Brains & Braun
Scooter Braun is responsible for discovering and marketing Justin Bieber, one of the most famous teen singers in the world. He hangs out with the likes of Steven Spielberg and Usher. He just struck a deal to develop a new social networking application platform. And it comes as no surprise that his sights are set on Hollywood.… Oh, and did we mention he’s not even 30?
Scooter at the SICIS flagship showroom in New York City
Many people, interesting and uninteresting, have earned a swift dollop of fame on the website called YouTube. Somewhere in the world is a Swedish fellow who will be able to go through life claiming to be the baby in the high chair who once got millions of people to click and watch his giggling fit. But of all the cute babies, crashing skateboarders and amateur-night heroes to earn a few thousand clicks of fame, none has yet quite matched the feats of Justin Bieber, who posted a few short videos of his musical flair when he was but twelve and went on to become the reigning popstar of the known universe.
Now, at the age of sixteen, anything more than a sneeze by the baby-faced hearthrob draws huge attention. His specialty is the emotional, soaring, utterly sincere love song from a lad whose voice hasn’t yet changed, mixed with lots of boyish smiles and dancing. There is a very good reason, it turns out, that his style resembles the youthful Michael Jackson—that star was the template. And now he is getting Jackson-like numbers—more than 365 million people have clicked on the video of Bieber’s song, “Baby,” sending him past Lady Gaga and all the rest to make his the most popular YouTube video ever.
The video fame has translated into record sales, with 8 million albums sold worldwide in the last year alone. And fan downloads of his songs number about 10 million. His every move seems to be tracked by his 5.7 million fans on Twitter. Every day his Twitter account increases by 10,000 new followers.
Some of these fans might want to know: How does a young musician make the leap from one’s living room to sellouts at Madison Square Garden? The catalyst in this unlikely drama is the son of two dentists from Greenwich: Scott Braun—or “Scooter,” as he has become known in the hip-hop world of Atlanta, the music-business offices in Manhattan and the movie studios in Hollywood. Scooter is the guy who makes things happen. Braun, twenty-nine, is the wizard, the alchemist, the midwife who clicked on a video one day and saw enormous possibilities.
When I tracked down Scooter recently at his Atlanta office, he had just flown in late from Indianapolis, where Justin was battling strep throat. Braun manages everything in Bieber’s life, from image to contracts, and thus hovers over everything—even if it means chasing a teenager who’s skateboarding down hotel hallways when he’s supposed to be resting in bed.
Braun was snapping and crackling with energy, and I assumed he had the road fever you get during rock and roll caravans. While shepherding Bieber through a cross-country tour, Braun was also overseeing a 3D film of his charge, Never Say Never, that’s due for a February release. Braun still radiates the drive he had as a star guard on the Greenwich High basketball team, and the self-possession it took to get elected class president three years in a row. His deep voice is slightly raspy from heavy use, and his manner is engaging even as he is aggressive. He sounds like he’s made his decision long ago and you better catch up to him soon.
If he hadn’t gone into show business, oh, the air conditioners he could have sold in the Yukon.
One of his first big acts of salesmanship in life was actually convincing the family of the young Bieber that he was the one who could take the boy to the heights. Braun was only twenty-five himself when he found Bieber. As a brash young macher, a college dropout who’d become famous in Atlanta for throwing fantastic parties, Braun discovered the angel-faced Bieber one day while clicking around YouTube.
“When I realized it was a twelve-year-old boy, my gut went crazy. He had that tone in his voice, he could play multiple instruments, he could dance. I basically tracked him and his mother down in the next forty-eight hours and flew them down to Atlanta on my own dime. It was the first plane ride either had been on.”
Justin and Scooter backstage at the 2010 MTV Music Awards
Bieber was living in Stratford, a town of 20,000 in Ontario. In his recent autobiography, First Step 2 Forever, Bieber recalls that his single mother, Pattie, was very suspicious of the pushy guy on the phone until a two-hour conversation revealed much about Braun’s deep feelings about family and morals. Braun met them at the airport in a purple Mercedes equipped with spinners.
