Passenger Profile: Jeff Bihlman

By Kenny Kerner
taxi member success bihlman
We're about to let you in on yet another TAXI member who achieved plenty of success on his own, yet turned to TAXI to help him open yet a few more doors. Check out this profile for inspiration! Oh, did I forget to mention that he won an Emmy Award?!

How long have you been playing guitar?

JB: Since I was about 17. I got some weird guitar body with the pickups already in it and a neck for free. When my buddy gave it to me I thought, "Hmm this doesn't look like the guitars I've seen before. Why is it in two pieces?" Once I got it together and strung (and painted ala Eddie Van Halen), I started making up my own stuff right away. Been writing ever since.

Did you and your brother always play and perform together?

JB: Well, we've always written together for our original projects. But, being a diverse enough musician to play in a variety of different bands is a necessity when it's how you pay the bills, so we've both played in a few different projects along the way. When we lived in Los Angeles we had our original band and then we each had a few other bands we played in.

When did music finally become a career for you?

JB: I finally "crossed the line" as I like to say after a job I had at an advertising agency in Chicago almost killed me. I just wasn't into it and there was a great deal of responsibility. My lack of enthusiasm became apparent and they gave me the ol' heave ho. I said "good riddance" and never looked back. Did you know that they give you a big bunch of money when you get fired? I thought that was pretty interesting. "Hey, you're terrible at this job, you're fired! Now here's a bunch of money so you don't feel so bad about it." I wish the music business worked that way! At times, it's been a struggle to make it work in this business, but I can honestly say I've made more money and had a much more interesting life in music than I ever would have if I'd continued down the dead end corporate road. On the other hand, sometimes I wonder what the hell was I thinking!

How did you get to appear with artists like ZZ Top, BB King, Jonny Lang, etc. Were you on tour with them? Explain the circumstances, please.

JB: One way was that we were getting regional air play on reporting stations and got great support from them for a song called "Looks Like Rain." When a promoter would call about getting an opener for their show, the stations would recommend us. Once the promoters, who are generally untrustworthy fools mind you, knew that they could trust us not to blow it, we got hired to do more shows.

The other way is that we found out what booking agency or agencies were booking a certain venue, like Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids for instance. We'd track them down and get them our promo pack and CD. Since they were often looking for opening acts, most of them were fairly receptive to talking with us, but it was a hard nut to crack. Persistence and reported radio airplay were big factors. However, here's the rub. It was almost always for free or a ridiculous performance fee. So we had to weigh the pros and cons. Usually we'd sell a very healthy amount of merchandise (CDs, T-shirts) which made it worthwhile. The other benefit was gaining the credibility of being on a big show. Most people had no idea who the hell we were, but because we were on the same stage as ZZ Top, they figured we must be somebody, so they'd give us a chance. We'd always pinpoint the most popular venues in whatever town we wanted to hit. What's critical is the venues you play, not the amount of shows you do. Always shoot for the most popular and prestigious venues in town to develop credibility with the public. So we'd do the show, sell some CDs, and get a nice following built up.

And still another way was that we'd find out who was touring in our area. Then we'd contact the booking agency that was actually booking the artist and let them know we were available to do shows with their artist. Of course we'd have to get them the promo as well. Again, when they realized we were good, they'd just tell the venue they had an opener for their artist and we'd go in. We usually did better on money that way, because we were technically being booked by the same agency as the artist. Again having a regional buzz in this case was a big plus, because if the agency thought we could help the draw, they'd go for it. Versatility as a band was also critical. We could do our whole show acoustically, so if the artist had a problem with the full-blown electric band, we'd say, "No problem. We can do our whole show acoustically." The agency loved that. In fact we wound up doing many acoustic shows with one very big artist in particular because he liked the band and didn't feel threatened by us doing the much lower key acoustic show. It worked out well for us.

Did both of you graduate from Musicians Institute in Hollywood? What was that experience like?

JB: Yes, Scot and I both graduated from MI. The experience was one of the most intense and fulfilling times in my life. For the first time I was able to focus on nothing but music 24/7. I had a guitar in my hands about 10-12 hours a day. The singularity of purpose was so liberating that I couldn't help but be inspired. And being challenged everyday by some of the most talented musicians in the world raises your own personal bar and forces you to reevaluate your standards of excellence. MI also taught me that musical versatility could be my most valuable asset, so I always try to remain open to new ideas, which was important on the Emmy project. In this business, it's not enough to be a great player—you have to be versatile, know how to properly market yourself, and capitalize on every opportunity. What a dynamic and exciting environment! And now, there's an espresso bar too!

