In my pursuit of modern Rasputins — powerful behind-the-scenes operators — I’ve traveled from Tijuana, Mexico to St. Petersburg, Russia to Foxborough, Massachusetts — and, at one point, to West Hollywood, to the inner sanctum of a lovely ivy-covered town- house with a big black door and a small black plaque reading, in gold lettering, “Believe.” These are the offices of SB Projects. This is where Scooter Braun, the man who gave the world the pop star Justin Bieber, does his work.
Still shy of 40, Braun is the most famous manager in the industry. And he’s well-protected. To get to this precipice, I went through two rounds of off-the-record vetting with Braun, first on the phone, then in person (I got the feeling Braun wanted to look me in the eyes). Months passed. I pushed and pressed and pleaded and, finally, was granted an invite.
My first wait on the morning of our scheduled appointment is at the front reception desk, looking out at the office’s lovely pin- striped wallpaper and framed portraits of clients past and present (Kanye looking pensive; Justin in a tree). Then I’m ushered, through a courtyard strung with Christmas lights and dotted with potted Valencia orange trees, to a second, higher-priority reception desk.
Finally, I’m taken into Braun’s sprawling personal office.
I sink into the couch and, waiting for his arrival, look around the room. Behind a wide wooden desk a frame holds four words: “Imagine,” “Create,” “Execute,” “Deliver.” Another frame holds the phrase “We used the stars to guide us home.” On the wall in front of me is a huge spread of small black-and-white photos. There are portraits of Scooter locked in an embrace with his wife and of Scooter locked in an embrace with Whoopi Goldberg.
He comes in on the phone, mouthing his apologies. He’s in a hoodie, a dad hat, and sweats. On his feet are a pair of the very rare semi-frozen-yellow Yeezys. He appears to be dictating for a client a response to some negative press coverage. “So what you wanna do is...” I hear, before he steps back outside the office. Then, muffled, from the other room: “Don’t be upset about that ‘cause you’ll look like a crazy person.” A big laugh. “I mean, that’s up to you!”
His call over, he reenters and sits. Already, I feel a sense of accomplishment. My interview with Scooter Braun is finally happening.
I ask, “How do you get really famous people to listen to you?”
“Ummmmmmmmm.” Long pause. “I think respect. When I’m trying to get clients to say ‘yes,’ I ask them why they’re saying ‘no.’ I listen to them. Then I pick one thing within their argument that I can acknowledge. And I let them know that I can see why they feel that way. Now they’re softening so that they can hear me. And then I slowly change their perspective. In a respectful manner.”
Scooter, with careful calculation, had young Internet kids looking up at him with eyes wide open.
I imagine Braun’s track record of success helps. So was it harder earlier on, when he was a nobody? “I worked with acts that no one wanted!” he shrugs. “It wasn’t like they could say, ‘Oh, I know what the hell I’m talking about!’ They were just as much in the trenches as I was.” Scooter, with careful calculation, had young Internet kids looking up at him with eyes wide open. Once they were famous, they were still kids. As far as power dynamics go, it’s a pretty stable one.
Braun grew up in leafy Cos Cob, Connecticut, then enrolled at Emory University in Atlanta, where he went about purposefully reinventing himself. His given name, Scott, was certainly a strong one. But he decided to brand himself professionally with a goofy nickname he’d carried on and off through his youth. Now, he was Scooter again. He started throwing huge parties that broke out of the college circuit and roped in the city’s hip-hop scene.
Jermaine Dupri, the Atlanta impresario behind the beloved hip-hop and R&B label So So Def, hired him as director of marketing. Braun dropped out of school. He was a 20-year-old executive; everything was beautiful. Then, a few years in, Jermaine Dupri’s mother, a dominant figure within the label, fired Braun for perceived insubordination. He was a 23-year-old flameout.
He looked around, identified what he believed were openings in the industry, and made a plan. He wanted three things: a white rapper; an 18-year-old Britney-meets-P!nk hybrid; and a solo pop teen.
The first became Asher Roth, a kid from Pennsylvania who’d have a radio hit with a cloyingly effective number called “I Love College” (sample lyric: “Man I love drinking / Man I love college.”) It was Braun’s first modest success. The second, he never found. “It just wasn’t out there,” he says.
The third was Justin Bieber, the global superstar whose success became the bedrock for everything Braun would come to build. It all feels inevitable now, when Bieber’s presence permeates mass culture. But Braun was the one who found Bieber on YouTube, bankrolled his inchoate career, and whipped him into stardom.
Braun had grown up on classic hip-hop; he’d come through an Atlanta rap scene enjoying a true golden era. His business plan, though, was utterly agnostic. It couldn’t be about what he liked. It had to be about what would work.
