The Brains Behind Bieber: A Conversation With Scooter Braun

 Courtesy Scooter Braun

Is Justin Bieber the next Justin Timberlake? His manager Scooter Braun is betting on it.

THR: The My Worlds Acoustic album comes out Friday, what are your expectations?
Braun: We don't expect it to be some big No. 1 craziness. That wasn't why we did it. We're releasing it as a Wal-Mart exclusive because it's a gift for his fans. He felt like, “Let's make an unplugged album where I can play my own instruments, produce with you guys and sing things a little bit differently.” He started off panhandling in the streets of Stratford. So he wanted to make an album that kind of brought things full circle. Do I expect this to be something that sells a million in a week? No. We're being very conservative because we don't have anything from this album that we're giving to radio, but I also think if anyone on that Grammy board takes a minute to listen to it, they're going to understand that they better not write him off. He's the real deal musician. 

THR: However, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched that there would be Taylor Swift-like numbers for Justin down the road …
Braun: We just want to manage expectations. We like being the underdog. I was at Interscope and [vice chairman, Interscope Geffen A&M Records] Steve Berman, who runs the label was like, "You know, Scooter, those Taylor numbers, those should be your goal for the next album." And I said, “I don't need to sell a million a week. I'm cool with selling three million over a year.”

THR: What is your philosophy on self-promotion? 
Braun: My philosophy is if you're going to be known for something, make sure you're known for the right thing. Like before all the music stuff even when I was just a party promoter, I got offered a bunch of reality shows and I didn't want to be known for that. So I turned it all down. And in the last couple years, as this stuff's taken off, the same thing is happening — “Come do this reality show, do this ...” I want to be known for what I do, which is work for other people. More power to the guy who wants to be known as the paparazzi dating Britney Spears, there are people who want to be known for being an idiot. Then there's people who I look up to, like Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Geffen, Barry Diller and Steven Spielberg, those are my heroes. The everyday person wouldn't know who they are, but I do.

THR: Was this career trajectory planned? 
Braun: The thing that drives me is the expectation others put on me. If no one thought I was capable of doing things, I'd probably watch a lot of movies and eat a lot of ice cream. I feel like there's this fat kid inside of me that wants to watch movies and eat ice cream and so it kind of just pushes me onto the next thing. I still look at myself as the 19-year-old kid in Atlanta trying to prove to everybody what I'm capable of, like I know what I'm talking about. 

THR: Where did this desire to prove something come from? 
Braun: Sometimes it's just the pure fear of letting people down and the fear of failing completely drives you. Sometimes it's curiosity. What am I capable of? Sometimes it's competitiveness and people telling you you can't do it. That always gets me going. When people say to me, "You can't do it,"  that's honestly the wrong thing they should say to me. If you tell me I can't do something, it just revs me up. And I think a large part of that is my grandparents, they're Holocaust survivors and were in the concentration camps -- my grandfather in Dachau, my grandmother in Auschwitz -- and then my dad was a refugee in this country and basically made his own way while his mother worked in a sweat shop for 15 years. He got out of Queens and became a very successful man. And I grew up first generation wealth, but I was embarrassed. I really didn't want my legacy to be the kid that got it because of inheritance. I didn't want to say to my kids and then I just inherited all this money and went to college. I wanted to make my own story. 

THR: What was some of the earliest music you heard or bought?
Braun: Honestly, the first thing I remember is Michael Jackson. My parents have videos of me at two years old dancing to Michael Jackson. But I did memorize "We Didn't Start the Fire" by Billy Joel. For me, there's wasn't one genre. It was Motown to Allman Brothers to Dave Matthews Band to Bob Dylan to Biggie. My father played opera in the house. So I was always exposed pretty much to everything but country. And I always used to say I liked everything but country. Now, I love country! I moved down to Atlanta and got exposed. I'm a big Zac Brown fan.  

THR: How about your first concert?
Braun: Michael Jackson’s "Bad" tour. I was five. My entire life I always thought that show was at Madison Square Garden, but it was actually in Hartford, where Justin’s tour started. It’s a funny story: He does the show and [Island Def Jam President] L.A. Reid and everyone is telling me they haven't seen excitement like that since Michael Jackson. He really just killed that first show, it was a really special night. And the next day, my father calls me and says, “It was so special to be there in that building.” It turns out he took ne to see Michael Jackson there 20 years earlier. It was kind of surreal so I sent my assistant on a mission to get me a ticket stub from Justin's concert and a ticket printed from Michael's concert and frame them both together.

THR: What do you think is the biggest problem plaguing the music business right now? 
Braun: A lack of understanding that we're no longer a music business. We're a multimedia business.  We're a branding business where the music, the songs and stars are the drivers, but at the end of the day, we have to be willing to open ourselves up to different revenue streams.

THR: Same question, but with the major labels.
Braun: They're built on a structure that's still based on a failing business. Doug Morris is a legend and what he did was incredible, and I think there's some great new leadership with [Universal Music Group CEO] Lucian Grainge, but he has a tough job ahead of him. You see the moves that [chairman and CEO of recorded music for Warner Music Group] Lyor [Cohen] is making and he's very capable. Barry Weiss is a brilliant guy who doesn't like to lose either. There's some good leadership out there and I think they're heading in the right direction.  

THR: How did you get your nickname? 
Braun: A couple ways. In first grade, I went to a birthday party and the balloon magician guy called me Scooter. I hated it. And my brother found that so he kept calling me Scooter.  He also thought that a scooter fish was a fish with big lips and I had big lips. I hated that also. My sophomore year in high school, I started my first basketball game and my brother was standing there with all my friends holding signs that  say "Ride the Scooter to Victory!" And all my friends chanting "Scooo-ter." It was like a nickname in high school. I was class president and I got introduced as Scott "Scooter" Braun. Then when I went to college [at Emory University], one of my friends dared me to call myself Scooter at freshman orientation and convince people it's my real name for $100. So I did it and when I started to throw parties at school, people knew me as Scooter.

THR: Who still calls you Scott?
Braun: My mom and a few family members. Pretty much everyone else calls me Scooter. I never felt like a Scott. I always thought my parents gave me the wrong name. I always felt like a Zack Morris I don't know why. 

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