Last year, someone sent me a link on Facebook. Around that time, a song called “All About That Bass,” by Meghan Trainor was really popular. I have an 11-year-old son, so we listen to pop music stations in the car, and I was pretty familiar with this song. I liked it a lot actually–it was catchy, and I liked its message of empowerment to women to love their bodies.
The link that I was sent on Facebook that day was to a cover of that song done in a jazz style, and the band that was covering it was called PostModern Jukebox.
Started by a guy named Scott Bradlee, PMJ is an incredibly interesting social media case study. This is a band who has become incredibly successful on its own terms, without the help of a record company.
Bradlee is an interesting dude. He’s always had an obsession with older-style music, specifically ragtime. The band’s songs are stuck firmly in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, but what makes them unique is that they take modern pop songs and, as they say, “put them in a time machine.” It makes for brain-warping goodness–you recognize the lyrics, but you hear the song in an entirely different way.
The backbone of Bradlee’s and PMJ’s success has been YouTube. And the backbone of their social media approach is based on authenticity.
I think that that’s really crucial and in the music business, you see that there’s a shift away from the old rockstar paradigm that dominated music where artists were supposed to be seen as on a pedestal or unapproachable or something like that. The new move that this new crowdfunding model dictates is being completely open and transparent with your fans. Basically giving them access to the behind the scenes, your though process, to your ideas. I think that they really appreciate that. I think that for a while, the music industry wasn’t very genuine and I think that now there’s a return to those kinds of roots.--Scott Bradlee
PMJ’s YouTube videos are all shot (until recently, they had to source out an actual studio because of their tap-dancer) in his tiny NYC apartment. They are done in one take. They are meant to have that intimate, authentic, behind-the-scenes feeling. The videos are often even a little bizzare, especially the ones that feature Puddles, a 7-foot tall sad clown.
Bradlee started making the videos because he was looking for a way to share his music, but he knew he didn’t want to do it via a record contract. He also probably knew that his music wasn’t the kind of thing that would garner him a record contract. What PMJ does is incredibly niche and specialized, unique. In other words, not what record companies are looking for.
So he started to record videos in his NYC apartment, and release them on YouTube. The first one to go viral was a ragtime version of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” (8 million views to date). Given the fact that they were on social media, and they weren’t worried about putting out a perfectly polished final product, PMJ is able to crank out a lot of content, which feeds the love of the fans.
PMJ has also done a ton of crowdsourcing, and it’s worked incredibly well for them. They’ve used Kickstarter (to create a stage show that was a Motown tribute to Nickleback), they use Patreon, a new tool called Stageit, and they use the crowd-funding model to sell their stage shows.
I recently attended a PMJ show here in Vancouver a couple weeks back, and they have levels of tickets. You can buy a ticket to the show, and then you can buy a VIP upgrade, where you get to attend a meet-and-greet with the band before the show, and it also includes a signed poster, and discounts on merch.
The funding model is not nearly as simple as it has been in the past–the band’s income now comes from probably 20 different sources, versus one source–through the record company, but for Bradlee, it’s been all about making it on his own terms.
The idea is instead of selling music, you’re selling an experience. You’re selling access and it allows you to connect directly with your fans. Your fans really want to support you. They want to help you do more of what they love, so this kind of cuts out the middle man. It’s almost like you’re bringing them along for the ride essentially.–Scott Bradlee
During the Vancouver show, Bradlee was incredibly grateful–he thanked the audience over and over, and the band took time before and after to pose for photos with the fans. They were incredibly accessible.
This kind of give-and-take with the fans is exactly the key to their success (and the fact that they are all amazing, talented musicians and dancers), and a wonderful model for future musicians.