The Secrets of Scooter Braun’s Success: Compassion, Loyalty and a Golden Ear

As SB Projects turns 10, Braun discusses how he 'failed' Justin Bieber, wrangled stars for a cause and why 'manager' is a 'stupid word.'

Scooter Braun Variety Hitmakers
Peter Yang for Variety

Scooter Braun is never not on the phone.

But hours after a terrorist bomb killed 22 people in May outside Britain’s Manchester Arena, where client Ariana Grande was performing, his fingers were working overtime. Within days, Braun hustled up an all-star lineup to headline a benefit concert. Every artist — Coldplay, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Liam Gallagher and client Justin Bieber among them — received a personal ask from Braun. And all obliged. For free. By the time the last note was sung, a spine-tingling rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Grande, One Love Manchester had raised more than $13 million, rising to $22 million in the following weeks, for the survivors of the attack and victims’ families.

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Peter Yang for Variety

“It was a big idea that I threw on a tiny little woman’s shoulders,” says Braun of five-foot-tall Grande. “She’s just one of the strongest people I’ve ever met. I mean she did it. And then she finished the rest of the tour. And that was hard.”

So what is it about Braun that draws such willingness to go along? “Scooter is a brilliant strategist and business person, that goes without saying,” Grande tells Variety. “But his best attribute, to me, is that he’s a fiercely loyal person who cares deeply about the artists he represents as human beings, not just as projects. He’s a true friend to everybody he encounters, whether there’s business in it for him or not. He’s considerate and kind in a way that seems un-Hollywood to me. I appreciate that about him.”

The 36-year-old manager, whose roster of 20 acts also includes Kanye West and Black Eyed Peas, is unapologetic about his role in not just his clients’ careers but their lives. “I think ‘manager’ is a stupid word,” he says. “It’s an old model that shouldn’t work today. Why so many huge artists die and go through hardships is because they don’t have people around who can have an honest conversation with them. Because of the success we’ve had at SBP [Scooter Braun Projects], we have the ability to tell all our artists the truth. We’re not dependent on them. We actually just care. I’d rather use the word partner — someone you can trust, that you can turn to. I’m the majority shareholder of the company, but Allison Kaye is my partner. Scott Manson is my partner. Justin Bieber is my partner.”

Says Bieber of Braun: “He’s the best in the business. I love the guy.”

But, like all partnerships, manager and client aren’t always in sync. That was certainly the case when Braun tried to guide Bieber through a tumultuous time in his life and career.  Indeed, since 2009, the now 23-year-old pop star has weathered almost as many downs as ups. There were incidents of social media-captured scandal — urinating in a restaurant kitchen, wandering barefoot and alone in a Boston park, partying too much, driving too fast. Issues of depression, anxiety and stress took their toll, resulting in Bieber canceling the final 14 dates of his “Purpose” world tour in July.

“I think ‘manager’ is a stupid word.”
Scooter Braun

“The hardest part was having so many people take shots at Justin and just having to stay quiet,” says Braun of that time. “It was like being Rocky, and Apollo’s just hitting you. … I failed him for a year and a half. I didn’t want any of those troubles to happen. And I tried everything to help him. And I failed. And I learned that only he can help himself. And as a man, one day he made a decision to make a change.”

You could describe Braun’s ascent to music business powerhouse as the quintessential Hollywood story. The pitch: A wide-eyed East Coast college kid graduates from throwing campus parties to landing a hip job, eventually moving West, where he proceeds to take over the entertainment world.

His almost could be the tale of a modern-day Berry Gordy, who had a knack for discovering, and matching, untapped talent during Motown’s nascent years. Throw in the aspirations of Clive Davis, the work ethic of Les Moonves, the drive of Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, and you start to get a picture of Braun, who in 10 years has grown his management company into one of the biggest operating in music today. SBP holding company Ithaca, in which Braun is a majority stakeholder through partnerships with some of music’s top managers (Sandbox’s Jason Owen, Kenny Chesney manager Clint Higham, and formerly, Brandon Creed’s Creed Co.) is valued at $400 million. Braun will neither confirm or deny.

Also in SBP’s portfolio: a TV production arm, which produces shows like CBS’ “Scorpion,” and a movie unit responsible for Bieber docs “Believe” and “Never Say Never,” the latter of which grossed nearly $100 million worldwide. Braun has his hands in tech investments (Spotify, Uber) and is keen on more acquisitions. “I have ambitions to do different things,” he says vaguely. “And I have a company I’m pushing from the service business toward assets and growing brands with our artists and partners.”

Whether the Connecticut native and father of two is opting to spend more time with his wife, Yael, and kids Jagger and Levi, or hinting at buying a record label or possibly running for office is anyone’s guess. More likely, it’s all of the above. But one thing is certain: Braun sees a different role for himself in the future. “At 36, I’m more removed than I’ve probably ever been, so I’m asking all the young people in my office, ‘What’s next?’” says Braun, who in 2008 presciently zeroed in on an unknown Canadian teen with promise via a YouTube clip.