“Usher” — the R&B star — “asked me to come to NHL All-Star weekend in Atlanta,” Braun recalls. “He was performing. And the Jonas Brothers went on right before him. And the place went nuts for these little kids. And I was like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ I wasn’t a huge fan of their music. But I was like, ‘OK, someone in this space — with really great records? That’s missing.’”
Braun has been this strategic about wielding influence since he was a kid. He used to devour books by Phil Jackson, the legendary NBA coach. He fixated on the manner in which Jackson would finagle, coddle, and push his superstar, Michael Jordan. Then, at 19 years old, while reading The Operator, Thomas King’s classic biography of entertainment magnate David Geffen, he had a revelation.
“There’s a point where David’s trying to sign John Lennon’s solo career,” Braun recalls. “And I’m sitting in my bed in my fresh- man dorm room saying, ‘Go to Yoko Ono, go to Yoko Ono. Why is no one respecting her. Go to Yoko Ono!’ And I turn the page and it’s like — ‘Geffen was the only one who went to Yoko Ono.’”
Braun beams. “It clicked. Like, ‘My brain works this way — I can do this.’ That book changed my life.”
Geffen had once commented that the particulars of the music industry made it the best arena for a young man to rise fast. Braun took that to heart. “For a young entrepreneur, it was the place I could create my own destiny,” he says. “The stock market has regulations. There’s players’ unions in every athletic league. There’s unions with movies and TV. Music has no regulations! It’s the Wild Wild West!”
He tells me a story about the old days, in Atlanta. “There was this guy Blue who was managing Outkast,” he says. “One year him and Puffy” — aka Sean Combs, rap’s timeless Renaissance man — “did this huge party at the Velvet Room. It was crazy and amazing and everyone was going nuts. The following year Outkast breaks up. Puffy comes back to Atlanta and does a party and I’m like — Blue’s name is not on that party invitation.”
Both Blue and Puffy were associated with specific acts: Outkast for the former, Biggie Smalls for the latter. But Blue had latched himself just to that one act, and he had gone into relative obscurity. After working with Biggie, Puffy went on to create a brand built on success in, like, all-encompassing totality. That was the lesson: It was OK to be closely associated with a massive star. But the name Scooter would have to mean success, too.
Braun’s current client roster includes acts that, like Bieber, he found and built into fame. It also has included previously established names, most notably Kanye West, who were drawn to Braun’s carefully manufactured aura of success. (In 2018, Kanye and Braun parted ways, although the two remain friendly.) That aura has even meant Braun’s been able to transition to other industries.
He rattles it off. “I’m in Uber, I’m in Dropbox, I’m in Coupang...”
“Oh, it’s a great company out of Korea. You don’t know it?” He goes on: “I’m in film, I’m in TV, I’m in tech, I’m in real estate, I’m in art, I’m in cannabis...”
“Cannabis? What do you have in cannabis?”
He smirks. “We’ll see.”
I’d started the conversation by asking Braun how he influenced famous people. Now I was on to my second big question: How does Braun influence the culture at large?
I know the answer, broadly: through the hits he connives into existence. That’s what makes a character like Braun so interesting. He doesn’t sing, he doesn’t write, he doesn’t play an instrument. But he is as much the author of the pop music we listen to incessantly as are the artists on his roster. Hundreds of millions of people, literally hundreds of millions of people, cry and kiss and fight through heartbreak with these songs. He is, as much as anyone, controlling the last vestiges of the monoculture.
With huge hits, there’s always an air of inevitability after the fact. This chorus is so catchy, it must have been predestined by the gods. But take something like Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.” One of the all-time great earworms. A massive global smash. When Braun came across it, it was idling at a piddling Number 36. On the Canadian charts.
As Braun tells it, Bieber had just returned from his home nation with the song stuck in his head and was absentmindedly singing it. “I was like, ‘What was that?’” Braun recalls. “He’s like, ‘Oh, it’s a fun little song.’ And I was like, ‘This is more than a fun little song. This is big.’”
Quickly, Braun secured worldwide rights to Jepsen’s music. Then he concocted a bit of viral promo: a video of Bieber and his famous friends dancing along to the song on goofy laptop cam footage. “Oh, you mean the ‘organic’ video,” Braun laughs, putting up air quotes, when I bring it up. It would indeed rev up “Call Me Maybe,” which now has over a billion YouTube views. (The ancillary video itself would crack 75 million views.)
He doesn’t sing, he doesn’t write, he doesn’t play an instrument. But he is as much the author of the pop music we listen to incessantly as are the artists on his roster.
That’s a drop in the bucket compared to “Gangnam Style,” the 2012 phenomenon from South Korean artist Psy. With over three billion views, it’s one of the top ten most played YouTube videos of all time.
