How Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard Built Community Amid Coronavirus

– The Sound of Streaming
Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard performs during his March 26 livestream.

As the coronavirus crisis forced the cancellation or postponement of most physical concerts, few artists embraced the digital sphere as prominently – or voluminously – as Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, who livestreamed hour-long performances every evening from March 17 to 29.

The series, which showcased a vast repertoire of Death Cab deep cuts, solo rarities and intriguing covers of more than two dozen artists from The Monkees to Radiohead, far exceeded the scope that managers Joe Goldberg and Jordan Kurland of Brilliant Corners initially envisioned when they floated the idea of streaming to Gibbard.

“As is my way, I just took it a lot further than maybe anyone around me had kind of anticipated,” Gibbard says. “I just, immediately, for whatever reason, jumped to, ‘Yeah, I want to do this every day for the next two weeks. Like, every day.'”

To stream the shows, which simulcast on Facebook Live and YouTube Live, Gibbard and his team turned to StreamYard, a relatively new freemium platform that allows users to go live on multiple platforms at once.

“We wanted to make a tool that basically gave someone who didn’t really know much about computers, but still had interesting content and interesting stuff to share, we wanted to give them the tools to still make an entertaining stream,” says Geige Vandentop, who launched StreamYard with co-founder Dan Briggs in October 2018, after the duo observed the high technological barrier to entry that’s made streaming a domain dominated by gamers.

“That was the genesis: Let’s make a tool that makes it easy for non-gamers to become livestreamers,” Vandentop says.

StreamYard, which also allows users to simulcast to Twitch, LinkedIn and Periscope, was a boon for Gibbard.

“I’m not a very good engineer,” Gibbard says with self-deprecation. “It’s pretty hard to fuck up putting a mic in front of an amp and then plugging that into Pro Tools. You really have to be bad to mess that up. But it’s a whole ‘nother animal to try to figure out how to do this.”

Goldberg disputes the premise – “He’s very savvy, technologically,” he says – but agrees with Gibbard’s ultimate conclusion that the process was remarkably straightforward, albeit “very lo-fi.”

An hour before Gibbard went live the first night, he joined a call on Zoom – the teleconferencing platform he ran through StreamYard for the performances – to soundcheck his setup, which consisted of a Focusrite 4-channel USB interface that he’d routed through Pro Tools.

“We do a bunch of stuff to the audio to account for people that don’t have great setups: echo cancellation, noise suppression, stuff like that,” says Vandentop. “But if you’re a musician, you generally have all that stuff handled, and it makes the audio sound worse, if you’re applying those filters. So we have options for them to disable all of that.”

In any event, spotty fidelity wasn’t a huge concern for Gibbard.

“Something that I’m noticing that the audiences are really responding to is just kind of having things just be a little lo-fi,” he says. “If I were to make any recommendation to any artists who are thinking about doing this, it would be to not worry about what it sounds like, what it looks like. People will be so grateful just to see your face and to hear your voice and to have some type of connection with you.”

StreamYard, Facebook Live and YouTube Live all enable real-time comments, which meant the connection between Gibbard and audience went both ways. (Instagram Live spurns external streaming tools, so Gibbard’s team promptly loaded his sets to the platform following their broadcast.)

“Honestly, I have to admit, the first show where I had the chatroom open on the other side was a little bit terrifying,” he says. “As a 43-year-old, I was stepping into a teenage YouTube world. There are moments in your life where you realize you are somewhat out of step with the culture, and this was definitely one of them, where I had yet to experience that kind of real-time reaction to what I’m doing.”

The “overwhelming majority, 99.9999%” of the audience was “very sweet,” according to Gibbard, and he quickly gelled with them, soliciting suggestions and taking requests, and scrawling his selections in a notebook to minimize repetition. Attentive commenters were mildly concerned about Gibbard’s health: The musician canceled a solo show in late February due to a serious flu and, despite being on the mend, coughed periodically during early streams. (“We don’t know what it was,” says Goldberg, noting that Gibbard “hasn’t been tested” for coronavirus.)

While Gibbard says he did the streaming gigs “as much for my own sanity as for anyone else’s” – musicians get stir-crazy while socially isolating, too, after all – he also leveraged the performances for social good.

Introducing a charitable component was crucial for Gibbard, and he specifically wanted to encourage non-monetary donations rather than asking a somewhat static audience nightly to donate cash they might not have. With a focus on his native Pacific Northwest, Gibbard promoted a different charity every day, including Your Supplies Save Lives, White Center Food Bank, Bloodworks Northwest, New Horizons Ministries and Aurora Commons.

“I think it’s much more empowering in these times to give people the opportunity to give from their surplus rather than from their pocketbook,” he says.

“I would be doing this without an audience, sitting around and playing songs,” Gibbard continues. “This has the added bonus of being something that a fair amount of people want to tune into, and it’s giving them a respite from all of this craziness. And it’s giving me a sense of purpose that I probably otherwise wouldn’t have right now.”

After three days off, Gibbard resumes his livestreams on a weekly basis April 2. For now, revisit his archived performances on YouTube.