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Lessons Learned From Scooter Braun [INTERVIEW]

1In this piece renowned talent manager and all around business man Scooter Braun shares his insights on making deals with artists, things he's learned from his time in the industry, and his experience with the 2017 Manchester bombing, as well just what kind of person he is.

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Guest post by William Patterson University Professor David Philp from Music Biz 101

After we recently interviewed entrepreneur Scooter Braun (he said being called a music manager in his own “twisted mind” was a sort of disrespect toward him), the group of William Paterson University Music & Entertainment Industries students were standing together for a picture with him.  He brought a conversation he’d had with someone at another university.  “They had a whole thing on me,” he said, “and I was freaked out about it.”

“What should we study, if we were going to make a class about you?” I asked.

“I don’t know.  I just did it.”

True.  Scooter had just spent about an hour and fifteen minutes answering questions that ranged from how he makes, and attains, the best deals for his artists, lessons he’s learned, and the 2017 Manchester bombing at a concert starring his client, Ariana Grande.  The full interview is below, including some unofficial content at the very beginning, mostly small talk and banter, that can give you a bit of an idea of what type of guy he is.  Then, you hear the questions and answers.

What is there to learn?  If we were writing a book called Lessons From Scooter Braun, what would be included?  Here are some topics we’d recommend.

Lessons From Scooter Braun, Part I

Scooter Braun answers questions from a William Paterson University group of music business students on May 17, 2018 at Music Biz 2018 in Nashville.

What drives him?

Here was the first question asked of Scooter by MBA student Matthew Kerr:  Is it fair to connect your drive to break new artists (and, at times, be a tad bit hard on them) with your fear of failure that you reportedly had after dropping out of college & getting fired from So So Def (Jermaine Dupri’s label)?

“It’s easy to say now when you’ve had success that you don’t have a fear of failure.”  He said, “As you get older and start to see things and have reflections and start to understand things a little bit better.  What I realized is the biggest driving force in my life was never a fear of failure.  It was a need for respect.  And when I looked back on my life I saw that every single time someone had disrespected me, it drove me to keep going.”

There was a time in which he thought a fear of failure was the catalyst.  But when he looked back, he realized that the foundation of love he had with his family proved to him that he could never fail in their eyes.  He was a success no matter what.  Once he discovered this, he looked deeper inward to try to understand was the driving force he felt was, where it came from.  “Because deep down I’m really lazy and I just haven’t been lazy for 20 years.”

Lazy?

Your author has to add two notes here.  First, we’re somewhere around 6 minutes into the interview.  Second, don’t let a successful person’s self-deprecating humor fool you.  My bet is that Scooter is NOT lazy, even if he likes to think he is down deep.  If he’s 36 now (he is) and he hasn’t been lazy for 20 years, he was 16 when he initially quit being lazy.  He has NOT been lazy longer than he allegedly was lazy.  If you take away his first four or five years on planet Earth as years that don’t count, he was really only lazy for about 10 or 11 years.  He hasn’t been lazy twice as long as he was lazy.  He ain’t lazy.  Don’t let his statement give you an out on days when you should be making something happen but you’d rather binge on Netflix or sleep late or alter your focus away from a challenge.  Find your drive, whatever that is.  Channel it.  Use it to motivate yourself away from distractions, away from fear, away from anything that stops you from trying.  These aren’t Scooter’s words, but his actions display this lesson.  You can’t be lazy.  Even if you are, or you think you are, you can’t be anymore.

Scooter’s drive has led him to get into more than music.  He’s an investor.  His company is involved in television and tech.  “They tell us you can’t be a family man and be an executive in this business and have a work/life balance – I’m going to prove you wrong there.”

One line about Kanye West

This is for those especially interested in this saga, in which Scooter was Kanye’s manager before getting fired in April, 2018.

They said… you can’t manage Kanye West more than a month.  Well, I lasted two and a half years who knows what the hell is happening now.”

