Technology

Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato, Ariana Grande: The Scooter Braun exodus explained


Within a matter of days, music mogul Scooter Braun’s empire of pop stars has apparently collapsed, with one celebrity after another reportedly departing his studio — but no one knows what’s going on with Braun and his company, what prompted the exits, or even exactly which celebrities are bailing.

Braun, perhaps most famous for discovering Justin Bieber and pushing Taylor Swift to rerecord all her masters, formed powerful partnerships with major artists. His management company, SB Projects (SBP), became a music industry powerhouse overseeing a wide range of artists, from the Black Eyed Peas to Carly Rae Jepsen. In 2021, Hybe, the South Korean studio that gave the world BTS, acquired Braun’s umbrella company Ithaca Holdings in a billion-dollar merger. The deal should have spelled good things for Braun and his clients — especially Braun, who became CEO of Hybe America.

But now, a messy spate of reported departures has caused gossip and speculation to swirl about the reasons for the mass exodus: shady deals, abusive behavior, and (of course) conspiratorial Taylor Swift lyrics about white collar crime.

Is any of it true? Let’s look at what we know.

Reports of several high-profile client departures suggest there’s trouble in Braunville

On Friday, August 18, Puck News’s Matthew Belloni reported that Justin Bieber was looking for new management after a silent split from Scooter Braun. According to multiple sources, per Belloni, the duo hadn’t been in contact for months, and Bieber was looking for an exit despite still being under contract.

No sooner had the scoop broke than confusion followed. “Reps for all parties” promptly rebutted the rumors to multiple outlets, including Billboard and Page Six, albeit with zero details. Bieber is currently still listed on SBP’s client list, but that website lists “past and present work” without distinguishing which is which — and its client list has apparently fallen into, shall we say, disarray.

On Monday, August 21, news broke that Demi Lovato was seeking new management after an “amicable” split with Braun. No reason for the split materialized, and Variety noted Braun had wished Lovato a happy birthday on Instagram just the day before.

Hard on the heels of that surprise came another: Just hours after the news about Lovato, Belloni and Billboard each reported that Ariana Grande, one of Braun’s longtime clients, is also reportedly walking away from SBP. A source later told People that like Lovato, Grande left on “friendly” terms, and that her decision to leave was just about trying “something new.” Both Page Six and Variety, however, disputed that intel, with an insider source insisting Grande was still under contract with SBP.

As if all this wasn’t enough, The Hollywood Reporter broke the news on Tuesday that Broadway’s Idina Menzel, who you probably didn’t even realize was a Scooter Braun gal, had departed SBP back in January after signing with Braun in 2019. This would apparently make Menzel the first of Braun’s high-profile clients to walk away; Latin superstar J Balvin previously left SBP in May to join management company Roc Nation. Like Bieber, Menzel, Grande, and Lovato, Balvin is still listed on the SBP website, just to muddy the waters even further.

Each artist might have different reasons for leaving

Because Braun is such a high-profile industry figure himself, what might otherwise have been niche industry news became a major media sensation, as people all across social media wondered what triggered the string of departures.

However, it’s important to take a step back and look at what we actually know. Bieber, despite kicking off this whole news cycle, has yet to confirm he’s leaving, and SBP sources have repeatedly insisted it’s not true. Menzel left Braun’s management almost nine months ago, so her exit seems unconnected to anything happening now. Same with Balvin, who left in May.

That leaves us with Lovato and Grande as the only currently confirmed (or semi-confirmed) recent exits from the company. Lovato joined SBP in 2019, and released two studio albums under Braun, Dancing with the Devil (2021) and Holy Fvck (2022). Lovato’s personal life during that time had been intense; according to the 2021 documentary Dancing With the Devil, Braun explained that he signed Lovato shortly after they’d finished a long period in rehab. Lovato has since returned to rehab at least once more since then; they’ve also come out as nonbinary.

They’re currently promoting their upcoming album, Revamped, featuring new versions of previous Lovato tracks. Because the album is something of a reset — Lovato seems to be turning their old pop sound into a harder rock vibe — it makes sense that they might want a different manager for a different phase of their life and career.

