This Article Originally Published July 2001
So, your demo is complete, you’ve sent out about a hundred tapes and CDs to different major and independent labels (and haven’t heard a single peep from any of them), and you’re looking for a bigger audience than the twenty loyal followers you have that stalk you at every show. Now what do you do?
Well . . . there are a number of online services that promise you they can get your material heard and out to the right people . . . if you agree to pay a hefty fee and sign away half your rights and income in the process. One of these such “A&R vehicles,” however, is being praised time and again for having not only a top-notch staff (the list of current and former label VP’s is staggering; the major labels ARE moonlighting, ladies and gentlemen), but a moderate fee, and real critical feedback (your submissions will receive point-by-point critiques on “why” it wasn’t chosen). For those who are lucky enough to get past the initial round of scrutiny, tape submissions are actually FORWARDED to the coveted desks of major label A&R people, movie soundtrack supervisors and tons of other “important” people.
And the name of this revered independent music “vehicle”? Appropriately enough, it’s TAXI (www.taxi.com).
I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you I had my own skeptical vision of this service. After all, we’ve all heard this type of “guarantee” lingo and having worked in the industry (in one capacity or another) for several years, I’m leery of a line or two when I hear them. But although every service has its weak points, for the most part, TAXI is on the level road, taking the high one most of the time.
What can an artist get out of a subscription to TAXI (yes, kids, there is no such thing as a free ride these days, if there ever was . . . subscription rates are $299.95 for one year, $499.95 for two years, and $599.95 for three years)? Who uses the service? Is TAXI legit? Who screens the music? Is there a limit to the number of submissions you can make?
Most of the above questions can be answered by visiting the website at www.taxi.com. Other questions can be answered by asking around at shows and finding out who is currently using it (the numbers are in the thousands, so it’s likely you’ll at least run into someone who’s heard of it or has some stories to pass along) – there’s nothing like the original source to tell you how it works and if it’s worth it.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with TAXI’s founder, Michael Laskow, about some of the advantages and disadvantages of joining and maintaining a service such as this. (For further info on Mr. Laskow’s credentials and history in the music business, see the website). As anticipated, he was more than forthcoming with information and explanation behind some of TAXI’s more controversial points of debate.
Indie-Music.com: Could you tell me about some of your history before getting involved with TAXI - maybe how you got your start in the music industry and how that influenced your decision to make TAXI a major player in the A & R aspect of the business?
Michael Laskow: I was very fortunate in that I landed a job sweeping floors at Criteria Studios in the early '70s when the studio was home to groups like the Eagles, Bee Gees, Clapton, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. I eventually became an engineer, then a producer. In between working with the famous groups, I'd do bread and butter gigs with local talent. Some of the unsigned groups were great, but they couldn't get through major label doors. I made myself a promise that someday I would do something about that.
I-M: When did TAXI become more than an idea - 1992 or later - and how did you market your service to the majors? What difficulties did you run into?
ML: Even though I realized the need for a service like TAXI in the '70s, I didn't actually start the company until 1992. When the major labels found out who our screeners were, they were happy to tell us what they were looking for.
It's actually been much harder convincing the bands and writers that we're for real. Musicians have long been told not to pay anyone to listen to their music, and for a long time, that was good information. But it was mainly directed at two-bit, song sharks - disreputable publishers.
Then along came TAXI, a company that had real contacts, real first-hand information from major labels, top publishers, and music supervisors working on film and TV projects, and not a lot of people believed we were for real. It was frustrating, but we just stayed our course, and worked our butts off to provide a service that was unparalleled. We figured that our reputation for being honest would eventually filter out to the public, and after eight years, I'm happy to say that we've accomplished that goal.
We work with every top label, sometimes, several people at the same company. The labels love us because we do a good chunk of the grunt work for them.
I-M: What are your personal reasons for sticking yourself in the thick of things - a lot of CEO's and Founders turn over their business once they get a staff in place - what do you take from your experiences with TAXI?
