The Making of a Pop Star: How One Man Created Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande's Careers Out of Scratch

How Scooter Braun gifted us some of this generation's greatest pop stars

By Billy Nilles Jul 17, 2018 10:41 PMTags
Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Carly Rae JepsenGetty Images/E! Illustration

Sometimes it can feel as though people become pop stars through a mystical wave of a magic wand. One day, the mention of their name elicits nothing more than blank stares. And the next? Poof, they're everywhere.

But in reality, of course, it's much more complicated than that, though, frankly, no less magical. And for superstars like Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, it involves a fairy godfather of sorts with a preternatural sense for what will work and the wherewithal to know that it's not a one-size-fits-all process. 

These are the stories of how Scooter Braun gifted the world with some of its biggest pop stars in the game.

Justin Bieber's Best Looks
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Bieber may arguably be the artist most widely-associated with Braun, but the way in which the Svengali fostered the young Canadian's talent into global superstardom didn't happen as easily or as overnight as you might think. Yes, the newly-engaged prince of pop was plucked from obscurity on YouTube, but it wasn't without a bit of work and, of course, some dumb luck.

As legend has it, Braun only came across Bieber's YouTube videos by complete and total accident.  "I was consulting for Akon on a different artist and I was watching YouTube videos of that artist, telling him what I thought of it. And they were singing Aretha Franklin's "Respect." In related videos, there was a kid in the distance, a little tiny thing, and I thought it was the same person. When I clicked on it, it was a 12-year-old kid," the manager relayed to Bloomberg in 2014. "It was an accident. Stumbled upon it and my gut went crazy and I watched another video and I watched another video and then I saw him singing Ne-Yo's "So Sick" and when I saw this little Canadian kid with so much soul, I just knew there was something there."

After convincing Bieber's mom Pattie Mallette to take a chance on an unproven talent manager from Atlanta, Braun moved the pair down from Canada and got to work cultivating a YouTube presence that couldn't be denied when it came time to get the kid a record deal. "I signed Justin when he had 70,000 views on YouTube, not 50 million," he told Forbes in 2011. "My philosophy was that you could build them online. I'm not someone who jumped in and said 'look at what they have, let me chase them.' This is something that we built from the ground up together."

And when he says together, he means it. "We built his YouTube channel over three years," Braun explained at the time. "I'm filming half of those videos you see online." 

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Of course, YouTube views alone were not enough to get the old guard at the record labels to give Bieber and Braun the time of day. "The obstacles were that people didn't want to sign him because he didn't have a Disney or Nickelodeon show, and because no one had ever broken in through YouTube," Braun, who was personally footing all of Bieber and his mother's bills in their new home and running perilously low on funds, recalled. "There was no validly and no proven track record. The only ways minors have broken over the past years was through having their own Disney or Nickelodeon show and every label told me that unless I had a TV show attached to one of those networks, they were not interested whatsoever."

So, he did what he had to do to get the label executives to pay attention: He convinced a proven superstar to cosign on the kid's talent. With Justin Timberlake showing signs of interest, Usher entered the fray after coming across videos of Bieber online and plead his case, eventually edging JT out. After Braun made a production deal with Usher, the singer then introduced Bieber to Island Def Jam head L.A. Reid, who signed him to the deal he and his manager had been chasing for so long. And while that record deal was certainly instrumental to Bieber's career, as the Belieber fandom continued to swell in ranks, Braun insisted that it was due to all that hard work he and his client had put in on YouTube.

"There's a sense of discovery and a sense of ownership. The kids found him. They didn't find him on the radio; they didn't find him through Def Jam, or even through my recommendation," he explained. "They found him by us simply letting him introduce himself over the internet, like any other teenager would. They built his brand through word-of-mouth."

Four studio albums and nearly a decade later, that word-of-mouth brand, despite some major hiccups along the way, is still as strong as ever.

Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" Viewed 1 Billion Times on YouTube
Christopher Polk/WireImage

For his next pop star from scratch, Braun relied on his prize star to guide the way, taking a recommendation from Bieber about a fellow Canadian named Carly Rae Jepsen and a little song called "Call Me Maybe." "He's never jumped out and promoted an artist like this before," Braun told Rolling Stone in 2012 after a trip home to Ontario for the holidays turned Bieber into a fan of the impossibly catchy track. "He sends me different YouTube videos of unsigned artists that he'd like to work with, but never someone who already had a song out and is on the radio." 

So Braun began combing through—you guessed it—YouTube videos of the Canadian Idol finalist performing and decided he wanted to bring her unique brand of pop Stateside by signing her to his newly formed label, Schoolboy Records. And, in order to leverage Bieber's popularity, Braun cut him in 50-50 on Jepsen's deal, The Wall Street Journal reported. The result? Jepsen toured with Bieber, sang a duet with him, and watched "Call Me Maybe" blow up in America thanks to an alternative video Bieber filmed with then-girlfriend Selena Gomez. And it worked—for a little while anyway. The track was 2012's best-selling single and her debut album, Kiss, hit No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 200 chart. Jepsen's struggled to reach those heights with her subsequent releases, but she's become a critical favorite in a way that proves that Braun knows what he's doing, artistically.

Chelsea Lauren/AMA2013/Getty Images for DCP

For his next magic trick, he would take a Nickelodeon star and make her into a pop diva on par with the Disney Channel music-making machine. (Perhaps all that record label insistence that young artists couldn't connect without a TV show connection had more of an influence than he'd be willing to admit?) We're talking, of course, about Ariana Grande. With a career that began acting in the kid-centric comedies Victorious and Sam & Cat, Grande piqued Braun's interest in 2013 when he became aware of the videos she'd begun posting online of herself singing. (Do you sense a theme here yet?) 


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"I kept seeing this girl online. And I knew she had a show that she was involved in on Nickelodeon, [Victorious,] and I would see her at different award shows and there was something very charismatic about her," he told MTV at the time. "I started watching videos and I started getting blown away by what an incredible voice she had. There's kind of a natural beauty about her and this charisma that make you gravitate towards her. She kind of has this warmth that makes you want to root for her, and that's what you want with an artist. The fact that she has ridiculous vocal range, it was incredible and that she can do it live. She's so little and petite when she opens her mouth it's kind of unbelievable that it's coming from this little person."

Five years, three albums, and one thankfully short-lived break-up later, Braun been around to help guide Grande through tragedy following the horrific terrorist attack outside her Dangerous Woman tour stop in Manchester, England. And if the excitement surrounding the August release of her fourth studio album, Sweetener, is any indication, this partnership will be around for a long time to come.

Of course, not all of Braun's swings have led to lasting success. In 2012, he leapt at the chance to sign Korean pop star Psy after the kitschy video for his single "Gangnam Style" became a viral sensation. "There is one reason to do this deal... to be a part of history, to do something no one has ever done before," he told MTV at the time. "Psy is a guy you want to root for. I LOVE UNDERDOGS." And, well, when's the last time you heard a Psy song?

But when you're a proven pop star Svengali, you're allowed to take risks. We can't wait to see—and hear—who Braun introduces us to next.