An Interview with Michael Laskow, Founder and CEO of TAXI
JF: What books, videos, research etc.. would you suggest for new/advanced songwriters?
ML: Well, I'm a little partial to Robin Frederick's books. That's why I coughed up the money to publish them. First, I'd read Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting, it's a classic and it would be impossible to read that book and not improve immediately. John Braheny's book, The Craft and Business of Songwriting is a must read, as well as Jason Blume's, Six Steps to Songwriting Success. For more advanced songwriters, both of Pat Pattison's books on lyric writing are top notch. Pat's books take intense concentration to read, but they will take your lyrics to the next level. And last, but certainly not least, Robin's new book on writing specifically for Film and TV opportunities is nothing short of amazing. It's a really easy book to read, and the first book on the market to cover the Film and TV market for songs. It's called Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV, and it too will become a classic. The reviews are already coming in, ad so far, they're all 5 stars.
JF: If there is something that you want to express about TAXI or yourself that you haven't had an opportunity to do, please include the info. Please include plans for the future with TAXI.
ML: So many people tell me that they've been “thinking about joining TAXI for years.” Most of them tell me that they're waiting until they think their material is good enough to submit. The irony is that one of the things TAXI does best is to help songwriters, artists and composers figure out which of their songs are strongest, and should be completed and produced.
Our A&R department works for our members. We're really in the artist development business as much as we are in the business of making contacts and connections and getting deals for musicians. If I could shout one thing to all musicians from a rooftop, it would be, “Don't wait until you think your songs are great before you join, because great is a moving target. Use TAXI to become great faster, and then use us to open the doors for you. There are hundreds of stories from our members on our Forum about this. Our most successful members are the people who realize that TAXI isn't an all or nothing at all proposition. It's probably more similar to grad school with a really strong placement program for those who graduate.
I generally don't talk much about our plans for the future because there are so many companies that try to copy everything we do. All I can really tell you is that we are in the process of making it easier for our members to use TAXI, while also making it easier for the industry people who need music to find it through TAXI. Some big positive changes are on the way, and that's all I can say about it.
JF: What are top 10 (or more or less) items that make a good song great?]
o A universal theme that's put in a completely fresh, yet totally relatable context
o A title that echoes the chorus lyric for easy identification for buyers
o An intriguing intro that's short and compelling
o A compelling first line and first verse to completely suck the listener into the song
o A chorus that is rhythmically different, melodically infectious, and lyrically memorable
o A bridge that takes the song to a new place and keeps the listener interested
o A lift out of that bridge into a dramatic last chorus
o Not making the listener get to the end of the song to make it pay off
o A story that offers a resolution to satisfy the listener's need to know the outcome
o A contemporary structure, melody and production. Keep current
JF: What top mistakes do songwriters make and how can they remedy them?
Thinking that they've just created a whole new genre of music that is pure genius and blaming the world when listeners don't “get it.” Humans are creatures of habit, and we like our music to be somewhat similar, but not too similar to what we already know and like. It's a mistake to ignore that and not use what is familiar as a starting point. Then push the envelope by 15% to be creative and different!
Actually, if you look at my list in the last answer, you can figure out what not to do by simply reversing it. It's a mistake to not use a universal theme. It's a mistake to not make the title similar to the hook, and so on.
JF: What are the biggest challenges in today's music market?
ML: Well, the first challenge is the one that has always existed-making great music that people value enough to buy. The second challenge is getting them to buy it in a world that's been trained to get music for free. That takes some business acumen, and many musicians are somewhat business averse. Unfortunately, in today's market, you need to have the business chops. Fortunately, in today's market, if you've got the business chops, you can do well without a record label.
JF: About how many hours do you spend with TAXI?
ML: Far too many, and probably not enough! I typically work at least 50 hours a week, and usually more like 60+ hours a week. Fortunately, I'm pretty passionate about it, so it doesn't always feel like work, even at night and on weekends. And when it does feel like work, so what! That's part of being a grown up. Not everything in life is fun all of the time.
JF: What are your favorite success stories with TAXI?
ML: They're all my favorites and I don't mean that to sound facetious. I'm just thrilled that thousands of musicians who have never made a plug nickel with their music before they joined are now earning money for doing what they love. One of our members-Chuck Henry- just told me about a month ago that he's now earning $200,000 a year doing Film and TV stuff, and he credits TAXI for that. Pretty cool! The stories like Adam Watts and Andy Dodd having their songs and productions on 50,000,000 CDs as the result of one TAXI connection, or Elliot Park's Cinderella story #1 with I Loved Her First, are great, and I'm sure people love to hear those stories so they know TAXI is legitimate and does what it claims. But for me personally, it's the aggregate of all of the successes. This link features a fraction of our members reporting their TAXI success stories in their own words. Frankly, the quantity is overwhelming… something like 26 pages of stories, and that's just a fraction of our members reporting, and only for the last few years!
JF: Have you reached most of your initial goals with TAXI?
ML: Yes, but only the initial goals. I create new goals every year. That's an ongoing process and always will be. I strongly dislike stagnation in all of its forms.
JF: What are your top 10 (more or less) favorite songs?
Aja by Steely Dan- it's the best performed, recorded, and produced song I've ever heard.
Virtually all Beatle songs
Desperado by the Eagles or Linda Ronstadt
My Town by Montgomery Gentry
Here Comes Goodbye, the demo version by Curtis Sligh and Clint Lagerberger
Anything written by Lamont Dozier, especially the Motown classics
Honestly, this list could go on for pages, and I haven't really even gotten to the more contemporary stuff. Suffice it to say that great songs still make the hair on my arms stand up after being in the music business for more than 35 years. I will always be in awe of great songs and the people who write them. I'm always looking for the next great song.
