Hannah is the UK and European General Manager for indie labels Dead Oceans, Jagjaguwar and Secretly Canadian. She is also the Co-founder of singles label The Blue Rider.
Hannah has great taste in music and her smile lights up the room.
She is originally from Yorkshire and now lives in London.
As told to Michelle Sullivan for The Manifesto.
I got really involved in music when I was at university. I did a radio show, I worked on the door at gigs, and I was also a student rep for IPC magazines so I did lots for NME and Uncut. I was originally studying physiology, but I did some work experience at Domino and I quickly realised that if I wanted to work in music, I was going to have to move to London. I wanted to move to London as well. I really wanted to work in the record industry and work for a label, so I moved to New York for the summer (when I finished university) and did an internship there. I worked in a record shop and then when my visa ran out I came back to the UK and got a job at Beggars.
Confidence was definitely something that I had to develop. I think you move to London and you work in the music industry with a lot of men, a lot of people from public school, and I think that’s really when you start seeing how the world works. I went to a regular comprehensive school in Yorkshire, and somehow came on this music industry path. You've got to fight for it. I’m from a rural community where there is no music industry and no cool scene. I had to learn how to navigate that, and without getting all classist, I think that there are a large number of people who work in the music industry who come from a privileged background. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think that’s what perpetuates the slightly old boys club. The more diverse we can make the music community, whether that means background or geographical diversity, the more creative our industry will be.
The skill that I've had to develop the most is talking to people and knowing how to communicate with people. When you try to sign a band, it’s like going on a blind date really! I started doing A&R when I was 23 and it was actually quite difficult because a lot of the bands that I was talking to were older than me; certainly the managers were all older than me. So I definitely had to learn how to be confident; to judge everything on a case-by-case basis and to believe in what I do. That takes a little time. I think communication skills are really important - knowing how to talk to bands about their own music is so important. You have got to gain their trust and you can’t do that straight away. You can’t do it on your first meeting and say 'right this is not good enough, we need a better chorus'. You've got to build your credibility with them over time.
You have to demonstrate your own taste, and I think this definitely gets better with experience. I can do this much better in my thirties than I could in my twenties because I’ve learnt those skills, and I’ve learnt from mistakes. I remember one of my first meetings with a band on the publishing company where I accidentally described one of the tracks on his album as background music! I knew as soon as I had said it that it was a mistake. He was mortally offended as anyone would be; he is not writing music to be played in the background! You learn as you go along, generally from mistakes.
I think it’s important to always be honest. If you start pandering to a band or not being honest to their face, then that’s when problems start occurring. I’ve had to drop bands in my time and I have learnt that there is not point to beat around the bush. There is a reason why you are dropping them so you’ve got to explain that. Or it might be that, they send you a song that they are really excited about, and you’re not very excited about it. Always take your time. If it’s a delicate music conversation that you need to manage, don’t respond straight away, wait a day or two. Let it sink in then go back with some constructive criticism; you know life is full of complicated conversations but i think honesty if always the best policy. Even if an artist doesn’t like it at first, they will generally thank you in the long run.
My business partner in The Blue Rider is Julia Willinger. We set up the singles label when I was still at XL. We just felt like we wanted more opportunity to get involved with new acts, and at a very successful independent label like XL, It’s sometimes difficult to get involved right at the beginning on something. Julia and I just felt like we wanted an outlet, to try and get involved before all the other development had happened. Even though we had both worked at an independent label, there was stuff that was a little bit of mystery for us, like certain registrations, or doing accounts and royalties, or getting a digital distribution deal. It has been a great learning experience just from that part. I think we have got a really great set up as Julia's in New York and I'm in London, so we can offer a transatlantic DIY experience. It’s coming from a genuine place, you know? We've being doing it all ourselves, and it’s been a real success.
Our first single was an artist called Jagwar Mar, with a single called Come Save Me. Someone had tipped me off about a Soundcloud link, and when I heard the song I just loved it! It was just an instant hit in my mind, so I send it to Julia. She was like - 'yeah let’s do it!'
* This conversation has been edited
Photography by Martin Coceres
Creative Direction by Beatrice Hurst