It's a brisk February night in New Brunswick, N.J., and Scott Bradlee, band leader of Postmodern Jukebox, is in front of a packed house at the State Theatre. A native of nearby Hunterdon County, he cracks that he may get a spray tan locally before heading back to California. Earlier in the day, the 35-year-old addressed a room of Rutgers University underclassman and proudly boasted his east coast credentials. Now, Bradlee sits at the piano and bangs out a medley of area-appropriate songs - Bruce Springsteen mixed with Billy Joel, as well as Lady Gaga and Johnny Cash - requested by the audience, before being joined by his stable of PMJ stars, including American Idol alums Casey Abrams (season 10), Brielle Von Hugel (season 14), Robyn Adele Anderson, Jack Dani Armstrong and tap dancer Sarah Reich. Also present in the audience is Idol season four standout Constantine Maroulis, who has recorded a song with the group that has yet to be released.
"What I try to do when I'm meeting talent for the first time is get a sense of who they are as an artist," Bradlee tells Billboard before the nearly sold-out show. "The temptation in the industry is to force people into boxes - because there's a certain sound that works in pop music. But I feel like I'm doing more old-fashioned A&R. Think about Motown and Berry Gordy: he brought in the singers that he wanted, matched them with a song and with great musicians, got them all in a room together to make a great record. And that's kind of the tradition that we try to keep alive."
The seeds of Postmodern Jukebox, a retro musical group that uploads throwback versions of current pop hits on YouTube and then releases them as albums on iTunes, were sown in the mid-'90s when Bradlee, still a student at North Hunterdon High School, decided to try and transform modern songs his friends were listening to into ragtime jams.
"My friends were all listening to hip-hop or pop or rock, so I would take a songs by somebody like Sublime, and put it in the styles that I loved and just play it on the piano for them. It was like a fun party trick."
Years later, that schtick morphed into Postmodern Jukebox, Bradlee's collective of musicians, entertainers, assorted American Idols and one sad clown named Puddles. The group has recorded 13 albums, performing songs like Fountains of Wayne's modern rock hit "Stacy's Mom," Meghan Trainor's "All About That Bass," The Chainsmokers and Halsey's No. 1 hit, "Closer," and Radiohead's "Creep," which features Idol season 10 star Haley Reinhart and went viral. Other Idol alums appearing in videos include season six alums, runner-up Blake Lewis and Melinda Doolittle; Von Smith (season eight); Deandre Brackensick (season 11); and Jax, Rayvon Owen and Joey Cook from season 14. Bradlee has extended the PMJ family to other reality show contestants, including The Voice's Mia Sykes and Belle Jewel.
"Scott's vision of Postmodern Jukebox is not just about vocals, it's about talent and fun and having stage presence," says Lewis, who is currently on tour with with the group in Europe. "Every single video is live, and it takes some gusto to make music in an overproduced pop world. This is a fun break for me, and a fun hang from my studio and my gig. This puts me in this zone where I can get to be swinging jazz guy and I love it."
"I don't really speak to my opinions of reality TV but as a casting agency, I found a lot of talent through those means," Bradlee says. "What I find [is] in some ways it's like PMJ boot camp for tour because they're used to just going on stage; they have like one shot to just nail a song, and ours is a variety show format [where] ... everybody, everybody has to be on it from like the minute they open their mouth."
The blueprint for PMJ began for Bradlee after he graduated Hartford College and moved to New York City to try his hand as a working musician.
"I was trying to make it as a jazz pianist and I couldn't find any work - nobody was booking me for gigs," he says. "I saw a lot of people were putting things on YouTube. So I thought, why don't I do this to one of the things that was near and dear to me, which was playing pop songs as jazz or ragtime."
People watched, and before long, Bradlee sensed he was onto something. "I was blown away by how fast it spread and by the fact that people were engaged and were commenting," he says.
How did PMJ go from video phenomenon to a business, currently touring Europe on its way to Australia and New Zealand? "I run it like a record label and a touring production," says Bradlee. "It's also a media company in that we put out all kinds of content that's targeted at musicians and people that are fans of older styles of music."
The demand for PMJ has inspired Bradlee to expand the group's touring throughout the summer with a co-headlining tour featuring the Atlantic Records a capella group Straight No Chaser. Also on tap: a mammoth October show at Red Rocks, as well as one at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. PMJ has already performed at such storied venues as Radio City Music Hall, and with an average price point of $55, the group has been averaging sales of a 2,000-capacity, performing at theaters ranging in capacities from 1,500 to 6,000.
Adds Bradlee: "We've been on four continents so far and my goal is to get it everywhere. I want everybody in every city to experience this kind of show."
Fans are already flocking to the group's YouTube videos. Reinhart is the reigning queen of video views, with more than 29 million hits on her version of Radiohead's "Creep."
Her duet with Abrams, an updated jazzy version of Meghan Trainor's "All About that Bass" (PMJ originally covered the song in 2014 with Kate Davis on the double bass) is just as successful with about 23.5 million views.
On the charts, seven of the group's albums landed on the Heatseekers chart, including two top 10s (Twist Is the New Twerk, No. 7 in 2014, and The Essentials, No. 5 in 2016). Postmodern Jukebox also wracked up 13 top 10s on Jazz Albums and 25 top 10s on the Jazz Digital Song Sales chart, including two No. 1s, both featuring Reinhart: "All About That Bass" (four weeks in 2014) and "Creep" (two weeks in 2015).
In all, the act has sold 97,000 albums and 283,000 digital downloads in the U.S. through March 2, according to Nielsen Music. They have also earned 66 million on-demand streams, according to Billboard stats.
Bradlee is also ready to conquer the publishing world and is in the midst of writing a book about PMJ, he reveals.
"I have so many great stories from my own life," he says ."I got fired from my first job at Walmart because I brought a band to play at the paint counter I was working at. And today, a lot of people in the project are my friends from college. It's funny to see them on stage at Radio City Music Hall and remember when we were playing a gig at Whole Foods. It just shows how everything can change in five years."
Indeed, Bradlee says that the possibilities - and genres - are endless. "We have a video coming out soon that's going to be our first metal song," he says, adding, "It's a great feeling to kind of wake up each day and be, like, I'm completely in control of this project and can do whatever makes me happy. I don't have to worry about pleasing the record label. And to know that there's this fan and artistic community that's rallied around this cause. It's a pretty fun adventure."