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In Focus

From Taylor Swift feud to Justin Bieber claims: Who is Scooter Braun and why are star clients leaving him?

Scooter Braun cut his teeth as a party promoter in Atlanta before signing rising star Justin Bieber and setting off a meteoric rise. Now as megastars like Ariana Grande appear to flee his roster, Sheila Flynn looks back at the media mogul’s journey from night clubs to boardrooms

Wednesday 23 August 2023 11:10 BST
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<p>Scooter Braun clients have included Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Kanye West, Demi Lovato, and J Balvin </p>

Scooter Braun clients have included Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Kanye West, Demi Lovato, and J Balvin

In 2006, two years before he signed Justin Bieber and 12 years before Georgia implemented hands-free phone laws for motorists, Scooter Braun was juggling multiple cellular devices from behind the wheel of a purple Mercedes in Atlanta. The 23-year-old was fielding calls from venues and celebrity publicists, having forged a reputation for himself as a well-connected party promoter – an image he was trying to shed in front of the local reporter who was in the car profiling him. Then Braun was pulled over and ticketed for not wearing his seatbelt.

Braun had bought the Mercedes in an example of “faking it til you make it,” Ludacris’ longtime manager, Chaka Zulu, told the same reporter for that 2006 profile in Creative Loafing. It seemed to do the trick. Braun was well on his way to making it; within a few short years, he’d signed Justin Bieber and launched that subsequent career machine, soon branching out into other media, businesses and investments as his stable of artists expanded to include other megastars such as Ariana Grande and Demi Lovato, whom he signed in 2013 and 2019, respectively.

Seventeen years later, many of those big names are fleeing Braun’s management umbrella (and Chaka Zulu, in a completely unrelated set of events, was charged last September with murder). The music industry is aflutter over what exactly is going on at Braun headquarters, an empire founded by a college dropout from Connecticut who had seemed, for years, to be nothing short of a wunderkind.

Born Scott Samuel Braun, the music mogul came from money. The son of an orthodontist mother and dentist father, he was raised in a wealthy family with two siblings in Greenwich, Connecticut. His affluent background, however, was something he tried to distance himself from early in his career. He told people he was from Queens.

His grandparents were Holocaust survivors. “I grew up with these stories that tomorrow someone’s going to come and take it all away. From the day I was born, and these stories of never again, it’s on you, be strong, you know, don’t allow this to happen again,” he told NPR’s Jay Williams last year; the two have known each other since they played basketball together as teens. “So I was almost raised with this idea that they’re coming, and I have to be prepared, you know?”

Braun was always prepared, and he always had drive. As well as playing basketball at Greenwich High School, he was also class president. After graduating, he attended the prestigious Emory University – where he picked up the nickname “Scooter” and began letting his entrepreneurial spirit run loose. “I was trying to create a new identity,” he told Williams. “I was trying to create something new that I felt was strong enough for the world that I was entering. So I created this kind of alter ego, and I became a very big college party promoter. I first sold fake IDs, which I think all our friends got from me. Then I became a kind of a party promoter [even though I had] never been to a club before I got to college. And then I got approached by this young rapper and his manager to help them out – that rapper was Ludacris – with promoting their music at my parties.”

From there, Braun became a well-known and connected player within Atlanta’s thriving Noughties rap and R&B scene. He was “ubiquitous”, according to a 2012 New Yorker profile. Ciara referred to him as her “big brother” and Lil Jon called him “the white Puff Daddy”. Braun had become “an all-purpose celebrity fixer, arranging parties for ‘Sync, Britney Spears and Kevin Federline, Ludacris, Shaquille O’Neal”. Heavyweight producer Jermaine Dupri turned up to one of Braun’s events and offered him a job at the record label So So Def (home to artists like Usher, Bow Wow and TLC) telling the young entrepreneur he had more potential than “just these parties”.

