Aviator on working with Cher, Cliff Richard and other legends as it celebrates its 15th anniversary
Aviator has been celebrating much of its 15th anniversary alongside artists who, frankly, may well consider such a landmark to be small beer rather than an excuse for Champagne.
Cliff Richard, for instance, celebrated his 15th year in the business in 1973. He hadn’t released Devil Woman or Miss You Nights yet, We Don’t Talk Anymore was six years away and duetting with Van Morrison was but a distant dream. For the record, he’s now in his 66th ‘work’ year and had a No. 2 album in the UK last year.
Cher, similarly, after a decade and a half, was still 10 years away from straddling a canon in the If I Could Turn Back Time video, and nearly 20 away from ‘going disco’ with Believe.
The timelines of other Aviator clients, including James Taylor, Dire Straits and UK glam rock legends The Sweet provide plenty of further longevity-related perspective.
But, as a wise man once said, sometimes you can have too much f***ing perspective and, in the realm of digital rights and audio/visual curation, 15 years makes Aviator one of the veterans of the game – whilst what they’ve done in that time marks them out as one of the most respected and in demand.
Aviator was founded in Germany. Specifically in Hamburg. Very specifically in the Reeperbahn strip where the Beatles put in many of their ‘10,000 hours’ before changing music and the music industry forever.
Its HQ is still there, within sight of history – an entirely appropriate location for a company that specialises in looking after the audio visual legacies of some of the biggest names in modern music.
Aviator operates in two distinct areas. On the one hand, it is a diligent searcher and enforcer when it comes to AV rights and remuneration.
It manually tracks down every single instance of its clients’ content, primarily on YouTube, then either monetizes or blocks that content, ultimately regaining sustainable control of its partners’ AV rights.
On the other, it acts as the focal point between artists, labels and a network of TV stations to deliver high-quality, fully-cleared archive material – for either online or physical distribution.
The many artists it works with in this area include Mark Knopfler, James Taylor, Cliff Richard, Cher, James Brown and Olivia Newton-John as well as the music archives of The Prince’s Trust and the Band Aid Trust.
Its key relationships are with managers and artists, working directly with them in long-term, worldwide co-operations to ensure legacy artists have control of (and proper remuneration from) their audio-visual catalog – and also that it is packaged, presented, refreshed and marketed in a way that not only shines the best possible light on an artist’s career, but also helps them to grow their digital audiences across all streaming platforms.
How such artists – and the ‘boomer’ demographic – are catered for in the digital space is, say Founder/CEO Alexander Siedl and COO Lindsay Jones (pictured above right and above left, respectively), one of the most important challenges (and potentially lucrative opportunities) facing the wider music industry today. Spoiler: so far, not great.
Here they discuss their approach to that issue, their journey so far, working with legends and much more…
Can you start by talking about the work you’ve been doing with a UK music legend recently, Cliff Richard?
Alexander Seidl: When we took over the project, Cliff didn’t have an extensive digital presence. Everybody, including management, was quite skeptical that he would find his digital ‘footing’. He now has a quarter of a million subscribers on his YouTube channel, pretty much from a standing start.
This is actually quite a typical example of how we work. We grow the audience and create this unique place for the fans. Cliff’s a digital artist now, and everyone’s excited – his management, his label and, of course, Cliff himself. It’s likely one of the reasons he went to No. 2 in the UK last December.
You’ve also been working with another legend, Cher. How long has that relationship been in place?
AS: Since the end of 2020. That was an interesting story, because there were three ‘fan channels’, and everything was there. So the question was, How do we attract the superfan to support the official artist channel?
What we decided we wouldn’t do is take content away from those channels, to almost force them in our direction. We had an idea: Cher released four albums in the 1970s, which she owns, but which weren’t digitally available at all.
So, we remastered them and we created a campaign around these four albums, with static videos (visualizers) plus additional content, and the superfans were so excited. They told us, ‘We never heard these albums in that amazing quality, this is incredible’ – and they spread the word.
That drove the, if you like, ‘ordinary’ fans to our channel. The fan channels were our ambassadors; we didn’t threaten them or issue take-downs and they really appreciated us.
After that we started to release live shows, TV appearances etc, and we were able to double the number of subscribers to approximately 1,000,000 within a year and a half.
How do you go about securing new clients? Do you proactively look at, perhaps, legacy artists who you think are under-represented and under-exploited in the digital space? Or do management of legacy artists see you as the go-to guys for a problem they’re only just realizing they have?
AS: It’s both. We have a wish list of artists that we’d love to work with. And we also get approached by managers and lawyers. We have a very large network of contacts now. And there are a few people in the business, especially here in the UK, who supported us right from the beginning. They saw potential, and, for whatever reason, they still like us and they still like working with us. They know who they are and without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
Tell us about how you got your start in the UK, after founding the company in Germany.
AS: We were working with ZDF Studios, a major broadcaster in Germany, and they wanted to set up their own music archives. Obviously that involved a lot of rights clearance issues, which meant collaborating with labels.
