The Brains Behind Bieber: A Conversation With Scooter Braun
Sunday night’s American Music Awards said it all: There’s a new Justin in town.
The 16-year-old wunderkind — a title the multi-instrumentalist can legitimately claim — Justin Bieber won four awards (all fan-voted) during the ABC broadcast, including artist of the year and album of the year for My World 2.0. He was also named one of Barbara Walter's "10 Most Fascinating People of 2010." One year to the week since his debut EP My World was released, it marked the pinnacle of a well-orchestrated campaign by his label, Island Records, and management team, led by Scooter Braun, who had famously discovered the teen’s talent through videos Bieber and his mother had posted on YouTube. The rest, as they say, is pop music history.
So who is the brains behind the Biebs? Many in the industry had known Braun for years. A fixture on the Atlanta club scene from his college years on, the New York City-born Braun, who grew up in Greenwich, Conn., was both an influencer and everybody’s friend, having dabbled in everything from club promotion to party planning to, yes, talent scouting. He counts Ludacris and Jermaine Dupri among his pals and mentors and Usher as a partner (the two joined forces for Raymond Braun Media Group, which would eventually sign Bieber), but for every big name he’s affiliated with, there were likely a dozen others who claimed to know Braun like a brother.
What those people probably don’t know, however, is that Braun the baller, who was famously called “King of the White Girls” in a Creative Loafing cover story titled "The Hustla" (Braun insists the nickname actually belonged to producer Polow da Don), is also the grandson of Holocaust survivors, a nurturing sibling to two adopted brothers from Mozambique, and a man who, like his ancestors, is driven equally by fear and ambition.
A fascinating study of the American dream—even if it does involve making a star out of a Canadian — THR talked to Braun, who also manages rapper Asher Roth, about how he got here and where he’s going.
THR: As the legend goes, most of the majors had passed on signing Justin, have any, or all of them, expressed regret at a missed opportunity?
Scooter Braun: Some. Like [RCA/Jive Label Group CEO] Barry Weiss' staff turned down Justin, but it never got to Barry. And Barry's like, “If it had gotten to me, he would have been mine!” Then there's people who have rewritten history, who feel like they didn't turn it down when they did. Or they’ll say, "Oh no, it was this person" or "you signed it before I could do it." We all miss some. You never know who's going to be a hit and who's not. You're not going to be right all the time. And everyone has their own priorities. I made Justin my priority so I lived and breathed it. I knew what it was because I was in it. Someone else, that day they might have been dealing with some other superstar and they didn't have the focus on it that they should have, and rightfully so. So I don't hold any ill will against anyone for saying no to Justin. I'm pretty happy with how things turned out.
THR: What was the most common reason they gave you when turning him down?
Braun: They all said the same thing: that he's too young and no one's broken from YouTube. “Where's the platform? Go get a TV show, you can't compete with Disney or Nickelodeon.”
THR: So is that what you do late at night? Surf YouTube.
Braun: Yeah. [Laughs] I get a lot of work done and then I look at stuff. I think finding a superstar is like falling in love. You try to put yourself in the right position for it to be there, but it either happens or it doesn't. Justin and I joke around that I stalked him and everything but I was completely fascinated. I saw something there that I knew no one else saw because he wasn't on that level yet.
THR: What did you see?
Braun: A kid. And I heard the tone in his voice and I saw some instrumentation and it was just raw talent. And my gut just went crazy. It wasn't anything that I necessarily saw. It was a feeling I had when I was watching. This is it. This is what I had been looking for. And I became completely obsessed with tracking him down. And I was able to do that.
THR: People are often surprised that he can play multiple instruments well -- is that something that differentiates Justin from singers that came out of boy bands?
Braun: Absolutely. And it's not like he's just playing guitar, he picks up those drum sticks, he gets on the piano -- he's a very talented little kid and people are shocked when they see how musical he is. Can he dance as good as Michael Jackson? No, but he's getting better and better … I'm not Lou Pearlman. I don't want to take anything away from N Sync and Backstreet Boys, who were both big talents — 'N Sync was no slouch group when it came to vocals, those guys could harmonize their butts off — but Justin is a triple threat. He can write, he can sing, he can dance. He's a very unique talent and I'm lucky to be involved.
THR: How do you think his parents are handling the fame and success?
Braun: They both handle it differently. I think they both love their son. His dad is in Canada and his mom is with us [most of the time]. I think his dad misses him a lot because he doesn't get to see Justin as much. I think his mother — she and I have talked about this -- at times, she struggles with how protective we have to be of him. With people saying anything they want about her son and making up rumors about all of us and our relationship with each other, it's frustrating at times because we know what it is. We ignore all that stuff. But I also think, and she’s said this in interviews, that she feels safer with him living this life because it's structured and we know where he is all the time. She feels that if they were still in Stratford, Ontario, he'd be getting himself into a lot of trouble.
THR: Does Justin have an appreciation for the short life span of a pop star? Does he know it could all be over within a few years?
Braun: Yeah. Justin doesn't study the people who made it. He studies the people who haven't. He hears all the naysayers about how he's going to disappear so he likes to look up people who used to be the so-called Justin Biebers before him and didn't go anywhere. He wants to see why they didn't go anywhere. The general feeling we get is that it had nothing to do with their talent and everything to do with their personal life. Like the kids fall into drugs and destroy their own trajectory. I think by watching that, he's very conscious of it. He's a smart kid. He knows the talent he has. He realizes that if he grows up to be a good man, he's going to be able to handle the pressures that come with a position like this.
THR: Where do you see his future?
Braun: I think he's going to be able to handle it just fine. He might have some bumps in the road but I think he's going to be one of the greats. I'm there with him. That boy is the real deal. Ne-Yo put it best in a recent interview. He said, "Check for Justin at 19 years old. He's going to have a tremendous amount of success until then, but watch what happens when he's 19."
THR: Are you looking forward to that?
Braun: I am. I love where we are now and I don't think we make cookie-cutter music -- you can listen to a Justin Bieber as an adult and be, like, “Damn, this is good!” — but I'm looking forward to 19 people are going to see him as an adult and have to pay attention and then revisit the old music. People forget that Michael Jackson was considered done after the Jackson 5. When Off the Wall was coming out, no one expected that to be a success. But he changed the world. And like a Michael, an Elvis, an Usher, a Timberlake, Justin has a tremendous amount of talent. And as long as he's able to maintain a good personal life, you can't deny talent and you can't deny good music. And hopefully he grows up to be a pretty good-looking dude and the girls can keep going crazy.