Who Will Succeed in the
'New Music Business'?

Interview With TAXI Founder and CEO, Michael Laskow


Interview by Paul Balkin
succeed in the new music business
When I sat down to interview Michael Laskow a couple of months prior to TAXI's 15th anniversary, he had one ground rule: "I don't want to make this about me. Ask me questions that will help the people who read this move their careers in the music business forward."

I had to cross most of my questions off the list, and flew by the seat of my pants. I hope you enjoy the end result as much as I did.
—P.B.

How did you end up in the music business?

ML: Nice going, you've already broken the rule!

Well, I want to give the readers a little background.

ML: Okay, but I'll keep this brief. I grew up in Ottawa, Illinois; a small town mostly populated by farmers and factory workers.

I was hoping for a little more than that.

ML: Okay, I saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show when I was nine years old, and my fate was sealed. I was in a couple of garage bands in my teens, but I was never a great player.

Ten years after seeing the Beatles for the first time, I was going to college at the University of Miami in Florida. I was standing in Ace Music one day and overheard a delivery guy mention that he was taking some gear to Criteria Studios. I begged him to let me take the ride with him. He caved in, and the next thing I knew, I was sitting in the lobby as the owner walked by and said, "This place is a mess. We need to find a new kid to sweep the floors."

I jumped out of my chair, waved my arms and proclaimed, "I'll do it!" They threw me out. But I called the owner five times a day for five days, until the owner finally came on the line and said, "If I interview you for this job and you don't get it, do you promise to never call here again as long as you live?"

I agreed. He interviewed me an hour later, and I got an internship — meaning long hours, and no money. That was in 1974, and I've never looked back. That's all I'm going to give you (laughs).


"Without TAXI, most of the 1,200 plus opportunities we offer our members every year just wouldn't exist."
—Michael Laskow

How did you come up with the idea for TAXI?

ML: That's kind of about me, but it's a good story, so I'll answer it (laughs). In between working with a lot of gold and platinum level artists of the day, I did what most engineers and producers still do today — I did smaller sessions with local songwriters and bands. Some of them were amazing, and they all had one thing in common. After finishing their demos and blowing through their cash, they hit a dead end when they tried to get their music heard by somebody at a record label. I remember thinking that there had to be a way to solve that problem.

Years later, I came to a fork in the road of life, and while trying to figure out my next move, the idea for TAXI popped in to my head. And I'm talking the whole idea. The entire business plan was crystal clear to me in an instant.

I turned in the keys to the company Beemer, bought an old clunker, and pretty much had to choose between buying food or paying the rent for the next couple of years. I can relate to starving artists because I've been there and done it. It wasn't pretty, but I'm glad my family and I went through it together. We learned to appreciate things a lot more, and I'm really glad that my older kids got to see that hard work pays off if you never give up.

Why did you name the company TAXI?

ML: Because it gets you from where you are to where you want to go. The name resonated for me, and it seemed like it was common enough for people to remember.

Are there any lessons you learned from growing a business from the ground up that could help the people reading this in their own careers?

ML: A bunch! But a couple that come quickly to mind are: that there are no magic bullets, and that if you want something badly enough you can achieve it.

Can you elaborate?

ML: Sure. I thought TAXI was such a great idea that thousands of people would instantly join — somewhat analogous to a musician thinking a song is a sure-fire hit. Little did I realize that without tons of advertising and marketing, nobody would know TAXI even existed. There was no magic bullet to replace hard work. And ironically, when people finally did find out about us, many of them were skeptical.

Let's talk about that skepticism for a minute. I still see people bashing TAXI on message boards on the Internet. Why do you think that happens?

ML: I've come to learn that any time you deal with large numbers of people, some of them are going to be unhappy. I understand. Hey, we're in the business of breaking hearts. We can't forward every song we get, much as we'd love to. When we send a CD to the people who requested the material from us, it ends up on the same desk as the material by the absolute top songwriters and artists in the business. We've got to be really picky, or the people at the companies that use TAXI as a resource won't keep on using us.

But I wish there was a law that said, "Anytime you go TAXI bashing on the Internet, you've got to post a link to your song right next to what you write." I think a lot of people who read those posts and listen to the songs would understand where many of the complaints are coming from.

I'm sure we're not infallible, but we work really hard to bring tremendous opportunity and value to our members. I wish more people would realize that we're not gatekeepers, we're really gate openers. We're enablers. Without TAXI, most of the 1,200 plus opportunities we offer our members every year just wouldn't exist. Before TAXI, the average musician on the street had no access to the people and opportunities they do now.


