(The following is the recap of our visit to the offices of Taxi, the self described Independent A and R Vehicle, in February 1999. It was too long to place in Just Plain Notes, so here it is in its entirety. Enjoy, and let the truth be told!)
We headed over to the offices of Taxi to meet Michael Laskow, their owner and founder. Over the years I had heard a lot of good and a lot of bad things about Taxi. In the time I have been running Just Plain Folks, one of the most frequently asked questions is "What do you know about Taxi, are they legit?" I have filled people in on what they claim to do, but have never offered information beyond that, as I have never been a member or their organization, nor have I tried their services. I noticed a large number of people (more often than not people who have not been members of Taxi) have a somewhat venomous hatred of them. Usually that in and of itself is a big red flag. First of all, anyone with an opinion about Taxi who has never been a member, met with them in person, or participated in their services really has little credibility, whether what they have to say is accurate or not. How can you trash someone you don't know? That is how prejudice and bigotry start. The dynamics are the same. Ignorance is a dangerous thing. So I decided to find out for myself. I went in with quite a few questions, and a few assumptions based on what I had read and what people who were actual members had told me. I left with the answers and the facts.
When we arrived at the Taxi offices, it was clear right away this was not run of the mill. Their offices are not located in an LA high rise, but are nearly invisible buried inside a somewhat impenetrable apartment complex. It took us about 15 minutes to actually get inside the security gate, and then inside the security door on the first of the apartment building. I was thinking to myself, "hey.. this is an apartment building. What is the deal??" We finally got in, and things started to make sense. Michael invited us into his offices and we settled in for a candid heart to heart that is rare in this business of putting on Aires and bloated egos. Instead, I found Michael to be amazingly similar to myself. He is just a guy with a great idea, the work ethic to bust his ass 100 hours a week, and the business savvy to pull it all off. I found him genuine and sincere and totally realistic about both the strengths and weaknesses of Taxi and the work that he does. He made it very clear right up front that every topic was fair game, every question was welcomed and nothing would be hidden away from sight. He point blank welcomed us to look anywhere, investigate anything, and told his staff to give us total access to anything we wanted to see. This was someone with nothing to hide. I liked him already!
The only thing I didn't see was Jim Ignatowski!
We spent about a half hour chit chatting about Just Plain Folks, and what we are trying to do as a group. (yes, it is impossible for me to turn off the JPF PR faucet.) He discussed how he started his group, the long hours, the naysayers, and the triumphs. He is someone, like me, who cares deeply about the members of his organization, and takes the misinformed criticism of Taxi to heart. He pulled out a copy of every single complaint he has every received since starting taxi, which he keeps in the right hand drawer of his desk. He offered them to me for my inspection. He also explained that he had called every single person who had decided to quit Taxi during a membership year to find out the problem for himself and gave refunds to those who did not want to finish out their membership term. We also discussed the harm caused by the Internet when people can take unabated pot shots and trash a companies reputation under the cover of anonymity. The Internet is a wonderful thing. But it can also be quite evil. Should people really be able to trash someone's life's work, based completely on misinformation or a separate agenda, without even taking the time to learn the truth? Yes, freedom of speech is vital. But I am not so sure about freedom of lies. And I know personally that Taxi has had its share of lies told about them. I know because I took the time to find out the truth for myself.
Now before we get too far into this, I will say that I don't think that Taxi is perfect. In fact, I have never found an organization, company or person who is. To me, their flaws center on the difficulty of marketing a company like they have. For example, Taxi's recent ad in Performing Songwriter Magazine says:
"Most Major Record Labels and Publisher DO NOT Accept Unsolicited Tapes. They DO Accept Tapes From Us."
It goes on to say, "The fact is, you won't get a deal if you can't get your tape solicited by a major label or publisher. We work with about a hundred of them. You're curious but suspicious..." it goes on to say their members get tapes to all the major labels and players int he industry. It continues "If all this sounds too good to be true, wait until you find out how we do it. Then you'll wonder why nobody's ever done it before."
Now, that is not bad ad copy. But I can see why people get so confused. It is the same reason that people write to me daily to ask for our website address, or my mailing address or the link to and times of our chat room on AOL when it runs in at least every other issue of the newsletter. People either don't read at all, or they skim over the message, or even misinterpret it. I guarantee many people read that statement above and think to themselves "Great, now my songs, which everyone tells me don't cut it, will get a recording or publishing deal!"