ML: It's my other child. I care about it too much to not make sure it looks both ways before it crosses the street. The staff is extremely capable at TAXI, and I've off-loaded a lot of my responsibilities to them and my partner, Michael Lederer this year. But I owe it to our members to remain vigilant. Maybe it's just my ego talking, but I want everybody to know that this company has an owner who gives a damn.
As to what experiences do I take away from TAXI . . . I'd have to say that whoever said that "if you work hard enough at something, you will achieve it," was absolutely right. TAXI has taught me that if you've tried and failed, you probably didn't try hard enough. When you feel like you don't have the strength to go one more step, take it anyway.
I-M: Keeping in mind that our audience at indie-music.com is reaching mainly unsigned, indie artists and small indie labels, which artists, in your opinion, should consider joining TAXI?
ML: I'd have to say that TAXI is best suited for unsigned artists and writers, although we've had singed groups like Sixpence None The Richer join TAXI after they signed their indie deal with Squint so they could take advantage of our ability to get them placed in film and TV. And in the case of Sixpence, we did just that.
I-M: Do artists with certain styles or genres of music benefit more from TAXI than a band that plays a less radio-friendly genre? I would imagine that there is a demand for country music and top 40, but does anything else stick out?
ML: One of the things that makes TAXI so cool is that we get requests for all kinds of music. For instance, Klezmer music (think Fiddler on the Roof). Because we run so many listings for film and TV, we get requests and make placements for music that would never hit a Billboard chart.
I-M: How would a person get the most benefit from TAXI critiques? Are artists able to get critiques of their songs after they've been forwarded past the TAXI screening stage (in other words, do they have access to the reasons why their song was forwarded - it seems that this might be just as helpful as a reason why their material didn't get forwarded)?
ML: The reason things get forwarded is pretty simple, they are stylistically right on target and they are good enough. But yes, the feedback for music forwarded and not forwarded is very valuable. Our members constantly tell us that the feedback alone is well worth the membership fee. Let's face it, where else could a musician get REAL feedback from somebody who has been a vice-president of A&R at a major label at any price?
I-M: After speaking with several TAXI members who've been fortunate enough to have their material forwarded, a concern that I've run up against is the fact that they don't have proof that their material actually has landed on someone's desk after it was "forwarded" unless someone from that company calls them. Would you ever consider requiring those that utilize TAXI to at least send a confirmation that they'd received the material out to the musicians themselves? Or, conversely, is it possible to implement a statute of limitations on the time frame where it's possible after a certain amount of days or months, that the musician would be allowed to contact the label directly after their foot is in the door?
ML: In a perfect world, the labels would get back to every artist that we send to them. But the reality is that A&R people like things that simplify their lives, and TAXI does that for them. If they like something, they call the artist and follow up. If they don't, the phone stays in its cradle.
If an A&R person got twenty tapes from TAXI and passed on all twenty, they'd have to make twenty phones calls to people who would then ask, "Why didn't you sign me? What could I do to improve it? Didn't you like the chorus on the third song? My friends all like it, why don't you?! Did you listen to it several times? Will you listen to it again?" Each call would take at least fifteen minutes. For twenty artists, that would be at least three hundred minutes on the phone - five hours of telling people why they didn't make the grade. I know it's got to be tough knowing that your tape is in the hands of a V.P. of A&R at a major label, but not knowing the outcome.
We used to let our members call the A&R people to follow up, but three knuckle-heads ruined that for everybody in 1995. Each one (in fairly close succession) called the A&R people, and then went completely nuts on the A&R people when they found out they weren't getting singed. We have no way of knowing how somebody's going to deal with an A&R person. In one case we had a member call a music supervisor at home at 10:30 at night and go completely berserk, swearing, threatening, and the like. Needless to say, that was the straw that broke the camel's back. No more calls to the parties who list with us.
