I normally write articles and tips for musicians to help them with their online marketing, PR and community building. But there is another topic I feel deeply passionate about: Helping the next generation who want to make it in the music business understand what it takes to achieve that dream.
To succeed in service to musicians you must ne willing to stand by your dreams and persever. And you must have great entrepreneurial instincts and marketing skills. This is the advice from one of the most successful people serving artists today: Michael Laskow, the founder of Taxi.
As I type this I am flying back from the 13th annual Taxi Road Rally and I feel full of hope for what lies ahead of us all in the music business.
Because Taxi members are a unique group of artists who work TOGETHER to help each other get ahead. This was evident in every corner of the hotel, which was filled with artists networking, jamming, socializing and getting mentored by an outstanding group of industry professionals committed to helping them including Ralph Murphy, Steven Memel, Bob Baker, John & Joann Brahaeny, Debra Russell, Dude Mclean, Jay Frank, Carla Lynne Hall, Gilli Moon, and dozens more.
I hung out with quite a few members many who told me that when they joined Taxi a few years ago they had no idea how to get their music placed in film & TV. With Taxi’s mentoring and feedback plus the power of the annual Road Rally, they learned and are experiencing success.
By the time I was speaking on the main stage on the marketing panel when asked if this weekend had felt like a “life changing” event, hundreds of hands went up in the audience.
Leading the charge is Michael, who has completely reinvented his company to stay relevant during these changing times and I give him major props. To keep thousands of artists coming back as he does means he’s doing it right.
Here are some excerpts from an in-depth interview I’ve been saving for just this occasion:
It’s for you: Our next generation who want to make it in the music business.
Ariel Hyatt: Michael, How did you get into the music business?
Michael Laskow: I’m a small-town Midwest kind of guy that saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show when I was nine years old and looked at my parents after the Beatles walked off the stage and said, “when I grow up, I want to be in the music business, I want to make records.” My parents just kind of looked at me a little bewildered and said, “yeah, okay, whatever”.
I was passionate about music, an avid and rabid fan, and at 19 years old I was going to school in Miami, Florida, at the University of Miami and took a ride with a roommate of mine to Ace Music in North Miami, (which is kind of the equivalent of Guitar Center today). There, I overheard a delivery guy stating that he was going to Criteria Studios, which was a big famous studio, to drop off some gear. I talked him into taking me along. I sat in the lobby, trying to behave myself and be inconspicuous and at that moment the owner walked through the lobby and remarked to somebody else that they needed a new kid to sweep the floors and clean the toilets.
I jumped up and down and acted like an idiot until the guy came over and said, “Who are you, are you here with the Eagles, are you here with the Bee Gees, are you here with Clapton?” I said no to all three. He said, “Then get out of my studio” and literally gave me a semi-polite shove out the front door.
I found out his name and called him 25 times that week, five times a day for five days in a row, until Friday afternoon about 4:30 or 5:00, he came on the line and said, “you’re driving my receptionist nuts, if I promise to interview you for this job, which happens to be an internship and, of course, pays nothing and you don’t get it, do you swear you’ll never call here again as long as you live?” I agreed to his terms. I drove back there and interviewed and got the job. I swept floors, cleaned toilets, and did food runs and worked my way up, eventually to become an assistant engineer and then an engineer and eventually started producing.
I’ve lived my dream. I think I worked on my first gold or platinum record by the age of 22. I have several of them on the wall. I got to work with many great artists, including Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, a lot of Neil Young stuff, Eric Clapton…. The list goes on.
Anyway, so spent many years sitting behind a recording console and in between the big famous acts, would work with local talent that saved up enough money to go into a real studio and do a real but very expensive demo and frequently saw that they had no outlet for their music.
After they did the demo, they had no way to get it to A&R people because they didn’t listen to unsolicited music. So made a note to self and that was sometime in the mid to late 70s and eventually walked away from making records because I had a family and didn’t want to work 20 hours a day.