“Scott Manson, my COO, sent it to me when it had 60 thousand views,” Braun says. “He was like, ‘Haha, isn’t this funny.’ And I was like, ‘Find him. Sign him.’ And he’s like, ‘You’re joking, right? You wanna do it in English?’ And I said, ‘No, I wanna keep it in Korean.’ And he’s like, ‘You gotta be fucking kidding me.’ And I was like, ‘Dude, I can make this the number one song in the world.’”
In pursuing Psy, Braun flashed back to the old novelty dance songs he’d lived through as kid: “Cotton Eye Joe,” “Macarena.” He also thought back to Snow’s “Informer,” an infamous '90s artifact in which a white Canadian (real name: Darrin O’Brien) does an imitation of a Jamaican patois accent. “To this day, we have no idea what he was saying. But we all tried to memorize the words. And I was like, ‘The kids are gonna do that with Korean.’”
As throughout our conversation, Braun seems to be offering what is primarily an agnostic analysis. I don’t actually know how Braun genuinely felt about “Gangnam Style.” I just know he didn’t have to care for “Gangnam Style” one way or the other to believe that it would work.
At the time we speak, the song “Despacito,” from the Puerto Rican artist Luis Fonsi, had just recently concluded a long run of chart domination. Braun recognized its potential early. “We have a bunch of management companies that we’ve owned that we’ve never talked about publicly,” he says. “In country, in hip-hop, in Latin. My guys in the Latin market, they were like, ‘This is a big number, it’s going.’”
He maneuvered to get Bieber on the remix. Unsurprisingly, Braun says, Fonsi’s reps readily agreed — but they wanted him in English. They were planning to cross the song over by dropping the Spanish. Braun demurred. “I’m like, ‘Guys, I took a number one in Korean.’ Like, Spanish is as spoken as any language in this country. This is gonna work.”
Braun speaks of a “formula” for analyzing chart success. “Just understanding how many streams, how much radio play is needed — how to spike all the right things at the right time. Studying the charts and putting the plan together to get us there.”
Braun estimated that, with his formula, he could get “Despacito” to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for a week. It made it for a week. And then it made it for 15 weeks straight after that.
Bieber was a 12-year-old nobody singing R&B covers in Stratford, Ontario, when Braun found him on YouTube. In an early article on Bieber’s ascent, Bieber’s mother said that after Braun got in touch, she asked the Lord a question: “God, you don’t want this Jewish kid to be Justin’s man, do you?” Soon enough, clearly, she realized this was the way Jesus had intended it to be.
Those were sweet, innocent, naive times. Early drama came from haircuts. Bieber had emerged with a trademark floppy bowl cut. And when he wanted a trim, Braun says, “I fought it! We were doing so well and the haircut was such a big thing for us, and he was so sick of it. And I’m sitting there like, no! If it ain’t broke don’t try to fix it!’”
Right around the time he turned 18, Bieber began an extended public meltdown. There were all manners of incidents: arrests for drag racing in Miami, a lost pet monkey in Germany, citations for noise violations from parties in Calabasas, bucket-peeing in NYC. It looked, from the outside, like perhaps the young man was breaking free from a once tightly-held yoke.
It’s times like these that give the music industry a certain tinge of inevitable disfavor. The years after his discovery were a maelstrom. Bieber became the most famous pop star in the world. That was the point, for sure. But even if you meticulously game-plan for the most insane success, no one knows what that feels like from the inside. No one knows what that’s going to do to a kid.
Technically, Braun checks the Rasputin boxes. He is a behind-the-scenes operator, executing a personal agenda through the vessel of another. He doesn’t sing or dance. (Although when I bring that up, he argues the latter point by showing me an Instagram video of him very cleanly executing some tricky backup dancer stage moves.) He even has the required enemies.
“My competitors, most of them are my boys,” he tells me. “But there are some people who would love to see me fail. Who would love to see me fall on my face.” But does he exhibit controversial control? Perhaps, once, he did. Then Bieber grew up. And he let him go, to make monkey- and pee-related mistakes.
“If you’re in a situation where you’re manipulating something and you truly, 100% believe it’s for their betterment ... then that’s a justification I’ve found in the past.”
It’s inevitable that fans will imagine Braun as the puppeteer. In the summer of 2018, both Bieber and Ariana Grande, another client of Braun’s, announced their engagements (to Hailey Baldwin and Pete Davidson, respectively). The ensuing media attention was huge. For Grande, the attention conveniently came just as she was set to release her fourth album, Sweetener. In response, one cheeky fan tweeted, “the devil works hard but Scooter Braun works harder.” This understanding of Bieber, or of Grande, or of any pop star — as a commodity yanked by stronger forces — does not grant them much agency. And Braun’s own understanding of Bieber, unexpectedly, is that he is a young man who makes his own decisions. It has been a tricky thing to navigate, he says. But for more than a decade, through rocky times, Scooter and Justin are still together and still tight and still here.