Braun told NPR that he ended up on academic probation at Emory because he “was missing so much class flying around the country with Jermaine and writing these marketing plans”. The college dean called the wayward student into a meeting and told him he had a “one in a billion” chance of becoming an entrepreneur like philanthropist Robert W Woodruff, the famed former head of Coca-Cola. Braun dropped out.

Scott “Scooter” Braun poses with Justin Bieber, whose career he helped launch after spotting one of the young Canadian’s 2007 YouTube videos

Within a year of working at So So Def Records, he became the label’s executive director of marketing. Braun, however, was later fired “after a dispute over the direction of the label,” The New Yorker reported. During a period of career uncertainty, Braun remained ambitious – and creative. The publication recalled how Braun had called up Pontiac pretending to be a writer for a college newspaper working on a story about the company’s marketing strategy. “The next day, armed with names of some Pontiac executives, he cold-called them and lined up a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal for Ludacris,” recalled the publication.

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Life changed again for Braun when he happened across a video of a baby-faced Canadian boy singing on YouTube in 2007. Struck by his talent, Braun obsessively tracked down the boy’s mother, Pattie Mallette, and put all of his efforts into transforming this boy – a then-unknown Justin Bieber – into the world’s biggest star.

Justin Bieber and manager Scooter Braun arrive at the premiere of Paramount Pictures' ‘Justin Bieber: Never Say Never' in Los Angeles 2011

“I flew him and his mom down, got them a townhouse, bought all the furniture for their place, and started paying their bills,” Braun told The New Yorker. He pitched the fledgling performer to heavyweights including Usher, whose star power greatly aided Bieber’s rise after he signed to Island Def Jam. The record label, according to Braun, paid for Bieber’s recording costs, private tutor, housing and moving expenses.

Braun founded SB Projects in 2007, described on its website as “a diversified entertainment and media company with ventures at the junction of music, film, television, technology, brands, culture and social good”. In short, Braun was interested in everything. “He’s always moving a mile a minute, and you never know if it’s a real opportunity or an opportunity of the minute, and then he’s moving on to something new,” fellow Greenwich High School alum Brad Haugen, who went on to work with Braun at SB Projects, told the New York Post in 2010.

Braun has repeatedly listed businessman and DreamWorks founder David Geffen as a role model, telling The New Yorker that “Geffen was a Bruce Wayne to me. He was extraordinary, but at the same time his talents were something that I could dream of and could fathom,” he said. “I’m a normal Joe. But, with a lot of effort, I’ve got a shot at being Bruce Wayne.”

Taylor Swift and Scooter Braun have been embroiled in a feud since 2019

Braun told the magazine that the famed magnate gave him a piece of advice when they met at a party: “Get out of the music business.” And it seems Braun took that to heart. While he remains best known for his output in the music industry, the SB Projects website lists his myriad film and TV projects, which include FX Network’s comedy series Dave; YouTube’s record breaking docuseries Justin Bieber: Seasons; CBS’s Scorpion; Ariana Grande’s feature documentary Excuse Me, I Love You with Netflix; and Bieber’s 2011 documentary Never Say Never. The latter “remains the highest grossing music documentary in domestic box-office history”. And in addition to all of this, the site continues, “Braun impacts new verticals through his own investments which include Uber, Spotify, Songza, Casper, Waze, Dropbox, Pinterest, Coupang, Grab and many others”.

One major business deal, however, landed Braun in serious trouble with one of the biggest, if not the biggest, pop star in the world: Taylor Swift. In 2019, one of Braun’s companies, Ithaca Holdings LLC, purchased her longtime label, Big Machine Records, and in the process he became the owner of the master recordings of her first six studio albums.

Swift – who had wished to buy her masters herself – spoke out against the sale, making allegations against Braun and Big Machine Records CEO Scott Borchetta in the process. She called Braun a bully, writing on Tumblr at the time: “When I left my masters in Scott’s hands, I made peace with the fact that eventually he would sell them. Never in my worst nightmares did I imagine the buyer would be Scooter. Any time Scott Borchetta has heard the words ‘Scooter Braun’ escape my lips, it was when I was either crying or trying not to.”