Brian's Harsh Reality Number One: If your song isn't hit quality, sending it to Taxi will NOT get it a publishing deal, nor will it get cut. A weak song has no chance no matter WHO is helping you. If you think Taxi will get a mediocre or less than fantastic song cut, you are in for a major disappointment.
"But Brian," you may protest, "they are taking my 300 dollars, plus 5 dollars a song submission! They owe me something!" Yes, they do. And they deliver EXACTLY what they promise they will. So what is it they DO deliver, and how do they do it? Read on.
Michael took me through the process that a song goes through at Taxi. Please pardon me if I am slightly off on some steps, but here is the gist of what REALLY happens.
1. Michael and his very credible staff build relationships with most of the top publishers and labels in the country. Michael works out a deal where these companies come to him with their song needs, and he in turn informs his members what those opportunities are.
2. So lets say Dreamworks has a need for a pop song that will be used in a blockbuster summer movie coming up the next year. They contact Michael and give information on what they are specifically looking for.
3. In turn, Taxi lists the song need for their members. Now, they do not say "Dreamworks needs a song for their next blockbuster movie." They generically give the specs on the song needed. You, as a member, can submit a song to Taxi, following their submission policies (that many affectionately refer to as a tape burrito), and Taxi takes in every single song that is submitted for that listing. The charge is 5.00. When your tape is received, if it is sent burrito style per instructions, it goes to an experienced A and R professional for review. If it isn't (and an amazingly large number of people simply can never follow even the easiest instructions), then one of Taxi's full time employees has to repackage it to get it into the proper format. They spent a ton of money on this alone.
4. Once the tape is ready, an appropriate A and R person is assigned to screen and critique the song. I say appropriate because the roster of A and R people that work for Taxi are quite an impressive group. I saw them with my own eyes, they really are there, listening to the songs. Some of the people responsible for signing some of the biggest acts in the business are there working away in the little double apartment offices of Taxi. So, since there are so many different genres of songs listed, the people with that area of expertise are logically assigned to screen those songs in their genre. Taxi lists some of these people in their literature and on their web site I believe.
5. The A and R person listens to the song. First, and foremost, they use their finely tuned ears to determine if the song is appropriate for serious consideration for this particular companies needs. Keep in mind, every song that passes this stage gets listened to by the person making the final decision at the label or publisher. A song that is good, but not great will not make it past this stage. A song that is great but not in the right format or not possessing the right feel and nuances, will also not make it past this stage. Remember, a first rate Rock song is not often going to get cut by a famous country star, or R and B star. The song has to be appropriate for the listing. Every time Taxi forwards a song, they are putting their reputation on the line on their members behalf. This is crucially important to understand. If they forward songs that are 90% instead of 100%, then the next time they send your 100% song, that label may not want to hear it anymore. Contrary to rumor, they do not have a limit on songs they will forward. They forward the number that pass muster. Period. If 100 songs are submitted and 50 are appropriate, they send all 50. Period. If 100 are submitted and Zero are appropriate, they send Zero. Period. Those who are writing, or hope to ever write those 100% songs, should be damned glad they do it that way. In reality, if your song isn't 100%, it will NEVER get cut unless you are an insider.
(Remember Janet Fisher's comment, "compare yourself to only the great songs, the less than great songs you hear are simply a favor being called in by an industry insider.")
Brian's Harsh Reality Number Two: Many people say, "if my song is 100%, why the #%$^# do I need to pay Taxi 300 dollars a year plus 5 more dollars to pitch it? It will be a hit anyway!" My answer. Wake up. The odds are not in your favor. I have received over 100 CD's from Just Plain Folks members, and there are dozens, if not HUNDREDS of songs that are 100% and most will never see the light of day. If you do not personally know the people at these labels, you stand between zero and nil chance of getting them on the desks of over one hundred different major label and publishers. Even if your mom and dad are the A and R people at one major label, what about ALL THE REST? If you can consistently write songs that are 100% AND appropriate for specific industry and artist needs, then Taxi is the best possible place you can spend that 300.00 bucks. "But Brian, I am not a 100% writer, or even an 80% writer. So I guess Taxi is not for me!" Wrong. Read on.
