This Article Originally Published September 1999
Michael Laskow is no newcomer to the music business. With over three decades of recording, management and production experience, Michael has earned a place in the industry as a person who makes things happen.
Although he has worked with -- and been a part of -- some of the most successful musical projects and businesses of the last thirty years, Michael's most notable accomplishment may well be the company that he formed. TAXI exists to help unsigned, unknown artists get their material heard by the music industry's decisionmakers -- an "Independent A&R Vehicle" that serves both the artist as well as the record industry.
TAXI has been the object of both praise and derision from both artists and management. With its unusual liaison role, TAXI cannot easily claim credit for its successes -- after all, the artist that gets signed through a TAXI connection had to have been signable in the first place. And since TAXI charges the artist for its referral service, some people have criticized TAXI as simply being a business of influence peddling.
But TAXI is nothing if not innovative. TAXI uniquely fills a void in the obscure, seemingly magical process that takes an inspiration and turns it into a commercially-viable hit. And TAXI fills that void in a way that adds value to all the players involved.
After all, there are literally millions of artists out there, vying for the scarce management, marketing, and promotion resources that the major record labels and publishers possess. In the end, each artist has but one challenge: to find the one dealmaker who will fall in love with the song. Ultimately, the music business is a many-to-one relationship between artists and dealmakers, and as any artist can tell you, it really doesn't matter how great the song is if nobody hears it.
A myriad of problems can occur. Your song is great, but nobody will listen. Somebody listens, but they're the wrong person and don't "get it". Somebody listens, and "gets it", but isn't looking for that kind of song or artist. And so on.
TAXI can -- and does -- guarantee one thing: that an honest-to-God human being with record label connections and influence is going to listen to your song, and, if he or she likes the song, will forward your song to an A&R person at a record label who is actually interested in hearing it.
That's a hard claim to make, and for a lot of artists, that's a lot of value-added. In fact for most artists, TAXI guarantees them an opportunity -- however slim -- that simply does not otherwise exist.
I spoke personally with Michael about TAXI, as well as about other ideas and opinions he could offer to musicians, songwriters, and producers who are working hard become successful in the music business.
Michael, give us a little background about TAXI. How did you get started in this area of the business?
I started out in the business sweeping floors at Criteria Studios in Miami. I've wanted to work in studios my whole life. Ever since I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan I wanted to be George Martin, not one of the Beatles. So I was very fortunate to get a job in a top-notch studio, one of the best in the country at the time.
I worked seriously in the business as a musician, engineer, and producer through much of the 1970s and 1980s, and had good success with bands like Firefall, Cheap Trick, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. But I always wanted to find a way to help talented people become successful. I made a mental note back in 1978 that someday when I was ready for a change of career I would do that.
In late 1991 I was really ready for that change of career, so I put my feet up on my desk and said, "Well, what am I going to do next?" The idea for a company that would act as a liaison between unsigned talent and record companies, publishers and music supervisors popped into my head.
So the idea was to create a vehicle to get musicians from where they were to where they wanted to be. I came up with the name TAXI because it was a vehicle, and TAXI seemed like the way to go.
So how did you sell this concept to the record labels and publishers?
It didn't really take that much selling.
I had some relationships from being in the music business for some time. I called up about ten or twenty people that I knew and bounced the idea off of them and they all said, "Michael, that's great, but we don't want more unsolicited tapes. The last thing we need is more bad tapes. We want the stuff that's exceptionally good."
So I replied off the top of my head, "OK, we'll prescreen it for you" and they said, "WHO will prescreen it?"
I didn't have an answer! So I got the wheels turning for a second and answered, "Out of work A&R people who are between gigs."
See, A&R people lose their gigs frequently due to label consolidations, or a new VP of A&R comes in and gets rid of the whole staff and brings in a totally new staff. So I knew there was a lot of A&R talent in LA, and a lot of these guys are out of work for six months to a year at a time. I figured we might as well give them the work while they're between gigs, and keep their minds sharp.
The record companies responded favorably. They're thinking, "Gee, these are the same guys we used to go to clubs with to hear bands -- people we used to work with and whose reputations we know and respect. If they're prescreening stuff for us then we've got nothing to lose and everything to gain."
If there's anything that TAXI can lay claim to it's that we created a win-win-win situation -- everybody wins: the artist, the label, and TAXI and our staff.
