Grande designs: Team Ariana on the superstar who ripped up the pop rulebook

Ariana Grande

Sometimes when Ariana Grande and her manager Scooter Braun catch up, one question in particular will crop up. This is Braun’s abridged take on how that exchange goes:

“When is my break?” asks Grande.

“Can we help you plan a vacation?” Braun enquires, eagerly. “Is there anything you need? I want to give you time, I want you to take time – please take time.”

“Oh yeah, of course, of course,” Grande assures him.

Yet, when Braun checks in to see how her plans are going… “Oh,” Grande says, “I’ve booked a studio for the next week…” So it goes.

“She loves the studio,” laughs Braun, drawing attention to the prodigious work ethic that has propelled Ariana Grande from pop superstar to a global, music industry-altering phenomenon. And that’s precisely why, ahead of her eagerly-anticipated UK arena tour this month, Music Week has caught up with Grande’s team to get a debrief on one of the most extraordinary chapters not only of her career, but also in the evolution of how pop music may be released in the future.

When Music Week reaches Braun in LA, he’s in the middle of a mad morning rush to the airport but is in high spirits. It’s not exactly surprising: at the time of our interview Ariana Grande’s new single, Boyfriend – featuring her close collaborators Social House – is merely hours old and has already racked up 5.9million views on YouTube. Less than a week later it is on 39 million and counting.

We are now over 10 months on from Ariana Grande explaining her new gameplan, one initiated when she released her smash surprise single Thank U, Next despite her then-new album Sweetener only being out for three months. “i jus wanna make music and drop it whenever and perform it,” she wrote in one tweet. “i don’t want to conform to the like... ‘routine’ or like ‘formula’ anymore. i love music i ain’t waiting another 2 years to drop it. i want to share it w u when it’s freshhh”.

She wasn’t kidding, either. Of her recent cascade of hits, neither Boyfriend, nor Grande’s last single Monopoly (featuring Victoria Monét) are from February’s Thank U, Next album. The music is pouring out at startling pace. Since last year, it’s almost as if fans are now experiencing her life and music in real-time…

“Well, look, Ariana has always been restless when it comes to her music,” explains Braun of her shift in philosophy. “She loves making music, [but] the standard way of releasing has always frustrated her – she always wants to give more, because everything in her music is a translation of what she’s going through in real life. And she doesn’t feel like her life moves in year-and-a-half chapters, it moves faster than that. So when we looked at the landscape and saw that hip-hop was dominating the streaming services, we decided not to move in year-and-a-half cycles, but move when culture dictates. Streaming gave us the ability to do it properly.”

The results have been, shall we say, not too shabby. There are, in fact, far too many of them to list in full here, but perhaps a very brief recap will suffice for those prone to living under a rock: the viral video for Thank U, Next displaced BTS’ Idol to set YouTube’s all-time record for most views in the first 24 hours of release, hitting the 54 million mark. In the streaming world, Thank U, Next surpassed 100 million Spotify streams in just 11 days – faster than any song before it. Likewise, Thank U, Next’s follow-up single, 7 Rings, went on to score a new record of 15 million plays on Spotify in its opening 24-hour period. Even when said song’s Sound Of Music sample meant 90% of its royalties went to Rodgers & Hammerstein, she had the ingenuity to craft another hit from the experience, singing ‘even though we gave up that 90% for the win’ on Monopoly.

At this point in time, the impact of Grande’s new release strategy is self-evident, with the suspicion very much lingering that many of her peers will follow in her slipstream. But it’s not just artists that it is affecting. Closer to home, Braun is finding the change has been every bit as liberating as a manager.

“It’s really, really exciting to watch,” he explains. “I don’t have to tell my artists anymore, ‘You need to stop.’ You might say, ‘Hey, we need to give something air and room to breathe,’ but I don’t need to tell them to stop being creative. When we saw the change taking place with streaming services, we decided to take advantage of it and Ariana’s really, really tapped into something and it’s remarkable. Her consistency is just absolutely amazing.”