Adapting to changing circumstances has never been one of his calling cards, namely because SBP has historically been ahead of the curve, even going back to Braun’s first signing, “I Love College” rapper Asher Roth. “Asher was the first act to break off of My­Space, and Justin was the first to ever break off of YouTube,” says Braun. “At that time, people told me I was crazy. ‘No act can break from YouTube; it doesn’t work like that.’ And I was like, ‘You guys are late. This is going to change everything. Watch.’ So we didn’t adapt — they adapted.”

The same can be said of Twitter, where Bieber was first to hit a million followers in April 2012 (Braun was second a few months later). Today, if the singer, who claims 103 million followers, were to pull the plug on his handle, the silicon valley company valued at north of $14 billion might lose a third of its users. That’s power.

Of course, that’s not why Braun got into the business. A love of music has always been a primary driver, once it was clear a career in basketball was unlikely for the 5-foot-11-inch sports fanatic. “I love the creative process — brainstorming and coming up with campaigns,” he says. “I love collaborating with other really smart, incredible people. I would be bored doing only the business stuff. I’ll go to the studio to see Ariana and just listen to records. Justin hit me a couple days ago and was like, ‘Man, this new Pharrell is crazy.’ For me, the most fun times in this office are when we’re listening to music. That’s what you signed up for, not to just make deals.”

To client Ariana Grande, Braun is “considerate and kind in a way that seems un-Hollywood.
One Love Manchester/Kevin Mazur

Braun is a bit of an anomaly when it comes to his involvement in making music. In the modern recording era, managers have traditionally stayed out of the studio. But Braun regularly appears in A&R credits on his artists’ albums and often is the key matchmaker of exceptionally fruitful collaborations. To wit: Braun helped shepherd Bieber’s appearances on the “Despacito” remix (the second-biggest song of the year) and on DJ Khaled’s “I’m the One” (No. 9 for the year, according to BuzzAngle metrics available at press time). On Grande’s “Dangerous Woman” album, which yielded the hits “Side to Side,” “Into You” and the title track, Braun is listed as executive producer and shares A&R duties with label Republic.

“It’s very uncommon,” says songwriter Jason “Poo Bear” Boyd. “Scooter is a different breed; he has an ear and an eye. People usually just have the eye. They’re not able to call hits.” Boyd, now a Braun client after more than a dozen collaborations with Bieber, recalls the creation of 2015’s “What Do You Mean”: “Scooter heard it and said that it would be a smash and a No. 1. I looked at him and said, ‘But we have so many other songs.’ He said, “No. When I get this feeling in my stomach, I’m never wrong.’ It debuted at No. 1. He has a gift.”

Adds friend DJ Khaled: “Scooter doesn’t just work with you, he’ll call me and inspire me. We’ll have conversations about the world, the community, how to bring more peace and help people. I’m very grateful to be able to say I know Scooter Braun.”

At the same time, some might caution against a manager getting too close with his artists. Braun is keenly aware of that risk. “There is a high likelihood that an artist I love will fuck me over,” he says, not out of emotion but simply stated as fact. “As much as I feel like I’ve done for them, one day they might just say, ‘See ya later.’ I came to terms with that a long time ago.”

Manson, SBP’s chief operating officer, goes back with Braun to his Emory University days. Braun first met Kaye, now the company’s president of music, in his early days in Atlanta when she was an attorney for Asher Roth. “She hated me and I hated her,” he says with a laugh. “And very quickly I realized that her entire skill set was everything that I lacked. And she and I started to work incredibly well together. Allison was [my] first employee.”

He now has more than 30 staffers, some of whom were persistent — and persuasive — enough on social media to grab Braun’s attention, as head of digital marketing Jackie Augustus did. “She was 15 and running a [Bieber] fan group,” he recalls. “James Shin [now VP of content development] was writing me notes on Facebook for five years.” After meeting Mike George, he remembers thinking, “‘That guy’s talented.’” George is SBP’s manager for top EDM deejay act Martin Garrix.

Braun says he hires people he likes. “The No. 1 question that we ask here is: do you fit into the culture? And probably the most volatile people in the culture are me and Allison,” he says.

Asked if he’s loyal to a fault, Braun answers: “I take that as a compliment…I’d rather care about my employees. They signed up to work for a crazy-ass dude who’s 36 years old and still calls himself a toy. How do you go home to your parents and say, ‘I’m going to work for someone named Scooter?’ These people really believed in the vision that I had for what we’re building. I do not want to let them down, so I’m not done building.”

Nor, it seems, is he done fundraising. Barely four months after One Love Manchester, Braun was at it again, organizing the all-star Hand in Hand telethon with Houston native Bun B to benefit Hurricane Harvey relief. Some $66 million was raised as A-listers like George Clooney, Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks manned the phones in a live broadcast that aired across 11 channels and on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, iHeartRadio and SiriusXM.

“Scooter was not intimidated in the least by the speed of bringing the telethon together nor the size of the cast and production,” says Hanks. “It needed to be done. He made it happen. Awesomeness and calm equals Scooter.”