|Michael laskow (center front)
and his partner Michael Lederer (2nd from left) surrounded
by the TAXI staff as they celebrate the company's
A decade ago, when Michael Laskow, a veteran music studio
engineer and producer, told the world he was going to start
up an independent A&R company, the world responded with a
collective giggle, followed by a yawn. It simply can't be
done, Michael, most everyone said. Too many obstacles. Too
much resistance and/or indifference from the staid, insular
music business. Undaunted, Laskow pressed on, and eventually
had the last laugh. His company, which he named TAXI, now
enjoys a positive and fruitful relationship with most of the
music industry's major players.
As a writer for such publications as Newsweek, People, Rolling
Stone, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today and the New York Times,
I've met lots of folks in the music business and the business
world in general, but few seem as sincere or as sharp as Laskow.
Clearly driven, he still works his tail off keeping this vehicle
running. Forgive the automobile metaphors, but if you've seen
TAXI's web site or read its literature, you know how hard
it is to resist those clever cab allusions.
But seriously, folks, TAXI works. I'm a journalist and I
am not here to endorse or promote the company, but it does
apparently provide a rare and valuable service to a huge community
of songwriters, many of whom feel otherwise disenfranchised,
out of the loop. For a fee most seem to think is reasonable,
the company gives its members erstwhile unattainable access
to the monolithic record labels, publishers and music supervisors
of film and TV projects.
Of course, the tunes still have to be good. Laskow and his
veteran staffers won't forward anything they think isn't viable.
But they are doing what most people thought could not be done:
they're getting new music through otherwise impenetrable music-biz
doors, and of that Laskow is rightly proud.
This month, Laskow's little engine that could celebrates
its unlikely 10-year anniversary, so I thought it would be
appropriate in this forum to talk to the founder himself,
instead of having others talk about him and his company. Recently,
I had the pleasure of chatting with the affable, tireless
CEO about his wild 10-year TAXI ride.
Do you recall when and where you first thought up the
concept for TAXI?
Yeah, it was in late 1991, right after I asked my boss for
a raise and he turned me down. I dropped the keys to the company
BMW in his hands, and waved good-bye. I went to my office,
put my feet up on my desk, and realized what an idiot I was
for quitting my job. The next thought that popped in to my
head was to create a computer network that connected bands,
artists, and songwriters with record companies, publishers,
and music supervisors working in film and TV.
What was the catalyst for the creation, the inspiration
for your idea?
I used to be an engineer/producer. In between working with
the "superstar" acts, I worked with a lot of local artists
and songwriters. Many of them were really, really good, but
they didn't have a way to get their foot in the door. I simply
missed that rush you get when you help somebody create a hit.
Others have tried but failed to devise a successful independent
A&R vehicle (pun intended), but why do you think their business
plans did not succeed?
Sure, lots of people have tried, and several are still trying,
but they seem to be in it for the quick buck. Our approach
has always been to do what we're passionate about, and deliver
incredible customer service while we're doing it. We figured
that simple formula would win in the long-term, and it has.
Can you give me a step-by-step recollection of how you
turned TAXI from a good idea to a great company?
Well, I don't want to spell out the whole business plan, but
I will tell you that it was a lot harder than I thought it
would be. A lot harder! It taught me a very valuable lesson
though. If you stay extremely focused, and remain persistent,
you can build a company that works. We've always tried very
hard to be just one thingthe world's best independent A&R
company. I think a lot of people have great ideas that never
become great companies because they just keep thinking about
it, and never actually do it. For me, it was all about putting
one foot in front of the other over and over and over again.
To this day, we never rest on our laurels. We're always working
on incremental improvements. It's an ongoing process that
should never stop. If the process stops, the company will
eventually stop being great.
How much resistance and/or skepticism did you get at first?
Suprisingly, most of the skepticism came from the musicians
and writers, not from the labels. I can't blame them for being
skeptical. A lot of companies purported to do what TAXI was
doing, but none of them had ever delivered on their promise.
How much financial backing did you get at the start?
Seventy-five thousand dollars.
Who were the initial investors?
It was just one person. My best friend from college, Michael
Lederer. He was a brave, brave soul who remains my partner
to this day, and is our Chief Financial Officer. TAXI wouldn't
be here today without his trust in me, and faith in the concept.
Who were some of the other music business folks instrumental
in TAXI's early success?