I-M: While I personally understand the validity of charging a subscription rate, could you explain your reasons behind implementing a subscription fee?
ML: First, we don't take a percentage. Imagine what 15 or 20 percent of your career earnings would cost you versus $300. Imagine what giving up half your publishing on a hit song might cost you. And now it's my tun to ask a question! Do you pay your accountant when he or she provides their service to you? Do you pay your doctor? Well, when you get right down to it, TAXI is performing a professional service.
I'd also like to add that for a member's $300 they get two FREE tickets to our annual convention. If you go to south by Southwest, you'll pay much more that what the TAXI subscription fee costs, and your guest would have to pay as well. If you roll our monthly newsletter in to the equation, and the fact that you get personalized feedback on your material, TAXI's really quite a bargain. Oh yeah, I forgot the subscription to RECORDING Magazine that comes with each membership to TAXI.
The bottom line is that we’re not a publisher or a manager. We are an independent Artist and Repertoire company that gives its members a ton of value.
I-M: You certainly have a number of supporters within the industry and among musicians, but what are your detractors saying about TAXI?
ML: I'm sure there's a litany of things people say about us, but without fail, the vast majority of people who have anything negative to say about TAXI are people with music that's not very good and blame us for not making them a success, or they are people who haven't used the service and are taking shots at us without having full and correct knowledge.
Most of our members see the feedback we give them as a very useful tool, but not all.
The Internet breeds a lot of people who put themselves out there as experts on a given subject, but the readers don't know if the author is really qualified. It's sad . . . the good thing about the Internet is that anybody can have a soapbox and a public voice, but the bad thing is that the person speaking isn't held up to the same journalistic standards that a network anchor or a major newspaper would be held up to.
I-M: What do you find are common responses from members who request refunds? What are ways that bands can avoid these pitfalls and how can they use their membership most effectively?
ML: Funny enough, most refund requests come from people who have unrealistic expectations. No where in our literature does it say that we guarantee anybody a record deal. The biggest pitfall may be that people need to be totally immersed in today's music, know the trends, stay ahead of the trends, and concentrate on writing great songs. The most successful members seem to do that and pitch their material carefully - meaning that they pitch to the listings that are right on target for their material and not take pot shots at close calls.
I-M: In light of the trend of established musicians abandoning their major label support in favor of indie labels that allow for more creative and business control, do you feel that TAXI is promoting or holding major labels on a higher pedestal? What type of indie record label participation do you get at TAXI?
ML: I don't think we put the majors on a higher pedestal, we just try to avoid running listings for Indies that are so small that they don't have REAL distribution yet, or REAL money and resources that it takes to break an artist. There are pluses and minuses in both major and indie deals. Work hard to find the deal that really suits you best, and make sure that you get all the assurances (in writing) you can that your label will get behind you.
I-M: Finally, in what direction do you see TAXI moving toward in the future? Are there possibilities of allowing submissions across MP3 or online, instead of directly mailing in materials? Would TAXI ever consider, given the unique position of an established A & R staff, starting up its own label?
ML: The future for TAXI and its members is clearly online, but I think we'll probably serve musician's best by taking our A&R capabilities to the street level, not just labels. Eventually, the consumer will want to know which material in the vast sea of choices is the best. TAXI can do that very well, and in all likelihood, we'll be partnering with one of the major Internet companies in the near future to provide that service.
TAXI probably won't become its own label because we would be competing against the companies who run listings with us.
So . . . the nuts and bolts about TAXI? You’ve just gotten them straight from the owner’s mouth. As with any service or establishment that you send your material to, be sure to gather as much information as you can. TAXI is a unique and proven way to get your material in front of those who know the fickle music industry better than most. Don’t bother to send your material in if you don’t want a true critical assessment, however, and can’t handle the outcome. These are the experts of our societal music fickleness, but they know who to get your material to and what the A&R people are looking for. The rest is up to the quality of your material. Stay informed and keep taking chances.