He causes riots everywhere he goes, and my Mom loves him almost as much as I do!" sputters a blonde girl in a bubble-gum pink sweater, flanked by two other breathless tweens. You'd have to be on a serious pop-culture fast not to know which star they're kvelling over, but in any event, they let his name be heard -- loudly. "Justin Bieeeberrr!"
Sleepy-eyed before, the crowd perks up. Not to the point of full-on "Biebermania" or anything. It is, after all, 10 o'clock on a Thursday morning, and of the hundreds packed into New York's Hammerstein Ballroom, roughly three dozen are kids who've managed to score VIP seats. Bieber is performing at Nickelodeon's 2010 upfront presentation, where the youth-centric network is announcing its new slate of programming. After sitting attentively through pitches about "igniting fan position" and supercharging the SpongeBob SquarePants franchise, the Biebermaniacs, necks craned, phones and Flip cams in hand, angle to capture a frame of the most famous 16-year-old in the game.
"Your world is my world, and my heart is your heart," Bieber sings in a sweet tenor, perched on a stool and strumming the melody of his first hit, "One Time," on an acoustic guitar. Then he launches into his new single, "Baby," bounding through choreography, thwacking his drummer's kit, rapping Ludacris' guest verse and clutching his chest during swoon-worthy lines like, "We will nevah-evah-evah be apart." Afterward, Bieber sticks around to change the lives of a few brace-faced girls, who hug the lip of the stage and clutch their Converses in the hopes of an autograph.
"He-signed-my-shoes-and-my-arm-and-my-cell-phone," says Stephanie Mordoh, a breathless eighth grader from Westchester who's here with two friends. "He's just so talented and amazing." Bieber poses for a few photos and fields some on-camera questions. On the Jonas Brothers vs. Justin Bieber inter-fan beef (their shared initials are partly responsible, as anyone under 16 will tell you), he calmly says, "Our fans seem to fight and I don't know why. But I don't care, you know? It's whatever." Five minutes later, he's gone, whisked away by his handlers to the next appearance.
Since being plucked from his hometown of Stratford, Ontario, Bieber has grown from a 13-year-old with a popular YouTube account into a Taylor Swift-co-signed sensation, boasting sales and social-network stats that rival those of any Disney star. The difference between him and Miley Cyrus or the Jonas Brothers, though, is that their careers were jump-started by TV shows.
"There are other artists who have platforms and then get to the musical space," Island Def Jam Music Group (IDJMG) president/COO Steve Bartels says. "Yes, Justin is a phenom, but it's really backed up. He's got that viral cachet right now, but what he stands for is music. We're keeping our fingers crossed, but we think we have something here that has incredible longevity."
Bieber's debut album, "My World," was released last November on Island through the Raymond Braun Music Group (a 50/50 joint venture between R&B star Usher Raymond and Bieber's manager, Scott "Scooter" Braun). It arrived at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 with 137,000 copies and has since sold 1 million, according to Nielsen SoundScan, a total likely boosted by iTunes' Complete My Album campaign. Four tracks -- "One Time," "One Less Lonely Girl," "Favorite Girl" and "Love Me" -- were released prior to the album's street date and all have charted, making Bieber the first solo artist to have four top 40 singles before the release of his debut album. All seven of the album's songs have charted since, adding up to 3.3 million in individual track sales.
Bieber will release "My World 2.0" -- his second album in less than five months -- March 23. Once again, four tracks have already been released to iTunes, and at press time, two have reached the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100. ("Baby" has charted the highest, debuting at No. 5.) Though Bartels and other label executives declined to give a specific sales projection, IDJMG plans to ship 1 million copies of "My World 2.0" in its first week of release -- a stark increase from the estimated 300,000-400,000 copies shipped of "My World" in its first week.
"I've heard the forecasts, which make me smile because they're a lot higher than what they thought last time," Braun says. "Last time, the Universal research team told the label that we would sell 30,000-60,000 records from Nov. 17 to Dec. 31. ["My World" sold 728,000 through SoundScan's last chart week of 2009.] Now they have a different outlook, and part of me is nervous because it's easy to be underestimated and then prove people wrong. It's not as easy when they have such high expectations."
Those expectations, however, are the result of Team Bieber's ability to harness his vast online fan base in ways unprecedented. "So many artists have Internet traction but are not able to attach anything to it and make money," Def Jam executive VP Chris Hicks says. "We monetized almost every corner of 'My World' -- every record we released charted. That's why we sold albums and not singles over the holidays. People could feel confident that they were buying into a burgeoning superstar."
