Scott Bradlee was living in New York City in 2009, and finding it difficult to make ends meet through gigs and sessions alone. “I didn’t have a lot of work as a jazz musician, which is what I trained for,” he says, “so I started experimenting.”
Noticing the success others were having on YouTube, Bradlee decided to start his own channel. One of his earliest videos, a medley of 80’s pop hits arranged for ragtime piano, quickly went viral. “That gave me the bug, basically. I recorded this video, put it up there, and pretty soon, more people had seen this video than had seen me play in my entire life.”
Bradlee’s channel chugged along for a while, with his jazz and ragtime covers of video game scores, pop songs and movie themes regularly bringing in tens of thousands of views. But the scale of the project changed entirely as soon as he started collaborating with small ensembles. Almost immediately, an old-timey jazz rendition of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” racked up a million hits “in a week.” By last count, that video alone is approaching near 7 million views.
Today, some of the biggest hits on Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox channel include a “bluegrass hoedown” rendition of Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” (3 million views), a petite blond double-bassist performing Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” (9 million views), the theme to “DuckTales”, rearranged as an R&B slow jam (1.5 million views), and, naturally, a gigantic sad clown named Puddles singing passionately through Lorde’s “Royals” (10 million views.)
What makes the videos on Postmodern Jukebox work so well isn’t the gimmick alone. Although Bradlee certainly is an expert at dreaming up an appropriately viral “you’ve-got-to-see-this” hook, the videos that follow are as artful as they are absurd. Each one is simply produced, deftly arranged, and performed with earnest musicianship. Bradlee’s slow-jam arrangement of the theme song to the 80’s cult classic cartoon “Chip n’ Dale Rescue Rangers” isn’t worth watching because it’s weird or nostalgic. It’s worth watching because it’s really good.
Bradlee tells me the key to the channel’s success is “Just…being consistent in putting out new videos and collaborating with others.” The notoriety that comes from the channel has enabled Bradlee and his players to hit the road in a live variety show that he describes as “a three dimensional version of my YouTube channel.” This has helped turn Postmodern Jukebox from a self-sustaining novelty into a real and thriving business. It’s also a shift from the way things have worked in the recent past.
In the second half of the 20th century, live performances used to serve as “loss leaders” for the real product: record sales. But in the digital age, that arrangement practically reversed, with recorded music acting as something of a loss leader for concerts, where the real money can now be made. Thankfully, Bradlee has found that online video streaming can act as a driver for both concerts and recorded music sales, while providing a reasonable revenue stream itself.
“The thing with touring,” he says, “is that it’s very expensive, and you have all of your costs and expenses come up front. I’ve been lucky that whatever I make on the digital side, I’ve been able to invest in the touring end. Touring is definitely better for gross profits in the long run—but it’s something that you build. It takes awhile to get to that point, especially when you have a significant amount of overhead from bringing that many musicians on the road.”
Though Bradlee now acts as the leader of a 12-person touring ensemble, he is still a “one-man band” when it comes to production: He still shoots, mixes and masters the Postmodern Jukebox videos himself.
“It’s the ultimate MacGyver setup,” he says. “I use the same gear I purchased in college. It’s a PreSonus Firepod that’s really old school, but it still works. Lately, we’ve been using a Neumann on vocals which is nice. I’m limited to 8 inputs, so we’ll put one mic up on all the instruments, and usually two mics on drums—just snare and kick. The hi-hat just gets picked up in those mics and everything else. It’s all in one room, so there’s bleed, which is good and bad. It gives it a certain old-timey live quality.”
Bradlee will frame the shot, set levels, hit “record”, and then scurry back over to the piano to play through the takes. In the end, he’ll replace the camera sound with the multi-track recording, which he mixes and then masters using iZotope Ozone.
“I know a lot of people start that way, and then, when they have the budget, ‘up’ the production value. But I found there’s something very intimate about it this way. The static shot makes people look around the frame and notice the little details of what’s going on in the background—whether the bass player is making faces or what—and I think it helps people focus on the music and the performance.”
So many of us assume that 21st-century attention spans are too short for live music performance to stand a chance in an online world where cat videos are always a click away. But Postmodern Jukebox seems to have found one solution: Make the performances just as addictive and viral as the cat videos. Great musicianship isn’t dead, it turns out. It is just dying to be made relevant for a new generation of listeners.
Ultimately, Postmodern Jukebox is a YouTube channel that proves a great idea, delivered consistently and well, with some savvy for marketing and promotion, is all you really need to build a big audience. With a minimum of equipment and surplus of only time and talent, Scott Bradlee and his players have developed a live music performance channel with millions of views. Web surfers come for the viral sizzle. Listeners stay because it turns out it comes with a big hunk of steak.