This Article Originally Published February 2002

TAXI Celebrates Its Tenth Anniversary

An Exclusive Interview With Michael Laskow, CEO and Founder, TAXI

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 thing—the 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 alone—John 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 for—it'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 subjective science?
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 deals, etc.?
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 guys.
Sixpence 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.
There 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 them stars.

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 yet done?
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.