Scooter Braun Speaks: The Music Mogul on His Billion-Dollar HYBE Deal, Making Peace With the Past and the Road Ahead

Photographs by Joe Pugliese

The world of Scott “Scooter” Braun, Variety’s Music Mogul of the Year, is a whirlwind, with pop stars like Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande relying on him for professional and personal guidance, a staff of 39 who look to him for leadership and an industry that banks on him for hit songs, TV shows and movies. And his workload is about to get heavier, thanks to a megamerger agreement between Braun’s Ithaca Holdings and South Korean entertainment conglomerate HYBE earlier this year.

A polarizing figure amid the changing dynamics in the music business (just ask Taylor Swift fans), Braun has wrestled with how he’s viewed by his peers and the populace. First touted as a Svengali figure with a magic touch for making young artists pop, Braun became the rare industry insider with a public persona, accumulating more than 7 million followers across Twitter and Instagram. As his social media reach and net worth ballooned, critics (and competitors) might contend that ego got the best of Braun.

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If one were to dissect the self-made industry titan’s path to success, Braun has clearly been a calculating figure in his years-out development of artists’ careers, but he’s also demonstrated a Forrest Gump-ian quality of being in the right place at the right time and, more recently, an understanding and appreciation that the universe lets the chips fall where they may.

“When Scooter finds something he is passionate about, he dives all the way in,” Bieber tells Variety.

A recent example of Braun’s good fortune: when opportunity met preparation in the form of the $1.05 billion acquisition of his Ithaca Holdings by HYBE, the entertainment giant that brought K-pop sensation BTS to the world.

Ithaca is home to 15-year-old SB Projects, a management company with Bieber, Grande, Demi Lovato and J Balvin among its two dozen clients; Big Machine Label Group, a record company and publishing concern; a wide range of content businesses, from documentaries to TV series to VR; and apparel and wellness ventures.

Braun wasn’t looking to sell, but one mid-pandemic walk with former Disney executive Kevin Mayer triggered a rumor, which led to a phone call from Bang Si-hyuk, or “Chairman Bang” as the Seoul-based entrepreneur is known colloquially. Within weeks, the deal had quietly closed and Braun officially entered the exclusive billion-dollar dealmakers’ club.

Braun is believed to personally have netted more than $400 million in the transaction merging the two companies under HYBE, which trades on the Korea Exchange. He also worked into the deal $50 million in stock disbursements to longtime clients (Bieber and Grande both received the equivalent of $10 million in HYBE shares) as well as SBP executives (like Ithaca partner and SBP president Allison Kaye, an equity participant) and friends “who helped along the way.”

That gesture, too, had a little something to do with the universe. Following his 2019 purchase of Big Machine, and with it the rights to the master recordings of Taylor Swift’s first six studio albums, Braun faced a public drubbing from the pop superstar and her legion of fans, who, arguably at the singer’s behest, took to social media to label him a “bully” for stealing her hard-earned IP without reasonable terms for its return. (Swift has been fastidiously — and very publicly — re-creating her older albums one by one as rerecording restrictions expire.)

Braun’s defenders say that it’s all just business. And certainly that factored into his decision to sell the Swift assets to Shamrock for north of $300 million last year. The deal yielded him more than $160 million, and equally valuable, Braun was able to divest himself of the Swift drama and relentless trolling.

Others have come after Braun, but he prefers to focus on planet-aligning, full-circle experiences, like one he had recently. After SB Projects won the race to sign 17-year-old Australian sensation the Kid Laroi, Braun marveled when he learned that the artist’s lawyer, Robert Allen, was the same person who handled the first major deal of Braun’s music industry career: a $1 million publishing advance for the artist Asher Roth based on the rapper’s breakout 2009 hit “I Love College.”

Then 28 and living in Atlanta after dropping out of Emory University, Braun was weeks away from “going broke” when he booked successive dinners on the same night with two major music publishers at nearby restaurants and made sure both decision-makers saw each other as one left and the other arrived. As Braun recalls, “What was going to be a $250,000 deal went up to $1 million with a bidding war within three days, and the commission saved the company.”

Indeed, were it not for Braun’s $150,000 cut, Bieber may never have made it outside Canada. As the story goes: One night in 2007, Braun happened upon a YouTube video of a 12-year-old kid busking in a Stratford, Ontario, street — he was singing a Ne-Yo cover — and was blown away by what he heard. Today, Bieber is the most followed musician on Twitter (with 113 million and counting), notching world tours and platinum-plus sales for each of the six studio albums he’s released since 2010. Bieber’s current single, “Peaches,” is the latest in a string of undeniable cross-format hits, with 2 million song project units, or 276 million streams, consumed since its March release, according to Alpha Data.

