A Conversation with... Cliff Hunt
Cliff Hunt is the co-founder and Vice Chairman of publicly traded Yangaroo, a Canadian digital content distribution platform that embeds security features in all the files that it distributes to global media for its clients. The company has gone through a lot of twists and turns, but now employs 40 people and is a growing concern. Cliff discusses the growth of Yangaroo — but his longstanding history in the music biz affords him both perspective and a wealth of great stories. He shares both with us in this informative, sometimes humorous story about tech, the biz and acts that have won him over or left him shaking his head or waving his fists.
Bill King: Let's start off with a bit of background to your company and what it does...
Cliff Hunt: My company is called Yangaroo. We launched in 2003 delivering audio tracks for record companies. We had two initial development partners and one was EMI and Deane Cameron and the other, Gary Slaight at Standard – when he used to own Standard Broadcasting. They worked with us – Gary gave us a couple stations to play with and Deane gave us some tracks and we developed this service to digitally transfer music from the record companies to the radio stations. By 2005 the entire Canadian music industry had moved to the digital world. We were the first entire industry to make that move.
One thing led to another and we moved into music videos delivered over the Internet – high definition music videos and we partnered with MTV in New York and Viacom and they helped launch that service for us in the U.S. We now deliver over 90% of all music videos in America. We sort of morphed by accident into the awards show business. The Junos came to us about six years ago and asked if there was any way they could digitize what they were doing. They were sending out literally thousands of CDs to all their judges for review – so many submissions are coming in and they are getting hundreds of pounds of wasted discs from submissions in the various categories.
We put effort and time into that and built a digital platform we launched with the Junos and within a year they found their revenue had increased by thirty-per cent because it was all digital and they were getting more submissions and they charge for those. It was a much more efficient process that eliminated ballot stuffing and all of that kind of stuff that used to go on. It worked.
A friend of mine in Los Angles suggested I meet Neil Portnow who is the head of the Grammys and a good friend of his. I flew down with my Chief Technology Officer, Richard Klosa, and met with Neil Portnow and his team and they were looking for a new solution and the next thing you know, the Grammys embraced it. We are now going into our sixth year with the Grammys and that led to the BET Awards, the MTV VMAs, the Academy of Country Music Awards, Dick Clark Productions, - we do the Emmys and this year we just signed the Golden Globes. We have four of the biggest award shows in the world right now.
B.K: There must have been a period when you were delivering just music and wondering where you could go with this and never thinking the video side would be so rewarding?
C.H: That’s exactly right! Video is the thing that has really transformed our company and moved us internationally, thanks to the MTV people, of course. Prior to this I worked in the business as a music publisher and artist manager for twenty-five years. I was sort of looking around heading into 2000 and keeping my eye on where the music business was going.
B.K: You had to be really aware of what was coming. The changes came on us so fast and required other skills.
C.H: It came out of left field. When we started it was pre Napster. Napster just blew the roof off everything when it hit. It was already percolating – something was really happening yet the music industry wasn’t really ready for it. In many cases it still isn’t.
B.K: They weren’t prepared for cassettes. When something innovative occurs there is the quick push back but the inevitable always wins out.
C.H: If you look at the music industry – the guys still running the big majors in the U.S – they are still old school. They are still clinging to the original business model despite all the pressures. It is working its way through despite all the pressures and there are people out there making money.
B.K: How is money made now? CDs have tanked.
C.H: So true – it’s such a small piece whereas before it used to be a major piece. You used to tour to promote record sales, now you tour to make a living and hope you can sell some records off the stage.
B.K: In your prior life you worked closely with artists and many were colourful.
C.H: That’s an understatement.
B.K: Your dad, known as “the Colonel,” managed the bookings at the EX – the Grandstand and Bandshell.
C.H: They were some crazy times. I think when my father took over the Grandstand it was probably 1967. Howard Cable used to look after it before dad and it was a big spectacle that ran for the time. There was an orchestra on stage, singers and dancers, and then they’d bring in some ringers from the states. I think it was '69 when they decided to bring in a different act every night and it was transformed. The other thing is it was becoming really stale and everything runs its course. Pop music was becoming really big and there was pressure to bring in some of the big names of the time.
My father was in the military – how do you make that transition? He was the head of all music for the combined armed forces – this was after they combined the three forces – the Canadian Forces as opposed to the RCAF. When he retired he was immediately hired by the CNE. Here he was – he obviously knew how to manage people but didn’t know a lot about pop music.
I used to have a regular call with him – of course I would regularly look at the Billboard charts and say “BTO” — you better take a look, they are going to be big – why don’t you book them? You’ve got to have the Beach Boys – they are a summer thing. We would consult everyday and I sort of guided him through the transition and he obviously became good at it after a few years.
B.K: It was a time when the Grandstand moved from that revue thing to events. Each act was a special occasion. This happened everywhere – the beginning of a new era – stadium acts.
C.H: It was – seventeen shows in seventeen days. There was one day we didn’t have a show and I think the Blue Jays were just becoming a team then. Bobby Sherman, followed by the Temptations, followed by Johnny Cash and June Carter and the Carter Family, followed by Brenda Lee, followed by Red Skelton, followed by Ray Charles and Al Hirt together. That was a killer show - also with the Goldiggers as well, the back-up singers. Followed by Bobby Goldsboro – who would have thought Bobby Goldsboro would sell out the Grandstand? Then a country show with Charlie Pride and Skeeter Davis, George Hamilton the IV, Bobby Bare, Dave Dudley and the Roadrunners and Tom T. Hall on one show. Then the Fifth Dimension, a military show; and that was 1970.
