This Article Originally Published March 2008
As the president and CEO of TAXI, Michael Laskow has spent the last 16 years rubbing elbows with the heads of record labels, film and TV music supervisors, managers, agents, and producers... all in an effort to help unsigned bands, artists, songwriters and composers connect with the people in the industry who are looking for music. This month, FastForward gets Mr. Laskow's take on what's hot, what indie artists need to do better, and why illegal downloads could be the death of great music.
What do you see as the most interesting developments in music over the last six to 12 months? Particularly as they relate to independent music.
While the landscape has been and is becoming more favorable for independent artists, I think there's still one giant pothole that people are falling into, and that's marketing — or lack thereof.
How many people do you know who have their music on MySpace or CD Baby? How many artists do you know who have made more money with their music than they do at their day job? Practically none, if you think about it.
The reason so few bands or artists make significant money with their music is because either their music is not great, or their marketing is not great. But let's assume that the music is great, and they're still not selling any CDs or downloads. It's got to be because not enough potential buyers know it exists.
Most musicians I know will spend their last dime to make their tracks perfect, but they put no money aside for marketing. Then they wonder why they can't compete in the real world, and why they aren't selling any music online. Do you really think that just having great music is enough? It's not enough for major label artists, but when it comes to indie artists, they throw that knowledge out the window.
I know the bar for sales expectations is supposed to be lower for Indie artists because they don't have to cover the major label overhead, but again, I repeat, how many indie artists do you know that can leave their day gig because their music is selling so well?
If you want to earn your living being an indie artist, then you better be prepared to do some serious touring and marketing. And if you're already doing it, then you've certainly earned my respect, because I know it's extremely hard and takes a while to build up to.
What about in the music industry? What strikes you as most interesting or most telling about what's happening in the industry these days?
The most interesting thing is everybody blames the major labels for the pending demise of the industry as we know it. And while the majors are far from flawless, people don't really call a spade a spade. The reason everything is crumbling is because people steal music.
I know it's easy to justify downloading a track, or a ton of tracks illegally, by thinking that Britney Spears will get one less trip on a private jet, or some jerk at a major label will have to take a pay cut. But the same people who make those justifications wouldn't shoplift from a store using that logic. You know why not? Because they fear getting caught, and they don't have that fear online. If people could steal meat and potatoes through a wire with little chance of getting caught, a lot of people would do it. It's really sad, but let's be honest here.
How can the music industry compete with "free?" No industry can survive when the goods they sell can be had for free. You can blame the major labels for being greedy and you can blame them for the crappy music on the radio. But in the end, if you tell the truth, it's illegal downloading that's killing the music industry.
Ultimately, after a couple generations of music being devalued, there will no longer be any perceived value in music. It makes me wonder how much great music will be made if nobody can earn their living from it. Mechanics get paid. So do lawyers, store clerks, bank tellers and the guy who cuts your grass. So, why is it that musicians can't get paid for what they do?
Do you see specific opportunities that independent artists are taking less advantage of than they should?
Yeah, finding niches. My friend Derek Sivers from CD Baby and I have this conversation at least once a year. His best selling artists are those who have found a niche. And practically none of them have been in the singer/songwriter or traditional band genres.
The people who sell the most music on CD Baby — and I would guess on the Internet by extension — are the people who make and market music to niches like equestrians, fans of specific sports teams, people who enjoy sailing, and a million more possibilities. I know it sounds corny to earn your living doing CDs that you sell to Green Bay Packer fans, or people who love to ride horses, but it's anything but! I know quite a few people who've made some really solid money making music for these niches.
Besides, you don't have to quit making music you love to do the niche stuff. Think of it as your day job that supports your real dream.
Are labels looking for different things now than they were five or 10 years ago?
They've been looking for artists who have proven themselves by selling significant amounts of product and building a fan base for at least a decade. Now, they want that more than ever. And if you have placement on a TV show or some other media success under your belt, even better.
One thing that seems like it will never change is the ability of a great song to become a hit. A lot of people think it's all about the production, but it's much more about writing great songs. Think about it for a minute. If you hear an okay song with great production, the likelihood is that you'll never go back and listen to it again.
Yet, a great song with just decent production has a pretty good chance of bringing you back for subsequent listens. It all starts with a great song.
How about in regard to licensing for film and TV? Are there new trends or styles that are in higher demand?
The trend is anything that mimics what's popular on radio today has a chance for film and TV placement, but there are a couple more aspects of film and TV music that so many people ignore. And by doing so, they're leaving real money on the table.