JF: How successful are collaborations as songwriters vs. one singer/songwriter creating the entire song?
ML: Two heads are almost always better than one. It might take a few tries to find the second “head,” but it's something I strongly recommend.
JF: How many emails do you receive per day, and do you answer all of them?
ML: I personally get about 300 per day, and no, I don't answer them all. I start reading and answering them when I wake up at 7am every day, and I'm usually still answering them at 11pm from bed at night, and I barely scratch the surface, sadly.
JF: Any advice on what studio to use (home, successful studio etc...)?
ML: Nearly everything on the market today can get the job done. I'm amazed by the quality of Chinese microphones these days. They're not very consistent, but if you buy from a company like Gauge that ear checks every mic before they sell it, you're going to get a great mic for very little money. I also love the Apogee One interface/mic combo. That's a must have! And I can't stress the need enough to buy great sounding and current virtual instrument/sample libraries if you're doing film and TV stuff. I know people with studios that cost just a few grand that produce great sounding stuff because they've taken the time to learn basic craft of engineering. It's not nearly as hard as people make it out to be, and you certainly don't need to buy $20,000 worth of gear to do it. That said, I do understand the need to buy more gear… at least for men! It's like re-building a car while in high school. Gotta have that Hurst shifter and the badass muffler!
JF: Do the screeners looking for a certain song ever remember a former submission that would be perfect but is not submitted for the particular need? Do they contact the person regarding submitting their songs?
ML: Yes, we quietly do that, but because we can't promise it will happen every time something doesn't fit one listing, but does fit another very RECENT one. The stars really need to line up for that to happen.
JF: How did the TAXI Road Rally “Mecca” for serious songwriters come about?
ML: One of our members suggested it, so we tried it and it worked. We've done 14 now, and we've watched it grow from 300 people to about 2,500. The reason it has become THE music convention to go to is that we make it all about the attendees and not about us trying to impress everybody with how cool we are. Every little thing we do at the Rally is for our members. The panelists we hand pick are people who are givers not takers. The Rally is life changing. Ask anybody who has ever been there. Our site details information on our annual Road Rally.
JF: Do new movie/television upcoming shows ever give accomplished songwriters the scripts or trailers so the writer can obtain a more specific idea for songs?
ML: Rarely. They don't want the plots to leak to the public. They usually think about the music in post-production and not very often in pre-production unless the song is part of the script, like when a band plays a wedding gig in one of the scenes.
JF: Do commercials managers or ad agency people explain exactly what they are looking for to promote their products?
ML: Best they can, but they are typically not musicians, so they might express their needs in different terms. Our job at TAXI is to effectively translate what they are looking for into something that works for that company and for our members. We've been getting a ton of really high-level ad agency opportunities for the last six months. Our members love them because the paychecks for ads can be massive!
JF: Are there less veteran songwriters hired by music industries to create so many songs per week etc...? If so, does this open the door for some unknown, talented songwriter?
ML: No, I don't think anybody has intentionally decreased the number of pro songwriters they work with. I do think the opportunities for unknown songwriters has increased dramatically because of two events; the advent of great, inexpensive home recording gear and TAXI - if I can be just a little immodest. Let's face it; prior to TAXI and the Alesis ADAT, how many Indie musicians had the opportunities they have today?
In the end, it all comes down to who has the best song, period!
JF: I heard that Nashville music professionals rarely listen to any submissions of folks who don't live in Nashville.
ML: They, like everybody else, listen to songs from people who they trust not to waste their time. They listen to what we send them, but we had to work for years to earn their respect. We also have to song-pluggers working the Row for us.
I think people want to believe there are obstacles like, “They only listen to locals.” Sure, if you live there and know people in your network who are looking for songs, that's a plus. There's always a way to get your music heard if it is amazing. Nobody ever asks for “album cuts,” and they only want hits. If you're truly writing hits, people will gravitate to you for all kinds of reasons.
JF: If a songwriter also has an idea for a dynamic video that would help promote the song or give the reason that motivated them to write the song, should he or she submit that information? Or should they let the pros handle that part if the song was selected.
ML: If you need to explain the motivation for the song, then the song isn't doing its job very well. I think that would be perceived by industry folks as well-intentioned, but maybe somewhat naive.
JF: How did the music business change through the decades?
ML: Something crazy like 90% of all music consumed today is stolen. That's a big change. Indie musicians are very self-empowered now, and that's certainly a big change, but I think most don't take advantage of the opportunities because of fear of business and fear of failure. I think that's sad because opportunities should never be wasted. It's like wasting food.
JF: Do our current economic challenges affect the music business?
ML: Yes, the economy sucks right now, and it affects everything. Nobody is spending money like they used to, and that drives the economy further into the red. It's cyclical, but this a longer and deeper cycle than we are used to seeing.
JF: How would you like to be remembered?
ML: As a man who loves his family and is honest in business. We don't see enough of that today, and the lack of honesty generates a lot of cynicism. That's unfortunate. I'm not sure I want to write my eulogy yet. I feel like I've got some time left and a lot to do with it!
JF: If you had to write/co-write a hit song, what would it be about?
ML: Love, of course ;-)
JF: Did you have a mentor through your fascinating career?
ML: I've been extremely fortunate to have many, the first of which was my grandfather. He always had good advice and was a well-respected business owner. Legendary producer Tommy Dowd taught me a lot about making records, Eric Clapton taught me that the joy was in the makingof the music, Neil Young taught me that vibe and capturing the moment matter more than great engineering or production, my friend Ray Scherr continues to teach me how to find the simplest, most effective answer or path, and my friend Jim Long is always teaching me to see many steps ahead and how to see through “walls.” I think about how lucky I've been to know and learn from these folks all the time. They have a lot to do with who I am, and how I run TAXI.