B.K: Is there one show that was the most difficult to mount?
C.H: I came in as associate producer 1974-1980. The two shows that stand out for me above all are the Alice Cooper riot which was possibly August 1980. It got worldwide attention – they burned cop cars and tore up the midway. This was Alice Cooper’s comeback tour when he’d gone sober and was straight. He was in his hotel and his band was already at the stadium and the place was packed and a bit of a rough crowd to begin with. It became “Where’s Alice?” the opening act is already on and Alice still hadn’t shown up. His tour manager kept calling saying they were on the way – just waiting for the limo, Alice will come in and go straight on stage.
His band was actually on stage when we got the call saying Alice wasn’t going to make it. He had become sick and couldn’t perform. We had a stage manager, a British guy named Richard Smerdon and he had to go out and announce Alice was sick and wasn’t performing. The crowd just started throwing shit. I don’t know if you remember how the CNE was set-up but in those days there was about 2,000 loose folding chairs in front of the actually stage. Now you tie them down and don’t have loose chairs, but in those days it was never an issue. They started throwing chairs; they pierced the speaker baffles, on the side of the stage and got really crazy.
There used to be a compound in the back where the artists dressing rooms were and management, and the crowd started surging towards the compound. The good news? The police horses were located right on the CNE grounds and they brought in the mountie unit and the horses were very helpful keeping people away from the offices. Then they started burning police cars out in the midway. All hell burst loose.
Just to expand on that story. Years later there was a lawsuit and I had to testify. One kid fell from the side of the Grandstand and if you remember it was pretty steep and he became paralyzed and sued everybody. Sued the CNE, Alice Cooper, his management company and I was called back to testify on behalf of the CNE. There was a settlement and I don’t recall what it was. Everybody had to pay something.
The other really interesting night we had a co-bill; it was The Band and Linda Ronstadt and they were completely equal billed. Ronstadt had one of her biggest hits at the time. You go through everything – it’s all equal – the size of their names in print; the ads were completely equal, and we agreed it was a co-bill where both played the same amount of time but The Band would go on first and Linda Ronstadt second. The guys in The Band did their sound check about four o’clock in the afternoon and then Ronnie Hawkins and a bunch of guys show up and they all started drinking after the sound check. I guess during the ensuing three hours someone convinced them –“Hey, you guys used to live here, you should go on last.”
Their manager Eric Samuels and band decides they are going on last. All of a sudden World War III breaks out. Linda Ronstadt says there was no way she was going on first. The Band says they aren’t playing unless they close the show. It became crazy. Her management team in L.A. were on the phone – The Band’s not playing; all we need is another riot.
My father, to his credit, called their bluff and said, “you don’t want to play, don’t play.” This is like eight o’clock at night. It was a major stand-off and the ultimate result, they conceded and agreed to leave as is and the show went on great. It was one of those moments it could have gone ballistic. What are you going to do? There was no resolution to this other than, this is the deal, you stand by it or you don’t get paid. Incidentally, that was August 31st, 1976.
This was the year the Beach Boys were really hot. We did three shows with them. September 3rd, a matinee on September 4th, and an evening show that night. Every show was sold out; in fact we could have sold a week of shows. Dennis and Carl Wilson got in a fist fight and broke a whole wall in the band trailer – one went through the wall.
Another year, when “Sloop John B” was really big and they used to bring a set with them that was essentially the “Sloop John B,” and it was on stage. They used to carry a back up band with horns and everything and they were in the sloop as part of the show. Dennis Wilson, who was crazy anyway – him and Mike Love and someone else were pulling into Rochester the night before and decided they were going to sail across to the CNE and rented a sail boat and nearly missed the show. It was the winds or being drunk or whatever. They made it and were picked up at the foot of Sunnyside and we got them on the stage.
B.K: What was the knock-out show of all time you witnessed?
C.H: Queen was amazing. I’ll tell you – James Taylor at his peak was outstanding. He had a phenomenal band. It was one of the magical evenings. His sound was immaculate, he was on it and the crowd was in the palm of his hands.
Sinatra was unbelievable.
B.K: And really cool to work with?
C.H: He was a pleasure. Strangely enough, Bill Cosby was one of the nicest guys. The check – “Just mail it to me.” He’d always visit his tailor (Lou Myles) every time in Toronto. He was a true professional and unbelievable on stage.
B.K: Bob Hope?
C.H: That was great. I took him golfing. He wanted to play nine holes so we took him to Glen Abbey in Oakville. We lined up a pro for him to do those nine holes. He played all afternoon and came back for a night concert. He was one of those sweethearts too. No muss no fuss.
Then you get the other guys. America was probably the worst. They had two or three hits and probably the hot band of the day but they were assholes. They were difficult. We used to get Shopsy’s to do our catering and on their rider they wanted KFC chicken. The guy that looked after us at Shopsy’s says, “ don’t worry Mr. Hunt, I will give them the best fried chicken they’ve ever had.” He does this special fried chicken and lays it out and the tour manager came in and looked at it and says, “What’s this shit, I asked for Kentucky Fried Chicken,” then dumps it on the ground. They were young guys and complete assholes.
B.K: Diana Ross?
C.H: Yes, she was difficult. There was a big argument with her over what magenta (the colour) was. Our magenta was not her magenta. She was a real diva without a doubt. Ultimately, we found her magenta.
As interesting as the difficult ones were there were others who were just incredible. Johnny Cash and June Carter and that whole group were consummate pros. No demands or requirements, just let us get on stage and do our show.