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How to Make Money Making Music for TV and Film Placements

Editor’s note: These are TAXI CEO, Michael Laskow’s unedited notes used for his presentation at the 2017 TAXI Road Rally. TAXI still gets emails from people who were in the ballroom for that presentation, asking for Michael’s notes. There are some financial references in these notes that do NOT represent numbers from a financial expert. They are used to show what might be possible under the right circumstances.

Welcome, and please pay close attention because I’ve got less than 45 minutes to show you how to change your life in under 2,500 words.

I will make my notes from this presentation available after the Road Rally.

The goal is to create music that can earn income.

Many of the things I’m about to tell you are rules of thumb.

There are exceptions to every rule, but if you concentrate on the rules of thumb instead of the exceptions, you’ll go farther, much faster!

  1. If you don’t already have one, put together a modest home studio and learn how to use it well enough to create recordings that are good enough for doing simple instrumental cues at a minimum.
  2. Start with the easy stuff (the genre you’re best at) and grow from there!
  3. When you accomplish the easy stuff, it will inspire you to grow and eventually tackle the harder stuff, which then won’t be so hard!
    • Do you need to spend thousands of dollars constructing an acoustically perfect, sound-proofed studio? No!
    • TAXI member Matt Hirt is an upper echelon income earner, and his home studio is modest by anybody’s standard! A computer, a keyboard, some monitors, a couple of inexpensive mics and a bunch of software. It’s in a section of his living room, and he doesn’t have any fancy acoustic treatment or outboard gear.
    • The same is true for Matt VanderBoegh, except HIS extremely modest studio is in a glorified tool shed in the back yard of his home in Boise, ID. Again, a decent computer, small monitors, a coupe of mics, a small 2 or 3 octave keyboard, and some software. And a small wooden table!
  4. Do NOT write and record an entire album of songs, then pitch those songs over and over again for listings they really don’t work for! Break free from the, “I’m gonna squeeze my square peg into that round hole” paradigm, and hope that whoever listens will think your song or track is so good that they find a way to use it. They won’t!
  5. Before you write or record note # 1, you need to know what your mission is! Your mission is to figure out the kind of music that is needed by the industry, and can be created by you!
    • For the sake of this discussion, let’s concentrate on 90% instrumental cues, and 10% songs for film, TV, and advertising. Those will come later in your career trajectory or arc.
  6. "When you accomplish the easy stuff, it will inspire you to grow and eventually tackle the harder stuff, which then won’t be so hard!"

  7. Assume that instrumental cues are a good starting point because:
    • They are shorter than songs and require less writing and production time than songs.
    • They don’t require lyrics to be written. Lyrics are the thing that stops many songs in their tracks. You want to create and build momentum, so forget songs and lyrics for now!
    • Instrumentals don’t require vocals to be performed. Another roadblock avoided!
    • Instrumentals don’t require you to find the right vocalist, because you might not be a great singer, or the right singer for many of your songs. You’ve only got a 50% chance of being the right gender! More roadblocks! Forget the vocals for now!!
    • Instrumentals often times don’t require complicated production!
    • Instrumentals often times don’t require a complicated mix!
  8. How many of you play piano – raise your hands! Can you write and create a solo piano instrumental track?
  9. Start there! Start where, “What kind of solo piano piece?” you might ask!
  10. Well, read the TAXI listings carefully to figure that out!!!! Here’s an example:
    are needed by a very successful Music Library that’s building a new NON-Exclusive catalog. They’re on the hunt for Down-to-Mid-Tempo Instrumentals, in the 60 BPM to 90 BPM range, that can add a touch of elegance to a restaurant or bar scene. Check out these videos to get an idea of what they’re looking for: Easy Listening Piano Bar Jazz Music
    Jazz Piano Bar Music
    Piano Bar Music Collection
    Piano Tender Love Give them original, melodic, piano only Instrumentals that aren’t too busy and don’t have too much flair, so they leave plenty of room for dialogue. Submissions should sound authentic and real, like a live piano is in the room with a little “air” around it. In other words, if you’re using a sample, don’t choose one that sounds like it was too closely miked. Tracks that are stiff, or that have a MIDI-driven quality won’t work well work for this pitch. They’re NOT looking for covers or standards at this time, so please submit your very best original Instrumentals only. All submissions should be at least 2 minutes long.
  11. Do you need to spend a week writing and recording that piece? NO!!!
  12. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that you’re doing light cocktail jazz... what’s the goal?
    • To show what an incredible player you are? NO!
    • To show what an incredible composer you are? Absolutely NOT!
    • Your GOAL is to create a piece of music that enhances the mood or atmosphere of a scene, rather than stealing the show.
    • As much as you’d love your music to be the focal point of the scene, in many if not MOST cases, the purpose it serves is the exact opposite! Your music should NOT be noticed, but it should support or enhance the mood of the scene.
      QUESTION for you guys:
      What’s more important to the viewers or audience; the dialogue in a pivotal restaurant scene when a woman is telling her husband that she’s leaving him, or your piano piece that’s ostensibly coming from the speakers in the restaurant’s ceiling? How many of you play guitar? Let’s see some hands! Can you create a solo or simple acoustic guitar piece with two or three parts? Something like this? SWAMPY INSTRUMENTAL CUES are needed by a successful Film and TV Music Licensing Company. They’re tracking down Swampy Cues in All Tempos that you would hear on shows like (but not limited to) Swamp People, American Hoggers, Duck Dynasty, etc., etc., etc. Please listen to the references below to get yourself in the right frame of mind for this pitch:

      Swamp People

      American Hoggers (1:19 – 2:11)

      Duck Dynasty (0:20 – 1:21)

      Please submit Cues that could be heard while traveling down the bayou or exploring the backwoods. Your Cue should reflect backcountry Instrumentation crafted with any combination of Acoustic Guitar, Mandolin, Fiddle, Banjo, Slide Dobro, Harmonica, etc., etc., etc. Stick with a main melodic theme while weaving instrumentation in and out to add dynamics and interest as your Cue progresses. Please avoid anything that sounds stiff, artificial or MIDI-driven, as that won’t work well for this pitch. It’s also not a good idea to submit anything that’s overly frenetic or complex, since that could distract from dialogue.

      Your submissions should be at least 2 minutes long. Non-Faded/Buttoned endings will work best for this pitch. Do NOT copy or rip off the referenced artists in any way, shape, or form. Use them only as a general guide for tempo, texture, and overall feel. Broadcast Quality is needed (great sounding home recordings are fine).
  13. How many of you could create two minutes of nothing more than an acoustic guitar playing a simple, bluesy 1-4-5 chord progression on an acoustic guitar, then over-dubbing another guitar part playing swampy sounding fills every now and then or maybe some slide Dobro parts?
  14. What would your mood be? How about something uptempo and fun for when the bearded boys are heading out to shoot some innocent, unsuspecting ducks?
  15. And when you’re done laying that down, do you already have your settings for your acoustic guitar sounds?
  16. "As much as you’d love your music to be the focal point of the scene, in many, if not most cases, the purpose it serves is the exact opposite! Your music should not be noticed, but it should support or enhance the mood of the scene."