The Biebers were barely off the plane when Braun was bringing them to the studios run by Usher and Jermaine Dupri, some of the biggest of big shots in the world of hip-hop music. (Close personal friends of Scooter’s, you see.) All were slapping hands and slapping foreheads at the talent of the little kid who could sit down at any instrument and start wailing.
“He was excited,” Braun laughs, “but he was twelve, so he didn’t really understand business. He never dreamed of leaving Stratford because no one in his family ever had. So it was kind of surreal and crazy and weird, but we liked each other and really hit it off. He was like me at that age. He just wanted to see if the dreams of this guy talking to him could become a reality.
THE BAG OF TOOLS
He was like me at that age. Examining the fast-paced saga of Scooter Braun’s rise to success, one would indeed want to know what he was like at age twelve. From all accounts it appears that even then he had a sharp bag of tools. It has led him through a life of constant reinvention, a useful path to follow in show business, where the shaping and styling of art and personality are critical.
Braun’s assertions to Pattie Bieber about the im-portance of family were not breezy fabrications, by any means. “My father, when I was growing up, told me that role models aren’t athletes and entertainers; they’re men who do their job to the best of their ability.” Braun almost barks as he says this, sounding tough as a Marine drill instructor. “A role model could be anybody, as long as they’re putting food on the table and being a good man. My heroes as a kid, I would say, were my father and grandfathers. I fought with my dad at times, but I wanted to be like him. If I’m half the man he is, I’ll be OK.”
When Braun was a student at Central Middle School, his teacher announced a contest for National History Day. One of the categories was video documentary, with regional winners progressing to the state contest and then to the nationals. Nobody from this district, the teacher said, had ever gone to the nationals.
“I went home and told my mother, ‘I’m going to Washington, D.C., in May. I’m going to the nationals.’ And I put together this thing called The Hungarian Conflict, a ten-minute thing about Jews in Hungary before, during and after the Holocaust. Kind of my family story. I won regionals, I won state, and I got third place in the U.S. The other two winners were better made, better edited. I was just a kid editing between two VCRs.
“Somebody, I think it was my grandmother, sent my film to Steven Spielberg’s office after I won. I was thirteen, fourteen years old, and I got a letter in the mail from Steven Spielberg, typed up on his letterhead and signed by him, telling me that he was submitting my video to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., where it is still shown. He said this is how young filmmakers like himself got started.
“I still have the letter hanging on my wall, to this day. It was one of the most inspirational moments—it made me believe. I can do this. If I put my mind to it, I can do it. I mean, I got to Steven Spielberg, holy crap. Everyone worships Steven Spielberg.
“Well, Justin and I got invited to the White House this year to attend a press dinner. We walk in the room and there’s ten people there, and I look over and see Steven Spielberg standing there, and I get star-struck. I get star-struck for people like David Geffen and Steven Spielberg, not celebrities. I get star-struck for people who make it happen.
“He walks over to Justin and says, ‘I just saw you on Saturday Night Live, you need to do a comedy.’ We start talking casting. Then he stops and says, ‘Can my daughter talk to Justin on the phone?’ ”
When Braun brought up the story of his video, Spielberg remembered it instantly. He remembered it was about Hungarians and recalled his letter. “I was blown away,” Braun says.
Dr. Ervin Braun, a successful dentist in Darien, compares his life to the Spielberg cartoon The American Tail, the emigrant saga of a Jewish-Russian mouse. His Hungarian parents had barely escaped the Holocaust. Then in 1956, with little Ervin in tow, they beat it out of Hungary two steps ahead of the Soviet tanks. Ervin was brought up in Queens. His father was a professional dentist but could not practice here and so became a lab technician. Following suit, son Ervin put in all the years it took to become a dentist. While interning at Sloan-Kettering, he saw an advertisement in a trade magazine for a practice in Connecticut. It was a land he had long fantasized about. “As a kid,” Dr. Braun recalls in his Darien office, “we drove through the state, and I thought, One day I’m going to live in Connecticut. Swear to God. I always thought there’d be great baseball fields and places for families in Connecticut.”