"I've seen far too many people that give up because they sent in a couple of songs and Clive Davis didn't call them up a week later to offer them a deal."
—Michael Laskow

And what about wanting something so badly that you can achieve it?

ML: Oh yeah, I got a little sidetracked on that last one. When you join TAXI, you're really joining the music business — the real music business. You're now playing on the same field that the pros are. Not to say that we don't have a certain percentage of our members who are already professionals and already know the ropes. But most of our members have never been in a pitch meeting or a meeting with the president of a label. Most of our members don't know that people in the business don't call you back to reject you because they don't have the time, or that they may take six months to listen to your CD even though they requested it. What separates those members from people who have already achieved success in the music business isn't always their talent or musical ability — we have a lot of incredibly talented members. What often separates them is simply their experience in the business and their tenacity or lack thereof.

I've seen far too many people that give up because they sent in a couple of songs and Clive Davis didn't call them up a week later to offer them a deal.

Maybe they were close. Maybe they were really, really close! But if they tuck their tail between their legs and ran off the playing field, they'll never achieve what they set out to do. Very few truly wonderful things in life come easily. I know that from my own experience. I worked at least 16 hours a day for the first few years of TAXI's existence, and I can remember shedding some late night tears because I knew how hard it was going to be to find the strength to get up and do it all over the next day. I know this may all sound kind of corny and cliché, but clichés usually come from truth.

Let's shift gears and talk about how the Internet has changed the music business.

ML: Man, that's a whole interview unto itself. Can you narrow it down a little?

Hasn't the Internet leveled the playing field so much that you don't really need to sign with a label to be successful?

ML: I'm going to have to give you a "yes" and a "no" on that one. The Internet has given everybody distribution, but it's marketing where most artists fall short. Just because your song is on iTunes or MySpace doesn't guarantee that it's going to be a hit. Actually, it doesn't guarantee that you'll sell anything! There are what… a few million unsigned bands and artists on MySpace? How many of them have made a million dollars? A hundred thousand? Hell, even a thousand dollars?

Derek Sivers from CDBaby is a good friend of mine, and we've had this discussion for years — as in any pursuit, there are always a few people, a small percentage who are willing to learn more and work harder than the rest at promoting themselves. Therefore, they often succeed at a higher level and frequency than the majority of their competitors. There are those artists on CDBaby, MySpace, and everywhere else you look, but the majority will stay pretty much where they are now.

Personally, I'd like to see everybody earn their entire living from making music, if that's what they really want. But not everybody can drop everything in their life, and work 16 hours a day, six or seven days a week for a few years to ramp up to a full-scale income that replaces the one they have now.

Maybe the artists who succeed in the "new music business" would have been the same people that got the big record deals in the "old" system — it's not a stretch. But I do think that there will be kind of a musician "middle class" that will sell a hundred of this or 10 of that. That kind of validation is pretty intoxicating — maybe it's not a huge hit record, but it's still cool.

So, that's all good stuff isn't it?

ML: Yeah, but with some caveats. I know musicians pretty darn well after working with them for the last 32 years. I think many or most will still hold out for the magic bullet, thinking that having their music on the Internet alone will make their fame and fortune magically appear. But it takes work, not luck to make that happen. A lot of work.

There are three million bands on MySpace. How many can you name? How many have you heard? How many were so good that you'd pay for their music? How will the person reading this interview rise above the other 2,999,999 bands on there?

Don't you think we could be going back to a system where the artists and bands that can afford to buy the most marketing expertise and advertising will still have the most success? Same game, different venue.

If artist A is signed to a label or large management company, and has a couple million bucks in hand to buy the help of a publicist, an Internet "street team," some banner ads, top of the page placement on Google, and the biggest music download sites, then where does that leave artist B?

Most musicians are artist B, and can only compete with a war chest like that if they have substantial money of their own or a lot of time to do the heavy lifting. Most musicians don't have the luxury of either.

Alright, I buy it. Got any solutions?

ML: Well, let's assume that the level of talent in the humongous artist B group is just as good as artist A's tiny little clique — the artists with the backing of a major label or manager. If that's the case, then consumers will be missing out on a lot of really talented artists.

Why?

