Outside the Jukebox

How I Turned My Vintage Music Obsession into My Dream Gig


By Scott Bradlee

Read by Scott Bradlee

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From the creator of the sensation Postmodern Jukebox — with millions of fans globally — comes an inspirational memoir about discovering what you love and turning it into a creative movement.

With student loan debt piling up and no lucrative gigs around the corner, Scott Bradlee found himself in a situation all too familiar to struggling musicians and creative professionals, unsure whether he should use the little income he had to pay his rent or to avoid defaulting on his loans. It was under these desperate circumstances that Bradlee began experimenting, applying his passion for jazz, ragtime, and doo wop styles to contemporary hits by singers like Macklemore and Miley Cyrus–and suddenly an idea was born.

Today, Postmodern Jukebox — the rotating supergroup devoted to period covers of pop songs, which Bradlee created in a basement apartment in Queens, New York–is a bona fide global sensation, having collected more than three million subscribers on YouTube while selling out major venues around the world and developing previously unknown talent into superstar singers. From its Etta James-inspired rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep” to its New Orleans jazz interpretation of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” the group has established a sound like no other, crafting hits as exquisitely sublime as they are humorously absurd.

But it wasn’t always as easy as the YouTube videos make it look. As he worked to establish Postmodern Jukebox, Bradlee struggled through the obstacles that every self-employed artist or entrepreneur with a vision faces: how to collaborate successfully on teams with divergent visions, how to outrun the naysayers, how to chase the next innovation when your reputation makes others start to pigeonhole you, and so many of the other challenges lining the path to success.

Taking readers through the false starts, hilarious backstage antics, and unexpected breakthroughs of Bradlee’s journey from a lost musician to a musical kingmaker — and presenting all the entrepreneurial insights he learned along the way — Outside the Jukebox is an inspiring memoir about how one musician found his rhythm and launched a movement that would forever change our relationships to our favorite songs.



My name is Scott Bradlee.

I grew up in rural New Jersey, in a small town, in a middle-class family. We lived in an unassuming house and did unassuming things, like watch Jeopardy!, play Scrabble, and go for after-dinner walks down to the end of the cul-de-sac on which we lived.

We didn’t have any relatives in the entertainment industry, and none of us had ever been west of Pennsylvania, let alone to Hollywood. Ours was a simple life, where a trip to Krauzer’s Food Store for ice cream sandwiches was a cause for celebration.

But from an early age, I have never been someone who could let a simple thing go uncomplicated. Within days of opening a Christmas present containing a shiny new toy, I could be found dismantling said toy, eager to discover its inner workings. When Scrabble (and Monopoly and Battleship) got old, I invented my own board games with my own rules—to the eternal frustration of those unlucky enough to play them with me. Whereas other kids were content to simply enjoy the songs they heard on the radio, I had to know how they were made.

And so when I entered my teen years and fell feverishly in love with jazz and decided—with characteristic determination—that I was going to pursue a career as a jazz pianist, it didn’t really take anyone by surprise. My parents were supportive, but they also feared that I wouldn’t be able to support myself.

I auditioned for and got accepted to music school and eventually earned a diploma. I moved to New York City, where I lived in a basement apartment in Queens that flooded every time it rained, with a sweet older landlady who used to bring me bread, and I spent a couple years in grad school studying music composition, before unceremoniously dropping out. Ten years out of high school, when most of my peers had already shacked up with their childhood sweethearts and bought houses not far from home, I was a twenty-seven-year-old with no career prospects and a hundred thousand dollars in debt. I was barely earning enough money to cover rent and had to claim hardship to defer payment on my outstanding student loans.

Then everything changed for me. Not all at once and not conspicuously, but gradually, beginning with a single video performance I recorded at home and put on the Internet, just for kicks. The video went viral, and suddenly, I was inspired again. I began making more videos that combined my love of “vintage” styles of music with modern pop culture and invited my artistically inclined friends to join me in them. I had no idea where this new pastime might lead, or if it even would lead anywhere at all, but I knew that I enjoyed doing it and that viewers seemed to enjoy watching me do it, too. It wasn’t long before I’d racked up a few more viral hits and light press coverage; then requests for interviews began rolling in.