Playing ball was important to Ervin. After he married Susan Schlussel from Ellenville, New York, they settled in Greenwich and raised three kids. Sports-mad Ervin coached in various basketball leagues. He did something that would guarantee his kids would be very, very popular in the neighborhood—he built a basketball gymnasium in the back yard. Where does everybody go when the weather gets bad? To the Braun house. Eldest son Scott became a deadly shooter and eventual star on the Greenwich High team.
His mother Susan recently retired as an orthodontist to teach dentistry. “My mom is my conscience,” Scooter says, suddenly solemn. “My mom is the most moral woman I know. She’s not a big talker, but when she talks you listen—it’s going to be of importance. I know my compassion for others comes from my mother. Since I was a little boy we spent Christmas at the soup kitchen. I’m Jewish, and my mother would say, ‘We’re not going to celebrate it, we might as well help people who need it.’”
In this spirit, the Brauns brought two brothers from Mozambique into the house to raise alongside their kids. “I think my adopted brothers Sam and Cornelio gave me a lot of perspective,” Scooter says now. “When they were thirteen and fifteen, my parents became their guardians so they could study in the United States. I was best man at Sam’s wedding—they’re my brothers. Sam got married to a girl he met at Brown. Cornelio—we call him Big C—went to American University.”
Acknowledging that he lived the Greenwich good life, Braun wants you to know it wasn’t a monochromatic life. “I played AAU basketball and all my teammates were from Bridgeport and the Bronx,” referring to the Amateur Athletic Union competitions. “I was one of the only white boys on the team, and I spent from age thirteen to eighteen in hotels every single weekend living with those guys. I used to go up to the Sheehan Center in Bridgeport and play basketball. So it gave me access to that other world. My father wanted to make sure we didn’t know just the world of Greenwich.”
To his chagrin, Dr. Braun would find out how comfortable his eldest son could be in the world outside the gates of Greenwich. Scott chose to take his game to Emory University in Atlanta, which to the Brauns seemed a long way away. Within a year, however, their son was having disagreements with the basketball coach and, worse, had transformed into someone named Scooter.
There was no way of forecasting that their son, a real Mr. Popularity at Greenwich High, would become the king of carousing in Atlanta. He started fast. He found a shuttered nightclub called the Riviera and began booking it for parties on Thursday nights. In no time his parties became huge draws. How does this happen?
“My friends will say it was by instinct. Part of it was the hustler mentality that my father wanted to get out of me. I was very quick. I figured things out. Atlanta was segregated back then, but my mentality wasn’t segregated. I would go to both parties, with majority white or majority black. And I would just draw from what I saw at each party.”
Asked the secret to a good party, Braun grins: “Girls. You definitely have to have more girls than guys. The music is also a big secret. I think that’s what got me in the music business: I always knew. My rule to the DJ was, you have to play what I tell you, when I tell you. I knew how to pick the record that would get the crowd going.
“I also ran it like a business. I created excitement. A lot of creating a party is marketing leading up to the party. Creating that ‘It’s gonna be great’ thing. And, when you get there, there has to be an atmosphere that really makes you want to get inside.”
Everybody wanted to get into Scooter’s parties. Soon the music stars were showing up to get in, too. Performers like Usher had to meet this guy. Big dogs from the record labels were scoping out the Scooter parties. As word spread, Scooter was asked to put together parties in Miami and London. He wasn’t old enough to drink at these places, but that’s not what he wanted to do, anyway.
Growing up, he did more than play basketball. He had closely studied the lives of show-business tycoons like Barry Diller and Jeff Katzenberg. He devoured the biographies of David Geffen, who parlayed his early years as a manager of bands into becoming a billionaire, all-media tycoon and political heavyweight. In Atlanta, Braun got his first taste of the big time and it was intoxicating. The record label So So Def hired him to help its marketing department. After all, look at these parties, this kid knows marketing. (Scooter had even done some branding on himself. Unwilling to identify himself as a Greenwich kid, he told everyone he was from his Dad’s old address in Queens.)