6. Lets say your song is not right for the posting. It could be a great song that is not exactly what the label is looking for, or it could simply have a flaw that takes it out of contention for this submission, or let's face it, it could be a total train wreck. What happens then? You wasted your money right? No big contract! No cut with Celine Dion! Taxi ripped you off right? Wrong. The biggest benefit of Taxi, perhaps even outweighing their access to getting your song heard, is that you have already gotten access to a REAL A and R professional, who is now going to review and critique your song. These are the same people (in some cases LITERALLY the same people) at those major labels who you can never get to hear your song. If you send in to a major, if you are lucky, perhaps a mailroom person or an intern will listen to your song. Most likely, it ends up in the circular file, or in many cases, gets electronically erased with a big magnet and put into a free tape bin for that labels artists and writers to use for their next demo. (I have seen that over and over with my own eyes!) When you send to Taxi, you are guaranteed an audience of one of the professionals. In 40 attempts you might get one A and R person to listen to your song. Multiply that by 10-20 songs a year. The money you will spend in shipping and tapes alone will surpass Taxi's yearly fee. And here is another harsh reality. If your song is only 50%, and somehow it gets to the label A and R person, I can assure you that will be the last time it does. And we have ALL written those 50% songs in our lives! However, if you have misfired badly, the A and R people at Taxi are there to help, and their goal is to help you NOT misfire the next time. That label person, on the other hand, never wants to waste their time on you again.
7. The results of your submission is either A: it gets forwarded or B: you receive a written critique of the song, and info on why it didn't get forwarded from the A and R person who screened it. This critique is not returned with the A and R persons name on it. It is sent back from a screener number. "But Brian," you may ask, "first they don't tell me who the company is I am submitting to, and then they don't even tell me the name of this so called successful A and R person. It sounds like one big scam to me!" I can understand why you might think that. But sometimes life is tough.
Brian's Harsh Reality Number Three. To succeed in the music industry, it is all about building trust, building relationships and protecting both. If Taxi published the companies that were accepting submissions, how long do you think it would take some idiot who got turned down from calling the executives at that company to complain? Let me give you the answer, immediately and often. In short order, none of these prestigious companies would want to open their door for your qualified submission, and all the opportunities would be lost. I saw with my own eyes the names of the labels and publishers and artists that were soliciting songs from Taxi members. It read like a who's who. Warner, Dreamworks, Virgin etc. etc. etc. I saw Celine Dion's name on one submission request. We are talking top level, A list opportunities. It is unfortunate that those names can't be attached to the opportunities, but in the same way it is a shame that people commit crimes everyday, you can't control the trouble makers, so we all have to have laws. The law of this world is protect the golden goose. There really is no other option.
Brian's Harsh Reality Number Four. The same exact thing applies to the A and R people who do the critiques. It doesn't take too many death threats before people stop wanting their names sent out to people wholesale, knowing that it only takes one nut case to put their lives in peril, or at least make them miserable. Again, one bad apple in this case really has spoiled the whole bunch. After all, we are talking music, not life and death. 99% of us understand that. It is the 1% that keeps Taxi from releasing that information. Giving an honest opinion shouldn't mean risking your life.
And Taxi is not always perfect:
If your song is forwarded, you are sent a note telling you who it was forwarded to. Taxi does not receive information on whether the song is actually used or not. Their involvement ends at that time. In my opinion, this is one of the few legitimate flaws in the work they do. I find it amazing that they can't come up with a way to track the successes more closely. In my opinion, it hurts Taxi more than the members, by preventing them from touting the actual successes. I think it would also reassure those continual doubters.
If your song is returned to you, you can read the comments by the A and R person and use that information to improve your writing the next time, and hopefully that will help you to find a way to improve enough to get past that A and R person the next time. The reviews that Taxi does are somewhat short and concise, which is a bit of a concern, as I think perhaps a tiny bit more could be added, but on the other hand, that is more than you will get from a rejection from a label or publisher, who will only send you a form letter on a good day, leaving you to wonder if it was ever listened to in the first place (which in most cases, I promise it wasn't!).
Show me the money!
If you are wondering, the 5.00 that Taxi collects per submission serves two realistic roles. First, it helps to offset part of the the cost of the screeners of your song. These A and R people don't do this work as charity after all! But the second thing it does is a major benefit to you. It keeps a small number of people from clogging up the whole system with hundreds of unworthy songs just because it is free and they feel like wasting peoples time. 5.00 is a small fee, but large enough to make sure someone doesn't send the same 25 songs to every submission, without regard to format or genre. Being professional does cost money. 5.00 is dirt cheap for the doors opened.