“Scooter’s creativity and ingenuity have helped so many artists chart new paths to success, and opened avenues for others to follow,” says Daniel Ek, co-founder and CEO of Spotify. “It’s that visionary approach, and dedication to creating lasting opportunities, that makes him an unparalleled force.”

Adds Chairman Bang: “When we first made the deal with Ithaca Holdings, I thought I was simply acquiring a company. However, as I began having deeper conversations with Scooter, I came to the realization that I was gaining a valuable partner with the deal. I’m older than Scooter, but I take away a great deal of wisdom and life lessons from my conversations with him.”

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But while Braun has relished growing his empire, giving his all to his clients for the better part of 15 years, for the first time in his adult life he pressed pause in 2020. The coronavirus pandemic, coupled with his own self-work (including a weeklong digital detox), resulted in what he describes as “a clearing,” and he’s turning the page to an as-yet-unwritten chapter.

In a series of interviews conducted over three days, just ahead of his 40th birthday, Braun laid bare his business philosophy, addressed misconceptions about his character and revealed details of his future plans with HYBE.

The HYBE deal was somewhat of a spring surprise, although it did follow rumors that you were in talks with Kevin Mayer about a possible transaction. What was the genesis of the HYBE talks?

I got a call from JP Morgan saying Chairman Bang of Big Hit Entertainment, now HYBE, would like to talk about our companies coming together. I was open to the conversation. I’ve always admired what Chairman Bang built. He and I started Zooming together weekly, and we barely talked about the business. We talked about our interests, meditation, music, family, and we really became friends. At one point, he said, “In the West, you guys are very transactional — it’s about what the deal looks like, how do we make money on this deal — and in the East, we’re about relationships and how we work together. Throughout this entire process, you haven’t talked to me about the transaction; you’ve talked about the relationship. And that makes me want to do business with you.” We came to a deal very quickly and privately.

You’ve described the arrangement as more of a merger than an acquisition. How do you see the two entities working together?

There’s a tremendous amount of synergies. Our branding teams are talking to each other; artists are meeting each other; they have a top-notch gaming division. I was looking for what can give us a bigger platform, and this was an opportunity to make a worldwide company overnight. It’s business as usual, but with more firepower.

Bang says that he gained “a great deal of wisdom and life lessons” from your time together. What kind of conversations were you having?

We talked about how many companies have failed in bringing East and West together. I think American arrogance has been the reason why we failed in the past. Like, we think we know best, and this is the way it should be. I told my team, this is about relationships and humbling ourselves to the fact that we are all partners. It’s not about ego; it’s about what’s right and we can build together long term.

The $50 million in stock allotments was divided up between 43 people, including longtime clients, SBP executives and friends. What was the thinking behind it?

To take care of the people that helped me get there. Bang told me he had done the same thing for his team when he went public. It was a way of saying, “You’ve been here for me. Now everything I do, you’re participating in.” It made everybody win at the same time together, which was important to me because I learned from mistakes of the past [that] you’ve got to make sure everybody is on the same page. So in this deal, there were no losers.

Clearly you’re referencing the Big Machine acquisition and Taylor Swift’s reaction to it. How do you view what went down in retrospect?

I regret and it makes me sad that Taylor had that reaction to the deal. … All of what happened has been very confusing and not based on anything factual. I don’t know what story she was told. I asked for her to sit down with me several times, but she refused. I offered to sell her the catalog back and went under NDA, but her team refused. It all seems very unfortunate. Open communication is important and can lead to understanding. She and I only met briefly three or four times in the past, and all our interactions were really friendly and kind. I find her to be an incredibly talented artist and wish her nothing but the best.

(Swift said in Nov. 2020, “He would never even quote my team a price” and that she was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement that would “silence [her] forever.” Braun’s team disputes the claim and says negotiations had started in earnest.)

Some say it’s just business, but it felt personal in tone …

The thing that struck me the worst is the word “bully.” I’m firmly against anyone ever being bullied. I always try to lead with appreciation and understanding. The one thing I’m proudest of in that moment was that my artists and team stood by me. They know my character and my truth. That meant a lot to me. In the long run, I’m happy for my life’s work to be the legacy I leave behind.

