by Suzanne Glass
Taxi, which has as its slogan "The World's Leading Independent A&R Company", has been going strong for almost 15 years now, offering a unique service unavailable elsewhere in the music industry. The company's stated mission - "To help unsigned bands, artists, and songwriters get record deals, publishing deals, and placement in films & TV shows" - is the vision of Michael Laskow, who uses his long-standing industry connections to find lucrative openings for songs at labels, publishing houses, and TV/film production companies. Musicians submit songs for specific placements, and the material is then professionally screened. Songs that score at the top of the stack are passed along to the requesting company. Taxi expertly bridges the gap between record labels who don't accept unsolicited submissions and musicians who don't have the connections to get their songs referred.
Indie-Music recently spoke to Michael Laskow to get the low-down on Taxi. Here are his responses.
Indie-Music: When & by whom was Taxi formed?
Michael Laskow: I had the idea in late 1991 and got the funds to start the company in January 1992. My oldest, dearest friend from college, Michael Lederer, was the brave soul who risked his life savings to help me launch it. He was my partner until last year. We're still close friends, I'm happy to say.
Indie-Music: What motivated you to start the Company?
Michael Laskow: Virtually all of those local bands and songwriters I worked with had one thing in common: they couldn't get their music heard by A&R people because the labels didn't accept unsolicited material. I remember thinking at the time that there had to be a better way to connect the artists and writers with labels and publishers, so I kind of made a 'note to self' about it, and that seed of an idea became reality many years later. In the early 90's, the advent of inexpensive home recording gear made me realize that a lot of musicians would be producing music that would be worthy of being heard by the industry, and it was time to run with the idea of being that conduit, or vehicle - hence the name Taxi.
Indie-Music: What was your background in the music industry before Taxi?
Michael Laskow: I used to be an engineer/producer and started my career working at Criteria Studios in Miami during its golden age in the 70's. I was fortunate to work with many top artists like Neil Young, CSNY, Eric Clapton, and many others, and also did some Indie band and songwriter sessions between the bigger records.
Indie-Music: What is your customer philosophy?
Michael Laskow: The philosophy is pretty simple, we try to accomplish three things:
- Bring real world opportunities to songwriters, bands, and artists
- Help elevate their chances of success by educating them about the industry
- Take C+ writers and artists and help them move up to B level, take the B's and move them up to A's and so forth - that comes from the critiques that we give them.
It's all about access and education for songwriters, bands, and artists who need and deserve it.
Indie-Music: How does Taxi benefit artists?
Michael Laskow: We bring the music industry to them. Before Taxi, most people would bang on door after door, trying to get heard. With Taxi, the bands, artists, and songwriters get the same information that industry insiders get, with our filter in the middle. If you're trying to sell shoes, do you want to walk down the street shouting, "Shoes here, get your shoes here," or do you want somebody to walk in to your store and say, "I need a pair of brown, suede loafers in a size 9 B"? Where else can somebody in Peoria or Vietnam find out what the industry is looking for right now, and get their music sent to those people if they're right on target and good enough to make the grade?
Indie-Music: How does an artist join? What is the cost?
Michael Laskow: They can join by calling us at 1-800-458-2111 and talking to a real, live person who will bend over backwards to help them or they can join on our website. The cost has been the same for the last 15 years, $299.95. And I'm proud to say that we have been able to keep that price the same for all these years, while everything else has gone up in price, and in big chunks I might add.
Indie-Music: Besides the initial signup fee, what other costs (if any) does an artist incur?
Michael Laskow: We charge a $5 per song submission fee to keep people from going nuts and pitching every song they have for every one of our 1,200 opportunities per year. If we didn't have that, people might send Country songs for Modern Rock opportunities just because they could. Some still do ;-) By the way, we don't make a penny on the back end. Our membership fee and our submission fee are the only money we get - period. It's also worth mentioning that it's just $199.95 to renew every year after your first. Pretty cheap thrill when you compare it to doing it yourself. Just imagine how much time it would take to figure out which companies might need your kind of music, and then add the cost of mailing, the cost of flying to Los Angeles, New York, or Nashville, the hotel room for a week, the rental car and food - gotta figure that would cost you at least $1,200... at least! And then what? I'm pretty sure that A&R people aren't going to line up at the airport shouting, "Hey Bob! Glad you came to LA. Come to my office first to play me your stuff, I'm dying to hear it!"