Grande has a longer history with Braun. She first joined SBP in 2013 and has released all of her albums under Braun’s management. Any way you look at it, the timing of Grande’s departure is frankly wild: She’s right in the middle of promoting the 10th anniversary rerelease of her debut album Yours Truly, which drops August 25. To make things even more discombobulating, SBP was promoting Grande’s album on social media mere minutes before the news of her departure leaked.

Yet Grande has also recently undergone a heavily scrutinized split from her husband of two years, Dalton Gomez. TMZ leaked the news barely a month ago that the couple had been on the outs since January. Just three days after sources confirmed the split, TMZ followed up with reports that Grande had been dating her Wicked co-star Ethan Slater. Slater reportedly also separated from his wife and longtime partner Lilly Jay, who gave birth to their son in August 2022, though it’s unclear exactly when their separation began.

The affair, which allegedly left both jilted spouses “devastated,” has fully overshadowed Grande’s forthcoming album. A new story is a good antidote to negative press coverage, and even if Grande is moving on from Braun, it might not reflect on the manager. After all, she already fired him once before, in 2016, before changing her mind several months later.

As for Bieber, if indeed he’s leaving Braun, that would be the biggest scandal yet — but not entirely a shock. The Beebs has come a long way since the days of his heady teenage stardom; more recently, he’s become more and more focused on his religious life, while also battling health concerns. A year ago he canceled his most recent world tour shortly after it began, revealing that he’d been struggling with a rare viral condition, Ramsay Hunt syndrome, which can cause facial paralysis. If Bieber has moved on from Braun, it could be that it’s toward an entirely new phase of his career.

It seems just as, if not more, likely, however, that Braun has moved on from Bieber. One source confirmed to People that Belloni’s initial report of radio silence between Braun and Bieber was accurate. According to the insider, “Justin’s been working on his new record for the last six months. Scooter and SB Projects have not set up one session or done one thing for this [new] record.”

But while that sounds dire, it could just be business. And by “business,” we mean the unexpected ripple effects of BTS.

This could all just be about K-pop

Hybe, formerly Big Hit, is one of South Korea’s biggest entertainment studios, but its success is inextricably tied to that of its superstar K-pop band, BTS. Unfortunately for Hybe, BTS is currently on an extended hiatus due to South Korea’s mandatory military service requirements, which has led to declining global profits for the company.

In a March press conference, Hybe founder and chair Bang Si-hyuk, also known as Bang PD, stressed that the company’s rebound strategy depends heavily on Braun, who became sole CEO of Hybe America in January. Thanks to the merger, Hybe owns all of Braun’s companies including SBP and all its client contracts as well as other subsidiary entertainment companies, like Swift’s former record label Big Machine.

Hybe isn’t resting on these laurels, however — it plans on expanding considerably. “We will announce a substantial number of acquisitions and investments within this year as part of our efforts to widen our presence in the US,” Bang said. He also expressed interest in expanding Hybe’s role in the global Latin music industry.

Braun has subsequently been busy carrying out Hybe’s mission. He recently entered into a partnership with Latin star Ozuna and acquired Atlanta-based hip-hop factory Quality Control, the label that brought the world Migos and Lil Yachty.

As overseer of all these operations, Braun would likely find one-on-one management of even longtime clients like Bieber difficult. Thus, multiple sources told Variety on Tuesday, Braun is stepping back from hands-on management in order to focus more on his role as sole CEO of Hybe America, which began in January. “Scooter’s team at SB Projects are still handling both Justin and Ariana as they work through what this new structure looks like,” one source said.

It makes sense, then, that multiple clients who’ve been long-used to personal caretaking from Braun might have soured on the prospect of a less one-on-one approach and want to move on. Another factor might be that while Hybe’s acquisition of Ithaca Holdings spelled a hefty profit for Hybe, the merger yielded uneven dividends for Braun and his clients. Per Variety, while some clients like Bieber and Grande walked away with $11 million in shares from the deal, others like Balvin and Lovato received much less; Lovato received just $1 million. The unequal payouts have fueled speculation that perhaps money disputes drove the walkouts, though so far no sources have confirmed this.

So far, the likelihood is that all these exits are pure coincidence, a quirk of timing brought about by unpredictable individual life circumstances and the vicissitudes of South Korean boy bands.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped the rumor mill from spinning wildly. That’s because Braun’s storied career has generated plenty of its own entertainment industry lore — not all of it positive.

