why has Porcupine Tree developed such a rabid following? Wilson believes that despite the “dumbing down” of culture by entertainment like reality TV, “there is definitely an equal and kind of opposite reaction against that by people who still want something with a little bit of emotional resonance, emotional depth . . . something they can immerse themselves in and kind of appreciate over many listens.”
“The Incident” is a loose, semiautobiographical collection of songs “under this umbrella of being incidents of significant points in life, life-changing events,” Wilson says. The most poignant example is the lead single, “Time Flies.” In it, Wilson reflects on his mortality and celebrates his birth year, 1967-a milestone year for rock music.
Leff says that to market “The Incident,” Porcupine Tree is repeating the strategy used for 2007’s “Fear of a Blank Planet” (53,000 sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan), which “privatized” the album’s marketing by hiring the independent publicity firm Shore Fire Media to contact critics like Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke, who’s become a fan. “We’ll always support the people who supported us,” Leff says, “but we want Jon Pareles of the New York Times. We’re looking for artistic validation, not just genre-specific press.”
To that end, Porcupine Tree hosted two listening sessions in 5.1 surround sound this summer for journalists. “We take everyone’s BlackBerries and cell phones away, give them a pad of paper and a pen, and make them sit for an hour and listen,” Leff says. “And they love it.”
Besides debuting the “Time Flies” video on AOL Spinner, Porcupine Tree hosted a listening party Sept. 24 at its Terminal 5 performance in New York. The band started a two-week U.S. tour Sept. 15 in Seattle and will launch a European leg Oct. 5 that will run through December. The band’s Web site, PorcupineTree.com, acts as the focal point of the group’s universe, where people can stream music and purchase it from the site’s download store.
“This whole album cycle is almost like a cycle of disengaging from the mainstream and becoming a self-contained enterprise,” Leff says.