I was running large post-production companies, typically as a general manager, and one day just decided that wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life and thought, gee, what do I want to do with my life. I remembered that note to self from the mid-70s, that somebody had to create a way to help real talent get their music in the right hands.
I went home and wrote a business plan in 48 hours. Literally had the whole concept for Taxi just kind of pop into my head. The business model was clear. The whole plan was clear and I just typed it out and was able to raise $70,000 from my oldest, dearest friend in the world who was a close friend in college and I started the company out of a one-bedroom apartment in 1992.
AH: What was it called at the time?
ML: It was called Taxi. About 90 days before we made our first penny, I woke up at six o’clock in the morning and kicked my wife in the leg and said, “I’ve got it, wake up, I’ve got it, I want to call this company Taxi, because it gets you from where you are to where you want to go.” She was kind of pissed off that I woke her up. I wrote down the four letters, T-A-X-I, on a napkin under a water glass on the nightstand and went back to sleep as best I could. A few hours later, looked at the napkin again and said, “that’s it, I’m gong to call it Taxi”.
AH: When You Started, Was it just you? You had a right-hand man or woman?
ML: “I had my wife, who happens to be a woman; she was my brand-new wife…She was going to grad school and getting a double Masters degree. So we had no income and she had long days, I had long days.
Typically she and I would start working together on Taxi stuff around 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. and work until 1 or 2 a.m., folding flyers, stuffing envelopes, addressing stuff. We were so dumb, we were actually hand addressing stuff and hand stamping it and hand folding it. Literally, I have a picture sitting with me as I’m talking to you that remains in my office of my wife folding flyers in the first 90 days. We had no money. Literally, we couldn’t afford to eat and pay rent at the same time. So that was quite a humbling experience, coming from a six-figure income and having an apartment in New York and an apartment in Los Angeles and being a well-employed, well-paid person of some repute and all of a sudden we were more broke than college kids. It builds character.
AH: So you decided to start your own company so that you could not work 20 hours, but then you started working 20 hours building your company, yes?
ML: Yes, I did.
AH: Just checking.
ML: Right, and still pretty much do.
AH: What do you think that you know or that you have, a trait or some sort of knowledge, that separates you from other people in the business?
ML: I’m not so concerned about earning a dollar today and having a job in the industry as I am making my mark and doing something for the industry and for musicians. I know that sounds incredibly altruistic but I didn’t want to… I never had the instinct to just create another record label or another management company.
I wanted to do something that would change the game. I saw somebody in 1989 type “hi” on a computer and somebody else type back, “hi, how are you, I’m fine” or something like that. I said, “Whoa, do you think they’ll ever be able to send music down a wire like those words just came?” The guy said, “Sure, it’s zeros and ones, someday they’ll figure out how to compress it.” I really knew in that moment that that was going to change everything about the music industry. I just didn’t know how it would change it. Frankly, we still don’t know exactly how it’s going to change it.
So I remember getting in my car when I left that guy’s house and thinking, well, if everything’s going to change, what can I do that will be a safe place to go that will be important to that change. I realized that no matter what form the industry takes, that a filter was always going to be necessary. I had an instinct that the labels would eventually melt down and go away. They were the filters; they still are a filter. And that the public wouldn’t want to hear all the bad stuff to find the gems, so that was part of the inspiration for starting Taxi, was to create a neutral, Swiss-like filter that would be of tremendous value eventually to consumers, certainly in the short term, to the industry.
By doing that, it would help the musicians who deserved to be heard and didn’t have a way to get their music to the right people. So there was a certain amount of altruism mixed with a certain amount of business instinct. Put those in a pot, stir them up, and what you get is an entrepreneur.
AH: I believe entrepreneurs are problem solvers. You identified a problem, because you were sitting behind a console, you were meeting musicians all day long, and you probably gathered from talking to them that the problem was: They wanted to make music for film and TV but they didn’t have any access. Is that sort of how you had your ah-ha moment.
