On the night of May 9, Bruce Hornsby took the stage of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” With Hollywood Boulevard and an enthusiastic crowd as his backdrop, the musician played a soulful version of “Cast-Off,” the single off his new album, “Absolute Zero,” and a collaboration with longtime indie artist Justin Vernon.
It was a striking scene: a 64-year-old musician who has followed his own arrow more times than Robin Hood getting the ultimate in broadcast-network approval.
Even more notable was how he got here. Baked into “Absolute Zero” was everything that’s problematic about the music business circa 2019: the limited scope of streaming platforms, the tyranny of playlist culture, the difficulty of breaking out amid the din, the bias against older artists.
Yet contained in the record’s story in the months leading up to its April release were all the rays of light that music business optimists cling to: the proliferation of new services that allow artists to go at it alone, the power of digital-age tastemakers like Pitchfork, the ability of a name-brand collaborator to help break through that clutter.
Hornsby is just one artist, and not even on a traditional record label. (More on that in a second.) But his story of releasing “Absolute Zero” suggests much of what’s right — and wrong — with the modern music business.
"It’s always been difficult to make adventurous music and put it out in the world,” Hornsby told The Washington Post. “But I agree with [anyone] who says this is the hopeful story of the year. That’s what I feel, anyway.”
A quick primer, in case you haven’t been paying attention.
Hornsby was the man behind ’80s radio hits like “The Way It Is,” “Mandolin Rain” and “Every Little Kiss.” That first track went on to be sampled by Tupac and many others. Several of the remaining tracks became adult-contemporary staples. For many listeners, this is the end of Hornsby. It should be, in fact, only the beginning.
A piano virtuoso and eclectic songwriter, Hornsby has reinvented — or simply invented — himself many times in the three decades since. To name just a few: as jazz musician with Branford Marsalis; folk and bluegrass artist with Bonnie Raitt and Ricky Skaggs; jam-band impresario with members of the Grateful Dead; film-score composer for Spike Lee; and general purveyor of modern-classical and wild experiments. (His 2016 album, “Rehab Reunion,” was composed almost entirely of songs he played on the dulcimer.)
Hornsby’s career has been one of enviable artistic boldness.
In other words, the kind of career the contemporary record industry likes to pulverize.
So, when Hornsby began assembling an album last year, what he was doing was setting up the ultimate music-business puzzle. The record had dissonant notes. It had lyrics about fractals and cryogenics (and, maybe worse for the record industry, racism). It had collaborators as diffuse as Vernon and the classical sextet yMusic. The question for Hornsby’s managers: How to take an artist who aggressively does things his own way and help him prosper in a business in love with conformity?
Their answer offers a telling portrait of an industry at an inflection point.
Searching for home
There was, for starters, the matter of where to put the thing. Indie label 429 Records, where Hornsby had released his previous album, had been bought by the Universal-affiliated Concord Music Group; consolidation had stricken. Executives listened to an early cut of “Absolute Zero” and passed.
"The major-label business is built for and upon young listeners — and older artists who like to repeat themselves,” said Tony Berg, Hornsby’s longtime friend who collaborated on “Absolute Zero.” “And Bruce will never be the guy who goes back to earlier work.”
Hornsby and managers Marc Allan and Kevin Monty thought a traditional indie label was the way to go. These were the industry’s oases, homes for the wayward. They attracted the attention of Indiana’s Jagjaguwar — the label of Vernon’s top-selling Bon Iver. “Bruce is one of those artists that follows you through life, changing as you change,” said Eric Deines, an A&R rep at Jagjaguwar who championed “Absolute Zero” and helped develop it artistically. “And this record was a crowning achievement. I knew everyone here would want it.”
Top executives decided they didn’t like the record and decided not to sign it. Allan and Monty wonder whether Hornsby’s early career was a factor. Younger people like Deines, 37, didn’t really know Hornsby during his ’80s radio days. But older executives up the chain did, and might have judged him for it. (Deines acknowledges his perception of Hornsby differed from some other executives. A Jagjaguwar representative did not respond to a request for comment.)
Maybe more pointed, the managers say, is the streaming factor. Record labels, including small ones, live and die in 2019 by the whims of Spotify, Apple and YouTube. The artists that succeed on those platforms tend to do so in basically two genres: hip-hop/R&B and electronic dance music. (Possibly the only two with which Hornsby hasn’t experimented.)
This is partly because many of the people who use streaming services are younger and fans of those genres. But it’s also because those tracks are engineered to maximize addiction. And streaming is, by design, a volume business. It’s meant to attract listeners to add songs to playlists then click again and again, the way McDonald’s knows that french fries goes really well with a Coke, which in turn makes you buy more french fries. (The most streamed song in Spotify history, with 2 billion of them, is Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You.”)
“It felt like some of this [label skepticism] had to do with streaming and how much influence this platform now has,” Monty said. “Which is great if you’re an artist who works in those genres. But what if you don’t?”