Most people think film and TV music is a big, John Williams-type scores... you know, orchestral stuff. Wrong-o! If you listen carefully to what's really on TV, and in commercials, so much of it is remarkably simple stuff that nearly anybody could record and produce.
I hear solo acoustic guitar and piano music on TV all the time. The trick is to study it, and learn what kinds of melodies and arrangements work. You can't just play a boring, rambling piece for three minutes, and expect to get it picked up. It's got to be well executed and really great at evoking a mood or a feeling in the listener.
I've got plenty of friends who think that there's something magical to it and that they don't have what it takes to do film and TV music. It breaks my heart because I know what they've got, and in many cases, they are leaving money on the table.
I'd bet that a good percentage of Disc Makers' customers could take the music they have on their CDs and license it, but they have to know how, where and when to pitch it. That's where most people get disillusioned. They find the name of a music supervisor, send their music in blind, and nothing happens.
What they don't understand is that it's all about pitching the right music at the right time. That's the entire premise behind TAXI. That's why we've been so successful and so many who have imitated us aren't.
We have a huge Rolodex that we've built up over the last 16 years, and we've built tons of trust with the industry people in that time. They actually call us, and tell us what they need and when.
One more thought on that... we hear a lot of music that seems to be dated back to the time period the writer or artist first fell in love with music. If I were a writer or artist, for example, my music would probably sound like the mid '70s... Eagles, Steely Dan, Doobies and the like. While that wouldn't get me a record deal, and it's not likely to sell millions of copies in today's market, it might be great for a TV show or movie. There are some great opportunities out there if you know how to find them, who to pitch to, and when to pitch your music.
What would you do if you were a young songwriter or artist looking to find your place in the music industry today? How would you approach a career, knowing everything you know about the industry?
I'd start by figuring out what I did best. If you try to be all things to all people, you'll end up being nothing at all. Very few people ever take that advice from me. They try to cover all bases, and that really doesn't work. People need to know exactly what you are, so they can decide if you're what they're looking for.
What's the first thing you do when you go to a music site? You look for the genre that's your favorite, right? So does everybody else, and when they find an artist in that genre, they're not going to love him or her if that artist is all over the place. "I do rock, pop, R&B, and a little country." Yeah, sure you do buddy.
I'd also work tirelessly on my songwriting. Nothing else matters if you don't write great songs. And having your friends and family tell you what they think is great is not a true measure. You've got to be better and more appealing than the acts and songwriters that are already on top. You're not competing with other unsigned people. You're competing with the songwriters and artists who are on the charts at this point in time.
What tips do you have for someone signing up to TAXI for the first time?
Be really careful in what you pitch. We get specific requests from the industry, and I think a lot of people get "new-member-itis" when they first join. They're like kids in a candy store because of all the opportunities we offer them. Newbies tend to pitch stuff that they know in their hearts isn't on target. They eventually calm down, and we see a huge increase in the number of people who get deals in their second or third year with us because they learn how to use TAXI in the best way.
I'd also like to point out that it's unrealistic to think that you could pay us our membership fee and have Clive Davis drop out of the sky to give you a deal in a few short weeks. We actually get people who think that's what we're promising. It's not.
The opportunities that come through TAXI are very real, and the feedback we give is top notch, but it isn't a magic bullet. It still takes time and great material. TAXI is a great tool, and we've got thousands of members who've made deals of all kinds through us, but we can't get you a deal if you're music isn't great or pitched to the right targets. Know your music, know the market, and give it some time to work. There is no quick fix.
What has surprised you most about the success of TAXI?
It's not so much the success of TAXI as it is the success of our members. I knew there was some great music out there that wasn't getting in the right hands, but I couldn't have predicted this many people would find success using us.
People from all over the world have made deals through using us... from tiny little towns, from foreign countries, and they don't all look like 23 year old rock stars. That's what gets me out of bed in the morning. I get to earn my living helping people achieve their goals, and I love doing that.
Here's a link to a thread on our message board where some of the successful members seem to congregate and tell their stories. Enjoy! http://forums.taxi.com//index.cgi?board=success.
Any final thoughts?
Sure. Tiger woods didn't become who and what he is in a day, week, month or a year. Why do so many musicians think that just because they want to be successful with their music that it should come to them in such short order? Just because you've been playing guitar or writing songs for ten years doesn't mean you've been working at it for 12 hours a day for all those years.
That's what Tiger did, and Michael Jordan, and so many other stars in their respective fields. More musicians would find success if they'd just invest themselves in the pursuit a lot more seriously. If you treat music like a hobby, then it will pay you like one.
Give it all you've got and you can reap the reward!