This interview was inspired by a recent episode of TAXI TV, during which Multi-Platinum Producer/Engineer/Mixer Rob Chiarelli interviewed TAXI’s CEO, Michael Laskow. We hope you enjoy this in-depth version that gives Michael’s take on the company he created in 1992, the current state of the music industry, and what songwriters, artists, and composers can do to become successful in today’s music industry.
Rob Chiarelli’s TAXI TV interview about your career inspired me to ask for this interview. I found it interesting that he focused on the career path you took led you to be uniquely qualified to start and run TAXI. I want to know more, and I’m sure other people who saw that video feel the same way. What was it that made you want to get into the music industry?
The Beatles appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 that was the actual moment I knew the music industry was the thing I wanted to do. I was nine years old, and I quickly knew that I didn’t want to be a rock star, per se. Seeing photos of George Martin and Geoff Emerick in the control room really sealed my fate. Engineering and producing appealed to me more than being on a stage and having fans.
How did you get your first gig in the music industry?
I overheard a delivery guy at a music store in Miami say that he was going to Criteria Studios to drop of a piece of rental equipment. I begged until the delivery guy let me go because it was one of the top studios in the country at the time. He told me to wait in the lobby.
I overheard the studio owner (Mack Emmerman) say they needed a new “kid to clean the place up,” so I called him five times a day for five days straight until he finally interviewed me for the internship. I got the gig, and my life was forever changed.
Who were some of the acts recording there during that period – the mid-seventies, right?
Yeah. The Eagles were doing the One of These Nights album, Clapton was doing 461 Ocean Blvd., with “I Shot the Sheriff”on it, the Bee Gees were working on Jive Talkin’, Stephen Stills was doing a solo record… it was incredible to go to work there every day. I started as the low man on the totem pole, but I still got to be in the room with legendary producers and engineers like Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin, Karl Richardson, and Don Gehman on a daily basis. Eventually, I got to work on records with all those guys, and I can’t even begin to quantify how much I learned from them. I’ve been able to pass along a lot of that stuff to TAXI’s members over the years.
Didn’t you work on the Stills/Young record, Long May You Run?
Yeah, I was the assistant engineer on that record, and every now and then, Don Gehman would let me set up a rough mix or record background vocals. It was sort of my engineering Bar Mitzvah [laughs]. At one point, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were all on that record, but then things melted down and it became Stills/Young again. Imagine CSN&Y all around a single microphone singing harmonies. All the lights were dimmed in the studio except a blue one that bathed the tops of their heads. The control room was dark except for the glow of the recording console, and those incredible harmonies were pouring out of the big monitors. I was in heaven!
How did you end up working with Neil Young?
He found a studio I was running Ft. Lauderdale about two years later. He showed up unannounced, saw me in the lobby and said, “Hey now, I remember you… wanna do a record?” I had recently left Criteria to go out on my own as a producer, but I was more than happy to engineer for Neil. It was an incredible experience. Just Neil, my assistant (Paul Kaminsky), and me. Most of the time it was just Neil playing acoustic guitar and singing. Sometimes he’d play piano, sometimes we’d layer guitars, he’d almost always sing the vocal live… pretty basic stuff, but he taught me the most valuable lesson I think I’ve ever learned in this industry: “Go for the emotion, vibe, and performance, and don’t worry about perfection.” After we’d finish a take, Neil would look at me through the window and ask, “How was that one?” He helped me hone my production skills and taught me what true artistry is.
Which album was that?
Actually, we worked together for months and recorded a bunch of songs that landed on several albums. Many of them ended up on Comes a Time, and the rest on Rust Never Sleeps, Hawks and Doves, and Decade. He didn’t credit any engineers on Rust Never Sleeps, but he sent me gold and platinum albums for that record, and they’re hanging on the wall here at TAXI.
So why did you quit making records and move to New York in the ’80s?
