Nearly every musician on the planet has, at some point in his or her career, put a modern spin on old classics. But you rarely hear about contemporary artists interpreting current pop hits through an old-timey lens. That’s precisely what New York musician Scott Bradlee and his Postmodern Jukebox collective specialize in, however. From doo-wop renditions of Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” to Motown takes on the esteemed discography of Nickelback to soul send-ups of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” Bradlee and his cohort have done it all.
And they’ve done it in a way that doesn’t feel like an arcane throwback. Bradlee’s sense of social media smarts (Twitter, Snapchat, Periscope — you name it, he excels at it) is unparalleled for a working jazz musician. The Postmodern Jukebox’s YouTube channel has accumulated nearly 500 million views, and the highest-ranked videos span a range of styles: a haunting cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” (22 million hits), a sultry, swinging version of Meghan Trainor’s “All About that Bass” (18 million), a Singin’ in the Rain-inspired take on Rihanna’s “Umbrella” (5 million), and an eerie interpretation of Lorde’s megahit “Royals” sung by a giant sad clown named Puddles (15 million views).
Looking further back, it was an endless urge to experiment that helped Bradlee land on a version of success that looked markedly different from his post-college struggles in the competitive New York jazz scene. His first popular video, a ragtime medley of ’80s pop hits, went viral after sci-fi icon Neil Gaiman tweeted about it. “That gave me the bug, basically,” Bradlee told Sonic Scoop last year. “I recorded this video, put it up there, and pretty soon, more people had seen [it] than had seen me play in my entire life.”
Once Bradlee expanded the scope of the Postmodern Jukebox and started enlisting guest vocalists to perform certain songs, things really took off. In 2012, Robyn Adele Anderson’s lead on “Thrift Shop,” originally by rappers Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, scored one million views in a week, earning the band a headline spot on Good Morning America months later. The Postmodern Jukebox swept into Cosmopolitan Magazine’s Manhattan offices at the end of 2013 to film their own version of a year-end Best Of list. Video game covers opened the band up to a whole new devoted demographic. And in 2014, the band went fully mainstream, attracting accolades in Time, Billboard and Huffington Post, and on PBS.
It’s that blend of expert musicianship, passionate live performances, and smart media strategy that has propelled the band to such a prominent position. In 2016 alone, Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox has completed a 75-date European tour and a 16-date Australasian tour, swapping supporting players in and out as needed. The grueling pace rolls all the way through the end of the year, too, with this week’s date at The Florida Theatre falling midway through a 45-stop North American journey.
Reviews of these tour dates have been almost entirely glowing, with fans and critics alike celebrating the marathon variety show aspects and Gilded Age aesthetics that provide a nice escape from brutal presidential elections and land-falling hurricanes. Bradlee told Sonic Scoop last year that the Postmodern Jukebox’s video streaming stardom has provided a steady revenue stream that allows for such extensive touring. And the recorded side of the collective is actually thriving, with more than 15 full-lengths bearing slam-dunk titles like Twist is the New Twerk, Clubbin’ with Grandpa, and Swipe Right for Vintage making the Top 10 of Billboard Jazz charts. “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 a while to get to that point, especially when you have a significant amount of overhead from bringing that many musicians on the road.”
Even better? Bradlee still employs the same MacGyver-like setup for filming and editing the Postmodern Jukebox’s videos he’s used since college. “But I found there’s something very intimate about it this way,” he said last year. “The static shot makes people look around the frame and notice the little details of what’s going on in the background, and I think it helps people focus on the music and the performance.” And in this ADD-addled age, that counts for a lot.