Where do you go when you’ve conquered the world? Since Justin Bieber’s debut album just three years ago, this 18-year-old has sold 15 million albums, earned $150 million on 157 tour dates and pulled in another $30 million on the opening weekend alone with his biopic, “Never Say Never.” Not enough? He’s also got a fragrance, “Someday,” with more than $60 million in retail sales.
According to Forbes, Bieber, with his hung-low pants, tousled hair and high top shoes, earned $55 million over the past year and $108 million over the past two years.
Through a combination of YouTube videos, tweets and an astounding amount of talent, the boy genius is becoming a very wealthy young man. But where do you go after all that? Like many a young man before him, he’s heading west — straight to Silicon Valley.
A Career Built Online
Let’s face it: without the Internet, there would be no Justin Bieber. How he got his start is legendary enough that it’s launched a whole new generation of parents putting their children’s videos on YouTube, hoping to get some of the Bieber glory. But there are very few kids with talents like Bieber, who grew up the only child of a single 18-year-old mother, who raised him mostly alone in Canadian welfare housing.
After just a short time, though, it became clear the boy has a huge talent. He taught himself to play the drums, trumpet, piano and guitar. After he earned second place in a talent show, his mother put videos on YouTube for her friends and soon was uploading videos of the boy singing.
Around the same time, his future manager, Atlanta party-promoter Scott “Scooter” Braun, was researching another YouTube singer when he accidentally came across a Bieber video. He tracked down Bieber’s mother and offered to fly them to Atlanta to sing for Usher. Usher and Braun signed Bieber, and by that September they landed him a record deal and his first single hit the top 20 after its July 2009 release. A star was born.
But if YouTube launched Bieber’s career, Twitter helped seal it. In 2009, he created his Twitter account and built a vast social media reach that helped him rank third on Forbes’ Celebrity 100 list.
Bieber has 29 million Twitter followers; the only person with more is Lady Gaga. And when you add his 43 million Facebook fans, the 740 million YouTube views for his breakout ballad, “Baby,” and the 2.4 billion impressions on his VEVO channel, it is clear social media built his career.
The teen idol also got in early on Instagram, boasting more 3.5 million followers, more than any other user. His girlfriend, Disney star Selena Gomez, has 1.4 million users — likely people looking for photos of her boyfriend.
The sharing on multiple channels is a stark contrast to the older model of fame and star-making, in which knowledge and access to pop stars was carefully controlled, usually to coincide with a music or movie launch. But now being a young celebrity often means opening up your life in unprecedented ways.
“It used to be there was a mystery to the artist,” Bieber said. “Now there’s, like, no mystery — the fans want the connection, they want to see you Instagramming at a coffee shop in the morning.”
Of course, Bieber wouldn’t be a superstar without his musical talent — but there are a lot of cute, talented teenagers out there. He and his management’s savvy use of social media-savvy transformed his talent and helped build him into a phenomenon in just a few short years.
Looking To the Future
But even the biggest teen idols have a shelf life — after all, there aren’t a lot of tweens who want to go see a 35-year-old pop star. This is something Bieber undoubtedly knows all too well. Fame is fleeting; money isn’t, and he’s investing some of those quick millions to safeguard his future.
And since tech is such a huge part of his success, it’s not surprising that he’s putting his millions into tech companies. He holds huge amounts of stock in about a dozen tech startups, including Spotify, messaging platform Tinychat, social-curation app Stamped and gaming company Sojo Studios.
Braun said it’s important to get Bieber investing in startups that he can promote to his core audience, and anything that’s connected with social media, like Instagram or Spotify, will hit big.
“Social media helped launch my career,” Bieber said. “Without the Internet and without YouTube, I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to put my music out there and have people hear it.”
But unlike a lot of celebrities, Bieber doesn’t trade his name and endorsement for stock. In fact, he keeps his investments quiet and the companies return the favor by not discussing his involvement.
“We’re always looking for the next thing,” Braun said of his and Bieber’s investment philosophy. “If we’re coming in and putting his name to something, and his brand and likeness and his social media power, then we will try and figure out a proper compensation.”
Braun was instrumental in getting Bieber to start investing at the beginning of his career, back in 2009. He says long-term success requires them to be selective and he doesn’t let his young client invest in anything unless he likes it. For example, comedian Ellen DeGeneres told Bieber about social gaming company Sojo Studios, and now they are both investors.
Bieber and Braun are keeping quiet about many of the social media investments they’ve made, but Braun says Bieber’s portfolio represents between 2 and 5 percent of his net worth, or about $3 million.
And Bieber will likely add to those coffers after this fall’s world tour, since he’s expected to pocket a cool $80 million.