Do you think this chapter has created misconceptions about you?

Sure. And I think when you’re successful, you are misunderstood. Success is a game of chess, and sometimes on that chessboard, people don’t see what you’re doing until four or five moves in. There’s always going to be misconceptions because people want to see things the way they want to see them. But it would be really nice if we all give each other a little bit of grace.

Braun’s beginnings in business owe in large part to a childhood dream he never realized professionally: playing basketball. While the NBA wasn’t entirely in his DNA, Braun’s competitive, team-oriented approach was instilled through love of the game, which also gained him entry to Emory in Atlanta, where he played college ball before dropping out.

There, he was able to indulge his entrepreneurial spirit by hustling as a party promoter and purveyor of fake IDs until a respectable job presented itself by way of So So Def Recordings (home of Da Brat and Lil Bow Wow), where Braun became the youngest VP in the company’s history. Says label founder Jermaine Dupri: “He was a character and the person I was actually looking for: a white kid who loved the culture and wasn’t afraid to dive in and really be a part of it.”

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Let me get this straight: You got your start throwing ragers and making fake IDs?

My friend made the fake IDs and I sold them — or, I was the one who marketed them. I made some real money with that! At the time, Atlanta was very segregated [when it came to nightlife], but I came from a background where I was comfortable in different environments — Black, white, Latin; I have two adopted brothers from Mozambique; my best friends growing up were Colombians — and I was moving in all these circles. But I just wanted to do my parties and build my company. I had [so many] artists I was trying to get off the ground that Puff [Daddy] himself used to call me “little white Puff.”

Considering Atlanta is a hotbed not just of music but also of executive talent, spending your twenties there seems a smart decision.

Jermaine always says like that training in Atlanta is different than being in New York or LA. So many great executives and great music comes out of that city because it has a culture that’s uniquely its own. I’ll always be grateful to that city — it took me from being a boy and made me a man. It’s just a special place.

It appears your ties to the city remain strong: Ludacris is on the latest remix of Justin’s “Peaches”; you’re managing Quavo of Atlanta-based hip-hop trio Migos.

People don’t really understand that we all came up together in Atlanta. I remember driving around with [Quality Control co-founder] Coach K one night and us saying, “If they let us in this game, if we ever get a shot, we’re never giving it back!” That’s my brother for life, and what QC has built is amazing, and they’re expanding into sports now and so many other things. The only thing bad I can say is that the governor of Georgia should be changing those laws and people should be listening to what Stacey Abrams is trying to tell them.

In campaigning on behalf of Kamala Harris last year, people suggested you might have a future in government. Are you more politically inclined now that Biden is in office?

I found myself becoming less and less political and more issue-driven. But the right thing happened so I’m more hopeful for humanity.

“Scooter has changed a lot, but so has how the outside world sees him,” says Allison Kaye, who’s been Braun’s right hand since SBP’s earliest days. “There was this chip on his shoulder, which is kind of what pushed him. Ten years ago, you’d see the word ‘Svengali’ written all the time, [and] there was a perception that Scooter was a control freak with his artists. Today the view is that he very much empowers our artists, who are seen not as industry plants but as some of the best creators on Earth. That starts with Scooter.”

It sticks too. Many of SBP’s acts have spent the better part of a decade on the roster. Bieber, for one, recalls fondly how Braun tracked him down after that fateful video view. “He stopped at nothing — contacting everyone in my hometown to make sure my mom called him back,” says Bieber, now 27. “He then convinced my mom to give him a chance to help me reach my goals, and I have been working with him ever since.”

Producer-songwriter Andrew Watt says Braun believed in him early on. “When I was a hired-gun guitar player in 2011 with no placed songs under my belt, he saw something in me that I hadn’t seen in myself yet and was crucial in helping me get my first few cuts.”

Braun was a stabilizing force for Lovato, who signed with him in 2019 after suffering an overdose the previous year. “Scooter came into my life at a time when things were very uncertain for me,” Lovato tells Variety. “I’m grateful he took a chance on me [and for] trusting me and believing in my talent.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Tori Kelly, who says, “It would take essays to talk about the friend, big brother, challenger, encourager, and so much more that Scooter has been to me.”

Adds J Balvin: “People assume that Scooter is all business, but he is a great, earnest guy.”

What is the key to sustaining long-term relationships with talent?