Yet, you have to wonder, how the team tasked with bridging the gap between Grande’s new vision for pop and the traditional infrastructures have faired in all this. After all, releasing the album Thank U, Next within six months of Sweetener – a record, it should be noted, that had only just marked her emotional return to music following the 2017 Manchester bombing attack – goes against pretty much all of the received wisdom of a traditional album cycle. Grande has even spoken openly of initially being nervous about presenting the new album she had so quickly brought to life with co-writers like the aforementioned Social House and Monét, plus Tommy Brown and Tayla Parx to Republic. She praised her label for supporting her.

“When Ariana Grande comes to you with a new album you’re happy and excited,” says Michael Alexander, vice president, international for Def Jam Recordings, Island Records and Republic Records, who has worked with Grande for eight years. “Our take was: we knew people like ‘new’ and they like ‘more’. It was ‘new’, it was ‘more’ and it complemented Sweetener. It was a slightly different sound but it was still her. With Thank U, Next she really started bending the genres and redefining how pop music sounds and is released.”

“She’s always torn up the rule book for a modern pop star,” agrees Island UK president Louis Bloom. “If you create incredible music, maintain a brand and identity and have a massive fanbase, you can do what you want, when you want. There’s no ideal timeframe.”

Suffice to say, the Republic and Island teams, alongside the Outside Organisation which co-handles Grande’s press in the UK, had to be more agile and reactive than ever before in juggling two albums at once, with Bloom praising the work of Island’s marketing and promo teams, the latter led by Steve Pitron (SVP, Island Records & promotions). But more than this, what was required of them was to try and get the rest of the music industry infrastructure to catch up, too...

“There’s challenges in redefining what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable, and moving away from the traditional, ‘We’re going to put out an album, work five singles and then wait six months and put out another album’ approach,” says Alexander. “Instead we realised that pop music is no different to hip-hop: we’re going to keep releasing music when it’s ready. Whether it be more songs or another album, it didn’t matter; the quality of the music was there so when it was ready, sitting on it didn’t make sense. As we moved away from that traditional approach, yes there were some bumps in the road for the more traditionalist understanding of why we’re doing it. But the success was undeniable and our partners started to adapt to the new world. We were working multiple songs all at the same time, but they all had a unique feel and message so you could have more than one Ariana song on the radio, more than one Ariana song on a playlist, because they complemented each other.”

“I think she’s redefined what a single is because it’s not just one look,” adds Bloom. “Radio last year were playing new songs at the same time – it’s breaking the rules about the one song. When Ariana drops a new track, she breaks her own record from before, and the question every time is: is she going to beat herself? She’s the only one in her category doing that.”

But while Grande’s new release strategy has dominated headlines, it is only one part of what has fuelled her ascent. Everyone Music Week speaks to highlights not only the quantity and quality of music, but also the space Grande now occupies in the pop firmament. Thank U, Next may be regarded as a pop album, and yet, as Alexander suggests, it also “isn’t the most obvious pop album in the world” with its songs predicated on confessional honesty, dialogue samples and its rich infusion of styles. Bloom hails her ability to exist not so much in different genres, but rather occupy the sweet spot between them…

“She just kept growing,” he says. “With My Everything, she worked with Max Martin, did impressive collaborations and was always defying expectations: she did Problem with Iggy Azalea and Bang Bang with Nicki Minaj. And then worked with The Weeknd. Nobody imagined her working with The Weeknd – that was a real crossover moment for her. This is the amazing thing about Ariana for me: she spans pop, urban, soul, R&B, dance and then has a vocal that stands up against some of the best voices of all time. She connects on so many different levels, styles and genres. She’s above genre. She’s the new breed.”

It would be hard to disagree with this, yet what makes Grande’s maturation as an artist so interesting is that her background in many ways proves reminiscent of the late ’90s, early ’00s pop revival. Her transition from Nickelodeon kids TV show Victorious to music is, after all, not too dissimilar from the pivot from Disney to music by Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera. Indeed, the Boyfriend video was very much a vehicle to showcase Grande’s sense of humour.

“She’s become such a big artist that people forget that she was a comedic actress for years,” notes Braun of the Boyfriend video.