In a couple of years, ScottBradleeLovesYa—the YouTube channel I’d launched to house these videos—grew from one subscriber (thanks, Mom!), to a thousand subscribers, to ten thousand subscribers, to one hundred thousand subscribers. Eventually, those online subscribers turned into something more tangible: I started to actually make money from them. I upgraded to a nicer, non-basement apartment (sans sweet landlady, sadly), and got invited to appear on national TV. I kept making those videos.

When my channel passed a million subscribers, I changed its name to better reflect the project it housed. (Branding, like everything else about being an entrepreneur, was something I learned on the job, through trial and error.) I put together a live musical act based on the channel, and we played our first tour of small clubs outside New York City, selling out every show. We toured Europe for two weeks. I moved to Los Angeles and arranged a residency for the group at a local nightclub, which continued to run even while we toured. I was offered multiple record deals but turned them all down to stay independent and went on to release seven albums in a single year on my own label. I kept on making those videos.

I brought on more performers and established a small touring company, which saw us playing gigs in venues twice as big across the United States, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia. Those venue sizes doubled again the next year. Along the way, we helped launch the careers of many talented performers, earning us the reputation of being “Saturday Night Live for singers.”

By 2016, our roster of performers had blossomed into a full-fledged artistic community. We sent multiple casts on the road, simultaneously—an unprecedented feat for a concert act. I bought a very large house in Los Angeles to serve as the headquarters of the project… where, yes, I continued making those videos.

Later that year, I found myself near Times Square, watching a longtime dream come true. There, on the marquee of Radio City Music Hall, just a couple miles from the basement in which the project was originally hatched, were my name and that of the group I’d created. It was, to put it simply, surreal. I visited my old landlady and invited her to the show. She declined but asked if I could play the piano for her Christmas party.

This is the story of just how my life changed and how an improbably crazy idea grew to become a grassroots, global phenomenon. This is the story of Postmodern Jukebox.


Attention, Walmart shoppers: Come to the paint counter and get your groove on as we present the sweet sounds of Scott Bradlee and his Intergalactic Purveyors of Funk.”

Long before the sold-out tour dates around the world, before the hundreds of millions of YouTube views, and before all my wildest dreams actually came true, this was how I announced my first public appearance as a bandleader: over the loudspeaker at the Walmart at which I worked. It wasn’t exactly well-received, either; instead, it got me fired.

The Walmart in Clinton, New Jersey, was a logical place of employment for me in high school, mainly because it was the only place that was interested in hiring a very unskilled seventeen-year-old kid. It also happened to be the workplace of one of my best high school friends and fellow ne’er-do-wells, Cody (who, notoriously, would be fired not long after I started for making price tags that read “MY HAIRY ASS—$1.00” and slapping them on items around the store). In the brief, blissful time that our shifts overlapped, before Cody met his fate, we spent most of our on-the-job hours goofing off and talking music. On one particular afternoon, I had the idea to take things to the next level and actually perform music instead of merely sitting around talking about it.

I won’t claim to have thought, at the time, that bringing in a live band to perform at the paint counter would result in anything other than my termination as a Walmart employee, but I do know this: Even then, the idea of putting music where it didn’t belong fascinated me enough to throw caution and my Walmart career to the wind, just to see what would happen. The musicians who accompanied me—Cody on bass, Steve Ujfalussy on sax, and my friend Josh on conga drums—knew the drill; after all, I’d talked them into performing for confused customers at a gas station convenience store the previous week.

Upon arriving at the megastore that day, I channeled my inner James Bond and hijacked a large dolly, so as to wheel in my 1978 Fender Rhodes electric piano and a battery-powered amp in the smoothest, least obtrusive, least suspicion-stirring way possible. Realistic? Not at all. But it’s the strategy I’d landed on, and I was committed to seeing it through. I pushed the array of instruments down the frozen food aisle, conscious, of course, of the weird glances I was receiving from customers. But there was no backing out now. This was my musical debut for the entire world, and the number one rule in showbiz is that the show must go on. With steely resolve, I executed a wide left turn into my usual station at the hardware department. With the help of my friends, I quickly set up the instruments around the paint counter before taking my place at the piano. Then, over the public-address system, I made the announcement that begins this tale.