Have a real relationship. The key is caring. You’re working with these people not just on music — you’re seeing them in their best and their darkest moments. And they’re trusting you with their craft, which is their heart and soul. I remember watching the Amy Winehouse documentary and wanting to jump through the screen when the manager said, “That’s not my responsibility; my responsibility is to get her onstage.” It is your responsibility. Whether you’re a manager or not, you should care as a human.

The dark moments often involve issues of mental health, be it J Balvin’s anxiety, as seen in the SB Films-produced documentary “The Boy From Medellín,” or Justin calling off the end of his Purpose tour in 2017 due to “depression and exhaustion,” or Demi overdosing on a fentanyl-laced drug cocktail in 2018. Do you feel equipped to handle such difficult terrain? 

As equipped as any of us are. In my opinion, no one’s as equipped as you. You can talk to as many professionals as you want, but you have to be willing to look at yourself, take accountability, do the work, forgive yourself and the people in your life, understand what happened and give yourself grace and self-compassion. … I’m still in the process of that work, like we all should be. We’re all messy.

In the case of Demi, who revealed they were nonbinary in May, was there a discussion about that decision?

It was a discussion in that Demi wanted to do it, and I was happy to honor it. It’s not my decision to make. It’s how Demi identifies. Demi said, “I think this is where I am. I’m finding myself, and this is how I identify, and it feels real to me. It feels like home, and I want to do it.” And I felt happy to support. It goes back to mental health: I want to be there for Demi. I want to be an honest voice for Demi. I want to be someone who cares. And the good thing about my career is, I don’t need [the artist] to make money. Like, I don’t need the commission. With my artists, it’s friendship first, business second. I find that approach works best. So I’m happy to be patient.

Justin’s “Purpose” tour had to be cut short by 14 dates. COVID then forced his “Justice” tour to be postponed twice. When he does return to the road in 2022 for months of arena shows, are you concerned about his well-being?

Allison is doing an amazing job, as she has for over a decade with me, on really protecting him and making sure he’s in the right place. But Justin has his wife Hailey and she is such an incredible force in his life. He’s always had to tour alone, but it’s different now that he has his his best friend and they can see the world together. He’s never had that experience before.

“Never Say Never,” directed by Jon Chu and chronicling Justin’s rise to superstardom, was released a decade ago bringing in $100 million in its theatrical run and helping create a lane for music documentaries. Thanks to streaming, the genre has exploded in popularity, but gets criticized when the subject or management or both are credited as producers. What’s your take?

Unfortunately, we live in a society where, if I tell you, “Hey, I’m a good person and this is my truth,” you’re going to be, like, “I don’t know. I want to go get a reference from someone who barely knows you.” If an artist is willing to tell their truth in a documentary, who better to do that with than an honest filmmaker? So when you saw the J Balvin in “The Boy From Medellin,” he gave Matt Heineman so much trust and told him so much truth that [Balvin] hated the documentary for a little while. It made him uncomfortable. Demi laid it all out to Michael Ratner. In fact, that was probably the only filmmaker in the world Demi was willing to tell those things to — from discussing the overdose to rape to their childhood. It was so honest and so exposing. But my thing is: you be the judge. These artists are showing who they are.

The SBP entertainment portfolio is about as diverse as it gets — from talent management to content creation to IP opportunities — but when it comes to net worth, Braun has accumulated most of his from smart investments. An early backer of Spotify, Uber, Lyft, Dropbox and Pinterest, he continues to bet on big ideas and the founders behind them while also dabbling in real estate and fine art and exploring the worlds of cannabis, apparel and esports.

The “gift of generational wealth” is an important concept for Braun, who is the grandson of Holocaust survivors. His parents, both in the dental field, worked their way up from Queens to Cos Cob, Conn. Braun grew up with four siblings — brothers Adam, Cornelio Guibunda and Sam Manhanga and sister Liza — in the comfort of life among the upper class. He married businesswoman and philanthropist Yael Cohen in 2014. The couple have two sons — Jagger, 6, and Levi, 4 — and a 2-year-old daughter, Hart.

Braun is quick to note that he and his siblings were hardly trust fund kids, and that he hadn’t taken a dime from his parents since leaving for college, even when it looked like SBP was doomed to fail.

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Joe Pugliese for Variety

How do you decide which projects or investments to back?

