If Erik Hickenlooper and Jim Funk had known their song "Buy Me A Rose" would become a comeback hit last spring for the Gambler himself, Kenny Rogers, they might have chosen a better studio to record their demo. But it was only the second song they'd ever written, so they set up in the back bedroom of Funk's house in Hooper, Utah. Says Hickenlooper, a 29-year-old pharmaceutical rep: "We had to rewind the tape when a cow would moo."
The duo belong to TAXI, an L.A.-based company that helps unknown musicians hone their craft and if they're lucky, earn a bit of cash by placing their songs on TV shows and in indie films. TAXI members' tunes have turned up on Dawson's Creek, ER, The Sopranos, Jerry Springer Show, MTV's Undressed, and various cable movies.
At first the company's pitch sounds like a scam. Its website proclaims: "We can get you through the doors and on the desks of the people who sign the deals at major companies. We guarantee it!" While the implications that TAXI is likely to get your band signed is misleading, the statement is, in fact, true. Here's how it works: You send $300.00 to a San Fernando Valley address and receive "listings" from A&R people, publishers, and TV music supervisors seeking vocalists, bands, or finished recordings. You send in your stuff, and if TAXI's screeners (described as "heavyweight music industry veterans") like what they hear, they forward your work to the appropriate entity. They'll even give you a hand-written critique of your song. TAXI, which has approximately 6,000 members, claims about 40 percent of its members get their work forwarded in a year and about 5 percent of members actually cut a deal.
With films and TV shows replacing MTV as a leading venue for unknown artists to get heard by the masses, such exposure is invaluable. TAXI members Sixpence None The Richer pushed their album for more than a year before Dawson's Creek made them famous. "It's tough for anybody to even find the guys who (coordinate music) for TV shows," says Lindsay Fellows, who helped launch Sixpence's label, Squint Entertainment. "Their names aren't in the credits. It's a really closed business. But it's a great vehicle if you can get your stuff to them. Maybe they can't afford Sarah McLachlan, but if you're in the same vein and can do it for a thousand dollars..."
Rich Dickerson, music director for the web TV-show incubator Icebox.com, agrees that TAXI saves him time by weeding through thousands of submissions and offering affordable alternatives to big names. "If the director wants something he doesn't have the budget for--say, Alanis or Madonna--that's where TAXI comes in."
However, emotional validation may be TAXI's biggest service. "I was convinced I was a songwriter because of their system," says Julie Ann Bailey, a 42-year-old mother/musician in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, who has had music placed on Jerry Springer. "You sing for your friends, but you can't expect professional or unbiased feedback." Queen Esther, an unsigned New York City singer/songwriter and TAXI member, agrees: "I'm able to say îI'm a songwriter' now."
As for the Utah hitmakers--whose royalties haven't arrived in full--has the taste of success ruined them? "I'm signing autographs right now," says Hickenlooper over the phone. "Just kidding. I'm only a celebrity to farmers and the animals that pass by the door." Writing another hit is his goal--along with paying off his house and buying something nice for his wife. "I'll probably be able to mortgage a rototiller."