He planned Bieber's comeback

Talent manager Scooter Braun not only engineered a Justin Bieber revival this year, he also found success with network TV show Scorpion on CBS and earned a Best New Artist Grammy nomination for singer Tori Kelly.
Talent manager Scooter Braun not only engineered a Justin Bieber revival this year, he also found success with network TV show Scorpion on CBS and earned a Best New Artist Grammy nomination for singer Tori Kelly.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

LOS ANGELES • On a recent morning, Mr Scooter Braun, the talent manager and aspiring media mogul, arrived at the converted West Hollywood home that contains his company, SB Projects, in jeans and worn-in Vans.

It is here, where a sign on the front door reads Believe, that he and his team are working to diversify the business that began with Justin Bieber - then a Canadian tween prodigy Mr Braun discovered on YouTube - from pop stars (Ariana Grande, Carly Rae Jepsen) to everything else in entertainment, across film, television and technology.

This year , in addition to engineering a repentant Bieber revival, in which music trumped TMZ headlines, SB Projects found success with a hit network TV show (Scorpion on CBS), earned a Best New Artist Grammy nomination for the long-gestating singer Tori Kelly and signed the model Karlie Kloss.

Purpose, the new album from Bieber, has sold one million copies since last month, according to Nielsen, a capstone achievement in a put-up-or-shut-up year for the company.

Mr Braun, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors and once a teenage party promoter in Atlanta, is now on a first-name basis with his oft-mentioned industry heroes such as David Geffen and Jimmy Iovine.

By shepherding Bieber, 21, down the rocky path to grown-up fame - and guiding other viral infernos such as Psy's Gangnam Style (2.5 billion YouTube views) and Jepsen's Call Me Maybe (759 million) - he has become the defining music executive of the social media era, known for aggressive online cross- promotion between clients.

Through those same channels, he has had unprecedented visibility, especially for a manager in teen pop; he has more Twitter followers than some of his acts.

"We're building a brand that can help our business," he said of his own fame. And despite his multiplatform ambitions, he has also reinforced his commitment to music, alluding cryptically to his sizable investment fund, Ithaca, an open secret in industry circles since 2013.

SB Projects is run like a start-up - with constant talk of scaling, content and disruption - and has an average employee age that "definitely starts with a two", according to Mr Scott Manson, the company's chief operating officer.

Added Mr Braun, who was born Scott and also invested early in Uber and Spotify: "I'm a 34-year- old man who calls himself Scooter. That describes the vibe."

He discussed his company's marquee 2015, including its commercial flops (Jepsen's Emotion) and biggest wins (bringing Bieber back) while fiddling with his wedding ring (his first child was born in February).

When did the Bieber comeback campaign start in earnest?

As I started to see it going in the wrong direction, I started to prepare. I put deals in place where he was protected for the long run. And I started to prepare my company to scale because I was not going to let him work. He wanted to tour and I honestly at that time felt, if he toured, he could die.

I know people have seen the marketing and the A&R and everything we put together and they're like, "Wow, great job!" But I want to be really clear: I was trying to do that job for a year and a half and I failed every single day.

It wasn't until something happened that it clicked for him. He made the conscious decision as a young man: "I need to make a change in my own life."

I decided I needed six months of that. I looked at Robert Downey Jr and all these people - when you ask for redemption, people will give it to you.

But if you're the boy who cried wolf, they'll destroy you. Once I saw there was consistency, I said, Okay, now it's time to go back in the professional life. The click happened about 20 months ago. Six months after that, you start seeing me planning a (Comedy Central) roast. And then the Calvin Klein ads come and the roast comes ...

Let's talk about the Carly Rae Jepsen album. It's popular with critics and yet it sold only 16,000 copies the first week (36,000 to date). Why didn't anyone buy it?

We had the biggest single in the entire world last time (Call Me Maybe) and we sold 30,000 copies in the US.

This is the music business - it's a worldwide business. Carly's album is gigantic in Japan, which is the second-biggest music market in the world. In other markets, this album is a humongous success. I think that I tried everything and it falls on me. I didn't get it done for her.

How did you handle Ariana Grande's first real mini-scandal, the doughnut-licking video?

I tell her, you have to address the mistakes that you made and own them. Some of the words she used in that shop were things she needed to address and she did.

But I also think - not about her, but just in general - we're getting a little ridiculous when it comes to doughnuts and eggs. The rock stars of 1970s were really (expletive). Let's talk about some real stuff. Why are we discussing that when we have real significant issues in the world? Like, gun control. And the fact that a presidential candidate is saying things that I find to be anti-American. These are the things we should be angry and frustrated about.

Do you think you can bring Psy back in the US or was it just a moment?

It's such a ridiculous question and I'll tell you why. When I signed Gangnam Style, it had 60,000 views. And I told Psy I wanted to keep it in Korean and he thought I was crazy. It went No. 1 (on the sales chart) for 11 weeks. You do that and then people ask you that question: Can you do it again? I think that we achieved what we wanted to achieve and so much more. If Psy wants to go give it another run, that's my dude.

What are your priorities for 2016?

Being able to self-finance our own stuff and create content in-house. I never like to talk about things until we're already successful. The moment you announce what you're thinking about doing, you've already created a ticking time bomb. Where I've been able to be successful in our company's path is the fact that people think that we kill it because they don't see our failures. Because we don't talk about them.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2015, with the headline 'He planned Bieber's comeback'. Subscribe