The set began with a favorite of mine: Sly and the Family Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay.” If nothing else, Walmart’s customers seemed mildly entertained by this departure from the paint counter’s usual programming, which consisted of my mixing paint for them and occasionally supergluing objects to the countertop out of boredom. A few even nodded their heads to the beat. It wasn’t enough people to qualify as a crowd, exactly, but it was enough for me. I imagined myself onstage somewhere grand, with throngs of screaming fans cheering my every note.

A minute or so into the song, as I was passionately digging into the keys and wiping beads of sweat from my brow, I looked up to take in the sweep of my adoring fans only to find, instead, a formation of managers descending on us in a classic pincer movement. I snapped back to reality and stopped playing. A wave of discomfort washed over me as they arrived. My boss spoke.

“Scott, what are you doing?”

I felt it should have been obvious, but I figured I’d give him the benefit of the doubt and reply; he was my superior, after all.

“Playing a concert with my Intergalactic Purveyors of Funk, sir.”

The requisite blank stare.

“You think this is a joke?”

There was no discussion about the artistic merit of what I was doing. I was fired on the spot, made to turn over my badge, and ordered to leave the store immediately. I complied, though not before belting out one last battle cry of rebellion with the band: a performance of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” in protest, right outside the store’s entrance, until the police were called. So ended my first show—and my last day of working for corporate America.

I wasn’t troubled by this in the least. As I sat in my parents’ driveway, trying to figure out how to explain my latest predicament to them in a way that might provoke some sympathy, I found my thoughts drifting to visions of someday getting the opportunity to tell this very story in front of a live audience. That’d show those managers the mistake they’d made, I thought. And in my rebellious teenage mind, anything seemed possible.


24 minutes. 32 minutes. 28 minutes. 16 minutes. 29 minutes.

I was in the back seat of a silver Toyota Camry driven by my mother, a spiral-bound notebook splayed open in front of me. In it, I was furiously writing down my practice times for the previous week, meticulously alternating between using pen and pencil for entries. I wanted to create the illusion that I filled in my practice log daily and accurately, not arbitrarily and all at once on the ride over to my piano teacher’s house. Truthfully, the amount of time I spent practicing piano each day of the previous week was quite easy to remember—because I never practiced the piano.

That I never practiced the piano was no secret to my teacher; I was a terrible liar, especially for an eleven-year-old who probably had a lot of things to lie about and, as such, had just as many opportunities to hone his lying skills. Every week, she would put the same Clementi sonatina in front of me on her cherry upright piano in her immaculately maintained parlor room, and I would do my best to pretend that I had spent hours practicing each section on my parents’ spinet piano. Every week, I would express faux frustration at my predicament.

“I practiced this part so much last week.… I don’t know why I can’t get it to sound right! Maybe I’m just not able to learn piano.”

My teacher was too gentle to call me out on my lies, but on this particular day, as she demonstrated how the section I’d been assigned for the past three weeks was supposed to sound, she looked more dispassionate than usual. That’s because she’d already decided that this was the last lesson I would be taking from her. Suffice it to say, it was a decision that improved both our lives.

In retrospect, I’m able to clearly see that formal lessons were never going to work for me—for two reasons. First, I loathed being forced to do anything I didn’t want to, and the lessons always felt like something I was enduring to appease my parents. And second, as I realized much later on, what appealed to me so much about music, in general, was its potential for rebellion—the fact that you could elicit a range of emotions, from bemusement to shock, in an audience, merely by playing something unexpected. In the drudgery of the Czerny and Hanon exercises that I was learning, there didn’t seem to be any space for that sort of magic.