Everyone loves to hate Scooter Braun. That’s probably because Swifties rule the internet.

You can’t talk about Braun without discussing the two tentpoles of his career: his discovery of Justin Bieber and his alienation of Taylor Swift. Both are inextricably linked.

Braun began his career as a local Atlanta party promoter, working his way into marketing for the So So Def label before striking out on his own to form SBP in 2007. A year later, Braun discovered a 13-year-old Bieber, singing hip-hop covers during the still-nascent era of early YouTube. Braun persuaded Bieber’s family to invest in his career and relocate him from Ontario to Atlanta, where he worked with Usher and joined the Island Def Jam label.

Braun’s management of Bieber, who was just 15 when his 2010 megahit “Baby” was released, was more of a mentorship than a professional relationship, and the persona of loving friend and advice-giver to clients would be one that he adopted frequently over the years.

You wouldn’t know that, however, from the internet’s general opinion of Braun — mainly due to Taylor Swift.

As my colleague Constance Grady has extensively detailed, the rift between Braun and Swift dates back to around 2016, when Bieber posted a fateful Instagram post with the since-deleted caption “Taylor Swift what up.”

That post included a photo of Bieber flanked by Braun and noted Swift foe Kanye West, with whom Braun previously worked, and Swift used it to argue that Braun had bullied and mocked her. She continued to hold that view three years later, when Braun acquired Swift’s former record label Big Machine, and with it all of Swift’s albums.

In a now-famous Tumblr post, Swift wrote that the acquisition was “my worst case scenario” and that Braun was “an incessant, manipulative bully.” Multiple people have disputed Swift’s version of events as well as her assessment of Braun’s character. A deep investigation by Music Business Worldwide (MBW) found evidence that Braun wanted to sell Swift’s masters back to her, and had been trying to do so, only to be stymied over conflicts regarding the accompanying non-disclosure agreement. Swift’s representation called the deal “a one-sided gag order” which Swift characterized as “an ironclad NDA stating I would never say another word about Scooter Braun unless it was positive.” The MBW investigation seemed to suggest Swift’s characterization of the NDA was distorted, and implied her real goal was to rerecord her masters all along in order to avoid having to pay $300 million for the originals.

The saga of Swift’s masters has followed Braun and largely determined what the average person thinks about him and his reputation. For his part, Braun has stated he “regrets” the fiasco and wishes Swift the best. Bieber likewise issued a lengthy apology to Swift via Instagram in response to her allegations against Braun, claiming that Scooter had been the one advising Justin not to shade Swift on that fateful 2016 Insta. But Bieber also castigated Swift for her hostility toward Braun, insisting that “Scooter has had your back since the days you graciously let me open up for you.!”

Despite the disputes, Swift’s narrative that Braun is a manipulative bully has become accepted wisdom on the internet. In the wake of the news of the departures, Swifties circulated an infamous lyric from Swift’s Midnights (2022) track “Vigilante Shit:” “While he was doin’ lines and crossin’ all of mine / Someone told his white-collar crimes to the FBI.”

There’s no evidence that Braun is facing any federal charges, though he did face a $200 million lawsuit in 2021 over allegations of fraud. That case seems to have since been handled privately, so its outcome has left no lasting stain on Braun’s industry reputation.

Just what that reputation is, however, is also disputed. Despite the mystique that seems to accompany Braun, and his penchant for filming documentaries about his stars that double as promos for himself and his good-guy image, Braun has plenty of enemies who’ve shaded him after working with him — albeit usually anonymously. A 2022 Insider profile quotes a source depicting Braun as “one of the most cutthroat people in the business.” The profile suggests Braun is consumed with his own legacy and reputation, to the exclusion of his day-to-day management of clients.

Variety’s breakdown of the current situation goes a step further: “He’s imploding,” a source told the outlet. “You just can’t be an asshole like that anymore.”

Be that as it may, rumors of Braun’s demise seem to have been greatly exaggerated — so much so that Braun joked about the entire debacle. In the weeks and months to come, the proof will be in Braun’s ability to acquire new artists and generate excitement — and profit — for Hybe. So far, Braun has done just that.

If this moment truly is an implosion, then Braun has a better shot than just about anyone in Hollywood of surviving the blast.