Why Everyone Is Dropping Scooter Braun

Scooter Braun realized early that in the social media age, he could leverage his clients to make himself famous.
Scooter Braun realized early that in the social media age, he could leverage his clients to make himself famous. Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
Matthew Belloni
August 25, 2023

Earlier this month, Ariana Grande was going through a personal crisis amid a separation from her husband and tabloid coverage of her new romantic relationship. Grande’s team wanted her longtime manager, Scooter Braun, to fly to New York from a vacation in Europe to help put out the fires. Braun, who has cultivated an A-list client roster by being the guy who can counsel his artists through scandal—despite, or possibly because of, his own outsized and often shameless public persona—declined to make the trip. That answer took at least one person on Grande’s team by surprise. “I deserve a vacation,” Braun is said to have told them.

Braun, who has become one of the most powerful and prolific managers in the music business at the mere age of 42, wasn’t wrong—we all deserve vacations, especially me. But the moment was one of several over the past year that evidenced to people in the industry that Braun’s priorities had shifted. He delegated. He’d layered up his friends. It was sometimes easier to find him in the “yachts” section of the Daily Mail than in a big meeting. Not long after that call, on Monday, I broke the news on Twitter/X that Grande had parted ways with Braun as her manager. “This decision has been a long time coming and was well thought-out by Ariana,” a source close to the Wicked star told me today. Braun declined to comment.

This usually wouldn’t be that big a deal. Artists shitcan their representatives all the time. Coldplay split last year from Dave Holmes, its manager of more than two decades, and nobody cared or even noticed until Holmes sued the band this month. Grande, herself, had publicly fired Braun in 2016 and later rehired him—that has happened privately a few other times, I’m told.

But the Grande news followed my initial report last week that Justin Bieber, whom Braun famously signed off of Canadian YouTube at age 13 and turned into a global phenomenon—with more than 25 million album equivalents sold—wasn’t really speaking to him. Bieber was poking around for new representatives, I wrote, having fired CAA and replaced his longtime music lawyer, Aaron Rosenberg, and business manager, Dave Bolno. Bieber is still contractually bound to Braun—as is Grande, incidentally—but the lawyers for both stars are figuring out how to move forward with Braun stepping away from the manager role. (My initial report was mistakenly picked up by several outlets as Bieber “firing” Braun; he didn’t because he can’t… that’s what the lawyers are for, and it’s possible that they ultimately work out an arrangement to stay in business together on certain projects.)

Anyway, as my Bieber and Grande items ricocheted around town, news leaked that Demi Lovato, J. Balvin, and Idina Menzel also parted ways with Braun at various points in the past year. It was a full-on exodus, unfolding in real time in the media and cheered on by his many haters in the very online Taylor Swift fandom, as Braun was posting about jet-skiing around Europe and being pictured partying on Jeff Bezos’s yacht. Cue 15 years of schadenfreude: Braun has treated so many people so poorly over the years, burned so many bridges, all while using his Svengali-like control over the trade and gossip press to project a Boy Wonder image. For that reason, to a certain segment of the music business, this was Christmas in August.       

Enter Braun’s publicist, Stephanie Jones, last seen in this space attempting to slime me as “sexist” to Page Six on behalf of the future Mrs. Bezos, Lauren Sanchez. She predictably went into overdrive, spinning to various media outlets that this was all planned, that Braun was really just evolving his career, yadda yadda. TMZ, which has been in bed with Braun for years—chronicling and glamorizing him and his clients’ every move, and even admitting to suppressing the infamous 2014 video of Bieber saying the N-word—ignored the Braun news until Tuesday. It then declared that Braun was actually keeping his big clients and “he’s got his hands full—because he’s stepping into a larger role.”

Uh, okay. Braun has been C.E.O. of Hybe America, the U.S. offshoot of the South Korean entertainment company that bought his Ithaca Holdings in a $1 billion deal, since 2021. But whatever. By this afternoon, just a week after my initial Bieber item, several media outlets were speculating about Braun’s future, whether a major scandal might be ready to explode, and if the Swifties—who despise Braun thanks to that whole buying-her-masters-and-flipping-them-for-$300-million thing—would finally see his downfall. In short, they all asked: What the hell is going on with Scooter Braun?

A Relentless Egotist 

So, after spending waaay too much time this week talking with people on all sides of this situation, with varying personal and professional agendas, I’m prepared to take a stab at what the hell is going on with Scooter Braun. And I really don’t think it’s all that complicated.

Braun got rich very young and has a huge ego. I know, get in line. By his early 30s, he was taking private equity investments in his SB Projects, then Ithaca, then other projects. He signed artists to his label, started businesses with them, took big pieces of their tours, and got into business with outfits like Carlyle Group, which required him to scale the business with more clients, more deals, etcetera.