What sort of numbers to you guys deal with? What's the workload like at TAXI?
We have well over a hundred A&R people on staff at TAXI. Typically we have six to eight people screening each shift for two shifts a day, and we very comfortably did over 60,000 tapes or CDs last year.
That's a staggering amount of material.
The funny thing is that people say, "Maybe I shouldn't join TAXI. Maybe I won't get heard." The fact is that did that 60,000 very comfortably. Usually on Friday there were very light screening shifts because we were done with our work for the day.
We are very efficient. We use a lot of computer automation to route the tapes, and our screeners are really well-trained. We train them how to be efficient on how to best handle our tapes. Literally. We teach them how to take the tapes out of the box, to unwrap them in the most efficient way since all the tapes are uniformly packaged as they come in from our members, and after the tapes have been screened, we have an exceptionally talented staff to route the tapes off to the labels or back to the members.
We don't just hire these people because they have a good resume. They have to have the right tone of voice and act in a mentorly way towards our artists, and they have to be able to construct and deconstruct a song the right way to give advice to our members.
You know, record companies have so many functions that go on under their roof. Managers do way more than just listen to music. Music attorneys do way more than listen to music. All TAXI does is listen to music. So we've only had to become good at one thing. It has allowed us to become exceptionally good at it.
So tell me a little more about your successes and failures. What sort of acts can we pin on TAXI and say, "These are bands that TAXI helped make successful."
The important thing to remember is that our job is not to get somebody signed or make them famous. Our job is to get them on the desk. There's so much that goes on after they're on the desk.
Here's a setback -- a temporary failure -- that makes a great example. There's an artist in Denver named Ciria. She is an Anglo-Hispanic pop diva -- an Adult Contemporary diva, kind of a Celine-Dion-meets-Jennifer-Lopez-type. She's very pretty, she's extremely talented, and she was put on God's Green Earth to be a star. When you meet this girl, you immediately know she's going to be a star. There's just no question. When you see her perform live she looks like she's been doing it her whole life in front of stadiums full of people. She's got everything it takes to be a star.
We got her tape to the Vice President of A&R at Interscope. He loved it. He played it for Ted Fields (Co-Chairman), Jimmy Iovine (Co-Chairman) and Tom Whalley (President) at Interscope. These three extremely influential people had her fly to Los Angeles with her writer / producers in tow. They spent the better part of the day sitting in their boardroom meeting with her -- even going so far as to roughly refer to certain deal points -- talking with her as if it were inevitable that she would get signed. Then two days later they decided not to sign her because they already had their quota of Hispanic females on the label.
So TAXI succeeded, even though she isn't signed. We got her through the door and on the desk talking with literally three of the most powerful people in the music industry. She didn't get signed, but she will eventually, because other labels are now interested in her and we got her to those labels as well.
That kind of stuff happens here all the time.
Here's something really cool that happened recently. A songwriter named Eric Hickenlooper from Utah -- unsigned, unknown, relatively new at songwriting, never had a success or even a close call in his career -- wrote a song called "Buy Me a Rose." We got that song cut with Kenny Rogers. It's out on his current album right now which has just gone gold. The song is looking like it's going to be the third single off that record.
Kenny hasn't had a big record in over ten years, but this one has earned a lot of respect and it looks like it could be pretty big. For a pro writer with a string of hits under his belt, that would be a huge deal -- but for an unknown, unsigned guy, that's amazing.
Another example of TAXI being successful is the group "Sixpence None the Richer" with the song "Kiss Me." They came on board TAXI before the record broke. They were already signed on an indie label, and what they were really interested in using TAXI for was getting them placed in film and TV. We were the first company to get them placed into the hands of the people at "Party of Five". Eventually they made it onto the show and the soundtrack.
I can't always say we were directly responsible for creating hits, because that's not what we do. But I can point to some examples of what happens when we do get them into those hands.
How much of the material that comes into TAXI would you consider to be broadcast-ready versus demo quality? And is that important?
Some of our listings ask for music that is broadcast-ready, and what that means is, generally speaking, that they're looking for stuff for film or a TV show, and they're not looking for a song that they'll go and re-record because they don't have that time-luxury in the TV world. They need that puppy really quick. So in that case it has to be broadcast-ready.
