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.
"Justin doesn't study the people who made it. He studies the people who haven't." - Scooter Braun
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.
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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