At the same time, Braun realized early that in the social media age, he could leverage the clients to make himself famous. Managers lose clients and retreat into obscurity all the time, but if Scooter was a name—a brand—he’d never disappear. He gave himself a co-starring role in Bieber’s hit 2011 documentary, Never Say Never. He cultivated the trade and gossip press—yes, on behalf of the clients, but also for himself. He generated 7 million social followers and a persona. “A lot of other managers would compartmentalize and let the publicist handle it, but he was there in the thick of it all,” gossip blogger Perez Hilton told Business Insider last year.

The client is the star, not the manager. Everyone in representation knows that mantra, but Braun didn’t just ignore it, he flipped it to his advantage: He’d sell prospective clients on his profile, which he’d argue led to more opportunities for his artists. And he was often right—this is a guy who can seemingly whip up a deal when he wants one—but man, some of the personal press was beyond ridiculous. My favorite is the cover of Success magazine, which is a thing that exists. (You can now buy his cover for half off!)  In 2021, Braun let Variety give him the made up title of “Music Mogul of the Year” and an advertorial section packed with congratulatory ads—including one with Braun pictured shirtless—at a time when the music industry was mired in Covid shutdowns. Having run a trade publication, I know only a certain kind of executive still participates in those print specials celebrating themselves. Braun is that kind of executive.   

The fawning media coverage might have been more palatable if it weren’t for his reputation outside the spotlight. That same Business Insider piece correctly noted that Braun is one of the industry’s most “ruthless players—a relentless egotist whose main focus is burnishing his image and growing his empire.” One source described him in Geffen-like terms, not surprising since the two are now yacht friends: “I’ve never seen anyone burn so many bridges with so many people.”  

That was certainly the case with Ithaca’s 2019 deal for Big Machine Records, which gave Braun control of Swift’s first six records. We don’t need to re-litigate that deal here. But once it was announced—once Swift unloaded on him and her fans declared him their nemesis—Braun could have sold Swift’s masters back to her. Instead, after what Music Business Worldwide recently reported was a spirited back-and-forth over his effort to get Swift to sign a broad non-disparagement agreement, Braun chose to flip them to private equity firm Shamrock in what was essentially a $300 million middle finger of a transaction.  

A Juggling Act?

Having said all that, with the Big Machine and then Hybe deals, Braun got super rich—$86 million in shares of Hybe alone, according to a company filing—and it came with a big title, a chance to be C.E.O. of a unit of Hybe, a K-pop power and home to BTS, with the backing to do big deals like the recent $300 million acquisition of hip-hop label Quality Control—and a potential offramp from management and those late night calls from pop stars in crisis. Plus, I’m told Hybe is near a deal to re-up its joint venture with Universal Music Group, which will keep Braun in business with his buddy Lucian Grainge, its C.E.O. (UMG declined to comment.) And Braun got divorced, seems to have found spirituality (or Instagram-spirituality), and realized he liked hanging out on Bezos’s yacht. It happens.       

People in Braun’s world say he’s kinda been crapping on management for a few years now, how it was simply a means to an empire, and how he wouldn’t be doing it forever. I don’t think he planned to step away from all these clients and into a “bigger role,” like he’s spinning now. Both Bieber and Grande were signed to new management deals in recent years, in Bieber’s case to boost the value of Ithaca before the Hybe deal, and Braun probably doesn’t do that if he’s thinking of walking away. These management exits also would potentially reduce the value of Ithaca to Hybe, though the majority of that $1 billion deal was other stuff, including the Big Machine catalog, even without Taylor Swift. 

Rather, I think Scooter thought he could juggle all the balls—keep the clients happy enough while stepping back and letting his underlings handle the day to day, and massage away any concerns. And that didn’t work. The artists saw what was happening and the relationships blew up, one by one. That’s speculation on my part, but it’s informed speculation. According to three sources, Bieber wasn’t pleased with Braun’s partner Allison Kaye, who took the lead on his recent tour before it was canceled amid his health issues. Bieber and his wife, Hailey, apparently felt Kaye wasn’t above-board with them, and they blamed Braun for it. Now Bieber owes AEG nearly 100 shows, and it’s unclear when he will tour again. Earlier this year, Bieber, still just 29, sold his catalog to Hipgnosis Songs Capital for a quick $200 million.  

It’s interesting: Bieber replaced his business manager, Bolno, with Lou Taylor. Bolno is also Braun’s moneyman and business partner, an arrangement that many talent managers try to avoid because the artist can become suspicious that the business manager is taking care of his or her referral source at the expense of the artist. (Bolno was also cleared recently in the death of an aspiring singer in his Miami hotel room… not great optics.)

The Biebers seem to want a fresh start, though Braun is said to be pushing for both Bieber and Grande to stay in the Hybe fold, either with another manager or via lucrative deals to do business together and prevent them from going elsewhere. Maybe he consults. We’ll see if that happens. “As for her future with Hybe, any reporting on that is speculative at best and not based on fact,” the Grande source told me today.

And Scooter’s next move? Hybe is a massive business, in growth mode, and its U.S. offshoot has big plans in K-pop and other genres. Or Braun could have other plans. Back in 2012, Scooter told The New Yorker that Geffen’s advice to him was, “Get out of the music business.”