The pressure on musicians to find novel ways of getting their music heard has never been greater.
Among the more fascinating attempts in this regard lately is Bear and a Banjo, a podcast from iHeartRadio that launched last fall and was designed in part to promote an album of music from Jared Gutstadt and Jason "Poo Bear" Boyd—but which ended up being a remarkable piece of storytelling in its own right, counting T Bone Burnett, Dennis Quaid, Rosanna Arquette and Bob Dylan among its collaborators.
Bear and a Banjo tells the tall tales of Mister Bear and J. Banjo—the title characters played by Boyd, the superstar pop producer who is one of Justin Bieber's top collaborators, and Gutstadt, whose background is in production music as a founder of Jingle Punks. The duo's fictional alter egos travel through American musical history, from the '30s to the '70s, across eight richly produced podcast episodes. Along the way, they help Leadbelly escape from a chain gang, play cards with Sonny Liston, attend the stadium wedding of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and much more.
Bear is the evocative griot, while Banjo is his mischievous guitar- and banjo-playing sidekick. Their adventures are related by Dr. Q, narrated by Dennis Quaid, who tells their stories after supposedly discovering a trove of lost memorabilia in the present day. Rosanna Arquette and Zac Brown make cameos. In its fanciful, hyperbolic yet charming storytelling style, the project is a kind of O Brother Where Art Thou? meets Greil Marcus's old, weird America.
In a funny kind of reverse engineering, the podcast's official soundtrack was finally released today (Feb. 21), two years after Gutstadt and Poo Bear wrote the songs. (Dylan contributed lyrics for one track, "Gone but Not Forgotten.") But to Gutstadt, the long and winding road has been an enlightening one—and well worth the journey.
"I made a record, but it got rejected by every single label," he tells Muse of the project's beginnings. "At the time I was working with iHeart as their jingle guy for all sorts of big campaigns and activations. I was pretty much ready to give the [album] up, but I thought to myself, it's such a bummer—I made this great record with T Bone, with Bob Dylan, with Poo Bear, with all my creative heroes. It made rethink how to create awareness for interesting things like this."
This was the fall of 2018. Gutstadt happened to be watching The Ballad of Buster Scruggs—like O Brother, another myth-making, musically inspired film from the Coen Brothers—when a friend sent word that iHeart had bought podcast network Stuff Media. Suddenly, a light went on for Gutstadt.
"I'm like, 'Oh my God, I wrote a musical,' " he says. He immediately envisioned the album as the jumping-off point for a podcast that could explore, in a fantastical narrative, his adventures with Poo Bear—fictionalized and set in the musical world of the long past.
Gutstadt called Dennis Quaid, whom he'd met a few weeks before, and pitched a bare-bones outline for what would become Bear and a Banjo. Quaid loved it and joined the project (he was cut into the ownership of it), and together they pitched iHeart, who quickly came on board.
Gutstadt came up with the general plots for the episodes, and then Bill Flanagan, the creator of CMT's Crossroads and VH1's Storytellers, scripted them in full. After many months of production, they had their eight episodes.
The model was to release the episodes on Thursdays, and the original songs on Fridays. At the end of the eight episodes, with the album cycle complete, iHeart went into promo mode, pushing the project through ads on its radio network (read by Quaid and styled as 1940s radio reads). Meanwhile, healthcare provider One Medical came aboard as a sponsor, funding the ad buy. Gutstadt and Poo Bear even wrote a song for One Medical called "Better Days," about the healing power of music, inspired by patients suffering from depression.
"Without them, we would have a great product nobody heard," says Gutstadt of One Medical. "They were very understanding that that we couldn't fully change the narrative to editorialize the product. But there were some general themes we were able to wrap around these songs. It became another arrow in the quiver, where we could go, 'Look, aside from sponsoring this podcast, let us make something bespoke and cool for you.' That was the breakout piece of media where they could do their brand film and take it to the trades, and make people aware they were working with this imaginary duo. It was good for them, it was good for us. And to be honest, it's one of my famous songs from the project. We didn't monetize it in a commercial way by trying to get on Spotify playlists. The intended use of it is the proper intended use. It's an elevated brand song, a brand anthem, jingle, whatever you want to call it."
While the project happily embraces the modern medium of podcasting, it's also steeped in the past—and not just because of the time period in which it's set. It's also a throwback in the sense that it provides added storytelling around the music, which is something of a lost art in the age of streaming.