Like most young artists, Bieber has a back story that reads more like creation myth: Canadian musical prodigy teaches himself to play the drums at age 3, becomes a YouTube sensation at 12 by covering Chris Brown and Ne-Yo hits. His mother fights off pushy managers until finally choosing Braun, who immediately positions Bieber at the center of a bidding war between Justin Timberlake and Usher. Usher wins, IDJMG chairman/CEO Antonio "L.A." Reid gives the green light, and voila -- Donny Osmond reincarnate.
The real story, not surprisingly, is a little more complicated. Braun says that when he first found Bieber on YouTube, he had only "six or eight" videos on his account, with a few thousand views each. "I was consulting for an act that Akon had in a production deal and I was looking at his YouTube videos," Braun recalls. "The kid was singing Aretha Franklin's 'Respect,' and there was a related video of Justin singing the same song. I clicked on it thinking it was the same kid and realized that the 20-year-old I was watching was now 12."
Braun, who started out as a party promoter in Atlanta while attending Emory University, left his post as executive director of marketing at Jermaine Dupri's So So Def Recordings at age 23 to do independent consulting and start his own music business portfolio, Scooter Braun Projects. At a basketball game shortly afterward with Ludacris manager Chaka Zulu, Braun mentioned that he wanted to discover and break three acts: the next breakout white rapper (he signed "I Love College" MC Asher Roth two weeks later), an all-female singing group and a young kid who "could do it like Michael Jackson -- sing songs that adults would appreciate and be reminded of the innocence they once felt about love." Watching those videos, Braun was sure he'd found his young charge. He eventually tracked down Bieber's mother, Pattie Mallette, by calling the town's school board and convinced her to fly with Bieber to Atlanta for a meeting.
"That was the first time either of them had been on a plane," Braun says. "They weren't a wealthy family...his mom worked different jobs and their grandparents kind of helped out, so they got by."
The three hit it off, and Braun signed Bieber, who had just turned 13, to a management deal. The next step was to find a major-label partner, which proved difficult at first. "Everyone said 'no,' " Braun recalls. "They said, 'He's an incredible singer and an amazing talent, but he's too young and he doesn't have Nickelodeon or Disney behind him." Among the earliest execs to show serious interest in Bieber was then-Epic president Charlie Walk; Sony had recently formed a partnership with Nickelodeon, under which the label group and cable network would jointly produce music-themed programming and albums. Walk approached Doug Cohn, the network's senior VP of music marketing and talent, about doing a show with Bieber, but there was nothing available, and Epic subsequently passed.
Braun next approached Justin Timberlake, whom he'd met while throwing parties for 'N Sync. "I wanted to bring in another artist to put his stamp on Justin, and I thought Timberlake might understand the space. I went to him, and he was 100% in."
At around the same time, though, Usher's road manager asked Braun if he had signed a new artist since Asher Roth, who was developing strong buzz on the mixtape circuit. Braun showed him Bieber's YouTube clips, and within a day Usher called him to set up a meeting. What the R&B star didn't realize, however, was that he had already heard Bieber sing a few months prior. "I said, 'You've met him already,' and Usher was like, 'I thought he was your cousin or something,' " Braun says. The second meeting with Usher took place the day before Bieber and Braun had their final meeting with Timberlake. Usher brought in Hicks to seal the deal with Reid, who himself had signed Usher as a young teen.
I thought he was an amazing kid, charming with loads of personality," recalls Reid, who adds that the lack of a TV platform never discouraged him from doing a deal. "I've never had the benefit of an 'American Idol' or Disney type of platform. Maybe it's dated, but we launch artists in the traditional sense. Oftentimes, while these kids may be very talented, we think of them as TV stars first, and the music is secondary. Justin is music first."
Bieber signed a multirights deal with Raymond Braun Music Group, which was created specifically for him and which in turn inked a 50/50 joint venture with IDJMG in July 2008. The latter also reaps benefits from touring and merch.
Braun moved Bieber and his mother to Atlanta and got to work on recording original material. He and Hicks booked studio time with top R&B/pop producers and songwriters the-Dream, Tricky Stewart, Bryan-Michael Cox, Johntá Austin and Kuk Harrell.
"It was my first time ever being in the studio," Bieber says. "I think my emotion has always been there, but I know what to do better now, and my voice has developed."
As for writing for a 14-year-old, Stewart says that "it's just about making a universal-sounding record. In a way, it kind of helps you write better, because the lyrical content is limited and there's a lot less you can say. The melody really has to be there."
Braun cut eight songs before playing them for Reid at his Grammy bungalow in February 2009. "He was like, 'We've got singles. We're ready,' " Braun recalls. Reid signed off on a $50,000 budget for the "One Time" video, and the single was released in April. It didn't pick up steam, though, until mid-summer when the video hit YouTube, where Bieber's subscriber base already stood at 40 million. "One Time" debuted at No. 95 on the Hot 100 in late July, and the dominos fell from there, with traditional media outlets gradually catching up to the notion that a viral sensation without any national TV presence had fans eager to forge a deeper connection.
