Around this time last year, two of pop music's biggest superstars got unusually candid about their love lives. Ariana Grande was enjoying a very public romance with "Saturday Night Live" star Pete Davidson. Justin Bieber, meanwhile, was engaged to Hailey Baldwin, a milestone he made Instagram official.
Amid this rare constellation of celebrity PDA, one fan called attention to the manager Grande and Bieber share, Scott "Scooter" Braun, in a pithy tweet: "The devil works hard, but Scooter Braun works harder."
It was a joke - the tweet was deleted after drawing a pointed response from Grande - but the sentiment spoke to Braun's increasing influence in pop culture. He could make things happen, and fans recognized that. The devil and/or Kris Jenner would be proud.
Braun, 38, famously discovered Bieber back in 2008 when the Stratford, Ontario, native was a preteen crooning R&B covers on YouTube. As Bieber skyrocketed to fame, Braun turned his entrepreneurial talents into a veritable entertainment empire, amassing a slew of in-demand clients including Tori Kelly, Demi Lovato, model Karlie Kloss and, at one point, Jenner's son-in-law, Kanye West. But Braun's industry reach was highlighted in an unexpected way on Sunday when Taylor Swift called him out in a scathing Tumblr post. Braun purchased Big Machine Records, the label where Swift launched her career, and acquired her master recordings as part of the $300 million deal.
Swift wrote that she had not been made aware of Braun's purchase until "it was announced to the world," a claim Big Machine founder Scott Borchetta later disputed. But the singer-songwriter was particularly incensed that Braun would own her records. "All I could think about was the incessant, manipulative bullying I've received at his hands for years," Swift wrote, citing a 2016 Snapchat incident involving West and his wife, Kim Kardashian.
The ensuing drama has divided celebrities, including Bieber (who has defended Braun), some of Braun's other clients and Swift's supporters. The controversy has also put a spotlight on Braun, whom the New York Times once called "the defining music executive of the social media era, known for aggressive online cross-promotion between clients."
So how did he get here?
Taylor Swift voiced disappointment in the sale of her old music label to Scooter Braun on June 30. Here's an explanation of the saga surrounding it. Video: Carena/The Washington Post
Braun got his first taste of the music business in Atlanta, where he attended Emory University. As a freshman, Braun sold fake IDs, but soon discovered a more lucrative side hustle: promoting parties.
The city's prominent hip-hop scene enabled Braun to rub elbows with rappers and R&B musicians in the early aughts. "The singer Ciara referred to him as her 'big brother.' Lil Jon called him 'the white Puff Daddy,' " recalled a 2012 New Yorker article. He became a protege of veteran producer Jermaine Dupri, who asked Braun to head up marketing at his So So Def label. He was fired a few years later, a setback he has described as stemming from a disagreement over the label's direction.
But he had enough connections to consult and freelance his way forward. "Only a few weeks after leaving Dupri, Braun brokered a $12 million campaign deal between Ludacris and Pontiac," explained a 2006 Creative Loafing article that dubbed Braun "the Hustla." Braun eventually set up his own management company, enlisting Asher Roth, the white rapper best known for his debut 2009 single "I Love College," as his first client.
Braun was in search of a younger act when he stumbled across Bieber's baby-voiced videos. A 2009 New York Times article detailed Braun's dogged attempt to track down the singer and his mother, Pattie Mallette: "He tracked down Justin's school, calling board members, imploring them to contact Ms. Mallette."
Braun continued to use his digital savvy to recruit artists for his business. In 2011, after Bieber tweeted about a song he couldn't get out of his head, Braun scrambled to sign the relatively unknown Canadian artist to his label, Schoolboy Records. It was Carly Rae Jepsen; the song in Bieber's head was "Call Me Maybe."
Bieber's love for the song was central to Braun's strategy - in early 2012, the singer and his famous friends lip-synced to "Call Me Maybe" in a goofy YouTube video that Braun has hinted he had a hand in. The song became a viral smash and the definitive Song of the Summer that year.
That same year, Braun came across "Gangnam Style," the insanely popular dance track by Korean rapper Psy. "HOW DID I NOT SIGN THIS GUY!?!??!," he tweeted. Months later, he did.
In recent years, Braun has garnered attention for his perceptibly patient response to Bieber's post-adolescent struggles in the public eye, and for staging a benefit concert in Manchester just weeks after a terrorist bombing killed 22 people and injured dozens more after a concert on Grande's "Dangerous Woman" tour. Braun, who has also been praised for his philanthropic efforts, recruited an all-star lineup to support Grande at the event, which, according to the New York Times, raised more than $12 million to help victims of the bombing.
Braun's strategic business approach led author Amos Barshad to label the manager a "Rasputin" (after the legendary Russian mystic), in his 2019 book, "No One Man Should Have All That Power: How Rasputins Manipulate the World." In an interview with Braun, Barshad asked the obvious question.
"On a day-to-day basis, no, I don't manipulate," Braun told him. "I try to be so transparent it's overwhelming. Manipulation, I think, should only be used when it's a life-or-death situation."
Braun told Barshad it ultimately comes down to intent. "If you're manipulating and you know in your heart you're doing something malicious - then you're just an awful person," he said. "If you're in a situation where you're manipulating something and you truly, 100 percent 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."
Braun has yet to officially weigh in on the Swift controversy - and he may not. At Fast Company's Innovation Festival last year, Braun recalled being fired by Grande several years ago, joking that her decision was related to a bad relationship the singer was in at the time. His team was angry, he recalled, and wanted him to strike back publicly.
"But I said, 'We're not going to say a word, and this is gonna come back around,' " Braun recalled. "At the time, they were like, 'Never take her back,' but I just said, 'Let's stay quiet and let our truth be our actions.' " (Grande returned to his management company within months.)
"There are a lot of people, I think, who are smarter than me, who have worked as hard as me, but along the way, I got lucky," Braun said of his career path as an entertainment executive uniquely attuned to the tastes of a digital generation. "And I've never taken that for granted."
The Washington Post