Lindsay Jones: We’d already been working with them for several years, and we were very close to the management team at ZDF Studios. One day, in 2007 I think it was, a senior exec there calls us up and says, ‘I’ve had this weird call from some bloke who claims to be Pink Floyd’s manager; he wants to come and talk to us about licensing content. Can you guys come down to Mainz and kind of check this guy out for me?’
So we hopped on a train – for four hours, by the way – and went out for lunch with this Pink Floyd guy. Turns out it’s Paul Loasby [co-manager of Pink Floyd, manager of David Gilmour and the estate of Syd Barrett].
He told us they were planning some projects, some box-sets etc and they were combing around for content. He and their archive expert had been all around Europe finding this fantastic old footage, but they were having some trouble with the last few broadcasters in Germany, one of which was ZDF.
We said, ‘We know these people, we can help – and by the way, we think there’s more.’ Paul was adamant we were wrong, that he’d found everything, that they were aware of every piece of footage there was.
So Alex offered him a deal. He said, ‘If I don’t find anything in the next 48 hours, then you never have to speak to me again.’
AS: I called my buddy at (German TV broadcaster) WDR and asked if he had any Pink Floyd footage, perhaps something rare or unusual. And he did. He had this great footage of a live performance that went out on German television in ’68 or ’69. He sent me a link and I sent it to Paul. Nobody had seen it or knew about it. It was like the Holy Grail – and all within 24 hours! That’s how we started to work for Pink Floyd – and started to make a name for ourselves in the UK.
LJ: You also have to remember that YouTube had a very mixed reputation at the time; they were ‘the bad guys’. And managers were very concerned about this whole situation, because for them it was very much the Wild West.
“we could tame this chaos; we weren’t afraid of it, like perhaps other people were. And we were also prepared to do the work, we were proactive – because it was pretty messy, it took a lot of sorting out.”
But we understood how it worked, we could tell them that we could tame this chaos; we weren’t afraid of it, like perhaps other people were. And we were also prepared to do the work, we were proactive – because it was pretty messy, it took a lot of sorting out.
So that Pink Floyd relationship is sort of the starting point for you guys?
AS: In terms of the vision that we had of using audio-visual content from broadcasters and turning it into a digital product, yes. Combining all the rights together – artists, production, label – yeah, we were the first ones, and still today we’re probably the market leader worldwide, because it’s so complex.
In the beginning, even before we started to work for Pink Floyd, we went to London, we were having meetings with the majors. And they basically said, ‘You’re nice guys, but it’s not gonna work, there will never, ever be a market for this. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’
LJ: We split our initial approach into two main areas. On the one hand, there were the YouTube issues that the big managers were worried about. Taming that was one area.
The other was activating content that was locked up in archives, which obviously involves a lot of rights clearance to make it all happen.
The problem was, for decades, the music industry and the TV industry were talking different languages. The broadcasters thought all the footage belonged to them, the labels thought it all belonged to them; they were at loggerheads. They weren’t even saying ‘maybe’, they were both just always saying ‘no’.
I really remember the hard slog we went through as a mediator, to get these rights flowing, convincing both sides that there’s an upside for everyone and that they’re much better shaking hands on a deal rather than arm-wrestling over rights.
AS: At the same time, the managers, in the face of these rights infringements on platforms like YouTube, they were going to the labels and telling them to sort it out, clean it up. And the labels were saying, ‘Sorry, we don’t have the resources to do that’.
So when we were establishing our business, we learned a lot from each other, and some labels even recognized the benefit of collaborating with us.
Was there a danger that you would cut a path through the jungle and the labels would just follow that path and you’ll ultimately make yourselves redundant?
AS: It hasn’t happened yet, because they still have limited resources in this area.
LJ: Also, we are able to completely focus on the artist; that’s a core part of our philosophy. We always look to the artist and the management first, those are the closest relationships we have, that’s what has always driven us. And managers are very happy with what we do, because they’re getting pressure from their artists – ‘What are you doing about this?!’. We make that problem go away, we get the artists off their back – in the nicest possible way – as well as restoring revenue streams. It’s difficult for the labels to do that.
AS: When you look at how the catalog departments are currently structured, when you look at their current resources, in some cases they have maybe 20 people, maybe five, maybe three in each territorial department.
Then, when you look at the mix of the total revenue streams of music companies such as Universal, Sony, Warner, BMG, etc., the catalog revenues are the most important. It doesn’t match up.
“we understand that the nature of a label is to find new artists, develop them and make them big. But still, in comparison, the catalog departments are absolutely tiny.”
We know them all and they’re all amazing, talented people. We collaborate with them in many cases, because we share artists, but look at the curve that is currently happening and we just don’t understand why those departments are still so incredibly understaffed.
Of course we understand that the nature of a label is to find new artists, develop them and make them big. But still, in comparison, the catalog departments are absolutely tiny.
That’s great for you though, right?
AS: Well, you know what, a strong catalog industry with people who know what they’re doing is great for the whole industry.
15 years after starting to work with Paul Loasby – who I know you still work with on artists like Jools Holland and Ruby Turner – how many artists are you representing these days?