My first daughter was born, and I was hardly ever home. I decided to quit making records and move to New York and do audio post-production, which I knew nothing about! I started out as low man on the totem pole, and worked my way up to studio manager at Howard Schwartz Recording. We worked with the Who’s Who of Madison Avenue on a daily basis, mostly doing TV commercials. We also did a lot of sports TV shows. I quickly learned that doing audio post was much more fast-paced and demanding than engineering records. I also engineered a bunch of jingles, sometimes with 30 players in the room. I got to work with guys like Paul Shaffer, Will Lee, Steve Gadd, Steve Cropper, and just about every A-List session player in the business. The New York jingle business is extremely demanding. You don’t get to spend hours “getting sounds.” You’ve basically got to be ready to go and roll tape as soon the players take their seats and do the rundown. The five and a half years I spent working for Howie Schwartz gave me a deep understanding of how music works with picture. I used music libraries every day. Back then, they were on ¼” tape and CDs. And virtually all of the music in those libraries was composed and charted, then played by A-List session players, not indie musicians like it is today. Libraries sounded very homogenous and “canned” back then.
Why did you start TAXI?
I moved to Los Angeles in 1988 to become General Manager of LA Studios, the hot audio post house on the West Coast. A year and a half later, I became General Manager of Red Car, a company that shot and edited big TV commercials and music videos. I left there when I had the idea to start TAXI in late 1991. I had gotten pretty far away from the music side of things and missed it. Home studios as we know them today didn’t exist, but Alesis had just come out with the ADAT, and I knew that technology would make it affordable for indie musicians to record what had been living in their hearts and heads, but didn’t make it to tape because the cost of working in pro studios was out of reach. Little did I know that everything I learned along the way would make me uniquely qualified to start TAXI.
I had twenty-two thousand bucks in the bank, and started TAXI out of a small, one-bedroom apartment. I’d gone through a divorce several years before, and was paying alimony, child support, and going to New York every other weekend to see my kids. I met the woman who became my second wife, and we got married right after I started TAXI in 1992. I burned through my savings very quickly and my wife was going to grad school, so we had no income. We learned to live very frugally. We’d buy huge bags of beans and rice at Costco, and slice up hot dogs to top off the steaming pile of carbs and protein. Our running joke was “Red beans or black beans tonight?” It was character building, and I still relate to “starving artists” more than most people realize. Being broke is horrible, and it was demoralizing to rip eviction notices off the door every month before my wife got home.
What mistakes did you make that might be good lessons for the musicians reading this?
I don’t think we have enough space to list them all! But the biggest mistake is also the most common one I see musicians making today: Just because you have something you think is great—and it may be great—it doesn’t mean people will beat a path to your door. “Build it and they will come,” is a fantasy! You need to know what you’ve got, who needs it, and how to let them know you’ve got it. That’s why I started reading marketing books like crazy in 1993!
The other big mistake I made was underestimating how hard I’d have to work. I worked at least 18 hours a day for the first few years, and I still work at least 60 hours a week 23 years later. If you think success is going to just drop into your lap because you deserve it, keep your day gig.
Do you think most of your members use all that great stuff TAXI gives them – the Road Rally, TAXI TV, the Forum, all the info on your website?
No, most don’t, but those who do are inevitably the most successful members!
Why do you think more people don’t take advantage of all that education?
I think they believe that you’re either talented or you’re not. And if you’re not, then you’re just out of luck. I think it’s kind of like golf. You can have a great natural swing, but that won’t make you into Tiger Woods. Even Tiger Woods had to learn more about the mechanics of a great golf swing, and practice his swing a hundred thousand times until he was able to incorporate those things.
The same is true for songwriters, artists and composers. They might be born with some talent, but learning more about their craft and building on that talent is what takes them from being good to great! Think about it—if you’re on the “buying” end of the music business, are you looking for “good,” or are you looking for something great? And they’re usually looking for something specific that fills a specific need.
So when you guys hear something that’s pretty good, but not quite great, why doesn’t TAXI send it to the A&R person or music supervisor and let them contact the artist or songwriter and tell them how to fix it?
That would be great, but the music supes are already working at breakneck speed and don’t have the time to give feedback to every musician whose song they hear. Especially music supervisors working on weekly TV shows. They’re hyper focused on finding something that’s great and works perfectly with a particular scene. They’re not interested in giving feedback and waiting for those suggestions to be incorporated. If you’re shopping for a painting for your bedroom wall and you see something that’s really close at Pottery Barn, but there’s another painting that really nails it a Crate and Barrel, which one are you going to buy? With so much music available now, the people who need it just keep listening to more until they find something awesome that fits what they need.
Do you think record labels are more open to finding something new and different?
