Usher knew. An ambitious promoter named Scooter Braun knew. But the world didn’t know. Not yet.
In 2008, Braun by chance stumbled across a video on YouTube, shot in 2007, of a tween boy with an impressive helmet of hair performing a convincing cover of Ne-Yo‘s “So Sick” at a local competition in Ontario, Canada (in which he finished second). And there were more clips where that one came from, diligently uploaded by the boy’s mother.
Braun decided he had to get in touch with this Justin Bieber kid.
In one video Bieber was busking outside of a theater in Stratford, Ontario, so he called the theater. He found out where Bieber went to school and then called in hopes of getting in touch with the 13-year-old’s mom, Pattie Mallette.
“He was very, very persistent,” Bieber later remembered to Billboard. “He even called my great aunt and my school board.”
Sure enough, Braun made contact and, before long, he was flying the impressive young singer (and his mom) out to Atlanta to record some demos.
“I wanted to build him up more on YouTube first,” Braun explained to the New York Times. “We supplied more content. I said: ‘Justin, sing like there’s no one in the room. But let’s not use expensive cameras.’ We’ll give it to kids, let them do the work, so that they feel like it’s theirs.”
As fate would have it, during one of his trips to the studio in Atlanta, Bieber saw Usher—an idol of his—in the parking lot and offered to sing right then. The “You Want It Bad” singer had to be on his way, but he eventually did see Bieber on YouTube, after which he reached out to Braun.
By then, however, Justin Timberlakehad also discovered Bieber, and was planning to fly him out to Los Angeles.
“I said, ‘Is there anything I can do before? Take him shopping?”https://www.eonline.com/” Usher recalled to the Times.
What Usher did was take Bieber to the man who had given him his big break at 14, Island Def Jam chief L.A. Reid, who subsequently signed a 14-year-old Bieber to his first major label contract.
“A year later,” Mallette told the Times in December 2009, “the baby I diapered has played Madison Square Garden and sung for the president of the United States. It’s crazy.”
Once the i’s had been dotted and t’s crossed, Usher and Braun got right to work getting the teen in front of a bigger audience—which, by the end of 2009, did include President Barack Obamaand first lady Michelle Obama when Bieber was invited to perform at the White House for Christmas.
But though YouTube proved the springboard to Bieber’s seemingly overnight success, the platform still wasn’t as potent as it is now, with YouTube fame being a goal in and of itself. Justin had a following, but he had to get out and meet the people while he worked on the recordings that would ultimately make up his seven-track 2009 EP My World.
“I guess you can say I’ve been blessed with talent,” Usher’s protégée told a small group of music power players during a luncheon at L.A.’s Sunset Tower Hotel in July 2009.
Luckily Bieber had the goods to back up that bold display of ingenuousness.
He had just released his first single, “One Time,” which debuted at No. 95 on Billboard’s Hot 100. “He was an amazing talent and find,” Usher, who provided guest vocals for the song “First Dance,” told Billboard. “Given my experience, I knew exactly what it would take for him to become an incredible artist.”
My World debuted at No. 6 that November, selling 137,000 copies in its first week, the strongest debut by a new artist in 2009—until Britain’s Got Talent darling Susan Boyle‘s I Dreamed a Dream moved 701,000 copies the following week.
But the screaming girls were indisputably flocking to Bieber.
“They’re pretty much the same everywhere,” he told the Wall Street Journal about his fans, who were not yet widely known by any sort of clever nickname, in December 2009. “Really loud but a lot of fun. They’ve been with me since day one.”
“The mothers are the worst,” Mallette told the Times, noting how they could be every bit as rabid as their daughters when in pursuit of autographs, photos and acknowledgment of their own kids’ existence.
“I just take it one day at a time,” she also said on Good Morning America. “And if [Justin is] over-tired, and I feel like there is too much pressure on him, we scale back and we cancel some things. We just take it one day at a time and try to get some proper rest and try to get used to staying in different hotel rooms.”
Among the items on the 15-year-old’s to-do list as 2009 wound down: get his learner’s permit and buy his mother a house.
“The harder you work, the more successful you can be,” Bieber said. “This is just the beginning for me.”
Loud as those existing fans were, and as busy as Bieber was, it turned out that 2009 was the calm before the storm.
On Jan. 18, 2010, “Baby” hit the radio, and that was that.
The relentlessly catchy single, featuring Ludacris and an easy-as-1-2-3 chorus, peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, but would eventually be certified 12-times platinum after moving 3.9 million units. That July the music video became the most watched video on YouTube and held the record until “Gangnam Style” came along in 2012.
But the day “Baby” arrived was the day that a steadily spreading condition that had come to be known as “Bieber fever” turned into a full-blown epidemic. A few weeks later he was performing during Super Bowl weekend and meeting Beyoncé backstage at the Grammys, though in the grand scheme of things those were secondary perks to the level of allegiance millions of fans were swearing during that halcyon time, when the frustrations and the threat of a flameout were still a couple years down the road.
“I’m getting more used to it every day,” Bieber told CBS News at the Grammys. “It’s amazing to come up here and have all the fans. It’s so fun.”
Not surprisingly, when his first studio LP, My World 2.0, dropped on March 19, 2010, it debuted at No. 1, making the barely 16-year-old singer the youngest solo male artist to top the sales chart since 13-year-old Stevie Wonder in 1963.
Grammy nominations for Best New Artist and Best Pop Vocal Album would follow (though a win would prove elusive until “Where Are Ü Now” was named Best Dance Recording in 2016), and his globe-crossing My World Tour grossed more than $53 million.
And the army of fans only solidified its ranks.
Because it wasn’t just Bieber who became a household name in 2010, having transcended YouTube to become a full-fledged recording star. By the end of the year, everyone knew what a Belieber was, too.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for DCP
“There’s a sense of discovery and a sense of ownership. The kids found him,” Braun, talking to Forbes, explained the once-in-a-generation devotion Bieber inspired among his fans. “They didn’t find him on the radio; they didn’t find him through Def Jam, or even through my recommendation. They found him by us simply letting him introduce himself over the internet, like any other teenager would. They built his brand through word-of-mouth.”
Braun, Usher and the rest of Team Bieber were able to help the teen become a real, live, money-making star, he continued, because “we were very strategic with how we introduced stuff and when we introduced it. I think we also fed the hunger. I think we had our finger on the pulse because we communicated directly with the consumer, with the fans. We let them tell us what they wanted at the time and constantly kept surprising them, and we kept our word, and that’s the most important thing.”
And once “Baby” came out, all they wanted was more Bieber.