How many A&R people do you really think you'd get to see - one or two if you were exceedingly lucky and highly perseverant? Again, Taxi brings their needs directly to your home every month for the cost of the plane flight alone. Hell, most people spend more than what a Taxi membership costs on beer, Starbucks, or cigarettes every year, yet I still hear some people grumbling that Taxi is expensive. I think not joining is expensive when you consider all the opportunities you've lost.
We also do a world-class convention for our members every year, and each of our members gets two free tickets to it. It's called the Road Rally, and other conventions, many of which aren't nearly as good, charge as much as $595 for just one ticket. A lot of people join Taxi just to get the two free tickets to the convention because it's so much cheaper than buying tickets to other conventions, plus they get 1,200 opportunities per year for their music on top of that!
If readers want to see photos from the Road Rally, they can click here
Indie-Music: How does Taxi find and develop the opportunities it offers? Do you have personal relationships with labels and publishing companies?
Michael Laskow: Big time! That's what we do. Last time I checked, we had about 700 different companies in our database that have run listings with us, looking for new talent or songs. We used to have to call and ask them what they were looking for, but not any more. Now, they call us every day. I guess our reputation and work ethic has reached enough ears that they call us now. We're pretty happy about that.
We actually turn down a lot of listing requests from companies if we don't think they can truly help our members. Let's face it... if we hook our members up with companies that suck, we wouldn't have a company for very long. We must be vetting them pretty well having been in business now for nearly 15 years.
Indie-Music: How many employees (minus A&R screeners) work at Taxi?
Michael Laskow: Usually about ten of us are on the full-time staff at any point in time. And I've got to say, this is the best staff I've ever had the honor of working with. I'm very proud of them. They work incredibly hard, and I constantly get compliments about them - they the best!
Indie-Music: How many A&R screeners do you have, and how do you find them?
Michael Laskow: We have a database of at least 250 of them, but typically, 40 to 50 of them are active in any given month. And if you don't mind, I'd like people reading this to know that not only are these people with stellar histories in the business, but that we reject a lot more than we contract with, and they are heavily trained when they start. We don't just turn them loose on our members because they've been V.P. of A&R at a major label. We test them to see how their communication skills are, then we work with them on how to be the most effective in helping our members. A lot of members use the feedback they get from our A&R team to help them decide which songs are their best, and how to whip them in to shape before they record their Indie album and press up a thousand at Disc Makers I think those people are the best and brightest because they leverage this incredible team of experts for more than just our industry opportunities.
Indie-Music: How are your screeners paid?
Michael Laskow: $30 per hour as independent contractors. We offer them shifts, which never exceed four hours, so they don't get burnt out. They can take them or leave them, and it gives them the ability to make some nice extra dough when they're between gigs or working on starting something of their own. Before I get barraged with resumes from people all over the world, please let your readers know that they must live in Los Angeles, and they better have a resume that shows real A&R experience, publishing experience, major league songwriting experience, or producing experience. THEN we test them, and like I said, not many make the grade.
I know it sounds like a cake gig, just sitting around listening to music, but it's actually very hard work. It's one thing to give a thumbs up or down, it's much, much harder to listen to the song and come back with, "John, the first verse lyric doesn't set up the chorus very well, and when you get to the chorus, you might want to consider going to a different high hat beat (quarter notes) and adding a second guitar part to make the chorus pop out more. I also noticed that you end the chorus on a minor 7th, which I believe may be kind of a downer. If you did an ascending chord progression and ended on a major chord, it would be stronger and give the listener a stronger sense of resolution."
Try doing that well for a few dozen songs, and you'll quickly develop a whole new appreciation for what our A&R people bring to the table. Our guys and gals are not a bunch of Ivory Tower jerks who want to keep you out of the business. They're all people who are trying to help you get through the doors.
Indie-Music: Explain how the screening process works.
