Sire President Rani Hancock On Growing Bryce Vine, What She Learned From Clive Davis & Why Data Isn't Everything

Rani Hancock
Annie Tritt

“Streaming has changed the industry in a great way, because anything is available anytime, and as a fan of music, that’s the most exciting thing to me,” says Hancock, photographed on Nov. 19, 2018 at Sire Records in New York. “But at its heart, the music is what’s most important, and that hasn’t changed. It’s all about making great records, and the rest works itself out.”

The NYC label head is busy snapping up artists who make her "geek out" in the front row.

For Rani Hancock, becoming president of Sire Records was something of a childhood dream come true. Growing up in upstate New York, the former executive vp A&R for Island Records would lock herself in her room and listen to Warner Music's most iconic records by Depeche Mode, The Cure, The Smiths and The English Beat. "I never really dreamed of doing anything else," she says. "I was singularly focused on being in music in some way."

Hancock's obsession evolved into a keen instinct for hitmaking talent that has defined her career. Starting out in A&R administration and operations at Arista Records, the Berklee College of Music graduate followed mentor Clive Davis to J Records, the imprint he established in 2000. Following the merger with RCA Records, she moved into an A&R role and signed Miley Cyrus and then-upstarts Kesha, Becky G and MAGIC! and worked with chart-topping artists like Britney Spears, Pitbull, Gavin DeGraw and American Idol star Chris Daughtry. "If you look back at my career, it has all been left-leaning, edgy pop artists who are corrupting America, which is a goal of mine," says Hancock.

Then, just over a year ago, Max Lousada, CEO of global recorded music at Warner Music Group, enlisted Hancock to run Sire, the label co-founded by Richard Gottehrer and Seymour Stein that now falls under Warner Bros. Records' new co-chairmen, Aaron Bay-Schuck and Tom Corson. "Rani embodies Sire's authentic, independent spirit and culture-shifting pop ambition," says Lousada. "She has a true fan's infectious belief in every artist she signs, and a wise, soulful approach to the art of recordmaking."

Annie Tritt
Miffy, a floor light that Hancock’s boyfriend gave her as an office-warming gift, a nod to Warner Music’s nickname, “The Bunny,” after Warner Bros.’ Bugs Bunny cartoon.

Now expanding her A&R staff, Hancock is also celebrating the one-year signing anniversary of pop singer-songwriter Bryce Vine, whose breakout single, "Drew Barrymore," has been certified platinum, according to the RIAA. With Vine's debut full-length, Carnival, due next spring, Hancock promises "a lot of new signings to come" in 2019.

In an interview with Billboard, Bryce Vine said that one of the reasons he wanted to sign with Sire is that he was excited to be working under a female label president and the perspective and insight that you would bring. Do you feel like your gender is part of the conversation surrounding the work that you do?

Inevitably, anyone's gender is part of the conversation; it's something about ourselves that we can't ignore. But I would hope that we've come to a world where being a female president is not such an unusual thing. In Bryce's case in particular, I'm trying to create a very intimate environment for the artists where they feel like this is their home, and we can have honest dialogue about their project and what the expectations are and what their goals are and what their dreams are, and that we can join hands and support it together. First and foremost, it's important to have that real connection with the artist, whether it's about being male or female.

How did you capitalize on the momentum of "Drew Barrymore"?

"Drew Barrymore" definitely didn't happen overnight. It had an amazing seven-month run at radio, which is just unprecedented these days, so we were definitely steering the trajectory along the way. It was a matter of digging under the hood and being champions of the record and spreading the story one radio station at a time. Bryce is one of the hardest workers in the business, and did every single radio show and every single radio visit, and every single thing he was asked to do. It was a labor of love for the whole staff here and for him, all working in tandem together to get "Drew Barrymore" to where it is now.

He's proof of concept for what we're trying to do at Sire. We're trying to build a label where you have the benefit of a patient team that will really take the time to make sure that a record is working. A lot of other labels would not have had the patience to stick with a record for that long, and it really paid off in the end.

Annie Tritt
“Taki was one of the original New York City street writers ... I wanted to show pride of place.”

In 2013 you signed Miley Cyrus, for her Bangerz album, and also MAGIC!, which was just getting started in its career with the runaway success of "Rude." Do you approach artists differently based on where they are in their trajectory?

Totally. To me, A&R is a "get in where you fit in" process, and you have to approach every artist in a bespoke way. There are some artists who are 100 percent self-contained — they just need the support and guidance in terms of what songs are good and what should be the single — and there are other artists who need more help with co-writing and collaborations and producers. Miley came in with a vision of exactly who she was and what she wanted to accomplish; it was just a matter of supporting her and introducing her to some of the right people. MAGIC!, on the other hand, came in when they already had "Rude" written. It was a matter of identifying the fact that [the song] was a massive record and how we supported that throughout the process.

What qualities do you look for when you are signing new artists? Is it different from what you sought at the other labels at which you've worked?

Maybe this sounds too simple, but I'm looking for greatness, and for someone who has a real point of view and authenticity and something to say — whether that's making people happy or making people think. In this day and age, we're bombarded with so much stimuli and input all the time that it's really important that an artist makes you feel. Somebody who is not defined by a specific genre or a sound but who is carving out their own lane.

Annie Tritt
Her cactuses.

Skip Marley – whom you signed to Island in 2017 for his single "Lions" – is an example of someone who has the Marley name and legacy but is still forging his own path.

Skip is a great example. Even somebody like Kesha, whom I signed early on [at RCA ahead of her 2010 album, Animal], was pushing the boundaries of what women can say, what women can do, and creating this new world of possibilities for women as badasses and pop stars at the same time. Kesha is such a talented writer and performer who speaks her truth through her songs, and it's so good to see her making music and performing again. She was my first signing, and I will always be her biggest fan.

How has the process of artist discovery evolved since you started at Arista Records in the late 1990s?

We have access to so much data now that we've never had before, which is both good and bad, because every label has access to the same data. We're all chasing a lot of the same things as a result. But at the very heart of it, it hasn't changed, because it's all about relationships, trusting your gut and passion. Data is a factor, but I've never been a slave to the data or been really motivated by the data. If I love an artist and can't stop listening to them over and over in my office and when I go home, and am the person in the front row at the show geeking out like a dork, and have that feeling of being a 12-year-old again discovering something new, that to me is way more important than what the data shows.

Annie Tritt
Hancock uses the Music IQ party game as an icebreaker when she has visitors, but says it has rarely been cracked open. “Apparently, I’m fascinating enough without it,” she jokes.

What did you learn from Clive Davis?

Every day was a learning experience, honestly. Clive was so generous with his time and visibility to him. He often had me sitting in his office for four or five hours a day, every day, while he met with artists and producers and songwriters, so I got to be an observer in those meetings and to be a little sponge. He had his A&R staff in the room [for] every demo that he listened to.

How closely did you and Sire co-founder Seymour Stein work together before he retired in July?

Seymour and I had very little time together. But it's rare to be able to inherit a label directly from the man who started it, so that has been inspirational. 

Annie Tritt
The Wind + The Wave is a band that Hancock signed at RCA and stayed close to (2014 LP From the Wreckage is one of her favorites).

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 8 issue of Billboard.