Honesty and yelling and LA Reid

We’re around 9:20 at this point.  “I don’t feel I need to be hard on artists unless it’s being hard by being honest with them.”  He’s not a yeller and says he’ll only do it if an artist “needs to hear a certain truth from a certain place.”  The lesson there?  Everybody is different.  You can’t say that you’ll never lose your temper with anyone.  With some people, you probably shouldn’t.  With others, well, maybe they need to see a side of you they don’t expect in order to incorporate the message being conveyed at them at a higher decibel level.

Which leads us to LA Reid.  Scooter talks about how Mr. Reid raised his voice at Scooter during a meeting after Scooter had done the first deal between Justin Beiber and Def Jam.  Reid raised his voice purposefully; he was showing who was boss, or trying to, and making it clear how future negotiations would go – in his way.  Scooter had a mature reaction to the intimidation tactic.  “Listen, we’re going to work together so let’s make this very clear from the start.  I was raised by a crazy Hungarian father.  If you’re going to yell at me that’s not really going to work ’cause that’s not going to intimidate me.  So why don’t we have a conversation, ’cause that shit isn’t happening.”

Reid smiled and never yelled at him again.

Transitioning

Question #2 was asked by Music & Entertainment Industries minor Taylor Turner (around 10:50).  “How did you transition from marketing at a label to starting your own multimedia company?”

Jermain Dupri’s mother, Tina Mauldin.

Scooter was a young VP of Marketing at So So Def Recordings from 2002-2006.  The label was founded by writer/producer/artist Jermaine Dupri.  Dupri’s mother was heavily involved in the company.  “His mom came in one day and for some reason just started telling all of us we were all using her son…”  Scooter confronted her.  Without saying specifically what she said, it “was so disrespectful and so wrong” that he walked out.

The next day, Scooter went back and saw a letter in his mailbox.  Dupri’s mother had fired him.  “Not even to my face.”  But Dupri had signed it as well.  Scooter approached his mentor, who said, “give it two weeks” and things would be okay.  He knew that things weren’t going to work out.

But here’s the lesson.  He was only 23, a “whiz kid” for the company, a top earner.  But he’d been scared to leave, which he’d contemplated for the past six months.  But leaving meant he’d no longer be who his identity was, which was a top VP at a young age at a hot record label (we’re in late-2006 at this point).  But at that point, he realized he had to do something because there was nowhere else for him to go at So So Def.

He found his inspiration in his little brother, who was backpacking around South America spending $30 a month and sleeping in hostels or on the streets while blogging about his life and helping people.  “I bought a one-way ticket to Chile and for about a month I backpacked with my brother and found my belief in humanity again.”  He learned how to trust people again after watching his back as a party promoter and working at So So Def for the previous six years.  “Assuming everyone’s going to do harm to you is a horrible way to live.  And, bad things are going to happen to you, but you can’t go through life, you know, assuming those bad things.  Otherwise there’s no point in being here.”

When he returned to the states, he found Justin Beiber.

Multimedia, multi-everything dreams

“I never had aspirations to just be in the music business,” Scooter says around 17 minutes into our interview (note that we’ve only gotten to ask him two questions so far).  “I don’t want to be a music manager until I’m 60, 70-years old,” he said.  “I want to look like this dude and look good.”  He then pointed to our Professor Steve (Esteban) Marcone, working hard and living fine at 72.

“I’ve had an amazing career, but I have a lot of things that I want to do and I only get one life to do them.”

“That’s why I wanted to go and build a multi-media business.  And the idea of somebody saying, ‘Well, that’s too much,’ well, somebodies gonna do it why not me?”

David Geffen

In this same section of the interview, Scooter spoke of a book that inspired him called The Operator, which he said David Geffen hates.  This is suggested reading; Scooter gives a direct quote from the book from memory.  But the bigger lesson here is that Geffen (if you know nothing or very little about him, read this book or buy the DVD documentary about him called Inventing David Geffen, which was produced in association with PBS and their American Masters series and is very good) was not only a person who inspired Scooter, Geffen eventually became a real life mentor and friend.

