Taking the Nikon at Jones Beach Theater stage for Billboard’s inaugural Hot 100 Festival on Sunday, Aug. 23, Justin Bieber asked the capacity crowd a million-dollar question: “You guys miss me?”
The deafening response at the Long Island venue in Wantagh, N.Y., provided a welcome answer, not just for the 21-year-old singer, but also manager Scooter Braun, 34, and the brass at Def Jam. After all, Bieber’s last studio album, Believe, was released in 2012 — an eternity in teen years.
“We knew that the only way this was going to work was if we made it about the music again,” says Braun. “No more sensationalism — if you enjoy the music, thank you, and if you don’t, there’s nothing more to talk about.”
After becoming the youngest artist in history to notch five No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 chart, Bieber suffered through some very public growing pains, generating unflattering tabloid headlines for a succession of immature misdeeds. The first half of 2015 has been a period of relative calm: he apologized for his “arrogant” behavior on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, got lovingly lambasted on a Comedy Central Roast.
The music was thought to be the trickiest part of the equation, but that changed with “Where Are U Now,” the emotional electro-pop song that recently peaked at No. 8 on the Hot 100 chart. Originally conceived to lead Bieber’s next album, “Where Are U Now” ended up the second single on Skrillex and Diplo’s collaborative album (under the moniker Jack U) and quietly debuted last winter. But the song spent months growing at radio, punctuated by Bieber appearances during new pal Skrillex’s sets at HARD and Ultra festivals. Bieber had stumbled into a comeback hit.
“I think the ‘Where Are U Now’ record gave him confidence,” says Braun. “That was a very personal record that he wrote. To see it doing so well, and to see Skrillex and Diplo embrace him… He feels like he’s found his lane.”
That lane will include more danceable electronic templates and vulnerable vocal takes, if “What Do You Mean” is any indication. The lead single to Bieber’s next studio album (due out Nov. 13, according to sources), is expected to make a big Hot 100 splash upon its Aug. 28 release. That’s thanks in part to Bieber’s own social media might: with 66.8 million Twitter followers, Bieber spread word of the song’s arrival with the help of famous friends like Ariana Grande, Shaquille O’Neal and Ellen DeGeneres, who counted down the days to its release. Two days after the song is unveiled, Bieber will take the stage in front of many of those famous friends at the MTV Video Music Awards, for the live debut of “What Do You Mean.”
Braun says Bieber’s collection of celebrity pals “wants to see him win.” Top 40 is apparently back on board as well. “The comeback has already happened,” says Chris Booker, 97.1 AMP Radio (KAMP-FM) afternoon drive host in Los Angeles. “Hits cure everything. [Bieber] has played this round pretty masterfully. I just hope that he can stay out of his own way.”
“Radio’s going to embrace [‘What Do You Mean’] in a big way,” adds Sharon Dastur, Senior VP of Programming Integration at iHeartMedia. “He’s gotten back into the good graces of people — not only from the Diplo and Skrillex song, but from the Comedy Central roast, from the things he’s been doing recently, from the way he’s basically said, ‘Hey, I’ve been growing up.’”
That maturity is reflected on the album, says Def Jam CEO Steve Bartels, 52. “Any time an artist has been away and focused on personal growth, you see a change in the music. His fans will come with him because they’ve grown up, too.”
Bartels confirms that the extensive rollout of “What Do You Mean” is the prelude to a months-long Bieber blitz for the new album, which features more collaborations with Skrillex and Diplo. Madeleine Bennett, senior marketing director at Def Jam, says that for the new album rollout, “Social, technology, direct conversations with fans, viral content and personal experiences will all be huge drivers. We’re trying to make this the most modern campaign that we can… It’s absolutely a huge priority for the company.”
Bieber’s Hot 100 Fest performance will serve as a warm-up to a busy 2016 for the singer, whose Believe Tour grossed $77 million in 2013, per Billboard Boxscore. He’s expected to announce a world tour by the end of 2015. “Man, I’ve missed you so much,” Bieber said at Hot 100 Fest. “It’s so good to be back on this stage.”