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 It artist Justin Vernon.
It was a striking scene: a 64-year-old musician who has followed his own arrow more times than Robin Hood, now 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.
And 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. But his story 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 Post. "But I agree with (anyone) who says this is the hopeful story of the year. That's what I feel, anyway."
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 a 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; general purveyor of modern-classical and wild experiments. (His last album 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.
And so when Hornsby began assembling a new 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 management: 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.
There was, for starters, the matter of where to put the thing. The indie label 429, where Hornsby had released his previous record, had been bought by the Universal-affiliated Concord Music Group; consolidation had stricken. Executives there listened to "Absolute Zero" and said, "No thanks."
"The major-label business is built for and upon young listeners — and older artists who like to repeat themselves," said Tony Berg, a longtime musician friend who collaborated with Hornsby 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. The pair attracted the attention of Indiana's Jagjaguwar Records — 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 Hornsby. "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 if 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 at the top of the label's ladder did, and might have judged him for it.
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, Pandora, Apple and YouTube. And 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 Hornsby hasn't experimented with.)
This is in part because many of the people who use streaming services are younger and fans of those two genres. But it's also because those tracks are designed to maximize addictiveness, 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 McDonalds knows that french fries go 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," Hornsby said. "But I don't spend much time thinking about it, because there's nothing I can do about it."