A Look Back At Death Cab for Cutie's Transatlanticism 10 Years Later
I listened to Transatlanticism for the first time just before reaching cruising altitude on a flight from New York City to Seattle in the spring of 2003, about five months before the album's release. I was heading to the Emerald City on behalf of MTV to take meetings with several indie record labels: Sub Pop, Tooth & Nail and Death Cab's own, Barsuk Records. I was a Coordinator of Label Relations who worked largely in the digital space, but I'd lately been put in the mix with the company's latest acquisition: the College Music Network, which would be rebranded as mtvU. This gave me an entirely new, 24-hour music network desperate for things to play. It was already clear with the successes Bright Eyes, The Shins and The Decemberists were seeing that something was taking hold within the mainstream. I was hot to push my indie-rock-loving agenda on the channel, and Death Cab for Cutie were high on my hit list of bands. Transatlanticism was the jumping-off point. But, 10 years later, a number of tributes to the album seem to misremember its success.
A lot of people write about Transatlanticism in the framework of the popular primetime soap The O.C., though that narrative does a disservice to the creative success that the band achieved with the album. It's like congratulating Nike for their hard work on Michael Jordan's legacy. The Fox series did an excellent job of upping awareness of the band's existence in the mainstream, and it was happily well-timed to the release of their greatest artistic achievement to date. But had that particular piece of publicity not come about, Transatlanticism would have still been the band's breakout album.
To further drive home the point, factor in these key dates: Transatlanticism was released October 7, 2003. The O.C. premiered August 5, 2003. The group had its first synch on the show's September 16th episode with "A Movie Script Ending," from 2001′s The Photo Album, though O.C. protagonist Seth Cohen name-checked the band earlier than that. Considering the three-to-five-month lead time required by print magazines, I'd say Transatlanticism didn't earn coverage in Rolling Stone, Spin, Uncut, Alternative Press and Blender based on their placement in the show. The show did, however, give more populist outlets like Entertainment Weekly and MTV News — where I knew members of the staff who were fans — license to mention Death Cab in recaps and the eventual think-pieces about how a teen drama was making the world a musically better place. And The O.C. certainly gave me some strong ammunition in the music meetings at MTV when discussing DCFC; mass exposure of any kind was a key metric to consideration for even the smallest of rotations on the newest of video channels.
Another, less-discussed thing happened in 2003 to help raise Death Cab's profile: the release of the Postal Service album, Give Up, in February, nine months before Transatlanticism. It was supposed to be frontman Ben Gibbard's little electro-pop side project, but soon it had moved 100,000 copies, then 500,000 (!!). Now it's Sub Pop's second-best-selling album ever (after Nirvana's Bleach) with a million copies sold, while Transatlanticism still hasn't. The truly organic success was so remarkable that Billboard did an article on the album spending four weeks on the top of their Electronic Albums chart with what they characterized as "scant radio, club or video exposure and minimal touring (no more than 30 live shows)." People were straight up just buying it, in droves, and propelling it to a No. 1 charting.
To put this into context, in 2003 Bright Eyes and The Shins were among the first of a new breed of indie band to sell over 100,000 albums, a feat that was considered all but impossible in the music industry by bands on indie labels who got minimal support from mainstream outlets. It was commonly accepted that you had to be the Flaming Lips or Built To Spill and sign that major label deal to make the jump from sales around 30,000 to breaking the 100,00 barrier. People in the music industry's heads were exploding trying to figure this success story out (spoiler alert: it was music blogs and file sharing as exposure).
Every story that was written about the Postal Service — and there were many — billed Gibbard as the Death Cab For Cutie frontman. The set-up was classic: people who had never heard of, let alone listened to, Death Cab had come to know Gibbard's lyrical style and voice through Give Up. The world was primed for a new album from this voice, and Transatlanticism essentially served as the follow-up. It was the kind of publicity you couldn't pay for, and a little more credible than the music gospel according to TV's teenaged music geek, Seth Cohen. more on this story