Hornsby says streaming’s playlist culture, which prioritizes easily listenable tracks ahead of intricate albums, bothers him — to a point. “I think it’s regrettable we’ve moved from an era of album consciousness to song consciousness,” he said. “But I don’t spend much time thinking about it because there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Without a Jagjaguwar deal, the team thought about prostrating themselves to labels. Then they came upon a more exotic solution.
A new alternative
Based in Nashville, the company Thirty Tigers is part of a new wave of what the music business calls “label services” firms — a disruptive force that is either the answer to the industry’s problems or another way artist services can be reduced.
A label services company is a stripped down version of a label, one in which artists often get an advance and budget but not the same level of marketing or publicity support. Instead, a deal allows artists to release albums themselves and control how that budget is spent. Maybe most critically, they can own the masters).
Its adherents say it spells a beautiful arrangement.
“By operating on narrower margins that the mainstream record business wouldn’t go for, we can function like a traditional label but with much more control for the artists,” said Thirty Tigers co-founder David Macias. “And that’s what happened with Bruce. We flipped for his record and thought this could work for everyone.”
Traditional label executives, on the other hand, tend to grumble about label services. They say these companies are spreading like toxic weeds, shortchanging artists in the name of control.
But after an imperfect experience at 429 and the Jagjaguwar rejection, Hornsby and his team liked the idea of someone wanting them. In 2019, they thought, Thirty Tigers is more than just a force of disintermediation — it’s a safe harbor for the many artists who aren’t Cardi B.
“We didn’t want to be the guy chasing the girl,” Allan said. “We wanted to be the ones they kept asking about.” He said a major label’s machinery can be misleading. “[At some labels] an artist only becomes a priority if everyone and their mother is hearing a song and they’re forced to pay attention.” Hornsby signed with Thirty Tigers soon after.
“I was a little surprised he went the label services route, to be honest,” Deines said. “But the more I think about it, the more it seems right. It represents exactly the career he’s had. It feels bad***” to me,” he added, using a playful expletive. “And Bruce’s career has been bad***”
Meet the press
The album might still have vanished, but two factions stepped in.
The first was the media. The music press still matters — at least to people who read the music press — and it began gushing. The New York Times’ Jon Pareles called the album “Complex,” “untrendy,” “daring” and “so good.” Pitchfork said it was a “testament to the full range of Hornsby’s gifts,” then paid him the ultimate Pitchfork compliment: Hornsby, it said, has “nearly become hip.” It added listeners should “give the credit (or blame) to Justin Vernon."
Enter the second faction.
The mainstream pop-music business has long been about promoting music via guest appearances. The idea is for artists to broaden their base by adding someone a little off-brand. Daddy Yankee had plenty of fans, but he earned a whole new set when Katy Perry appeared on a track.
Turns out modern-classical piano records work this way, too.
With Vernon singing on “Cast-Off,” the team had its answer. A longtime Hornsby fan, Vernon and his producing team actually spitballed a slew of album ideas with Hornsby at Vernon’s studio in Eau Claire, Wis. Hornsby, a man who doesn’t sell a lot of records to young people, had his seal of approval from a man who does.
“I think a lot of people are finding Bruce because of Justin,” said Bradley Cook, Bon Iver’s producer, “which is funny since, coming up, Justin found his voice because of Bruce.”
But all the right homes and signals belie the bigger question: Is this working? Can savvy strategy, in a chaotic record industry choked for profits, actually bring a hit to a 64-year-old outside the mainstream?
Can you, in essence, short-circuit the modern music business?
Monty and Allan like to talk to about “editorial success.” Certainly, all the reviews — and the Kimmel moment — suggest they’re right. NPR did a big piece on Hornsby, not something many former ’80s radio popsters get.
Sales are a trickier matter.
“Absolute Zero” has a fan base — of a certain size. It has notched 800,000 streams on Spotify; “Cast-Off” has 430,000. The lyric video has scored 78,000 views on YouTube. By contrast, Drake’s video for “God’s Plan” tops 1 billion YouTube views.
“I don’t think we ever thought we’re looking at streams in the millions,” Monty said. “But this puts him in the conversation. It’s going to help his live shows in a lot of ways,” he added, noting Hornsby’s always-prolific touring schedule.
The seemingly bad news: Given all this effort to record and release an album, the best outcome seems to be just a few more ticket sales. It feels like spending years putting together the menu for a fancy restaurant and then hoping people come for the tablecloths.
But viewed through another lens, this may not be an indictment of the music business but the opposite — a path forward for its most adventurous artists.
“The album has sold 10,000 copies, 7,000 of them physical,” said Macias of Thirty Tigers. “We’re hoping to get to 50,000. And it already recouped its costs, so this is clearly a big success.”
“The good . . . always finds a way, doesn’t it?” Deines said.
Hornsby said these mechanics, for all their complexity, served his ultimate purpose.
“I guess people will have opinions on what this says about the business,” he said. “But I think it’s a really positive story. Because it allows me to keep doing this.”