How?

Similar backgrounds (two Jewish men from the East Coast).  Similar dreams (Geffen managed HUGE artists, ran labels, co-owned movie studios).  Both are philanthropists.

Bigger than that, you know that Scooter has the inner drive, that need for respect.  If one of his goals was to meet and speak with David Geffen, you know he wasn’t going to stop until the two had at least shaken hands.

For anyone reading this, understand that it’s never too late to find a mentor.  Whether you’re 18 or 50, don’t be afraid to seek out someone you admire and ask them for advice.  People like to talk about themselves.  It’s partly narcissistic, but it’s also because, deep down, people like to help other people.  If you ask for advice, if you ask, ‘How did you do it?’ you might get some time with that person to find out.

The Art of the deal

Question #3 timed in at around 18 minutes and it was asked by the engineer of the Music Biz 101 & More radio show, Ashley Weltner.  “As an artist manager how do you assure that your artist is getting the best deal that they can get?”

Scooter jumped on the question.  You can hear the energy in his voice.  “That’s the fun of the music business,” he said.  So what are his strategies?  He mentioned a few:

“You push for something that’s unheard of.  You push for the best.”

“Make sure that any deal you do, you can walk away.”

“If you know you can walk away, you’ve won before the negotiation has even started.”

“Establish a reputation for yourself early.” 

Scooter says that he’s purposely taken small details of a deal and “flipped out” about them, ultimately walking away.  His reasoning?  “I’m not blowing up this deal.  I’m making the next one.  I’m establishing a behavior for them.  When I say I’m out, I’m out.”

Scooter is in a different place than most people now, so it’s easier for him to walk away from a deal.  “This is a place of privilege that I’m saying this.  My business is large enough now and I’ve had enough success that no artist is going to change my lifestyle.”

Here’s where the new manager, or manager still in the earlier stages of artist development is different.  “I can do things on behalf of my artists that maybe some other managers can’t do because they depend on that deal paying the rent or paying their mortgage the next day.  And I’m in a place where I have no problem doing what’s right and not even thinking about what the money means to me because I already went through that process.  I sit down with an artist and say, ‘You don’t have to worry that I’m ever going to be greedy because I don’t need to be.’  And that’s a very different place than a lot of people.”

Scooter and a grown up, healthy Justin Beiber.

Accountability

He goes on and talks about taking Justin Beiber off the road for a few years because it was the right thing.  Justin hated Scooter for this, but Scooter didn’t need the money and knew the right thing for Justin was to get him away from the trappings of The Road and wait for him to get into a better place in his life.  “He hated me.  Some of the worst things ever said to me came from him to me.  But I knew that wasn’t him.  And I knew I needed to do what was right for him.”

Scooter gave an example of how a manager needs to do the right thing for the artist when he spoke about the Amy Winehouse documentary.

“When I saw the Amy Winehouse movie and I saw the manager say, ‘It’s my job to make sure her shows are right and get her to her show and do the deals.  It’s not my job to manage her life.’  I literally wanted to reach through the screen and beat the shit out of this guy.  Artists are very sensitive creatures.  And for you to put yourself in a place where you don’t think you have a responsibility…  Yes, they’re adults.  They have to be accountable.  But so do you.”

Stay tuned for Part II of Scooter’s lessons.

Professor David Philp is Assistant Professor Music & Entertainment Industries and Popular Music Studies at William Paterson University. He is the co-host of the only FREE advice college radio-based music & entertainment industry talk show in America, Music Biz 101 & More, which airs live most Wednesday nights and is available as a podcast HERE every night (days too).  Your favorite professor is also co-author (with Dr. Steve Marcone) of Managing Your Band – 6th Edition.  Reach him at PhilpD@wpunj.edu or find him on LinkedIn HERE.

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