AS: Around 300
Difficult, but could you pick out some highlights in terms of the artists you’ve worked with on that journey from 1-300?
LJ: The story surrounding Mark Knopfler is an interesting one. Quite early on, we became members of the MMF/FAC, because we really value their work and philosophy but also saw it as an opportunity to network.
They offered us the opportunity to do a presentation in London, which was great, because we wanted to talk to as many managers as possible about how to work with YouTube
We did the presentation and at the end there were queues of people wanting to talk to us. Lurking towards the back was this looming figure, with a huge hat, a trench coat and the loudest shirt you’ve ever seen who said, ‘Are you guys from YouTube? Because I wanna word with you…’
We very quickly said, ‘No, we’re not from YouTube, but we do work with them’. He said, ‘Oh, ok, well I’m Paul Crockford, Mark Knopfler’s manager, and YouTube is a thorn in my side; let’s talk.’
So we met the next day, at about 8:30 in the morning, in a pub. We explained what we did. He thought it sounded brilliant and we started working with Mark and Paul.
Can you give us an idea of the success of that project?
AS: Incredible, absolutely incredible success. We started a channel at zero and we’ve now surpassed three quarters of a million subscribers and Dire Straits is about to hit two million.
It’s a very good example of the artist and management working very closely with us, we develop strategies together – and it worked out perfectly.
Another great example of course is Live Aid. That was also the wild west, because pretty much every broadcaster in the world had shown some of that content – and pretty much all of them had made claims on it. It was out of control.
We had to explain that they didn’t own the rights to the show, which was tough in some cases, but we managed to do it and now everything is under control. Every performance, from Live Aid and Live 8, is now available on two dedicated channels and it continues to generate revenue for the Band Aid Trust.
How do you go about finding the rare footage, the unseen stuff that attracts the superfans?
AS: It’s a mixture of things, it’s detective work, really. It helps that we have very, very close relationships with the broadcasters – and to other archives. We know fans, we know collectors. We make sure that we find the rarest content that showcases all sides of an artist through all stages of their journey.
What’s really nice, and it’s something that happens more often than you think, is when we surprise the artist. We show them something we’ve found, and they don’t even remember it! Or they’d forgotten about it until they see it and then it all comes back to them, and we get to witness that moment. That’s precious for us.
And that’s also the moment when we all know the fans are going to lose their minds.
Do you think the industry is missing a trick by equating digital campaigns with younger audiences and newer artists – and not making it a priority when it comes to legacy artists and older fans?
AS: Absolutely. We predicted early on that when the boomers retire, which is starting to be the case, they will be the biggest market.
Also, when we look at the data from our artists, we see they have core fans in the boomer generation, but they also attract fans from all age groups – in some cases the majority demographic is 17-24. When we tell some of our mega-famous legacy artists, they’re surprised by that – and very pleased!
LJ: On YouTube, when you make the content available, the algorithm kicks in. But with help from the tools that they offer and the incredible support we receive from our partner managers, we can then steer that and suggest content to audience segments that some people think wouldn’t work, but we know that’s not the case.
That’s part of the job we do. We find the content, we make it look and sound as fantastic as possible, but we also input the metadata and do what we do to set it on a digital course that means it gets to the right audience and also finds new audiences.
AS: And let’s go beyond YouTube. When the boomers retire, as I said, they will be the biggest audience. They’ve got money and they’ve got time – and they will constantly consume music. And they will influence their kids and grandkids in the process.
“We are prepared, but the entire music business is not prepared to deal with this change. That includes the labels and that includes the DSPs.”
We think that, in five years at the latest, this will be the biggest market. We are prepared, but the entire music business is not prepared to deal with this change. That includes the labels and that includes the DSPs.
Something that taps into this is the first-ever digital box set on YouTube that we created for Taco and released in September [After Eight – 40th Anniversary Edition].
We had the remastered album, we had a second disc containing bonus material, unreleased tracks and different mixes, and a third disc with the instrumentals where you could do a singalong. Plus, we had a documentary and a TV special that hadn’t been on YouTube before. So that’s a four-hour box set.
When we showed this to Lyor Cohen and Dan Chalmers at YouTube, they were super-excited about it, because nobody’s done anything like this before.
These are the kind of products that boomers want and we think there needs to be a change in how that demographic is treated, digitally, by the music industry. Because there’s going to be a tsunami.
And if you’re not prepared, it’s going to be yet another surprise for the music industry – and that keeps happening! ‘Wow, we didn’t expect that – again!’ [Laughs].
Anything else you’re currently working on?
AS: Well, we set a label up during the pandemic, simply because some of our artists asked us to. We didn’t like the idea, we didn’t want to have a label! But we did it, thank God, and that’s put us in a place where we are not just the YouTube guys anymore.
Who have you worked with on the label side so far?
LJ: Cliff Richard, Level 42, Matt Munro, The Sweet, Ruby Turner. We do remixes, box sets as well as re-releases and compilations.
We’re currently talking to a couple of people in America to find the right partners and launch the label over there. We’re an independent catalog marketing company now as well, and there aren’t many of those left. We see lots of potential there.Music Business Worldwide