ML: It wasn’t specifically about film and TV. It was just that they were creating music. Back then, everybody wanted the major label deal and the rock star lifestyle. Yeah, all they were concerned about was getting their music on tape because they were so certain that if anybody heard it, they would be recognized for their genius and immediately get signed and immediately make millions of dollars and live the rock star life.
They hadn’t thought any further than getting their music on tape. They didn’t think about how would we market it on our own if we chose that path, which very few did back then, and most of them didn’t know an A&R person, didn’t know a manager, didn’t know a music attorney, and had no solution for getting their music to the right people. That’s what I recognized.
An entrepreneur to me isn’t necessarily who opens up a pizza shop or a chain of pizza shops. When you come up with something that is new and different in concept—and I like the fact that you used the word context—because yes, it was out of context.
AH: How did that unfold? Did you find that one believer led you to the next? I When I changed my business model it wasn’t easy.
ML: Nobody had ever done anything like Taxi before so, yes, I had to fully explain it and it was really hard to get people in the industry who had done things the same way for eons to understand here was a new way to look at it. You tell us what you need, we go out and find it for you, send it to you, we don’t take a piece of anything, and if you like it, you cut a deal with the artist or the songwriter directly.
They were like, “huh, I don’t get it, you’re not managing them, you’re not an agent or a booker or a lawyer, what are you?” Well, we’re an independent A&R company. We help identify talent. Well, how much is it going to cost me? Nothing. How do I use you? All you have to do is tell us what you’re looking for. That’s it? They just literally could not understand it. We were greeted with tremendous amounts of skepticism. People laughed at me behind my back. Friends of mine in the industry would call me and say, “dude, you’ve got to quit calling people, they’re talking about you behind your back, people think you’re an idiot.” Fulton’s Follies, for sure.
There’s a lot of humility involved… It’s like the Wright brothers trying to fly a plane. You have to just put your humble hat on and persevere. There are times when you want to cry. There are times when you want to put a gun in your mouth. There are times when you want to run away from your life. You’re second guessing yourself a hundred times a day. What the hell am I doing? But you have to just know deep in your heart that the plan is good and that you’re the person to execute it and be humble and persevere in the face of every obstacle.
In ’92, so I’m just going to point out to our readers that in 1992, there was no Internet. So I know that you had to adapt your company. You had to go from offline to online. So how many times and ways did you have to adapt or adjust your vision and your mission and your company to stay not only afloat, but ahead.
Were their times that you had to adapt or adjust your vision and your mission to keep Taxi what it was growing to be?
ML: The vision has always included more than what we’re doing right now, which is servicing the industry and musicians. I always had the bigger picture and the broader vision in the business plan and now we’re moving toward that.
The industry kind of caught up with us, so now having the right people onboard and having the industry melt down far enough that it’s kind of bringing itself to what we’re ready for is a good thing for us.
The thing that is funny about it is I’ve always said that Taxi is really just a large mom and pop business. People have a vision that, oh, the Internet makes it so easy to do something like Taxi. Anybody can build a site where musicians can upload their music. Everybody’s got a site where musicians can upload their music and help you get discovered.
There really hasn’t been a tremendous amount of success stories that are on the level of the superstars of yore. Nobody’s selling ten million of anything or 23 million of anything because of the Internet. It’s going to create a musician middle class, where more people can make some amount of money than a few people making a lot of money. It’s basically the long tail effect is starting to kick in.
I have a very strong belief that there’s no reason that musicians shouldn’t be able to earn a living that’s on par with what they earn doing their day job by making music. If they’re good and they work hard at it, they deserve to make $50,000, $75,000, or $100,000 a year..
AH: What was the biggest lesson you’ve learned the hard way? What happened?
ML: Boy, the list is long. I’m trying to think of the biggest lesson.
AH: Or maybe just a good one?