“The line between influence and manipulation can be thin,” I say. “Have you ever...”
“Manipulated? Yeah. A hundred percent,” Braun shoots back. “Justin, when he got healthy” — after the meltdown period — “he was like, ‘Man, there were times that you were manipulating me that made me really upset. But now I realize that you were only doing it to help me. You were never trying to manipulate me to hurt me — you were trying to manipulate me to stop me from hurting myself.'”
“That’s personal details between me and him. But I basically was maneuvering behind the scenes to push him into situations where he was safe. And, um — that’s a tricky business when you’re playing that game. And it’s not something you wanna necessarily do, but there are times when you have no choice. When you feel like you have to make those moves.”
“That’s the only time?”
“On a day-to-day basis, no, I don’t manipulate. I try to be so transparent it’s overwhelming. Manipulation, I think, should only be used when it’s a life-or-death situation. If you’re manipulating and you know in your heart you’re doing something malicious — then you’re just an awful person. If you’re in a situation where you’re manipulating something and you truly, 100% believe it’s for their betterment — that it’s for the benefit of others — then that’s a justification I’ve found in the past.”
He now seems to be suggesting that he has the power to manipulate at will, but that he only uses it for good. I try to understand exactly what he means — I try to understand what the rules are here. “For their benefit — could that mean, you know, manipulating them into doing something that’ll net them a hit song?”
He stops me. “This is probably not gonna go in your book but — at this point in your life, you don’t have complete financial freedom. You have rent, or a mortgage. You gotta pay bills?”
I concur. I am far, far from financial freedom.
“A lot of your questions, I feel like, are coming from the perspective of your life. So I’m trying to see from your eyes. But the things you think I’m hopeful for, I don’t think like that. I still wake up every morning like I’m going broke. But I know, financially, I’m OK. I wanted to make 10 million. That was my number. I passed that when I was 27. To manipulate to get more success — I don’t think like that.”
And here, Braun, always voluble, picks it up a notch.
“My grandma, who I loved more than anything in the world, was working in a sweatshop for 18 years after surviving the Holocaust. I know I come from that. So I look at my life — getting on private jets, hanging out with celebrities, living in a big house — and I just think to myself, there’s no way I get to keep any of this.”
I think of the photo of Braun and Whoopi. His life does seem sweet. But before I linger there, I hear: “I don’t know when I learned about the Holocaust — I’ve always just known! It’s from my grandma, telling me stories about, you have everything, and then one day an army showed up and took it away.
“They actually study survivors’ [families], and we’re like a different breed because we truly believe that it can disappear” — he snaps his fingers — “tomorrow. I took $1400 and turned it into a company worth hundreds of millions! I don’t think my life is deserved! It sounds naive. It sounds like bullshit, I assume. But I can do things from a really honest place. I can now just care for people.
“One of my friends pointed this out to me, and I loved it. There are Fortune 500 CEOs who have killed themselves, and we’re like, ‘That’s tragic,’ but we’re not shocked. But if we said, ‘Oh, this person who worked in a soup kitchen killed themselves,’ we’d be like, ‘What! That makes no sense!’ Because people who give to others never kill themselves. You don’t see Mother Teresa being like, ‘I just wanna die!’” He laughs, in incredulity of the image. “It just doesn’t happen!”
Braun is in a very good place, he tells me. A place of peace. He doesn’t want to manipulate anybody. He wants to do good. He wants to change the world. He just wants to help.
As we say our goodbyes, I see that a group of cheery men and women are waiting for Braun in his elegant, gorgeously lit office foyer. I recognize a few of the faces. One’s a powerful veteran music exec; the other’s a well-known, flashy, industry jack-of-all-trades. The younger faces, I don’t know. Maybe they’re songwriters or producers. Maybe they’re would-be new pop stars. I hear something about “Got the full swag today” and “Don’t sit on that, that’s an antique.” I hear a lot of laughing. I leave them to it, to plot the hits that — soon, very soon — we all, surely, will be using to soundtrack our kisses and our tears and our heartbreak. It’s out of our control. ●
Excerpted from No One Man Should Have All That Power: How Rasputins Manipulate the World by Amos Barshad. Published and reprinted by permission of Abrams Press.
Amos Barshad was raised in Israel, the Netherlands, and Massachusetts. He’s a former staff writer at the Fader and Grantland and has written for the New Yorker, the New York Times, and Arkansas Times.
His first book, No One Man Should Have All That Power, is available April 9.