When his parents found out that their son was quitting college to devote himself to this party business, they were stricken. “It was very hard on us,” Dr. Braun remembers. “It was a difficult pill to swallow.” He had to see firsthand what was going on with his son.
He went down to Atlanta the same weekend that the NBA was staging a big three-day bash for its annual All-Star game. And what was the big party for all the star players in town? Had to be Scooter’s. Dr. Braun saw the limousines, the big names, the glittery crush.
“That’s when it hit me this was going to be big time,” Ervin recalls, “because everyone knew him. I’ll never forget. There was a mob of people trying to get into the party, and John Salley from Detroit [six-foot-eleven basketball star-turned-TV commentator] is at the back of the line and he’s yelling to my son, ‘Scooter! Scooter! Get me in here, help me out!’ I look at this and think, jeez, this is amazing. That’s when it dawned on me that he’s a heavy hitter. And it finally hit me that he wasn’t going to parties—he was working.”
The good son introduced his father to everyone all around and made sure that he was part of the scene. Then came one more surprise for Dr. Braun: “The feedback I would get was having people in the music business come up to me and say, ‘I really wanted to meet you.’ I’d say, ‘Wow, that’s nice. But why?’ Their words to me, literally, were, ‘I want to see who made him.’ They had never met someone so driven to be successful.”
THE REAL PARTY BEGINS
Six years of parties was enough. He was closing in on twenty-five.
“I walked away from it cold turkey when I was on top,” he says. “I got out of that world because I hate the word promoter. I hate the stigma. I see a lot of guys who call themselves promoters who do this to sit at a table and pop a bottle and stand next to the pretty girl. And I find that lame. If you can’t get the girl without the party and the bottle, you shouldn’t get her at all.”
Besides his marketing work with So So Def Recordings, he was consulting with a number of musical acts and companies. “I knew the right people in the industry. But I wanted equity in something. I said the only way I’m going to get that is to get the same kind of control I had over my parties. And I’m going to take what I learned as a businessman doing the parties and institute it.”
It was not an absurd leap. The head of Warner Bros. music, Lyor Cohen, had come out of concert promotion. Music mogul P. Diddy (nee Puff Daddy) started as a party promoter; one of Scooter’s nicknames became “White Puffy.”
Braun got his first discovery on the music and social network, MySpace. Asher Roth was a Philadelphia kid in college majoring in elementary education when he and Braun connected. Braun liked what he heard and brought him to Atlanta for some real schooling.
“He lived on my couch for six months. I invested my own money into him. I came up with an artist’s development plan, how I would market him. Everyone thought I was nuts to sign a kid who never had a mix tape or an album out.”
Scooter with his first discovery, slacker-rapper Asher Roth
What emerged under Scooter’s tutelage was a white rapper, someone tonally similar to Eminem but nowhere near as threatening. With his droll, stoner take on life, Roth is kind of a slacker-rapper. His life-is-a-party philosophy is summed up perfectly in the song, “I Love College,” a paean to the pleasures of dorm-room bacchanalia. Should any parents of a college-age kid see the music video, they will pretty much want to commit hari-kari on the spot.
“It went multi-multiplatinum,” Braun says of the song. “It’ll live on around college campuses forever.”
Having found one act on the Internet, he was ready to spring fast when he saw the Justin Bieber video on YouTube. By now he had a company in Atlanta called SB Projects, a consortium of record labels like Schoolboy Music, a management company, a consulting outfit and a design firm. Scooter brought his general manager, Allison Kaye, over to see the kid’s video. Unimpressed, she dismissed the kid right away.
“I said, ‘Eh.’ But he said, ‘You’re not getting it!’” This, she says, is her boss’ secret talent. “He sees the big picture. A lot of managers lose the forest for the trees, but he’s always eight steps ahead and you’ve got to catch up.”
In Justin Bieber, Scooter found a kid who had the same sort of highly tuned athletic energy as his own. Bieber’s enormous music skill was, however, hidden from the world. “He didn’t want anyone to know. I saw a normal, down-to-earth twelve-year-old who was hiding it, so no one knew it was there. And it wasn’t like he was an outcast—he was a soccer-playing, hockey-playing, basketball-playing kid.” To get the new act groomed, Bieber and his mother moved to Atlanta.