So what else does Taxi do with the 300 bucks? Well, while we were there, I saw 14 employees working away. No goofing off.. no hanging out. Work work work. There are full time people simply logging the tapes, repacking the tapes, sorting reviews, mailing and receiving mail, and answering the phones and dealing the couriers who are shuttling tapes and CD's back and forth. (Several couriers came and went the day we were there.) There were 6 A and R people working at little tiny desks, with headphones on, concentrating on songs and writing critiques. Both Michael and his Vice President Doug Minnick were running a well tuned, well organized operation out of a cost effective location, putting less worry on glitz and their personal ego boosting, and more worry on making Taxi the best value it can be. One thing he had just done while we were there was to buy and give away year long subscriptions to Recording Magazine. And lest any of you folks think he got them for free, much to my own amazement he didn't. He paid a lot of money to give the magazine to his members, and I thought, wow, that sounds like something I would do!
Michael said that about 200 dollars of the 300 dollar member fee goes directly into servicing each account. The rest pays the bills. Having been in business as long as I have, I can easily see it. I know their ad budget, their payroll, their daily operating expenses and mail costs and their staff expense make what he does more of a labor of love right now than the get rich scheme that many accuse them of via the Internet. Taxi also throws a big road rally event for their members, and they pay for everything. (Compare that to many other paid organizations and their yearly events.)
Other general myths to dispel:
1. At Taxi, only insiders get forwarded, us nobodies have no chance. Michael let me randomly grab any reviews out of thousands that I wanted to. I picked up a stack, and went through them while I ate the pizza he bought us for lunch (since as always, out meeting had gone on much longer than we thought). The very first review I picked up was a song co-written by a VERY famous songwriter and artist who had had several huge number one hits. The result of the review? The song didn't cut it in a nut shell. Keep in mind, even the most successful writers fail 95+% of the time. Taxi has ZERO to gain in not forwarding a worthy song. In reality, their best ally is forwarding a great song to the publisher or label and it becoming a big hit. Why would they hold back any worthy song? Obviously, they wouldn't.
2. Common Complaints are: "Everyone here at home says my song is a big hit. I sold 2000 copies of my album. I have gotten airplay on that song. I won songwriting contests with that song. My neighbors and family love it." Etc. etc. etc. ad nauseam. "Taxi is a failure if they can't get my song cut! They MUST be doing nothing." First of all, local success is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it gives your work a rare positive boost that so many of us so rarely get. But a curse because what plays locally often has little to no relevance to a specific opening at a specific label for a specific artist on a specific day. We have all heard plenty of stories of famous bands who failed over and over and over. For every one of them that made it, there are 500 more who have great local success and don't make it at all. Taxi can't control whether your song or band or style is not what the label is looking for. No matter how good you are. However, if your band happens to be the one that can fill that need, the only way you have of being the one to fill it is having those that Taxi does business with get it. You have to be in the game to win the game. Taxi at least gives you an at bat.
So, in a nutshell, and in my opinion, these things are true:
1. Taxi is legit. They aren't scamming anyone. They offer specific benefits, and follow through on those specific benefits very well.
2. Taxi has two specific main benefits.
A: They act as screeners directly for the major labels and publishers. If Taxi says the song is worthy of consideration, it lands squarely on the desk of the major exec who has the need for the song. Period.
B: If your song is not appropriate for that major listing, through Taxi, you receive a personally written critique from a qualified A and R professional, rather than what happens when you send it unsolicited to a major label yourself, which is being reviewed by some intern, mail clerk if you are lucky, or receiving a computer generated form letter or even worse, and more likely, finding you hard work in their circular trash can file.
3. Taxi makes NO promises of success, just opportunity. They promise to give your song the best chance to be heard by the majors, IF it is up to snuff. They get you in the game. Whether or not your song is a home run waiting to happen is totally up to you and your talent. There is no magic fairy dust.
4. Taxi is not free. Taxi is not cheap. But Taxi is a valuable tool, if used correctly. It isn't an end all. It is part of a comprehensive strategy that you, as a serious writer, should include if it is right for you, at this stage of your career. There are many types of tools out there. Just Plain Folks is a great tool, but like Taxi, it only works if you use it correctly.
5. Taxi does have a couple of weak spots in my opinion. But they are not enough to discredit their fine work in any way. Nothing is, or ever will be perfect. And most of their weaknesses affect them much more than their members. I don't think as a whole, anyone could do, or is doing what they are doing any better than they are.
But that's just my opinion, I could be right.