  17. Do you already have the settings for the other guitar part you laid down?
  18. Could you use those settings and record ANOTHER piece that’s got a slightly depressing or somber mood for the scene at the end of the day when the boys are heading home empty handed because they missed every duck?
  19. Could you create an anticipatory tension piece with those same instruments, settings, and sounds for a scene in which some gator boys are coming up on one of their traps and it looks like they might have a 12 footer hooked on the other end of the line?
    Hell yes you can!
  20. And could you create yet another piece by changing the chord progression, the tempo, and the mood? Yes!!!!
  21. How about an uptempo, celebratory piece with major chords, for when they pull that giant gator up to the boat and score their biggest catch ever?
    Sure, why not?!!!
  22. And how about another piece when stinky old gator daddy comes home at the end of his long, gator-killing day, and reads a touching story to his three year old before tucking her into bed? Yes! Sameinstruments, same settings, different chords, a sweeter mood, and maybe a touch of harmonica to give it a little down home flavor. Done! And how many more moods can you repeat that process for? How about... Adventurous, Angry, Anthemic, Anxious, Blissful, Bouncy, Bright, Cheerful, Determined, Dramatic, Ecstatic, Epic, Emotional, Exciting, Fun, Happy, Heartwarming, Hopeful, Humorous, Inspiring, Joyful, Lonely, Melancholy, Mischievous, Motivational, Optimistic, Playful, Pensive, Proud, Reflective, Romantic, Sad, Seductive, Scary, Thoughtful, Whimsical... you get the idea!
  23. And now apply that same, “I’ve finished one piece, let me use the same instrument or instruments, the same settings, but with different chords, a different tempo, a different melody, and a different mood,” for each of those moods!
    • Can you imagine yourself doing one of these per night in your spare time?
    • Can you imagine that you’re going to get faster and better with your gear as you do new cues several times a week?
    • Can you imagine that your confidence level will skyrocket as doing this become routine?
    • Can you imagine that over time, you’d start adding in other instruments into your arrangements and productions as you become better with your recording and production skills?
    • Can you imagine that it’s possible to create 200 cues in a year, and that maybe 150 of them would get signed by various libraries?
  24. Do you think it’s possible that you could place 15 cues each, in 10 different libraries so you’ve hedged your bets by spreading them around?
  25. Do you think it’s possible that you can repeat that yearly scenario and grow the number of cues you create by 10% per year?
    • Do you think it would be exciting and rewarding to hear one of your pieces played in an episode of a TV show with your family members sitting there with you?
    • Do you think it would be exciting and rewarding to get your ASCAP or BMI quarterly statement and see your first-ever payment, even if it’s only $64 dollars?
    • Do you now understand how it’s possible to create several hundred cues in a period of five years and start to see an annual income of tens of thousands of dollars per year?
    • Do you now see how Matthew VanderBoegh began making enough income in his “spare” time that he was able to quit his day job as a college professor at Boise State after four or five years and do music full-time in his backyard tool shed with his remarkably simple studio?
    • Do you think Matt will break through the six-figure mark in the near future? I have no doubt!
    • Do you think Matt and our other successful members have learned how to give their cues titles that telegraph what the music sounds like to editors and music supervisors?
  26. Do they use titles like Swampy Sunset for a cue that could be great for a scene at the end of the gator-catching workday in the swamp?
  27. "Starting out small, growing incrementally over 30 years, saving, and investing in a way that you earn compound interest, you could amass a million dollar retirement fund!"

  28. Do they know how to enter metadata in their song or instrumental files like their name, the title, their percentage of ownership, their PRO, the other writers and their percentages, and their contact information?
  29. Do you think our successful members have become so proficient after starting out like this that eventually they spread their wings and take on Orchestral cues and other more complex productions?
  30. Do you think our successful members have become so proficient from doing instrumental cues that they eventually go back to writing and producing songs with vocals as well?
  31. Do you think it’s a good idea to get locked into just one or two libraries because they send you briefs and make you feel loved and appreciated?
  32. Do you think it’s smarter to keep expanding the number of companies you work with because they all have peaks and valleys, and you want to spread out your bets and diversify to maximum your income like you would with an investment portfolio?
  33. And finally, do you think it’s possible that you can retire with a MILLION DOLLARS in the bank from making music? Well, I’m NOT a financial expert or advisor by any stretch of the imagination, but for entertainment purposes ONLY, please consider this:
    What I’m about to tell you assumes that you’ve got a couple of years of TAXI under your belt, and you probably made very little... or maybe NO money in those first couple of years! But, for argument’s sake (and remember, I’m NOT a financial advisor), but let’s say that a fictional TAXI member has a couple of those “learning the ropes” years under his or her belt, and is now 36 years old. And in that year, that member earns just $1,000 from his or her music. That seems possible, doesn’t it? And let’s for argument’s sake assume that that fictional member is a SAVER and not a spender, and invests that income in such a way that he or she earns an AVERAGE of 5% annual, compounded interest every year. Bottom Line: Starting out small, growing incrementally over 30 years, saving, and investing in a way that you earn compound interest, you could amass a million dollar retirement fund! Are those number achievable? Yes! How do I know that? Without giving any specific details, I know for a fact that members like Matt Hirt, Matthew Vanderboegh, Chuck Henry, Keith LuBrant, Steve Baird, and plenty of others have exceeded the numbers in the first 2/3 of that range. And in some cases, the annual income at the top of that range has been matched or exceeded. In one case, it’s been nearly doubled!
    So, if you’re a saver, and assuming you’ve made an average of 5% interest compounded annually, and assuming you’d spend about 15% of that income and pay about 35% in taxes, after a 30-year period, at the age of 65, our fictional TAXI member will have earned $2,231,851.88. And after my aforementioned guesstimate at spending and taxes, that fictional member will have $1,115,925.94 left in the bank. And do you think that member would quit making music at 65 years old? Noooooooooo!
    Thank you for paying attention, because that my friends, is how you do it!