There is one that stands aloneJohn Braheny. He was the co-founder
and director of the Los Angeles Songwriters Showcase. He's
been my mentor since the very beginning, and the most honest
man I've ever met. He was very instrumental in TAXI's success.
ASCAP vice president Ralph Murphy has been a mentor and supporter
from the beginning, as well as Lenny Kalikow from New On The
Charts. If I remember correctly, Craig Kallman was the first
A&R person to use TAXI to find new material. He is now president
of Atlantic Records.
Are there misconceptions about what you do and what TAXI
does? If so, what are they?
I think the big misconception is that we can get a deal for
somebody even if their music isn't up to par. Our job is,
and always has been to get your music on the desks of people
who have the power to sign deals. But your music has to be
good enough or we can't forward it to a label. Our bar is
set pretty high, and it has to be, or we'll quickly wear out
our welcome with the industry folks who use TAXI as a resource.
Describe your relationship with the record companies. How
do you think TAXI is perceived by the record labels?
The higher you go, the better we are perceived. In other words,
ask a receptionist about TAXI, and he or she might say, "Huh?"
Receptionists don't run listings with us. Ask a vice president,
and the answer will most likely be, "Oh yeah. TAXI's cool.
I use them as a resource."
Do any labels, publishers, supervisors, etc., still refuse
to accept TAXI submissions?
There was a person in Nashville who told us to take her off
our list several years ago. Lately she's been referring new
members to us. I guess the tide has turned.
Why do you think record company A&R executives sometimes
have the reputation for being aloof and virtually impossible
to get through to? And is that reputation warranted?
Let's face it. If everybody in the world who thought they
had a hit on their hands could reach every A&R person by phone,
none of the A&R people would have time to do anything but
talk on the phone. In their defense, A&R people have to spend
a huge chunk of their time dealing with all the details that
go into making sure a record gets made. They really don't
spend that much time listening to new material because they
have so many things on their plates. That's why they only
listen to material that's sent to them by somebody who they
trust not to waste their time. That's why they use TAXI as
one of those trusted resources, just as they'd use a music
attorney or a well-known manager.
Tell me a little about how TAXI works. How many people
work for the company?
The system is still very much like what I outlined in the
business plan a decade ago. Labels, publishers, and music
supervisors tell us what they're looking for. We tell our
members what is being sought out, without identifying the
companies because they would get bombarded with unsolicited
submissions. Our members send their music to TAXI to be pre-screened
for each industry request. We find the stuff that's on target
and just plain good enough, and we send it to the A&R person
as solicited material. It makes it easier for everybody. That's
one of the things I'm most proud of TAXI forit's a win/win
for both sides of the fence. We currently have a staff of
ten people, and a screening pool of a hundred-fifty or so
people. They work in four-hour shifts so they don't get burned
out, and typically, we have about six people listening per
shift. I think we probably use about forty or fifty people
from the pool in any given month.
How do you determine who judges and critiques your music?
It's simple. We use Country experts to screen Country music.
We use Pop people to screen Pop music. And we use R&B experts
to screen R&B music. All the people who are in our A&R department
have been directly involved in signing acts or picking hits
in their careers. We're really picky about who we use because
our members are precious to us, and our A&R people are the
most vital point of contact to our members. Something that
a lot of people don't know is that we actually train our A&R
people on how to mentor our members, and how to write useful
critiques. We found out early in the game that just because
somebody has been a V.P. of A&R at a major label, that doesn't
mean they are well-qualified to write helpful critiques. We
actually have classes to teach them how to do it, and if they
can't get it right, we don't continue to use them.
What percentage of songs received by TAXI are forwarded
to record companies, publishers, music supervisors, etc.?
This number can be misleading, but I'll give it to you with
some explanation. Eleven percent of the material that comes
in gets forwarded. But, and I emphasize the but, that percentage
obviously varies from listing to listing. We have to be much
more selective when the request has come in from a major label
president or VP than we are for a request that comes in from
a video game manufacturer that tells us not to be too picky.
In other words, on the picky end of the scale, the percentage
is likely to be in the single digits. The loose end of the
scale for companies that instruct us to be less stringent,
might be twenty five percent.
As well as your system works, isn't it still an inherently
Absolutely. That's why we hire A&R people who know what's
happening in the current marketplace, and in many cases, they
even know the people who are running the listings, looking
for talent and material.
