Anyone seeking an inspiring music-industry talk with some good stories along the way, look no further than Scooter Braun — manager of Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber and on-again-off-again with Kanye West — who’s built a formidable company, SB Projects, and made some far-sighted investments over the past 12 years.
We’ve heard him speak several times before — in our Hitmakers feature last year and most recently in Nashville, where he challenged the music industry there to take on gun control — and his talk Tuesday in New York as part of Fast Company’s Innovation Festival unearthed some new stories and insights, and not just because his father made an unexpected appearance in the crowd. “This is gonna be super awkward for me,” Braun said about 15 minutes into the talk, after telling a story about getting good advice from his dad. “That guy who just walked in? My father has never watched me speak! I didn’t even know he was gonna be here, but I just wanna be really clear I’m not saying anything nice about him anymore!”
Over the course of 45 minutes, Braun talked about almost going broke in his early days, getting fired by Grande (and being rehired several months later), managing what he calls “The Justin Bieber Rough Patch,” having a tough conversation with an artist who may be Kanye West, and how he managed to become an early investor in two of the biggest companies in decades, Uber and Spotify …
On how close he came to failure
When I first struck out on my own, I was 24, and I had saved enough money to last me for 13 months. I had Justin [Bieber] and his mom living illegally — don’t tell Donald Trump this — in a townhouse under my name, I was paying all their bills, and I had [first client] Asher Roth and his friends living in a dump around the corner that we called the greenhouse because they smoked so much weed. And I was at month 11 of the 13 months of money I’d saved up before I’d go broke, and everyone in [his hometown of] Atlanta thought I was killing it, and had no idea that I had risked it all. My dad actually called to check on me and we started talking, and out of nowhere I just broke down crying and admitted to him that I was about to run out of money and had nothing to fall back on and that I was a failure and no one knew.
He gave me some really good advice. He said, “You came this far, you’ve got two more months, see it through.” And the next day Asher played me [eventually his first hit] “I Love College,” and the following month I was able to get so much hype from that record that I cut a publishing deal that saved the company, and the commission saved me. I really did come this close to failing.
I got lucky. You work really, really hard, and some people break through early in life and some late in life, but when isn’t up to you. What is up to you is when you quit. So if you just keep trying, eventually it will turn your way.
On passing the torch
The truth is I’m 37 years old, I’m slowly getting out of touch and I’m starting to realize this. I’m starting to see artists become big and I’m not getting it: “Why are there tattoos on your face? Why are you getting more tattoos on your face?” (Laughter) I’m getting to be that old dude, so what I now have to do is bet on the young people in my business, whether it’s tv, film, music or even tech — it’s a youth-oriented business. Sometimes they’re not going to get it right and sometimes I’m not going to get it right, but all you need is that one win and everyone thinks you’re a genius.
On how getting fired by Ariana Grande made him a better manager
Our company privately owns a bunch of other management companies, which we’ve never announced, and there’s been speculation. But I watched this other manager get fired, and I saw him defend himself instantly and put out a lot of truths. And I watched the artist see those truths, not want to deal with it, and then forever hate that manager. And with Ariana, I could have said a lot of stuff, and in fact my team wanted me to, because they were pissed. But I said “We’re not gonna say a word, and this is gonna come back around.” They were like, “Never take her back!,” but I just said “Let’s stay quiet and let our truth be our actions.”
And when s—-y boyfriends leave (laughter), she starts to see the light on some stuff, and one day I got a phone call. She said “Can I see you tomorrow?” and I said, “No, I’m busy” (laughter) — I actually couldn’t, so I said “I could see you Thursday” or whatever and I went over there and we had a very honest conversation.
Where it made me a better manager, number one, it allowed me to know that I can be fired — I had never been fired before. It made me know that as much as you give to people in a service business — we do a lot of asset business, but this is a service business — you can never expect anyone to reciprocate. You have to do it for the right reasons, and if you get screwed over in the end, so be it, and hope you had a hell of the ride along the way.