The release strategies, the searing honesty and remarkable quality control have propelled Grande, but she is also still reaping the benefit of global planning in the early stages of her career, too.

“From day one we recognised how incredibly talented she was,” explains Alexander. “Global is part of Republic’s DNA, so we immediately sent her on the road. I think one of her first trips was to Japan. She’s travelled all over the world countless times and we did that from the beginning. It really helped her build her fanbase – there were no shortcuts. She worked hard in every single country, she connected with her fans in every single country and really developed a career out of that.”

It’s perhaps for that reason that when Music Week asks Alexander about how things have grown Stateside in the relatively short space of time between Sweetener and Thank U, Next, he prefers instead to adopt a global view.

“I wouldn’t even separate it to the States,” he says. “If you look at the world, there’s been a measurable difference. She’s entered a new level of stardom. Whether it’s the US, UK, Japan, Australia – it doesn’t really matter which country, she’s touching everybody right now and having success everywhere. That goes back to how hard-working she was in the very beginning – she went to all those places over and over. She went to the UK over and over again and it’s become very much a second home because she’s spent so much time there.”

This is borne out in the data. In February this year, Grande became the first female artist in history to simultaneously hold the No.1 spot on the Official Albums Chart and Top 2 singles on the Official Singles Chart in the UK – with Break Up With Your Boyfriend, I’m Bored ousting 7 Rings from the summit. Grande has since joined Elvis Presley, John Lennon and Justin Bieber as the only artists to score three No.1 singles in under 100 days.

If Grande’s relationship with the UK is strong, so too are the ties between Republic and Island that have helped shepherd it. Both Alexander and Bloom respectively salute each other in the way they work so closely together.

“They are fantastic partners and have allowed us great access from the very beginning, which has really helped make sure that Ariana has been able to build such a loyal and dedicated UK fanbase,” says Bloom.

Indeed, our shores have been home to some rather grand Grande moments of late. Bloom points to the star’s BBC special last year, in which she was joined by an orchestra to play songs she’d never performed live before. The next step is, of course, her huge UK tour.

“Let me just tell you, I am so excited for the UK to see what can she do now,” says Braun. “She is one of the greatest entertainers on the planet. Her voice is so incredibly strong, she is such an amazing performer. She is phenomenal.”

With the tour just around the corner, it’s time for Music Week to quiz Braun further on Grande’s incredible rise. Today, Braun declines to discuss the recent high profile $300 million acquisition of Big Machine – and Taylor Swift’s subsequent “my worst case scenario” reaction to the new home of her masters – with focus placed squarely on Grande’s remarkable career. A career that is seemingly reinventing the pop rulebook on a weekly basis…

How are you feeling about the reaction to Boyfriend so far?

“I’m really happy. Ariana has tapped into the zeitgeist right now with her ability to go into the studio and make the amount of quality music she’s making. The team of her, Tommy Brown and Social House – that same team, along with a couple of others, made Thank U, Next, 7 Rings and now they’ve made Boyfriend. They’re really a special group. This could possibly be a third No.1 from Ariana, Mike [Foster] and Scootie [Charles Anderson]…”

As a manager, how did you approach the transition of focus from Sweetener to Thank U, Next – or, put another way, what is the actual status of Sweetener at this point?

“If you look at our tour, it’s called the Sweetener Tour – we already had the tour up and added the songs from Thank U, Next into it. To me, it’s not abandoning one or the other, they’re both a part of the narrative of what’s taking place over the last year and now Boyfriend is being added to that narrative. It’s not like you’re abandoning your responsibilities or any chapters of your life from January because things changed in March. What we’re doing is looking at this very simply as Ariana telling her life through music on a consistent basis.”

How big a part has the more confessional nature of her newer material played in making Ariana even bigger?