It’s a little like falling in love or finding an artist — you just kind of know. Your gut tells you. Or sometimes you see an opening in the marketplace or you find a founder who reminds you of a great entrepreneur. I remember becoming friends with Whitney [Wolfe Herd] from Bumble and thinking, no matter what, she’s going to figure this out. The first time I met Travis Kalanick from Uber, he had it, and so did his competitor, John Zimmer over at Lyft. Now I’m partnered in TQ Ventures with seasoned investors Schuster Tanger and Andrew Marks, and we’ve been able to make investments into so many incredible companies, from Ro to Saturn to Noom, that are all becoming unicorns. It’s fun and exciting.

Justin’s Drew House apparel collection was a hit. Did you learn about fashion from your time managing Kanye West?

I remember when I was working with Kanye in the beginning, we had this moment where I offered him a creative piece of advice and he looked at me, like, “Are you sure you want to tell me this? I’m Kanye West.” … He let me into his creative world — I see colors differently; he taught me about production and the sneaker space. You’re always learning, especially from brilliant people like that.

Music catalogs are a hot commodity right now. You’ve done some business with the market-leading Hipgnosis, selling 105 songs by Watt for a reported $45 million. While the attractiveness of a big payout makes sense for an artist in the winter of their career, like Bob Dylan or Barry Manilow, Watt is only 30. What’s the thinking behind such a deal? 

Watt was being offered incredible terms by Merck [Mercuriadis, Hipgnosis CEO] and an incredible valuation. It was only a certain amount of songs, and we know that he has a lot more hits coming that he will own. You’ve got to ask yourself: The royalty that I’m receiving over the next 15 to 20 years, do I want to make money off that royalty, or do I want to get all that money up front right now? And can I make more money investing it properly? At 30 years old, to be able to give yourself the gift of generational wealth … we decided to get that money, which now allows Watt to live the life he wants for the next 15 to 20 years.

Are you finding that the music business is attracting young executive talent?

I do. There’s such magic to being associated with these incredible creatives, writers, producers, artists … where you’re watching something being created, then a year later, you’re in an elevator and someone’s humming that song next to you. It’s how this business attracts a guy like Moe Shalizi, who used to paint cars and created Marshmello; or a Justin Lubliner, who was doing marketing and put all his energy into a Billie Eilish and Finneas.

There’s been a spike in anti-Semitism ever since violence broke out between Israel and Gaza earlier this month, but closer to home, social media displayed a stark division in music industry attitudes towards the Palestinian conflict. What do you suggest the two sides do?

Talk to each other. All of us love our kids and our family the same way. All of us want happiness. And every single one of us has a responsibility to speak up for the other. Tell them you’re hurting. I guarantee they’re going to share the same values and they’ll want to help you the same way you want to help them. But you can’t walk around saying “you don’t know me” and “how dare you?” “How dare you” doesn’t move hearts and minds. These are very tough things for people to hear because rage and outrage is a much easier reaction. But it doesn’t get a result.

You’ve talked openly about being a descendant of concentration camp survivors. How does that add to your drive to succeed and to give back?

During COVID, I put in time doing self-work and realized I’ve spent a lot of my life protecting the future because I was raised with this trauma that one day they’re going to come and take it away. And I wasn’t present enough in my life. It was on to the next, and the next … continuing to protect. So I think it created a tremendous amount of drive in me to build this wall of success. I’m now learning from that trauma that I don’t have to continue all of its cycles. My grandparents were my heroes — my grandfather did odd jobs in New York, and my grandmother worked in a sweatshop — so whenever I see anybody out there doing some job that maybe doesn’t get the most honor, I remember they’re someone’s hero, just like my grandparents were mine. So I show respect and make sure I’m giving back to those people because someone gave to us, and that’s why I’m here.

You’re days away from turning 40 on June 18. What’s the next “I made it” moment that you’re looking forward to?

For the first time in my life, I don’t really know what’s next and I’m happy about that. I’m trusting the universe a lot more than I have in the past. The year of COVID was one of the hardest and most rewarding of my life, and what I’ve come out realizing is that this character Scooter, I created him as a kid and he’s built a really amazing life, but the next 40 years, I’d like Scott to be in charge.

Styling: Ariana Weisner; Grooming: Christina Guerra; Barber: Cesar Paniagua/Barber By Design; Look 1 (dark blue hoodie and jacket): Jacket and hoodie: Fear of God black; Jeans: John Elliot; Sneakers: Fear of God; Look 2 (Grey Hoodie): Hoodie: Fear of God; T-shirt: Maison Margiela; Jeans: John Elliot: Sneakers: Fear of God