The definition of broadcast-ready could well be that the thing was done on eight tracks of digital by someone that really knew what they were doing. We've had stuff come in on four tracks that really sounded like a record. We've also had stuff that comes in from a 24 track that sounded like someone with a four-track who didn't know what they were doing. So it's not so much what equipment you have. It's more about how you use what equipment you have.
Put yourself in the shoes of an A&R person. You've got two things on your desk. The first one is on a CD, and it's got a really nice four-color package, great liner notes, and it's really sexy looking. You put it on and the engineering is spectacular, the production is spectacular, and the songs are pretty darned good. You put that down and say not bad, I'll hang on to that.
The next one comes in on one of those clear shell generic cassettes. All it's got is the artist's name and number on it. You put it on and by the first two bars it's very obvious that it was done on a four track system by someone who didn't know how to engineer well. But, all of a sudden the first verse captivates you, the first chorus blows you away, and the rest of the song is riveting. When the song is over you're damned near jumping out of your chair.
Which one would you sign?
Nobody ever got a record deal because of great engineering or great production. People get record deals because the songs are great, or because the performance is great.
As far as CD versus tape, CD is great because it's an easy format to use. You don't have to search for anything like you do with cassette. But the fidelity isn't really important. Maybe it has 2% influence. If the songs were equal and both bands look great, the one with better sound quality may win. But it's generally not a competition. The A&R guy usually isn't making decisions along those lines.
So what's new at TAXI?
We have a new program called the Studio Program. It functions as a kind of referral service for studio owners to get their clients into TAXI.
We have a couple hundred studio owners who have joined, and when they tell their clients about it, what happens is that a client who used to record three songs a year is now recording a dozen songs a year. They're not just recording whenever they feel like it -- now they're recording because there's a purpose for it. There will be a deadline on a certain listing, and they've got a song written but it's not recorded yet, so they've got to get in there and do it.
The studio owners tell us that this is great for them. So we started an official program that we're getting ready to roll out now.
I'm glad you mentioned the studios. The demo studio business is tough going these days. What advice can you give demo studio owner / operators?
I've got a great deal of experience in studios. I've managed the two most profitable recording studios on the Planet Earth, one being Howard Schwartz studios in New York, and the other being LA Studios in Los Angeles which brought me out to expand their operation. I was the general manager of the company and basically built a 10,000 square foot film and video mix facility. I've also managed and co-owned a one-room 24-track MCI studio for five and a half years, so I've been all over in the recording world. I've recorded hundred piece orchestral stuff, I've recorded with Eric Clapton, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Firefall and Cheap Trick.
So one thing that I see as a studio manager is that so many people don't know how to market their studios. They're usually hobby people who have a love for recording and production and music and go out and spend all this money on equipment but they never make it pay for itself.
Marketing is such a wonderful thing. It's so easy to market your studio because none of your competition is doing it. All you have to do is a little marketing and you're already head and shoulders over the competition because nobody is doing it, not even the big boys. Companies like the Record Plant do very little if any marketing. The studio business has always been a business of "here we are, our doors are open." It's a business of unmarketed companies.
The new rage in indie labels is the concept of making the artist pay to be on the label. What's your take on that?
Here's the deal. Let's say one of these companies propositions you, "We heard you guys playing at the club, you're great musicians! Send us your CD." So you send your CD and a month later you get a letter that says, "We love your stuff. We'd like to include it on our next release called 'America the Beautiful' coming out next December. We need some help with the production costs, so if you can send us a check for $500 you'll get a cut on this record and we'll send you 20 copies -- and this thing is going to go out to A&R people and record people all over."
Any time anyone approaches you with one of those, look at the name of the company, and go to Amazon.com or CDNow, or your local record store in the mall, and see if they're stocking any product from that label. Because that's where you'll wind up: nowhere.
I won't say that all indie labels are ripoffs, because in all honesty there are guys in little markets who do a lot of work for the bands in those markets. But here's something to keep in mind. Let's say you're offered a "good" deal from an indie label: they offer to pay several thousand dollars to put you in the studio and press and distribute your CD. In most cases they're going to press one to three thousand copies of the record. They don't have the budget to put the band out on the road for a year or nine months to build a fan base. They don't have the connections to get you on David Letterman. Chances are they can't get you on MTV. So all the things that a major label can bring to the table, most indies can't bring. The best you can hope for is that you start to have some regional success on the indie label and a major comes along and picks up the deal.