The first response to Bieber in the music business was not encouraging. The YouTube stuff didn’t impress anyone. And it had been decades since any kid had become a star without first having a TV show on Disney or Nickelodeon. Scooter was undeterred. He saw in Bieber the second coming of his own first musical idol, Michael Jackson. The first concert Scooter ever saw was the Jacksons at Harford Civic when he was nine. But while the early Jackson 5 were able to get a big boost on television, it was a new era and Scooter was going to have to build his act the modern way: through the internet.
“You connect directly with the consumer that way and let them play a part in the development and discovery of an artist. You build it up the way I did my parties, and then taking it to the commercial, the radio, the parties. Everyone else is, ‘Let’s get into the studio and package it.’ My thing was, ‘Include the consumer, make them part of the process.’”
The next time Bieber had a video put on YouTube, he was, unlike the first time, clearly identified. Now all the kids in Stratford, Ontario, knew what their chum was doing. Bieber pretended to be mortified. “I was like, ‘Dude, why did you do that? Don’t you know eighth-graders eat their wounded? I don’t need that kind of exposure!’”
The Bieber Meister is, of course, now getting all the exposure in the world. His tour caravan is packing them in all over. Unlike Asher Roth, who is, at twenty-five, able to fend for himself on his very successful tours, Bieber is only sixteen and travels with either his mother or grandmother, not to mention the ever-present Scooter.
“I think he handles it well,” Scooter says. “Everyone is waiting for you to screw up, and everyone wants you to be what they want you to be, twenty-four hours a day. Sometimes he wants to be that kid back in his room, but he understands the blessings. However, it is tough, especially for a teenager—and the hormones are raging. He’s definitely become more guarded than he was four years ago.”
The upcoming movie about Bieber, intended to be part concert film and part Hard Day’s Night whimsy, is certain to be just one stop in the coming cavalcade. Scooter says he’s very hands-on with it. “One thing that David Geffen said was that he got into music because it was the fastest way to get into movies. I’m more of a movie head. I consume entertainment.”
Besides movies, his next push is toward Silicon Valley, where he’s partnering with an investment firm to push an application platform for a technology company. The whole soup of social network combined with location gaming is his natural province. “I created my artists on the Internet, and now I want to do some investing in that area as well.”
Steve Bartels, the president and COO of the Island Def Jam Music Group, has watched as Bieber’s “explosive” record sales have boosted his company. It’s made him a huge fan of Scooter. “Scooter’s a very energetic, forward-thinking person,” says Bartels, a Greenwich resident. “He doesn’t stop when someone says no. He gets ahead because he’s constantly moving.
“Part of the game now is making sure your music is heard in many different places besides your music deck, your computer. Music is so much a part of the woven fabric of culture; it shows up in so many different places. You go into ballparks, into movie theaters, video games, to online experiences, department stores—there are so many places where music means something. And Scooter’s able to plug into that.”
Bartels smiles appreciatively. “Scooter in his own right is becoming a star,” he says. “He’s built up a following of people who look at him with respect. It’s not enough to have confidence. You’ve got to have substance.” People in the business are now gravitating toward Scooter. He knows something; he delivers.
To better push things, Scooter is shopping for a house in Los Angeles. He already keeps a place in New York City, in addition to maintaining the company in Atlanta. “I don’t think Hollywood is going to change me,” he avers. “I’m not scared of that.”
If Bieber ever does get wigged out in Hollywood, he can always fly back to Greenwich, where Ervin and Susan Braun will take him in again. They’ve become almost like Justin’s third set of grandparents. Dr. Braun took him down to the beach to teach him how to kite board. The Biebers have spent so much time here, word started getting around that they were house shopping, an assertion built more on hope than fact.
As Scooter looks after his charge, he finds that a familiar voice and sensibility are coming out. “I say stuff to Justin all the time, and then I’ll say, ‘Oh my God, I am becoming just like my father.’” As he and Justin well know, this is a very good thing.