Swift alleged that Braun had bullied her through Bieber and former client Kanye West and their social media. In November 2020, Braun sold the masters to an investment fund in a deal believed to be more than $300m (£234m). Braun later told Variety in 2021 that Swift’s reaction to the sale was “very confusing and not based on anything factual”.

The last two and a half years have been the hardest two and a half years of my life, yet the most rewarding

Scooter Braun to NPR in 2022

Braun’s personal life, meanwhile, was also somewhat in turmoil at the time. He married Canadian health activist Yael Cohen in a star-studded 2014 ceremony that was covered by glossy gossip magazines. The couple had three children and embarked upon some ambitious property deals, including the purchase of a 10-bedroom mansion from John Travolta that Braun then listed for almost $24m. He and his family lived in a $13m property in Brentwood, and his in-laws reportedly moved in across the street four years after his wedding to Yael.

Braun filed for divorce in July 2021 and, following the news, it was reported that he’d shelled out $65m for a 19,000-square-foot Brentwood mansion in 2021. The divorce was finalised in September 2022, the same month Braun spoke to his old friend Jay Williams at NPR. Williams asked the manager how he was coping amid his divorce and fatherhood journeys. “I’m really good,” Braun said last year. “And I think I’m really good because the last two and a half years have been the hardest two and a half years of my life, yet the most rewarding. You know, I think sometimes you’ve got to be broken open so there’s a hole for something to get inside.”

Less than a year later, it seems holes of a more hazardous nature are opening beneath his feet. The Independent understands that J Balvin, Demi Lovato and Idina Menzel have all left SB Projects with Ariana Grande also reportedly having parted ways with the company. Justin Bieber was rumoured to be joining the exodus before representatives for both the singer and Braun denied that the Canadian golden boy is exiting SB Projects. On Tuesday (22 August), Braun appeared to make light of the situation on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “Breaking news ... I’m no longer managing myself,” he joked to his 3.5 million followers.

Scooter Braun married Yael Cohen at a star-studded 2014 ceremony; they welcomed three children before their divorce was finalized last year

As the upheaval continues to plague Braun’s roster, he serves as the sole CEO of HYBE America, the South Korean company that is home to BTS and other K-pop acts, which merged with Braun’s Ithaca Holdings in 2021. “The billion-dollar Ithaca-HYBE deal resulted in big paydays for Braun’s employees and clients,” Variety reported in January. “A commitment of $50m of Braun’s personal stock was disbursed to acts and employees who have been with Braun since he started SB Projects in 2007. Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande received 53,557 shares apiece – translating to roughly $10m each – while Balvin received 21,423 shares. Demi Lovato was allocated 5,355. Smaller slices of the pie were parceled out to other artists on the label’s roster.”

According to Braun’s website, his “company has built an elite portfolio of acquisitions and partnerships including Big Machine Label Group, Mythos Studios with Marvel Founding Chairman David Maisel, unscripted content studio GoodStory Entertainment with JD Roth, the acquisition of Atlas Publishing and partnerships with management companies including Jason Owen’s Sandbox Entertainment, Morris Higham Management as well as a long-standing partnership with Aubrey ‘Drake’ Graham and Adel ‘Future’ Nur”.

“Braun is also co-founder of TQ Ventures, a leading investment firm focused on early-stage and growth-stage companies, with Schuster Tanger and Andrew Marks,” it adds – and Braun was sure to name-check TQ Ventures in his interview with NPR last year. He said at the time, however, that he was focused on working on himself in the wake of his marital breakdown and was no longer “so concerned about what’s going to happen tomorrow”.

“I want to see what happens today, you know? I’m being present to the moment,” he told Williams. “I’m being strategic because that’s the way my brain works. But I don’t know what the next 10 years hold. And instead of trying to force myself to figure it out to protect myself, for the first time in my life, I’m excited to see what comes.”

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