"To quote Malcolm Gladwell [who contributes to the Broken Record podcast], it's the liner notes for the digital age," says Gutstadt. "We used to be a lot more imaginative. The Sgt. Pepper's album, where you unfold it and you have all these rich pictures and stories—you created stories around the music. We're giving you this same kind of theater-of-the-mind experience."
Bear and a Banjo might seem like a relatively niche, bespoke project. But it could be a model for innovative, creative distribution of quality music that might otherwise get lost in today's avalanche of content—in a medium that consumers love.
"Some of the biggest entertainment properties of all time really do come from music, whether it's The Greatest Showman or Frozen or Toy Story. There's amazing musical DNA in there," Gutstadt says. "But there are so many disruption points. Music is struggling right now. People are struggling with how to get New Music Friday populated every week with things people will care about. And from there, there's the new metric of having to have 100 million or a billion streams to get support of your label. What is the longer tail here?"
Creatively, the story of Bear and a Banjo is set more than a half century ago. But in an oblique way, it tells the story of the modern-day friendship of Poo Bear and Gutstadt—an odd couple who have bonded through various adventures of their own in recent years.
"It's the true story of two people who should have never met," Gutstadt says. "He's the biggest pop songwriter in the world. I'm a jingle guy. I'm out here trying to make a quick buck in the brand space. He has this prestigious air around him of only writing the Rolls-Royces of music copyrights while I'm writing the jalopies of copyrights. He wanted to be in my world, and I wanted to be in his."
Somehow, they clicked.
"The story in the final episode where we meet a young Bob Dylan at a softball game—I lifted that from the time Poo and I wrote a song for Major League Baseball with DJ Khaled," says Gutstadt. "It was an amazing, catastrophic moment. I was like, 'Wow, this song's going to be so big.' Because I'm delusional. It was the last-place team in baseball, and instead of wheeling out some giant stage, they ended up performing on something the size of a picnic table. It was somewhere between Spinal Tap and just another bad comedy."
"But afterwards Poo Bear was like, 'Oh Jared, I'll still follow you on the next adventure.' We had adventure after adventure of me trying to bring him into these weird brand deals. We played a pro bull-riding event where everyone's wearing the red hats. We walk in there—him as an African American man, me as a Jew from Toronto—and Poo is like, 'What the hell did you get us into?' But we can always laugh about it. This is the story of music. It's the history of music, but written our own way. We inserted ourselves into the history. There's always been the fast-talking deal maker and the really talented voice, and together they form their own destiny."
Bear and a Banjo is notable for the firepower of the creative talent behind it. But Gutstadt believes more musicians will try similar things, even if on a smaller scale, to leverage their imagination in other media as a way of breaking through.
"In the music business, to quote someone way smarter than me, to a hammer everything looks like a nail," he says. "Everyone's trying to get on New Music Friday with Spotify. But there's this new audio media firing up, where people can be as inventive as they want to be, tell longer stories, engage their fans longer. I think the ecosystem long-term will be a mix of really well-established people who are getting diminishing returns from the traditional model and then new artists who want to think a little bit differently."
Among the latter is Scarlett Burke, a young singer-songwriter from Texas who was the inspiration for the next podcast Gutstadt is making for iHeart, called Make It Up as We Go. Gutstadt has described the project as a "first-of-its-kind country musical set in the writer's rooms of Nashville." It tells the story of a newbie who ends up writing a No. 1 hit record.
"She created an album of material—a very enjoyable, amazing record of well-built songs, well-built stories. But it was rejected in Nashville for being too old-school country," Gutstadt says of Burke. "So I said, you should turn this into your story. Her tragedy, if you flip it the other way, is a comedy. I just said, this is like the movie Working Girl but set in Nashville. At the end of your story, you get a No. 1 hit and everyone has to say they passed on the next big thing."
Nashville radio personality Bobby Bones is attached to the project, as is Dwight Yoakam. Dennis Quaid is directing, and David Hudgins, one of the showrunners of Friday Night Lights, wrote all eight episodes. It's expected to be released this spring.
Make It Up as We Go may be more broadly appealing commercially than Bear and a Banjo, it's the same general approach. And it's one Gutstadt says isn't just creatively fulfilling but should open up new avenues for business, too.
"If you told me two years ago, when I was working on this record, that the plan would've unfolded like this, I never would've believed you," he says. "But this is something now that people can continually rediscover. It's an evergreen thing, like the HBO model. Someone can discover it a year from now, two years from now, four years from now—they might want to option the rights as a movie. I want to create as many opportunities for people to discover things like this, but also to work with the ecosystem of podcasting, which is very much brand supported right now. I want to figure out how to bring you different, unique musical stories today—that will last through tomorrow."