That I allowed my parents to waste their money on lessons I wasn’t committed to is something that I still feel pangs of remorse about all these years later. They were too generous and sweet to deserve that, and although we were by no means poor, we also weren’t wealthy. Born to a blue-collar family and raised in Brooklyn, my mother, Sunday, was a Spanish teacher at Amityville High School. She played violin and sang in college, and to this day she still picks out songs on the guitar that she learned to play during a year abroad in Madrid. My father, Richard, a computer programmer, was raised by a single mother in Providence, Rhode Island, and grew up to be the honest, loyal father that he never had. My parents had been married five years when I was born, but they were still finding their footing in their careers. Through sacrifice and a few years of diligent saving, they were able to scrape together enough for a down payment on a plot of land in an undeveloped neighborhood in central New Jersey, away from the hustle and bustle of New York City. They wasted no time getting down to building the small, contemporary-style home they’d envisioned for their family, and in many of my photographic appearances as a five-year-old, I’m wearing OshKosh overalls and a painter’s cap, attempting to help apply a layer of primer on the interior. I wasn’t much help, but I was cheap labor, requiring little more than an arrowroot biscuit and an Ocean Spray juice box for compensation. The home they built for us—first, for just we three, and then, too, for my sister, Mollie, who came along seven years after me—was a happy and loving one. We may have spent an initial few years without proper flooring or heating, but in terms of growing up with a stable family life, I was indeed very, very fortunate.

For my sixth birthday, my parents bought me my first vinyl record (keep in mind this was the preferred medium at the time; Sunday and Richard were not hipsters): Michael Jackson’s Bad. To say I was obsessed with this record is an understatement. I learned how to operate the turntable just so I could listen to “Smooth Criminal” on repeat, however many times I wanted, whenever I wanted. Michael Jackson provided the soundtrack for my own private performances of the moonwalk, which, at six years of age, entailed simply walking backward. I learned to read by poring over the lyrics insert, matching the words to what Michael was singing, which on one unforgettable occasion led to my poor mother having to define “seduce” for me in the most G-rated manner possible. For the rest of the year, that album and Paul Simon’s Graceland were on constant rotation in our house. In first grade, I insisted on singing “Man in the Mirror” in the school talent show. (I couldn’t pronounce my r’s back then, so it actually came out more like “Man in the Miwwow.”) I’m lucky to have the audio of that very first public performance preserved for posterity; my parents proudly captured it with their brand-new tape recorder.

I had a lot of interests when I entered middle school, but music wasn’t necessarily at the top of the list. I loved baseball and enjoyed collecting baseball cards (although I was never brave enough to try the stale pieces of gum that—inexplicably to me—accompanied the packs of said cards). I enjoyed building things but even more so enjoyed taking things apart to try to discover how they worked. It was fairly typical of me to hound my parents for months to buy me an electronic game of some sort and then, within hours of receiving it, for me to render it inoperable by disassembling it and rearranging the microchips in a different order.

My musical tastes at that point in time were largely dictated by my friend Steve Rekuc from down the road, who was a couple years older and infinitely cooler than me—which was at least partially owed to his house having a pool and cable TV. Under Steve’s tutelage, I developed an affinity for MTV and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and I made my first cassette purchase wisely: Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em by MC Hammer. We would listen to hits like “Can’t Touch This” while we shot hoops and played video games, and I took dressing in corresponding attire very seriously. From ages eight to eleven, I almost exclusively wore some combination of Ocean Pacific beachwear, baggy pants with loud designs (called “skids”), and a rotating selection of fluorescent hats. In the annual bus stop back-to-school picture, I was the kid taking fashion cues from Sinbad.

I was nine when the era of my formal piano lessons began, though it didn’t take long for my parents to realize where piano fell on my list of priorities: extremely low. Piano lessons, as it turns out, typically aren’t the most exciting activity for a young kid from rural New Jersey who dresses like Sinbad and listens to C+C Music Factory. The summer before I entered fifth grade, my piano teacher conveniently went away on an extended vacation, and when she returned, before my mom even had a chance to inquire, was quick to notify us that she’d managed already to fill her entire schedule for the coming semester. And with that, my short-lived classical piano career came to a grinding halt. I was overjoyed.

I’m of the opinion that the very first step in learning any discipline is finding a way to get yourself feeling profoundly inspired and invested. Learning to master a skill is a long, arduous process, involving many stagnant plateaus and discouraging disappointments. Unless you’re approaching your learning from a place of genuine inspiration, you’re probably going to have a hard time staying committed to the process, especially when the going gets tough. Motivation alone can sustain you—but only for so long; psyching yourself up to do something you don’t really want to do gets old, fast. For me, it was the stiff nature of the lessons that blocked my pathways to inspiration and turned practicing into a chore.