ML: Because the artists who consumers will mostly hear about and buy will be the artists who can afford to get the word out and get in their faces. I'm sure that recommendations from friends and Top 10 blogs and playlists will sell some downloads too, but I think that will mostly be the domain of hard-core music geeks and the 13-24 set. I don't think many 34-year-old housewives, 55-year-old Beemer-driving Republicans, or 44-year-old plumbers from Passaic are going to spend hours per week scouring scores of Web sites to find their music, do you? Am I nuts?


"I asked them what it takes to make a hit record, and their answer was, 'Hit songs.'"
—Michael Laskow

So far I agree. Again, what's the solution?

ML: Pull, not push! In Chris Anderson's terrific book, The Long Tail, he suggests that all the music that sells in small quantities, if added up, matches or exceeds the sales of the big hits. He also says that for that 'long tail' to succeed, there has to be pre-filtering and post-filtering.

What TAXI does is pre-filtering. Top 10 lists and recommendations by friends are post-filtering. If used effectively, consumers could easily find what they want to hear, rather than have it crammed down their throats by radio and advertising. Humans like to discover things like new music, but we don't want to work too hard at it.

Why do you buy Tide detergent? Because you know that it's a successful brand that other people have bought, so it must be good. None of us want to go through the brain damage of having to purchase five different brands of detergent and do an actual shoot out to see which is best. We don't want to work that hard to find music we like either. People who aren't hard-core music geeks won't give up the time to do that. So what do they do? They trust somebody else's ears to do some advance filtering for them, and they'll pull their favorites from that.

Wow, it sounds like you've given this some serious thought.

ML: I have. Other than my family, it's pretty much all I think about. Kind of sad, isn't it (laughs)?

So what should songwriters and artists be doing to get ready for this brave new world?

ML: Learn how to write great songs. It seems that everybody is so focused on building online profiles and adding cool Flash player stuff to their Web sites, that they've forgotten what will really sell their music — and that's great songs. Always has been, and always will be. How much mediocre music do you buy?

None.

ML: Me either, and neither does John Q. Music Lover. But it feels like a lot of musicians aren't worried about song craft any more. Maybe they think that a cool Web page or a better mix will sell more music, but it won't.

On my very first day in the music business, I was working at Criteria Studios, vacuuming the lobby of studio "C." I interrupted a pinball game between two "older" gentlemen. Little did I know that they were Tommy Dowd and Arif Mardin, two of the best record producers to ever walk this planet.

I asked them what it takes to make a hit record, and their answer was, "Hit songs." That was true in 1974 and that will still be true in 2074. And the sooner more artists, bands, and songwriters realize that and learn how to really write great songs, the sooner they'll be successful beyond their wildest imaginations.

So how do they learn how to do that?

ML: Read books. Lots and lots of books! Take classes, and not just one. I mean that they have to work at songwriting every day. If you treat your music like a hobby, then it will pay you like a hobby. How could you honestly expect anything more? Why is it that some musicians feel entitled to become Rock stars or hit songwriters without working their asses off at it? Can you become a "star" at anything without great sacrifice and hard work?

Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, and Andre Agassi… did they play golf, ride a bike, or play tennis for a few hours week or in their spare time? No! And neither can the people who want to succeed in the music business!

What about people who don't want to be Rock stars?

ML: Film and TV music placements are the answer for them. It's so much easier than being a Rock star, and so few people realize just how easy it is. Half the time you don't even need lyrics, and that may be the hardest part of writing hit songs.

The other cool thing is that you can be older than 21, overweight, and downright unattractive, and still be very successful doing film and TV music. You certainly can't say that about the record business. And the best part is that you can do it from home on pretty basic equipment, and you can do it in your spare time.

We literally get e-mails and phone calls from members nearly every day now regarding deals they've done through TAXI for film and TV placements. We were really the first company to help unsigned writers and artists get film and TV deals. Everybody laughed at us back in 1992, now they all try to imitate us.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then boy am I flattered (laughs).

Any final thoughts?

ML: Just one. There's a guy in Baird, Texas, named Elliott Park. He got a publishing deal in Nashville through TAXI. He has a hit song called "I Loved Her First" by the group Heartland on the radio right now. He's my hero because he's worked so hard at his craft.

Every time I see somebody trashing TAXI on a message board, I try to remember Elliott and the thousands of other members who have had real success using TAXI, and wonder why those other people don't just work at writing better songs instead of blaming us for their lack of success. In my perfect world, I'd like to see them succeed, too.



Paul Balkin is a Dallas, Texas, based journalist who considers songwriting and recording to be his true passion.

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