Music manager and entrepreneur Scooter Braun was the biggest keynote draw of this year’s Midem conference, interviewed by Variety executive director Shirley Halperin.
“I still see myself as the 19 year-old kid in Atlanta trying to prove something,” he said. “I had to knock down walls to get people to believe in these ideas.” Such as building up an artist on YouTube. “When I did it the first time, Justin [Bieber] was 60,000 views total when I found him, and I took him to 66m views by the time we took him into a label… and every record label said ‘no’ because ‘that’s a YouTube artist, that’s not a real artist’… I like it when people are disrespectful to my ideas because it charges me up to work harder!”
His company, SB Projects, now has 66 staff, and will soon grow to more than 100, working on unscripted TV projects, movies and acting as a label. “It’s a lot of young, energetic people and we’re growing. And that is scary, because 10 years ago I had a couch and a computer. And now we’re in this 32,000 square-foot office… I just hope we don’t screw it up!”
Braun talked about the concert he helped put on in Manchester last year, after the terrorism attack at Ariana Grande’s concert in the city, and other charitable efforts.
“My mom, my whole life, kinda set the standard on giving. Every Christmas she would bring us to a soup kitchen and have us work at a soup kitchen on Christmas Day. Because we weren’t celebrating it because we were Jewish… When I started throwing parties when I was 19, she said ‘I don’t understand what you’re doing, but one in every four parties you should do for charity’,” he said. “I’m a firm believer that you don’t get blessings unless you give them.”
“Anyone who says they make their own luck is an asshole. The fact that I was born in the country I was born in, and given the opportunities I was given. That alone means I won a lottery… So I don’t take it for granted… The only way I can make sense of it is giving back, or making chances for people less fortunate.”
He talked about the Manchester concert, and his reaction to the terrorist attack. “I was pissed off. When it happened, I didn’t really get upset at first. ‘They came at the wrong one: I’m going to fight back!'” But he went on to say that it was unfair and even “selfish” to ask Ariana Grande to join him, so soon after some of her fans had been killed.
“The fact that she took on the burden of coming back and carrying that show two weeks on? She’s my hero… And every single one of those people on that stage covered their own flights, their own hotels… Right now with the state of the world, we have an opportunity to start stepping up and being part of the narrative, and start changing the interactions we’re having with one another.”
Braun was asked about his role with Kanye West. “I always get nervous about explaining Kanye, because only Kanye can explain Kanye! He’s my friend and I’m his adviser. He’s always hated the word manager, and that’s why we get along, because I hate the word manager… If an artist tells me ‘you’re my manager’ I tell them ‘fuck off, we’re done!’.”
“He’s very smart. Even though he tweeted ‘I can’t have a manager, I don’t have a manager, I can’t be managed’, two hours later he tweeted ‘Scooter Braun is a genius!’… He has a very big heart, he has a big heart for people, and he’s now told the world publicly that he is bipolar… There’s not a malicious bone in his body, that’s not who he is. And I can tell you from working with him, he is 100% deserving of the words ‘creative genius’… Who knows how long it will last this time, but we had a very successful release this past week! And there’s another album coming tonight…” [referring to Kids See Ghosts with Kid Cudi]
He continued to talk about wellbeing on a wider level. “Don’t get your self-worth out of what this business gives back to you. We’ve had way too many suicides in this business… This is not real, this is a privilege, this is fun, it’s a very cool business. But it’s not reality. Your family, your friends, that’s your real life,” said Braun. “Don’t try to find your self-worth in this business: find it in the simple moments… And the best part of this business is human interaction. It’s not the achievements.”
What’s with all these new seven-track albums, asked Halperin. “We’re in a weird place with ‘what is the point of an album?’ coming out of a lot of people’s mouths,” said Braun, who grew up in the era when he would buy a CD album to play over and over again. “What you choose to possess and what you choose to listen to are two different things, and the next generation doesn’t have to make that choice: all music is given to them on a smartphone.”
“With Kanye it was a combination of ‘I have more to say than just one album, I want to put out lots of projects’. And looking at albums in the 70s, when there were a lot of albums with seven to nine songs… We don’t know what the hell this business is going to be, but we do know we need to get these labels to change their contracts, so we can be as creative as we wanna be, but get fair compensation… I think the entire business is in this moment of change, which is actually pretty exciting.”
Braun also talked about Justin Bieber’s resurgence in the last three years. “I’m really proud of him, and he deserves the credit. He as a young man said ‘I don’t like what I’m doing with my life and I want to change’… As far as what’s next for him, I’m hoping to get him back in the studio. It’s been a while, and Despacito was great, but let’s go… But he’s found God, he’s walking around without security because he wants normalcy. He’s being a human, he’s going through the process… I think what’s next for him is a lot of growth. I’m sure we’ll make another album… But I think he’s figuring it out.”
He turned back to Kanye West. “He one time looked at me about eight or nine months ago and said ‘I wanna tell you something, it’s a really big compliment and I want you to understand what this means. I think you’re the Kanye West of managers!’… I said damn, thank you!”
Braun also talked about Despacito, and Bieber’s involvement in the remix version. “I just didn’t like what was going on with the president,” he said. “It was a lot of fun for me knowing [that it was such a big hit] and that there were a lot of people in the US who spoke Spanish as their first language, who felt less-than because of the president.” To be clear: making them feel better through having a Spanish-language hit at number one for so long is what was fun for Braun.
Braun described himself as a “work in progress” on the family front, and said that his wife keeps him grounded. “[She says] ‘Being home? Turn your phone off. Be with the kids, be with us.’ I consider myself to be a very good husband and a very good father, but she still beats me up. And that means I married well. She doesn’t give a shit about what I do for a living!.. Being home for bath-time is so important.” And he said that becoming a parent has sharped up his “bullshit meter” for knowing when something at work is a waste of his time. “It just gives you this perspective of what’s really important.”
The conversation turned back to tech. What’s a good area to invest in? He told the story of becoming friends with Daniel Ek.”He and I became friends, and that is how I became an early investor in Spotify,” he said, before advising the Midem audience to not just chase after the older, powerful figures in the industry (including himself).
“It’s more important you meet each other. If you want to know how to find the next Spotify, it’s somebody in this room who hasn’t done it yet. Bet on each other… It’s a youth-driven business, it’s a youth-driven world. Speak to each other, invest in each other, and one of you guys is the next Daniel Ek.”
Would he advise young artists today to sign a label deal? “What you negotiate is what you get,” he said. “We’re in a multi-billion dollar industry with no rules. So what you negotiate is what you get. You can be as unique as you want to be. If a label deal makes sense, and you want to become an international star and they have boots on the ground, then a label deal is the way to go. If you want to stay independent and you can make that work for you, then independence is the right way to go… What you should ask yourself as a young manager or a young artist is ‘how do I find people who are passionate about me?'” And those may be in a label, or they may be in the independent ecosystem.
Are 360 deals appealing? “I don’t believe in passive 360 deals. But my company does 360 deals: we’re just not passive. I like the model they do in Korea, in Japan, because it’s a one-stop shop, they’re involved in everything you do. A passive 360 is only going to make an artist resent you. If you have a 360 situation where someone is adding value to everything you do, they deserve to get paid!”
To finish, he came back to the idea of the young people in the industry forging networks and investing in one another. “Build relationships not with the people on the stage, but with the people in the crowd!”