It wasn’t my teacher’s fault that, at age eleven, I possessed neither the inspiration nor motivation to learn piano; I simply wasn’t enamored with classical music or the thought of being a pianist in general. My mom, used to dealing with all sorts of stubborn children as a teacher, accepted this in stride with her usual optimism.

“I do think you’ll come to see how much enjoyment music can bring you. Maybe you’ll return to piano someday,” she offered hopefully.

“Fat chance,” I scoffed, profoundly inspired at the time by the sardonic wit of my beloved Calvin and Hobbes comic books.

Despite being a quitter when it came to piano, I was a pretty observant and studious child and definitely very curious about the world—a trait that my mom, in particular, encouraged. In school, I placed great emphasis on learning as much as I could, to the point where I spent first-grade math class quietly working out of a folder of more advanced work in the back corner of the room… by choice. My hope of being the smartest kid in the world was all but shattered a month later, when I glanced up from yet another set of boring division problems and saw, across the room, the rest of the class being plied with M&M’s into performing basic addition and subtraction problems, ostensibly to conflate the dubious joys of math with the verifiable joys of sugar consumption. And so it was that, at the ripe old age of seven, I became enlightened to the fact that this world we live in is not just and that organized education breeds disillusionment for some. My piano teacher never stood a chance. If I was to learn the instrument, it would have to be on my own terms.

I first heard the piece of music that would change my life when a next-door neighbor—a more advanced and much more diligent piano student than I was—began studying George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Exciting, humorous, brash, and alive and adult, it sounded nothing like any piano piece I’d heard before—nothing like the stuffy sonatinas that I had been assigned (nothing against sonatinas, of course), and it got under my skin. It got me wondering whether maybe, just maybe, I hadn’t given piano enough of a shot.

It had been a year since my last piano lesson, and when I wasn’t busy collecting cassettes of music that spoke to me—the rap duo Kris Kross was now the artist du jour—I began dabbling in attempts to pick up where I’d left off with piano—on my own. Coming into adolescence, I decided to abandon my previously held career aspirations—astronaut, professional baseball player, and cartoonist—and rebrand myself as a talented pianist, setting out to teach myself pieces that would impress and captivate my hypothetical audience. These pieces, as you likely could have guessed, tended to be far beyond my skill level: “Puck” by Grieg, Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody #2,” and Chopin’s “Polonaise in A Major.” Although I lacked the technique to play them well, I was able to sort of stumble through the sheet music through brute force, and gradually, my skill level increased. More importantly, though, I was enjoying the challenge, often spending three or four hours in a single day tackling difficult passages.

Through it all, Rhapsody in Blue was in the back of my mind—as my end goal, as my reward for all this training. And not the abridged version that my neighbor played; I wanted to play the real-deal version that Leonard Bernstein recorded. I spent weeks calling every music store in a fifty-mile radius, attempting to track down that original, unabridged version. In that pre-Internet era, I often asked the disinterested store clerks to thumb through the pages and describe to me over the phone the way the notes looked on the page. Finally, I hit upon success, and my dad drove all the way to Princeton to retrieve the piece of music that I had long dreamed of playing. He had the sheet music waiting for me in a tan sleeve when I got home from school that glorious afternoon. Holding my breath, I nervously turned past the blue cover to see if it was, indeed, the complete version. The opening page was full of elegant glissandos and complex notation; this was it. I thanked my dad for heroically going well out of his way to make this possible and then wasted no time in tearing into the music on our old spinet piano with the sticking keys. I remember, in the moment, thinking to myself that it was a day I’d never forget. That’s proved true, but it ended up being more than unforgettable: It would go down in my personal history as a life-changing day, as well.

Rhapsody in Blue was hard. Really hard. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the sheet music I had in my possession was actually the piano reduction, meaning that it wasn’t solely the piano part of the orchestral score that I heard Leonard Bernstein play but the entire score for all instruments, just kind of mashed together into two staves. Some passages seemed to require a third hand. Undaunted, I tore into the score in the same way that I read books: I skipped right on ahead to the interesting parts first.