Yeah, but it can’t be so different that it doesn’t fit a radio format. My advice is to take what’s working at radio and on the charts, and push the envelope a bit. Try to be what’s next, but not so far out there that listeners change stations. Florida Georgia Line combined Country with a Hip-Hop beat to great success. But they wouldn’t have been able to do that until the audience listening to Country radio was the right age that they also grew up hearing Hip-Hop. You’ve got to introduce the next new thing at a time when the audience is ready for it. Like so many things in life; timing is everything.
Do people even want to be signed to record labels any more?
It’s cool to say that you wouldn’t sign with a major label, but I don’t know many artists who’d turn down a major label deal. I think a lot of that “I don’t want a record deal” stuff is false bravado. It blows my mind that we don’t see a lot of 20-somethings joining TAXI or submitting their music to the listings we get from record labels… and really great record labels at that! They’re missing hundreds of solid opportunities a year from A&R people who are hungrier to find new artists than I’ve seen them in a very long time. Popular thinking is that you don’t need a label because you can do it all yourself with social media.
But it’s nearly impossible to be a star at the Taylor Swift level without the big guns behind you. Her label—Big Machine—is technically independent, but it’s got Universal behind it. And you need that bankroll, marketing expertise, and radio promo to break big. There are a few exceptions, but comparatively very few. You can’t make significant money from music “sales” any more, so you need to get tons of major market radio airplay to build a huge audience and make big bucks on touring and merch sales. Social media and the Internet can certainly help, but very few acts are flying around in private jets because of Facebook and Twitter. In the end, all the Facebook friends and Twitter followers on the planet aren’t going to help you become a rock star if your music isn’t better than what’s already out there.
So, what does it take to get signed these days?
In a perfect world, you’d have several undeniable hit songs, a great live show, a regional following, and a healthy online following. But an artist that has great material and something artistically unique yet commercial can still get signed without all the other stuff. But it’s got to be really compelling and have some crossover potential. Lorde is a great example of that.
You might have a song in a TV show or a movie that connects and causes an avalanche of downloads and streams if you’re lucky. That will make the labels call you! Getting signed by an indie label that does a lot of the grassroots work until you hit the radar of the majors works too! It really bums me out to see all those great indie labels looking for new acts through TAXI, yet we just don’t have that many acts submitting to those listings. Maybe people think they stand no chance of getting signed, so why bother. If you and your music are truly special, I think you’ve got a chance!
Is that why so many people are trying to get their music into film and TV—it’s just easier?
Probably. I think at some point many musicians realize they aren’t better than the people on the charts, and they find it a lot easier to license their music. They can make anything from heartfelt guitar/vocal songs for montages in dramas, to simple instrumental cues for reality shows, to orchestral pieces for film trailers in their home studios nowadays. Why should they beat their brains out on the road and live in a van trying to be a rock star?
If you’ve got a job, a family, and a mortgage, film and TV licensing is probably more achievable. You can start small and do it in your spare time. You can build it up over time, and it’s cumulative. The larger your catalog is, the more money you’ll make over time.
So, what’s the “secret sauce” musicians need to get more of their music in TV shows, movies, and commercials?
It’s pretty simple, really. Just watch more TV shows, films, and commercials and make notes about what’s being used, and create that kind of music! Find the sweet spot where the need meets what you can do. If there’s not a lot of Death Metal being used, then it doesn’t pay to record a bunch of it. Isn’t there a genre you can do that they do need? Make that! And if the Muse stops by and you need to write a song that’s a creative expression of how you feel, then by all means, do that as well. If you can write lyrics that are relatable to a bunch of different scenes or storylines while you’re doing that, even better!
What does TAXI have on the horizon for 2015?
There are a bunch of companies that try to imitate what TAXI does, and I see listings posted by them that to the trained eye aren’t even real. The companies make their money on submission fees, so they publish listings like, “Major film company needs happy songs in any genre and any tempo,” with no other information. I know those are bogus because music supervisors are always looking for something pretty specific. So TAXI’s mission for the New Year is to go even further in educating musicians about the real music industry and how it works. If musicians know more, they can make better choices about what they pitch their music to and how they pitch it. We’re going to do everything we can this year to help talented musicians focus their efforts on what can work best for them. I want people to know that even though there are a bunch of questionable companies out there, they can always count on TAXI to act with integrity. You can never go wrong by acting with integrity.