"He had such a huge online fan base that our biggest challenge was, 'How do we convince the traditional partners we work with that this kid is real, that these viral fans really exist?' " IDJMG senior director of marketing Gabriela Schwartz says. "So we did the more traditional promo tour and started getting out some of our creative assets, and we saw immediate reactions." An almost comical series of PR boons followed, in which Bieber would arrive for a promo appearance and the host venue was completely unprepared for the crowd that showed up to see him.
Top 40 WHTZ (Z100) New York PD Sharon Datsur describes an online chat that Bieber did for the station in September 2009. "When the chat started, it nearly crashed the system and we had record-breaking numbers for any celebrity chat we've ever done. We started playing his music shortly after that."
Bieber's "Today" show performance Oct. 12 drew more than 2,000 fans, according to NBC, the most of any act in 2009. Things got out of hand at a much-publicized Nov. 20 appearance at Long Island's Roosevelt Field Mall, where a surging crowd led to the event's cancellation. IDJMG senior VP of sales James Roppo was arrested and held overnight by Nassau County police for not sending a tweet from Bieber's Twitter page that instructed his fans to disperse. (Only Bieber and Braun know the password.) Roppo wouldn't speak on the incident, which is still under investigation, but Braun says his lawyer is cooperating with authorities. The Nassau County district attorney's director of communications Carole Trottere said in an e-mailed statement, "We are working with the attorneys for Def Jam Records to further investigate what happened on that day. We are also in the process of looking into the level of responsibility held by the various corporations involved in the event and their agents."
In the middle of all this pandemonium is a kid whose music is quickly catching up to his popularity. Bieber turned 16 March 1, and "My World 2.0" reflects a more mature sensibility. It has dance-pop ear candy like "Somebody to Love" and "Runaway love," a slow-burner ballad in "Up," a catchy Sean Kingston collabo in "Eenie Meenie" and one potential career-maker titled "U Smile" -- a piano-driven ballad that directly addresses Bieber's devout followers. "Baby take my open heart and all it offers," Bieber croons, his voice straining as much from puberty as emotion. It's the closest he's come to fulfilling Braun's wish, by sounding like a certain young Motown star. "This is as unconditional as it'll ever get/You ain't seen nothing yet."
Needless to say, Bieber is pretty tired these days. Between interviews and appearances, he studies a required three hours daily. "School sucks," he says defiantly, between bites of Chinese takeout while en route from biology lessons to a photo shoot with Seventeen magazine. His handlers also make sure he gets at least one day off per week, to just relax or play sports (basketball, hockey, skateboarding). About 30 of his friends were flown to Los Angeles for his 16th birthday, where he sumo wrestled with Young Money upstart Lil Twist.
"I'm only 16 once," Bieber says. "I got to live like it." In the same breath, though, he announces that he's excited to tour throughout 2010, an AEG-produced trek that Braun says will likely be followed by either a repackaging of "My World" and "My World 2.0" or a Christmas album for the fourth quarter. Bieber will headline arenas and theaters in 40-plus North American cities, and he says he's confident he can sell out New York's Madison Square Garden. "I just think that I have enough fans, so I could pull in the people. I don't really get nervous anymore. I've already performed at Madison Square Garden, and I've performed for an hour before. What's the difference?" Bieber also wants to act, and Braun has raised funds to develop feature film projects. "I don't want to do the 'Hannah Montana' thing," Braun says.
Bieber doesn't let cries of "teen pop fad" faze him, either. "There's more people that like me than there are who hate me, so I kind of brush it off," he says. "People say, 'Oh, people just like him because he's pretty.' Or the funniest one: 'When he goes through puberty, he's not going to be a good singer anymore.' How does that make sense when we've seen people like Michael Jackson and Usher and Justin Timberlake do it?"
In the interim, Bieber's schedule is about to get even more hectic, with bookings lined up for "The View," "Saturday Night Live" and Nickelodeon's Kids Choice Awards. He also recently performed three sets on QVC, which helped propel Susan Boyle's sales last year. The shopping network is offering an exclusive DVD with pre-orders of "My World 2.0." "It's not an obvious look for Justin to be on QVC," IDJMG's Roppo says. "But every one of these kids' moms is a potential QVC viewer."
Millions of daughters and moms uniting for the common cause of Bieber fever surely won't hurt sales. But it's clear that the biggest driver in all of this is Bieber himself, who still replies to his fans on Twitter as though the past whirlwind eight months haven't turned his world upside down. "I still [use Twitter] as much as before," he says. "People write to me and say, 'I'm giving up, you're not talking to me.' I just write them a simple message like, 'Never give up,' you know? And it changes their life."