“Look, unfortunately, Ariana had a lot of horrible things take place in her life and the people around her very publicly, in a very short amount of time. Because of that, and her being a public figure, she had no choice but to act, she had no choice but to grieve in front of the entire world, and she became very human for a lot of people. For superstars, that normally doesn’t happen. It was a very tough year-and-a-half for a very young woman, and that took place in front of the entire world. She doesn’t know any other way than to grieve through music. When she started making this music and being so transparent with her life through it, it not only became very therapeutic for her, but it also connected her in a very, very deep way to her fans and to many others who discovered the music and knew her story because of how public it was. That made a connection between her and this fanbase that is incredibly deep in her ability to understand social media and how she connects directly with them.”

She has seemingly perfected the way in which pop stars can use those platforms to engage fans…

“She’s become the most followed female on Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. Her tone is very much her. She’s insisted on never ever lying and always being brutally transparent and honest, and it’s remarkable. But it’s also taxing. It’s a very hard thing, it’s why myself and the team are very protective of her. She gives so much to other people, she deserves at times to be able to step back and protect herself. That’s the balance she’s working on.”

You have other high profile clients, such as Justin Bieber, but what has Ariana Grande specifically taught you about music management?

“It’s funny, the things Ariana and I each have gone through, from our ups and downs early on to the relationship we have now, is very similar to Justin [Bieber] and all these other artists I work with. Ariana and I don’t have a manager/artist relationship, we trust each other in those roles, but we have a family relationship. The things we’ve gone through together, we are family for life. If you ask me what I’ve learned from her, there’s the business things: the tone and relationship with fans, but that’s all, to me, the easy stuff. The thing that I’ve learned from her is relentless drive. This idea that we really can get through anything if we have each other’s back. It’s this incredible ability to persevere every single time. And by the way, it’s something that we push on each other. There are times when I’m burned out, there’s times when she’s burned out – we push each other and always say, ‘As long as we’ve got each other’s back, as long as the whole team has each other’s back, there’s nothing we can’t achieve’. The thing Ariana absolutely taught me is perseverance. She told me to come over recently and celebrate the song being out, and I went over there and hung out with her, Social House, Tommy and everybody. I told her I’m so incredibly proud of her, of the strength that she’s displayed. I know there’s times when she gets anxious, times she gets tired, times she isn’t sure what is going on because being someone in the public eye at this level is not an easy task. It’s not easy to be judged when people don’t have all the facts. That’s not an easy position to be in. She is so incredibly strong. To see where she is today, from when I went into her house when she was so much younger all those years ago and she said, ‘Would you manage me?’ I’m grateful to her that she’s allowed me on this journey.”

You just mentioned your ups and downs. Previously, you’ve said she fired you in the early days, before rehiring you some six months later. What did that do to strengthen your relationship?

“I don’t want to talk about it too much because we moved on from it. Like I said, when you’re family with someone you go through ups and downs, and those moments only make you stronger, make the bond stronger. You know where someone really stands with you. The honesty becomes brutal and that’s what’s important in a real relationship. That short separation only made us a lot stronger, and everything we’ve gone through together since has made things incredibly, incredibly tight. There’s a very special bond that me, her and my partner Allison [Kaye, SB Projects president] have. I’ve had that bond with a few other clients who now are family. Ariana’s family. We’re very loyal to each other and that’s what family’s about.”

What do you admire most about Ariana?

“Her strength. There’s so many times where Ariana doesn’t think she has the strength to get through what she’s going through, and every single time she’s able to overcome and have the strength to achieve really, really great things. I don’t want to speak about it for too long, but ever since Manchester, I’ll say aloud to anyone that Ariana Grande, for the rest of my life, will be a hero in my eyes. What I saw her do there… The position she was put in was not fair, but she saw her responsibility. She said, ‘Look, as unfair as this is, there are families that don’t have loved ones coming home tonight – and I have to do something’. Ever since that concert, her bravery as a public figure to step up in that moment and take back the narrative for that community with that community... She’s a hero to me. And so is the entire city of Manchester.”

Finally, then, what’s next – there’s still Ariana’s Charlie’s Angels song with Lana Del Rey and Miley Cyrus in the pipeline, right?

“I don’t want to give away too much. What I’ll tell you is that she lives in the studio [laughs]. As long as she has stories to tell, the music’s going to keep coming.”

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