A lot of bands are just going it alone. The production costs have gotten so low and the demo studio business is so bad right now that you can record a good album dirt cheap and print a thousand copies for about a thousand bucks, and then find someone to distribute it for you.
So let's take that scenario. You're a band that now has a thousand copies of the disk printed up, and it looks real cool and it sounds great. I can tell you from my own personal experience answering phones here at TAXI that 80% of those people end up with 950 copies of that CD sitting in their basement collecting dust for all eternity. People don't have a marketing plan in mind, they just want to make the record so they can show it to their friends and family and say look man we have a record out.
Then the other end of the spectrum is Hootie and the Blowfish who sold thousands of copies of their record on the road because they worked it really hard. They got out there and did 300 shows a year for five years until they had built up a huge fan base and could actually move a lot of product in stores and on the road.
But that takes such an intense commitment. That's basically running a full time business for several years and without a profit. You can't do it if you're not willing to work 18 hours a day on the road and eat rice and beans and work unbelievably hard for unbelievably long hours.
Anybody with a great song can create a hit record. But they have to give it an unbelievable amount of work because they have to be the Art department, the Press department, the Marketing department, the Field Marketing staff, the A&R department, the Radio Promotion department. When you make your own record, you're not competing against the other local bands and labels in your market, you're competing against the very best bands and labels that are out there. You have to compete against the Vice President of Radio Promotion for Columbia Records. How can one little band do that? That's why only a handful of bands in the history of music have ever accomplished it on their own.
One piece of advice I've always heard given to developing bands is to always keep the project as a "demo" until you get the Really Big Deal. Once the project is "finished" and it's a "product," you're screwed. What's your take on that?
I definitely lean in the direction of "make a demo, don't make a record." The logic behind that is that if you make a record and somebody hears it, they're going to say, "Well, that's the best they can do" whereas if it's a demo there's always room for improvement. You want to leave some room for the A&R person to use their imagination. You want them to say, "Man that song would be so awesome if you had background vocals here and a tambourine part there."
Pretty soon when the A&R guy starts thinking like that, he feels ownership -- he becomes emotionally attached to the song -- and he's going to fight a lot harder to get the band on the label. If you send something in that claims to be finished product, it's easy for the A&R guy to say, "Well, this is pretty good, but it's not finished, and these guys think it is . . . so -- NEXT!"
I don't think you need to go to the extent of finishing a product, pressing it up, having beautiful four color artwork. A concisely written cover letter is far more important than that stuff. "Dear Mr. A&R Person, we're a four piece blues-rock band from East Texas that sounds like ZZ Top with a female singer." He immediately knows in one sentence what kind of music it is, and if he likes that kind of music, he's going to ask you to send it.
Same thing is true when you send your demo to an A&R person. A very tightly worded, very concise letter on top of the demo is critical. Don't worry about artwork. Do worry about the band's image.
If you're forty years old with a pot belly and balding hair, they're not going to be too interested. They want a young artist that will appeal to a young audience with the possibility of a long career span. The best thing you can do is send a great-looking picture of the band. Doesn't have to be color, doesn't have to be black-and-white, doesn't have to be 8x10. Just send a good two or three paragraph bio that can point to some success in the region and a simple photo that makes the band look good.
A&R guys all ask us the same things after we plop it on their desk. After they've heard the song and love it, the next thing they say is, "How old are they, what do they look like, and where are they from?" Always make sure that you answer those questions well.
Are there any final pearls of wisdom that you can share with our readers?
When I first got started in the music business I was sweeping floors at Criteria Studios in Miami.
Tommy Dowd, one of the best producers of that day -- maybe ever -- was there working on a record. I think it was Rod Stewart. My first day there I walked up to him while he was playing pinball in the lobby and said, "What's the secret to making a hit record?"
It was all he could do to not fall down laughing. But he answered my question.
He pointed to the studio and said, "Behind this wall we have one of the great musical talents on Earth. We have the greatest studio musicians money can buy, the best recording equipment money can buy, and hopefully the best producers money can buy. But I don't know if we're making a hit."
Then he pointed out the window down the street. "Somewhere down that street there's a kid in a warehouse with a Teac four-track -- and he could be making a hit. You know why? Because he has a hit song. That's the answer."