Tell us about the Emmy!

JB: Wow! What a great experience. I'm so grateful and honored to have been a part of the team on this project. I was approached by the producer/director of the film initially because he was a fan of my band The Bihlman Bros. He'd done a few pieces on us in the past and was a great supporter, so of course I said, "yes" without even knowing what the project was. When I found out it was a shipwreck documentary with a lot of dark, scary underwater footage I was hooked! I'd been doing primarily bluesy Rock stuff for a while, so it was great to have the opportunity to stretch out into a different genre. He'd tell me what the segment was going to "look like" and what kind of music he wanted and I'd be off. I'd present a few ideas to him in a week or so and he'd pick one he liked, at which time I would go back and refine it musically and for duration.

I wrote to the script, so if the scene was going to be four minutes in length, I'd write a four-minute piece. He loved that because it timed out perfectly (or very close) and they didn't have to spend any more time and money editing the music to fit the scene. In fact, I never saw any video at all until the film was complete. He'd just describe to me the scene, how long and what the vibe was and pretty much gave me free reign to do whatever I thought would work. Which is great for the freedom of expression aspect, but there's some pressure there to come up with something that not only works, but really adds something to the visual aspect of the film.

We'd been putting the film together over the course of three or four months, so I had ample time to come up with material. However a week before it was going to air, they were given more time for the actual broadcast, so they added a whole entire segment, for which we had no music. I had to come up with a piece in about three days. And of course, it turned out to be the longest one. So I had months to work on the short stuff and three days to write, refine, and record the longest piece in the film. It was nuts. There was definitely some pressure there, but that tends to light a fire under the proverbial buttocks, so I just started the coffee and buckled down. It turned out to be some of the best stuff I did for the film so you never know.

I did almost everything with acoustic guitars, percussion, dobro, and voices. I used an electric guitar on one of the pieces and a drum machine for a Tabla part. When I heard that we were nominated for an Emmy, I was floored. I didn't even know we were being submitted as a candidate! And then winning was one of the most exciting and fulfilling moments of my career. I've since completed another film with the same team about the Edmund Fitzgerald, and we're all clearing spaces on our shelves! Hey you gotta think positive!

What made you decide to become a member of TAXI?

JB: TAXI offered us the opportunity to gain a broader audience for our music. To get it into the hands of people that could do something constructive with it and help us reach our career goals. Scot and I actually joined TAXI very early in its existence, first or second year, and quickly lost interest. Back then the critiques were scathing and very counter productive. However, many years later I decided to give it another shot to explore the film and TV market and found the company to be greatly improved in all aspects. The critiques were very helpful, and much more diplomatic. The first three submissions I made were forwarded and resulted in one of the publishing deals we still have today. I've been a member ever since.

How has TAXI helped you with your career?

JB: It's certainly provided me with an opportunity to get my music out there, which is absolutely the key. You may have the greatest song on Earth, but if it's languishing on some forgotten CD or the innards of your DAW, what good is it really doing you? And don't give me that "writing for the sake of creative expression crap." I'm in this business to make money, it's how I pay my bills and feed my family. TAXI has proven to be one of the most significant and constructive outlets for getting my music into the hands of people that can change my life.

What else can we say—an Emmy Award-winner saying that TAXI has really helped his career. For Jeff, we helped get his music into the right hands—to people who listened and cared. Hey, why not let us do that for YOU? See ya next month!

See How TAXI Works

"Thanks again for everything that TAXI does. It's helping me to be a better writer."
— Chet Nichols,
TAXI Member

"TAXI provides opportunities to people who otherwise would have no access to the music industry."
— Tom Wasinger,
TAXI Member

"The dedication you have to your members is apparent."
— Tom Kovacs,
TAXI Member

"You are making an incredible difference in the lives of musicians and artists trying to break into the business!"
— Rob Khurana,
TAXI Member

"TAXI has been nothing but 'gold.' I mean pure gold! I've been a member for about a year and a half now, and TAXI has been the most beneficial tool I have."
— Susanne Elston,
TAXI Member

"I have spent my life playing and singing in bands and this is the most real thing I have ever seen."
— Dwight Nichols,
TAXI Member

"I would like to thank Taxi for helping me and my partner and become more polished writers."
— Liz Aday,
TAXI Member

"My only regret is that I didn't join TAXI years ago — but it's never too late to make up for lost time."
— Richard Scotti,
TAXI Member