Some of that money may be going to his next big investment, Options Media Group Holdings, which sells PhoneGuard, an app that keeps teens from texting while driving. In June, he received the option to buy 121 million shares, which represents a 16 percent stake in the company. And given Bieber’s huge social media presence and popularity, PhoneGuard may prove a golden investment — especially since states are passing hands-free phone laws.
“It is tragic that almost on a daily basis there are reports of deaths and severe injuries caused by drivers who are texting and driving,” Bieber said in a statement. “We need to change the attitudes in our society towards texting and driving, and I am making it one of my personal goals to make this happen.”
Having intertwined interests can always backfire, though. Ashton Kutcher, another huge Silicon Valley investor, took a huge hit on his reputation when he put together a special online edition of “Details” and wrote two features on hot tech companies, but failed to disclose he was a heavy investor in most of them.
Celebrities will always promote products for pay, but they enter a whole other realm when they’ve also invested heavily in the company they choose to promote. Fans may not believe Bieber’s endorsement when they learn he’s invested his own money in a company, and if there is a backlash, it could cause both his reputation and his investments to take a hit.
Following Bieber’s Path
While Bieber is an extreme example of how stars can use social media to leverage their earning power, he’s by far not the only entertainer that has become wealthy through YouTube, Twitter and a growing cadre of social media contacts.
It’s clear that being social media-savvy is important to gaining attention in the days of online celebrity. Six of this year’s top 10 wealthiest celebrities on the Forbes 100 entertainers’ list — Bieber, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian and Katy Perry — are all of the Millennial generation or younger, and the ones with active Twitter accounts, like Bieber, Rihanna and Lady Gaga top the Forbes’ entertainer earnings list.
Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites, while helping these stars build their fortunes, can also spur their downfall. Disney Channel and Nickelodeon studio executives are watching many of their younger stars to make sure that they aren’t posting things that will alienate the networks’ younger viewers.
In other words, the stars are talking on Twitter, but unless they’re already well-established, they likely have handlers who make sure they don’t reveal too much about characters or plot twists on their shows, or personal misbehavior that can offend viewers and advertisers who want their young stars to project an ideal image.
But as the young stars get older — like Lindsay Lohan or Amanda Bynes — they often start tweeting things many fans aren’t ready to hear. This is good for the tabloids, but it becomes detrimental to their careers when parents decide they don’t want their children idolizing people with troubled personal lives.
“We try to watch their tweets. If we see things that concern us, we raise it with them,” said Sharon Lieblein, vice-president of talent and casting for Time Warner’s Cartoon Network, who said she often asks the young stars to delete posts from Facebook or Twitter.
The Disney Channel even works proactively to offer social media training for its young stars, which has definitely paid off for Selena Gomez, for example.
“Kids are our business. We know that their first instinct is to go on social media,” added Judy Taylor, Disney Channel’s senior vice-president, casting and talent relations.
Stars are also asked to sign non-disclosure agreements as part of their contracts, and those who violate the agreements can face strict penalties — a tough but important lesson for a young star to learn.
Meanwhile, young stars still need to balance the handling from above, so their tweets come across as being natural, not generated, and so their fans still believe they’re in contact with their idols.
Is Social Media the Future of Celebrity?
Undoubtedly, social media is driving many of today’s stars, and without its power and reach, it would have been much more difficult for a record producer down in Atlanta to hear little Justin Bieber, singing his heart out up there in Canada in his mother’s living room.
And as Bieber himself noted, some of the bigger stars, such as Lady Gaga, use social media to keep their fans engaged after they start building their careers the old fashioned way. And though celebrities in the past never needed social media to keep their fans, but now sites like Twitter are replacing fan magazines and newspaper stories as the place fans get their fix of celebrity gossip. So it’s critical to engage even after an artist establishes themselves, or they risk losing parts of their audience to the celebrities willing to interact.
Some record labels are already scouring the social media sites in hopes of scoring themselves a Bieber of their own. Belgian record label SonicAngel scans sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter for artists, then asks fans to buy shares in the bands it selects. The shares pay out once the recording artist starts making money. Musicians also upload tracks in a separate system and fans vote on them. SonicAngel collects the votes and tracks the results via social media.
But stars like Bieber — who are tech-savvy enough to know that they need to go where their fans are — will be the ones who zoom into the public eye and stay there for long periods of time. After all, you can’t be a celebrity without your fans, and if your fans can’t follow everything you do, they’ll move on to someone who’s more accessible.
All the tousled hair, love songs and low-slung jeans in the world won’t attract the young if they don’t think they somehow, someday might have a chance to meet you — and smart stars like Bieber know this and stay connected. Social media makes fueling that illusion easier and more efficient to do — the cherry on top of that superstar sundae. ♦