At the time, the “interesting” parts, to me, were the jazz-influenced bits: the piano runs and chromatic passages; the iconic, blue note–heavy theme; the slow, bluesy riff that led to the memorable United Airlines commercial jingle (sorry, Gershwin). I would pick apart these exotic, intriguing passages, trying to unearth their inner workings the same way I had taken apart my toys a few years earlier. A whole new world opened up for me when, in an attempt to find other pieces with the sounds I so loved, I started looking into Gershwin’s non-classical influences. I decided that I needed to explore this thing called ragtime piano, and I hungrily read about its history and practitioners as I worked my way through a book of Scott Joplin piano rags. Inspiration, it seemed, was taking me to new places that the structured tutorials of an expert never had.

My journey took me far and wide and nearly a century back in time. I learned about stride piano—a kind of fancier version of ragtime—and listened in awe as Fats Waller played “A Handful of Keys.” I couldn’t find any sheet music for this one, but thanks to the Joplin book, I had a pretty solid training on the oom-pah left-hand and standard ragtime chords, and I managed to pick out a good chunk of it by ear. I learned about how diminished chords were used in jazz and how to roll octaves to create a tremolo effect. I devoured books about the birth of jazz in New Orleans and its key figures: Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke. I took out CDs and cassettes by the dozen from my local library and would sit at the piano with headphones on, rewinding passages again and again and trying to mimic them. My repertoire grew: “Carolina Shout” by James P. Johnson, “Black and Tan Fantasy” by Duke Ellington, “The Pearls” by Jelly Roll Morton. The hours flew by; there weren’t enough in the day to sate my need to play and learn and explore. Suddenly, the instrument my parents couldn’t have bribed me to go near in the not-so-distant past had become my most favorite companion and the source of much joy.

The piano, for me, was a portal to another universe: a place of dimly lit nightclubs with dancing flappers, lively second-line


  • "Candid, hilarious, and wildly fun, Outside the Jukebox is the book I wish I'd had when I was getting my start in theatre."
    Kristin Chenoweth, Broadway and television star
  • "Bradlee found tremendous success by going his own way, and he turned his passion into a creative movement....I am learning from this read!"
    Mick Fleetwood, cofounder of Fleetwood Mac
  • "Bradlee's story is a crash course on how to launch a monster career in entertainment."
    Chris Silbermann, managing director, ICM Partners
  • "Scott Bradlee may just be the most creative musician turned entrepreneur I've had the honor to work with. Read this book and you will be inspired to chase your dreams the way he has."
    John Burk, president, Concord Records
  • "Outside the Jukebox will be of interest to up-and-coming musicians and Internet performers, not least because of his description of the traits and habits that helped Bradlee flourish....Here's hoping that Bradlee's hunger for success and his love of music keep him producing joyous, winning work for many years to come."—The Weekly Standard
  • "With an uncanny ability to tap into the cultural zeitgeist time and again, Scott Bradlee has given rise to a whole new crop of mega-talented singers and musicians, blending pop and jazz in a completely novel way....Outside the Jukebox takes us inside his unique method."
    Dave Koz, jazz saxophonist and host of Sirius-XM's The Dave Koz Lounge
  • "Fans of Postmodern Jukebox will certainly enjoy this, but anyone who is ready, as Bradlee says, to 'go out and make art' will appreciate his optimistic tone as well...Outside the Jukebox is a feel-good memoir with an inside look at Postmodern Jukebox founder Scott Bradlee's unconventional approach to a career."—Shelf Awareness (starred review)
  • "[An] entertaining memoir...Anyone eager to know more about the man behind the music will want to pick this up."—Publishers Weekly

On Sale
Jun 12, 2018
Hachette Audio

Scott Bradlee

About the Author

Scott Bradlee is a pianist and musical arranger. His musical collective, Postmodern Jukebox, is best known for its viral “pop music in a time machine” covers and has performed in over 400 live shows in five different continents.

Learn more about this author