Below is an excerpt from an article in the September edition of The New Yorker, by Lizzie Widdicombe entitled, “Teen Titan – The Man Who Made Justin Bieber.” Click on the above link for a fascinating read, the story of how a star was born and the Machiavellian machinations that delivered him into a world of fame, power, and wealth. Well written and informative, it is an education in how things work in the very competitive music industry where marketing is all and art is superfluous. At one point she quotes Universal Music Group CEO, Lucian Grainge, who recently signed a distribution deal with Braun… “We’re not in the art business.”
One afternoon, I sat in on a meeting Braun had in his living room with a potential client, a nineteen-year-old singer named Tori Kelly, and her parents. At eleven, Kelly had appeared on the TV series “America’s Most Talented Kid,” and she’d had a deal with the Geffen label. But her career had stalled.
Braun leaned back on the couch, his hands crossed behind his head. “So what do you guys want to do?” he asked in an antsy tone. “I think you’re a real artist with a real voice. I want to understand what you want so I can help you out.”
Kelly’s mom, wearing pink Capri pants, explained that Kelly had just self-released an album, which was charting on iTunes. Kelly named a few pop acts that she’d like to open for: Beyoncé, Alicia Keyes, Justin Timberlake. “Justin”-meaning Bieber-“would be great.” She said that she’d like to perform with a band and with choreography, “if it fits.”
Braun interrupted: “You’ve been doing this for a while now. What do you think the holdup has been?”
Kelly said, in a small voice, “I think the people we have worked with, they don’t see the full picture. They don’t know what to do with me.”
After a minute, Kelly picked up one of Braun’s guitars and performed a song-the chorus went, “Lavish me with your love.” It sounded a bit like acoustic Lauryn Hill. Braun listened attentively. It was nothing like the R. & B. and dance-oriented pop on his roster.
When Kelly finished, Braun asked, “Are you a fan of Jewel?”
She said, politely, “I’m not super-familiar . . .”
Braun jumped in. “Let me give you the background,” he said. “Jewel tried to get signed, it didn’t work out. She drove to California, and she lived in her car. She was homeless, she played coffee shops. She wrote really amazing songs. Then she sold millions of records.” He explained that in the late nineties, during the height of Jewel’s fame, the charts were dominated by elaborate pop acts like the Backstreet Boys and ‘NSync. “But the biggest female star on the planet was someone who came in with a guitar, real quiet, and people would sit there and just be blown away by these singer-songwriter songs.” He went on, “That is the lane for you. There is a time for that again.”
Kelly was wary. Her father said, “So, like, a Jewel-meets-Fiona Apple-meets-Beyoncé?”
Braun said, “Jewel-meets-Tori Kelly. The Beyoncé thing comes later.” He said that the strategy was a marketing approach, not a musical one. “People compartmentalize things. Kobe needs to be like Jordan. Justin Bieber needs to be like Justin Timberlake. You want to dictate to the public who you want them to compare you to. If I was to market you, I’d want them to call you the next Jewel. Because if another Jewel came out, in today’s music market, people would go crazy. That’s what they’re missing.”
Kelly asked, meekly, “How about just the next Tori Kelly?” ?
One of the things that has always impeded the public’s acceptance of David Archuleta is his refusal to be compartmentalized, to be placed inside a convenient box. He is the whole package who refuses to be packaged. People want the familiar, the no-brainer, the known entity. During AI, he made the media uncomfortable, which was a microcosm of the disconnect felt by many viewers. Who is this guy? To whom can we liken him, thereby giving ourselves permission to like him? I don’t blame Scooter Braun for knowing the public so completely and doing his job so well. The blame lies squarely at the feet of a complacent public’s refusal to admit that, like many of the scantily clad empresses on stage, most of the emperors that strut before them are also wearing no clothes.