Even many of his closest friends quietly snickered behind Michael Laskow's back when he started his unique business on a small wooden table in Woodland Hills, California. That was in 1992, and now Laskow's company, TAXI, is poised to become a pivotal player in the future of the music industry.
A former recording engineer and record producer, Laskow saw a friend "talk" to another friend on a local BBS (the forerunner of today's Internet) in late 1991, and instinctively knew that music would one day travel through those same wires. He also surmised that his vision would eventually change the way people consumed music, but he wasn't sure exactly how. The one thing that he knew wouldn't change was the need to have someone separate the good music from the not so good.
Fast forward thirteen years, and TAXI has become the world's leading independent A&R company. A&R is short for Artist and Repertoire, a function traditionally handled by record company executives with a keen eye and ear for talent. Laskow's company has made their job easier by becoming a matchmaker for unsigned artists, bands, and songwriters, and the companies looking for those elusive hit songs. He named it TAXI as a symbol of transporting artists from where they are to where they need to go.
In doing so, Laskow has created what many believe to be the most effective route for greater numbers of "qualified" musicians to have their songs heard by music business executives. But there is a catch. The music has to be good. Make that very good. That's one of the key reasons that most labels won't listen to music from anyone that sends in a demo˜they just don't have the resources to sift through hundreds of thousands of songs every year. But TAXI does, making it more important to the music industry as well as music fans.
Record companies have traditionally signed just a handful of acts each year, and have invested huge amounts of money and time into "breaking" the few that looked most promising. But due to limited resources, most of those artists never get the big push, and rarely see the light of day. Their careers are over before they begin.
Laskow sees a not-too-distant future where record labels in their present form will cease to exist. "They will become more like investment banks with much lower overhead, far fewer risks, and a lot more profitability," he says. "They're practically out of the artist development business now anyway, so it's not much of a reach to expect that they will get out of marketing talent as well. A&R won't be about matching the artist with the songs or producer, but more about researching an artist's activity so they know where to place their investments. It'll be like financial advisors who tell you which stocks to buy."
By far the biggest success story to date for TAXI has been for Jim Funk and Erik Hickenlooper. The songwriting duo pitched their song, "Buy Me a Rose," through TAXI. Not only was it recorded by country superstar Kenny Rogers, but it was a number 1 single. The song was then recorded once more by R&B icon Luther Vandross, whose version became a top 20 single.
In addition, TAXI helped facilitate the deals for the band Crossfade, whose Columbia Records debut is about to go Gold; and Elliott Park, a songwriter who landed a staff writer deal with a hot Nashville-based publisher. But then, it is the members who are able to make money doing what they love because of TAXI that really puts a smile on Laskow's face.
"I get excited about members like Matt Hirt ($50,000 income to date from film/TV placements) because there are more and more of them showing up on our radar every week," he says. "TAXI doesn't exist just to make a few artists huge superstars. Our goal is to help our members earn their primary living from making music. That's the way the future of music should look like˜consumers getting more choices in the easiest possible way, and more musicians earning their living doing what they love."
Laskow adds that in the music business' next life, the songs we listen to will come from purveyors that will offer everything consumers want to hear. The signs to this are already there, with the advent of satellite radio companies such as XM and Sirius. Consumers have shown they want more choice than what terrestrial radio and the record labels currently offer. But while companies like MP3.com offered far too much choice, Laskow and his staff of industry veterans will help the music companies of the not-so-distant future to deliver quality music to its listeners.
TAXI's current task is to send labels only the music that makes it over a very high bar. Laskow believes that there are a lot of artists his company hears that consumers would love, but that the labels wouldn't take a chance on because they're not perfect in every way. "They may be too heavy, older than seventeen, or not terribly attractive," he sighs. But he believes there are a lot of music lovers who are just that˜music lovers who don't really care what an artist looks like or how many birthdays they have celebrated. And those consumers are also tired of paying for a full album and getting just one or two good songs. "It's going to be a 'singles' business," says Laskow. "Apple's iTunes and the iPod have already proven that."
Laskow also believes that a label's marketing focus will have to shift. "The largest cost for record companies is promotion," he says. "But when consumers can go to a digital download source like iTunes or AOL Music and sample a broader range of genres with more variety offered within those genres, they'll just find the music they want, and nobody will have to market the hell out of it or cram it down anybody's throat."
And when the labels free up their manufacturing, distribution, and marketing budgets, they will be able to take lots of small chances instead of a few that are very expensive and extremely risky. Artists will be able to get their "J.D. Power-ish" stamp of approval from TAXI, and go directly to the music providers. There won't be a middleman with limited resources constricting the flow of great music to consumers or eating up most of the profits.
And whether the music is sold by the song and downloaded, or streamed by flat-fee subscription companies, it really doesn't matter to Laskow and his staff. His model promises to give everyone what they really want˜consumers will get more and better choices, and thousands more artists will find their audiences and earn their living by making music.
Many of those artists will be able to tour as a way to earn that living. Laskow says that the days of arena-sized tours may be waning, but that investors will get behind smaller tours in large numbers. "The future," he says, "could very well be about larger numbers of musicians making smaller amounts of money instead of a few musicians making huge sums."
Even the record companies will be happy to get this uncomfortable transition behind them, while knowing that they can make more money in the process. "But the cool part," says Laskow, "is that it will be like FM radio in the seventies all over again. You'll hear Led Zeppelin, followed by Stevie Wonder, followed by Sheryl Crow, followed by Linkin Park, and it will all be 'your' music."