Michael Laskow: We match the genre of music to the potential A&R people who will work on that batch of material. Then we see who is available to work from that group. Typically, it's several people working on each batch. Our members can feel confident in knowing that every time they submit, they are getting a true expert from that particular genre. It's also worth noting that we don't just have people who can cover the basic food groups. We have A&R people who are expert in genres like East African Drum Music. We need to have that kind of coverage for the film and TV projects that come to us, which is actually a great way for Indie artists to make money while they're climbing the ladder of success. Film and TV people aren't just looking for scores, they need lots of Indie band music as well. Lots of it!
Indie-Music: Does every submission receive a feedback form?
Michael Laskow: Not all, but most. I would guess that about 80-85% come with a critique. There are some genres that would just be too weird to try and apply typical standards for. I mean, how do you judge the song structure of that East African Drum song I referred to in the last paragraph? The other reason that we may not do a critique is the timeline. Sometimes we just need to get the stuff back in the hands of the company that requested it really quickly. So, even though we get a little bummed out that we can't do critiques for that batch, we figure that our members would rather have us bring them the opportunity instead of taking a pass because we don't have time to do the critiques.
Indie-Music: Explain what "forwarding" means.
Michael Laskow: It means that your song has made the grade and been forwarded to the company that asked for it. It's funny, there are a lot of Taxi imitators out there that have come and gone over the years, and I have to laugh when I see them use the term "forwarded." It's not like I invented the word itself, but in the context of the music industry, Taxi should have a copyright on that word (laughs).
Indie-Music: What percentage of Taxi submissions get forwarded?
Michael Laskow: That depends on the specific opportunity. If it's a major label of VP of A&R looking for monster hits for a multi-platinum artist, then it's going to be a higher bar than an opportunity with a production music library that might lean toward a song that has the right kind of lyric or sentiment, rather than something that has the potential to be a career launching hit. Frankly, I'll bet a lot of people reading this have stuff on the shelf that would be perfect for a TV show, but it might not be right for an artist deal on a label.
The bottom line is that the percentage of forwards is too hard to peg because the range is so wide and variable. That being said, it's probably a lot higher in aggregate than people would think. Also, if I may add something to that: we hear from a lot of members who have been forwarded, and then are shocked that they didn't hear anything back from the label or film company in two weeks - maybe for months!
While I can understand their frustration, the reality is that while the song or CD is the world's highest priority for the artist, it's one of a thousand things the person at the company has to do. Even though they asked for it, it may take them next to forever to listen to it. I can't begin to tell you how many members have given up and not renewed because they didn't hear back. Then, months after their membership ran out, they get offered a deal as a result of the forward from Taxi. Sadly, they wasted six months or a year of NOT pitching more stuff because they got frustrated and went home with their tail between their legs. People who are industry veterans know the drill, but most of our members have not been down that road and don't know what industry norms are. We do our best to educate them so they don't miss out.
Indie-Music: Can you share some Taxi artist success stories?
Michael Laskow: How much space do you have ? :-) Hardly a day goes by when we don't hear from a member who got one kind of deal or another - most are film and TV placements, but some of them are huge life changing deals. Five minutes before I started this interview, I picked up this week's Billboard and saw the song, "I Loved Her First" in the number 2 slot on the Country chart. That song was co-written by Taxi member Elliot Park, from Baird, Texas, population 1,500. Elliot did his demos on a little 8-track rig in his house. Those sparse little demos got him a publishing deal through Taxi in Nashville. That publishing deal resulted in a co-write with a great writer named Walt Aldridge. In all probability, Elliot would have never been "discovered" in his little hometown without Taxi. Now he's got a huge hit on his hands, not to mention some money to go with it.
One other cool thing that happens pretty regularly these days is hearing from somebody who is 47 years old, works in a little home studio and got a song placed in a big TV show through us. Even though that member isn't going to get rich and buy a private jet from that one placement, having his family hear his work on a TV show is priceless.
We've had bands get signed through Taxi that have gone platinum, and thousands upon thousands of people get their music in TV shows and movies. And each one that I hear about reminds me of how lucky I am to go to work every day, knowing that an idea I had 15 years ago has changed so many lives for the better. I can't begin to tell you how good that makes all of us at Taxi feel.