UPDATED: First Justin Bieber, then Demi Lovato, then Ariana Grande: reports of artists leaving Scooter Braun’s management stable have been piling up faster than indictments for a certain former president.
Yet unlike indictments, there is little solid information to be found on what is being positioned by some as an exodus from Braun’s SB Projects. Lovato’s “amicable” departure has been confirmed off the record by sources from both camps. However, Bieber’s allegedly impending departure was strenuously denied by multiple sources (although Puck, which first reported the news, insists the story is accurate, as does at least one source Variety spoke with). And Grande’s exit — which, if true, would be the second time she’s parted ways with him — was strenuously denied by sources close to Braun while a rep for the singer did not respond to Variety’s requests for comment (although unnamed sources apparently confirmed the split to Billboard).
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The situation has reached a strange netherworld of off-the-record confirmations and denials where one set of sources says one thing and another says the opposite, and most likely no one is telling the whole truth. Reps are stonewalling and insiders are clamming up fast; it’s like trying to get an accurate status update on Fight Club or Voldemort.
Yet some sources tell Variety that Bieber and Grande are not leaving the company, but rather Braun is continuing to step back from day-to-day management to focus on his role as CEO of HYBE America, the South Korean entertainment giant behind K-pop titans BTS, to which he sold Ithaca Holdings, the parent company for his SB Projects management business, for a whopping $1.05 billion in 2021.
“All of Scooter Braun’s clients are under contract and negotiations have been going on for several months as Scooter steps into his larger role as HYBE America CEO,” the source says. “People are spreading rumors based on what they know, but they are off. Scooter’s team at SB Projects are still handling both Justin and Ariana as they work through what this new structure looks like.”
However, other sources insist that Bieber, who recently “cleaned house” and brought in a new attorney, agency and business manager, is set on leaving SB Projects.
Complicating matters is the fact that the famously hard-charging Braun, who has been one of the most powerful people in the music business for more than a decade, garnered so much ill will — and envy — in his rise to the top that the situation has reached a kind of snowballing mob mentality: The schadenfreude is so strong, and foes want him to fail so badly, that people lose perspective. Not helping matters is Braun’s fervent desire to be seen as a good guy and his formidable ability to spin narratives in his favor; the agendas and interests of the involved parties — including, apparently, some media outlets — have only clouded the matter further.
“He’s imploding,” one source says, suggesting unsavory revelations are in the works. “It’s a different world since the pandemic. You just can’t be an asshole like that anymore.”
However, another source counters, “He’s getting out of management — he has been for years. That’s the real story.”
Indeed, several sources tell Variety that Braun has been only tangentially involved in the careers of even his biggest artists in recent years, with SB Projects’ longtime executives handling the demanding day-to-day work of managing major artists. It would seem the CEO of a company valued at $11 billion would not have time for such attention, even though both Bieber and Grande have been relatively inactive in recent years. Meanwhile, his first major move as CEO of HYBE America was the acquisition of Atlanta hip-hop powerhouse Quality Control, home to Migos, Lil Baby, Lil Yachty and others, for $320 million.
Also, it’s unclear what artists “parting ways” or “no longer [being] with” Braun might look like. Management deals exist in every imaginable arrangement, but presumably there are contracts that legally must be honored for all of the artists in question.
What is perhaps most surprising is that it’s taken this long. By the age of 40, Braun had achieved many of his David Geffen-sized ambitions, ushering several artists to superstardom and, remarkably, organizing “One Love Manchester” — a major charity concert starring Grande, Bieber, Coldplay, Katy Perry, Mac Miller, Miley Cyrus and more in the wake of a 2017 terrorist bombing outside a Grande concert in which 22 people died — in just two weeks.
But his reputation took a lethal hit with his controversial 2018 acquisition of the rights to Taylor Swift’s first six albums via his purchase of Big Machine Record Group, which she claimed was underhanded, to put it mildly, and followed months of taunts from Braun and some of his clients and friends at the time, including Bieber and Kanye West. Despite her scathing statements against him — and her fans’ merciless attacks on social media — he managed to sell that catalog to Shamrock Holdings for some $300 million, earning a tidy profit, and then sold Ithaca Holdings for a whopping $1.05 billion. Shortly after the deal closed, he purchased a $65 million house in Los Angeles’ wealthy Brentwood enclave.
Braun has often spoken of how much money his artists and executives made on the deal as shareholders of the company. According to a corporate filing from HYBE, Braun’s artists and staff, including Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, J Balvin and Demi Lovato, received shares totaling about $161 million. He and Big Machine Record Group founder Scott Borchetta got the lion’s share, with Braun receiving 462,380 shares (around $86.2 million) and Borchetta 166,537 ($31.1 million); Grande and Bieber each got 53,557 shares, just under $11 million apiece.
Further down the chain, J Balvin, who had signed with Braun just 18 months earlier and left not long after, received 21,423 shares ($4.1 million), while Lovato — who parted ways with him last month — got 5,355 shares ($1.06 million).
But since that deal closed, Braun’s two biggest artists, Bieber and Grande, have been notably quiet. Bieber, of course, was forced to cancel a massive global tour halfway through after suffering from a rare affliction called Ramsay Hunt Disease, which temporarily paralyzed half of his face; he sold off most of the rights to his music to Hipgnosis Songs last year in a deal valued at around $200 million (with Braun presumably collecting a hefty percentage). He has not released an album since “Justice” in March of 2021, although he has dropped a handful of stray tracks in the intervening months.
Grande has been quiet for even longer, apparently hard at work on her starring role in the Universal’s big-screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical “Wicked,” although that isn’t due in theaters until November of 2024. She hasn’t released an album or a solo single since “Positions” in October of 2020, although she has made a couple of high-profile features with the Weeknd and others.
Also lost in the recent drama is the fact that Braun has had a tumultuous history with several of his clients — in fact, his company’s website lists “past and present” roster, leaving no indication of who is still with the company. Grande left him for several months in 2016 but returned; J Balvin signed in 2019 but left “amicably” less than two years later (just weeks after receiving his shares); Kid Laroi and Kanye West both had on-again, off-again relationships with the company.
But the company continues to sign new clients: Puerto Rican superstar Ozuna and fast-rising rapper Kalii are two of its latest signings.
Variety will have more on this situation as it develops.
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