One of my mentors said “Every artist will break your heart,” and I used to fight that — now I realize this situation will break your heart because it becomes so personal and your job 90 percent of the time is keeping stuff out of [the artists’] sight to keep the pressure off of them, so how could they ever appreciate you as much as you think they should because they don’t even know about that stuff? And also it made me and her really tight, because now when we get into those fights and she’s coming at me, I just go, “Woah, do you want to go back to where we were?,” and then it kinda calms down.
And that relationship we had, from being fired to getting back together, really gave us the strength for what we never imagined would come that following year [with the May 2017 terrorist attack outside Grande’s Manchester concert and the Braun-helmed benefit concert just two weeks later].
On when it’s time to part ways with an artist, at least for awhile
[It’s time to part ways] when I feel like I’m no longer helping them and they’re just hurting me — and that’s far, far down the road from where the public thinks it is. I remember a very, very powerful executive in the music industry who told me during what I’ll call “the Justin Bieber rough patch,” “You have so many other artists, you have an amazing career, you had a good run with the kid, move on from him, he’s done, move on.” And this guy had interest in Justin! But if I’d quit on him then, I’m not who I claim to be. You don’t quit on people because they’re down. That’s when you find out you’re actually there for somebody.
The only place it gets … I said recently to someone, I won’t say who, “I won’t quit on you as a friend because I never want someone to be in a bad place where they can’t pick up the phone and talk with me, but I will say right now that I can’t work with you professionally.” And I never put that out there publicly. Brand-wise, I could tweet it and everyone would say, “Oh, you’re off the hook.” But it’s not the right thing to do. Time will show who [the person] is. but we’re very quick to be divisive and just abandon people when they’re down, but that’s not how you grow. You have to be there for each other and that’s how you get to a better place.
If it gets to a point where I think they need help and they refuse to help themselves, that’s where I say, “I won’t help you professionally until you take responsibility for yourself.” What I learned through the experience with Justin was that it’s not on me: the person who makes that change is that person. You need to be a stable force in their life so they know where to turn when they need help. Justin was the one who woke up one day and said, “I’m going to make a change, can you help me?” And I can tell you he made that change himself because for a year and a half I tried every day to make that change and I failed.
How you treat someone as a human being goes a lot farther than how you treat them as a “product.”
On the work-life balance
I used to think everything was so important and I had to win at every single moment, but since I’ve had children I understand that getting home for bedtime is more important. And the last 3-4 years have been the best of my entire life, both spiritually and financially, because I realized that I don’t have to be in every single moment.
On investing early in Uber and Spotify
I went to meet with a company in San Francisco and it ended up not working out, but the guy said, “Let me get you an Uber to the airport.” And the car pulls up and I didn’t have to pay and I was like “woah!” So I got into contact with them and met Travis [Kalanick, Uber cofounder], and I ended up investing in Uber at an early stage, because this guy was intense. He told me, “I’m married to Uber.” There’s been a lot of talk about Travis but I can tell you that the mentality he had is the reason it became the phenomenon it is today. When he told me the valuation of the company, which was $400-500 million, people told me it was insane. But I just believed in Travis and went with it, not knowing what it would become.
You bet on entrepreneurs more than you bet on the actual company: A lot of people have good ideas but don’t have what it takes to keep up in the hard times. So when someone tells me they’re a serial entrepreneur, I kinda run.
And for Spotify, I’d see interviews with powerful older people and they’d say they’d had relationships with other powerful people for 20, 30, 40 years. Their power was their network of trust. So I was on a Billboard “30 Under 30” list and I called up the editor and asked for the contacts of the people I didn’t know, and I ended up calling and emailing them and saying, “Hey, we’re both on this list, we should know each other.”
And one of those people was a 24-year-old guy from Sweden who had a company called Spotify [Daniel Ek]. He was coming to L.A. the next week and we ended up spending the whole week hanging out together, and he let me invest in Spotify early and take a large allotment because of our friendship.
I always tell people, “You’re not going to build or be involved in the business that changes your life by finding someone who’s already done it: It’s your peers, people with the same drive and dreams as you, and if bet on each other, that’s going to be the life-changing moment.” To this day Daniel and I are really good friends, and that company has changed the world and how we look at music. And I wouldn’t be in that company if I hadn’t sent that email to everybody on that list and said, “Hey, let’s get to know each other.”