Some people think you guys are too expensive. What do you
say to that charge?
How much does just one hour cost with a top music attorney?
$350 to $400. A plane flight to LA, New York or Nashville?
About $200-$400. And what do you do when you get there? Do
you have access to the industry? How long would you have to
camp out in a hotel room and pay for a rental car until you'd
break through the doors you need to get through? How much
did your last guitar cost? $1,500? Will that get you signed?
How about that cool new keyboard? Has anybody ever gotten
signed because they spent two grand on a new synth? Not likely.
The bottom line is that I know three hundred bucks can be
a lot of money to some people, and not a lot to other people.
It's a very personal decision, but I think I can make a pretty
good case why TAXI is inexpensive by comparison, and in the
long run is a very wise investment in your career.
Can you tell us a little about your experiences as a recording
engineer? Who are some of the artists with whom you worked
before becoming TAXI's CEO?
That's a whole other interview. Let it suffice to say that
ever since I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, I wanted
to make records. I consider myself one of the luckiest people
you'll ever meet because I had the exceptionally good fortune
to be able to live my dream at a pretty early age. I've worked
with Eric Clapton, Neil Young, CSNY, Firefall, Cheap Trick,
and lots of other incredible artists. But, I've got to tell
you that it was almost a bigger rush to find a new artist,
and take them into the studio for the first time. Sparks fly,
and great records get made when the artist isn't jaded.
How has that experience helped you in your current position?
It made me realize that there are a ton of great unsigned
artists and writers out there who couldn't get their foot
in the door. It also gave me the opportunity to work with
A&R people and artists so I could understand what their needs
are as a whole and individually.
Do the folks at TAXI ever hear a song that isn't necessarily
what the label may have asked for, but they forward it anyway
because they like it and they think it's good or different
or creative or all of the above?
Sure, there are times when that scenario plays out. If we
think the person on the industry end of the equation will
really appreciate our sending it to them, yes, of course.
But it's not a case of, "I think this is pretty good. I'll
forward it and see what the A&R person thinks." It has to
be incredible. They can hear "pretty good" all day long. They
don't need us helping them in that department.
Can you please share with me some of the success stories
of TAXI members who've gone on to sell songs to artists, get
My favorite would have to be Jim Funk and Erik Hickenlooper
getting a cut with Kenny Rogers for their song, "Buy Me A
Rose," and having it go to Number One. It was only the second
song they ever wrote, and they recorded it in the back bedroom
of a farmhouse on an 8-track. They would literally stop the
tape when the cow outside mooed. They came to our annual convention,
the Road Rally, got hooked up with a publisher there, and
the rest is history. They deserve everything they've gotten
from that song. It's great, and they're exceptionally nice
None The Richer joined TAXI after they got their deal with
Squint Records. They were mostly interested in getting film
and TV placements. We sent them to Dawson's Creek. They eventually
got their song placed on the show, and then on the soundtrack
album. "Kiss Me" was the first single from that album, and
it really propelled them to success.
are literally hundreds of stories with varying degrees of
"success" attached to them, but it's important to remember
that just getting your music heard by someone in the industry
is a huge success. Most people never get their music to anybody
in the industry on their own. But by using TAXI they do, and
that's the promise we deliver on. We don't claim to make people
"stars." Our job is to get them to the people who can make
Why the name TAXI? And just how many taxicab metaphors
have you used in your marketing these last 10 years?
(Laughs) The name just popped in to my head. You know, taxis
get you from where you are to where you want to go. They're
friendly and reliable. Attributes we embrace around here.
As far as the metaphors... countless!
What's down the road for your company (there's another
one)? What do you still want to do with TAXI that you haven't
That's an endless list, but high on the list for this year
is making it easier for members to submit their music to us.
We've recently added a premium service called Dispatch that
allows our members to submit their music on-line for quick
turn around situations for film and TV listings that we otherwise
couldn't have availed to our members. We're going to use some
of that same technology this year to make electronic submissions
available for all of our listings. We've got some other exciting
things in the hopper, but it's too early to talk about them.
What is the single coolest thing that the company has done?
We've changed the way the music industry finds new artists
and material. We've created opportunities for musicians that
didn't exist before TAXI. I feel like we've made a real difference
in a lot of people's lives. While it isn't as cool as curing
cancer, it has changed a little corner of the world for the
better. And we are all very thankful to come to work each
day knowing that we're making that difference.
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