ML: That you have to believe in yourself, that you will second guess yourself a hundred times a day and everybody else will be happy to pitch in on second guessing you.
You have to know in your heart that you’ve thought it through really well, that you’re being very realistic in what your expectations are, and you absolutely have to work really hard, not just saying that you’re working a 20-hour day, but meanwhile having a baseball game on in the background or hanging out on the phone for 45 minutes with friends and kind of working all day.
You have to bust your ass for a lot of hours and never, ever, ever give up. And I believe that you can apply to being a musician, you could apply it to being a pizza magnate, and you could apply it to being a dog walker. You can apply that work ethic to any discipline and succeed. You don’t have to have the world’s greatest idea. You don’t have to come up with something brand new and world changing. You just have to be willing to not walk off the field when everybody else would have and you’ll be the person who wins because you’re the last one on the field.
AH: If you could tell a young entrepreneur or someone who’s just trying to find their way in the music business and probably having a lot of doors slammed in their face, if there’s one major pitfall to avoid while building themselves up or their business in the music industry, do you know what it would be?
ML: Yes. Thinking that a great idea will bring millions of dollars to your door instantly. I mentor several young entrepreneurs and most of them have the thought initially because they’ve seen it happen in the Internet world. There are guys who come up with a great idea like MySpace or Google and end up becoming billionaires because of it. But the statistical odds of that happening to you with nothing more than a great idea are very, very small.
Frankly, most of the guys who have a big Internet hit like that are guys who are in grad school and have a great network of people that are tied to venture capitalists because of where they go to grad school and who they have in their network.
But for the average music industry entrepreneur just starting out, they think all you have to have is a great idea. I was absolutely that ignorant and that naïve myself. I thought my idea was so great that the minute anybody heard about it, that 90% of the people would want to join Taxi. Little did I know how much I would have to learn about marketing, how hard I would have to work at marketing, and how much effort it takes to get one-tenth of a percent or one percent or two percent of any group of people to buy what you have.
AH: What’s the most important skill that you have learned or needed to learn in order to have success in your music business career? Do you think that there’s something that is the critical one?
ML: Marketing. Again, going back to everybody thinks a great idea is the next pet rock and will sell itself or the next Beanie Baby. Truth be told, probably 99.9% of all great ideas may be great, but they still need marketing or the public won’t know about them.
I had good marketing instincts but limited marketing knowledge and experience when I started the company and quickly realized that the only way the company was going to make it past the six-month point was to learn everything I could about marketing…. started the habit of reading a marketing book a week. I’ve now read somewhere around 589 marketing books.
AH: So, What are the 5 Marketing books you recommend?
ML: These are a few years old but they are good:
1. The Purple Cow - Seth Godin
2. Positioning - Al Ries and Jack Trout
3. 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing - Al Ries and Jack Trout
4. Creating a Buzz - Emanuel Rosen
5. Net Words - Nick Usborne
AH: Parting words? Do you have anything else you’d like to impart on sort of our future leaders of tomorrow for the music business?
ML: I’d just like to reiterate that it’s more than having a great idea. This is true not just in the music industry. But it’s all about having the great idea and the follow through.
Every time you feel like putting a gun in your mouth, figuratively speaking of course, or crying yourself to sleep or giving up, you have to keep reminding yourself that it’s always the last person that’s left on the field that ends up winning.
That’s the reason that most people don’t succeed, is they don’t have the stamina to stay on the playing field in the face of all odds. When the chips are down, the odds are bad, all those clichés, it just seems like your world is coming to an end, at that point where you feel like you can’t go on one more minute, one more hour, or one more day, that’s when you really need to find that inner strength that will keep you at your desk with your fingers on the computer or your hand on a telephone, to pick up the phone one more time or type one more e-mail or do whatever it takes to keep moving forward. Because whoever said, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” could not have been more right. It may be a cliché. It may be old news.
But it still rings true today.