3.08.2007

Checkered Taxi?

I am a musician, and I shamelessly want people to like my music. But if I have to try and start one more band or pass out one more flyer, I am going to hang myself.

Two years ago I recorded a CD with very high hopes. Anyone who has ever tried to promote their own music knows what a frustrating endeavor it can be. And if you have a strong distaste for rejection, you are going to become discouraged very fast. In my case, that is exactly what happened.

Once my CD was complete, I naively thought all I had to do was move to Los Angeles, form a band, play some shows, develop a following, and attract label attention. The rest would be history. So that’s what I did. But my band mates needed to be paid, the venues were disappointed in our small draw, CDs weren't selling and I was running out of money fast. It didn't help that I was getting a parking ticket every other day.

Call it a lack of perseverance, but after a year in LA "chasing my dream" I threw in the towel. There's nothing like following your bliss to make you really depressed. Feeling defeated, I moved back to San Diego.

I thought, 'there has got to be an easier way to do this'. This line of thinking led me to find Taxi, "The World's Leading Independent A&R Company." I was skeptical, but it didn't take much convincing.

I went to their website and read the listings placed by major labels, program directors and management companies:

"Amazingly talented SINGER-SONGWRITERS are being sought by the Program Director of a remarkably influential L.A. radio station..."

"SINGER-SONGWRITER/AAA ARTISTS are wanted by an LA-based Management Firm. They want to find talented artists ready to be shopped to indie/major labels."

At least a dozen of them were looking for me exactly. ME! I read the 'success' stories with hope in my heart. Bands getting signed, musicians getting publishing deals, songs placed in TV and Film. Drooling a little I thought, oh, they’d totally play my music on “House”. This should be a piece of cake. I'll go back to my day job. Hey Taxi, let me know when I can put in my two-weeks notice, I'll be ready.

So I paid the membership fee and started submitting my songs to these listings. I was furious to find out that not only did I have to pay for my membership, but then I had to fork over five whopping dollars for EVERY song I submitted. And if I wanted to submit online, I had to go to Broadjam.com and pay yet again to have my music hosted.

With Dawson's Creek in my peripheral, I sighed, accepted, and got out my credit card. At the very least, I thought, it will be nice to get the reviews from industry professionals.

The first time my music was "returned" (read: REJECTED), I cried. Proof, I thought, that my music just wasn't good enough. The accompanying review read roughly like this:
"The lyrics are too vague."

"You aren't giving the listener enough detail to really draw them in to the song."

"The harmonic progressions and the melodic choices at times are awkward and interrupt the song flow."

"Be careful about trying to be too heady musically."

Then came the anger. Who are these effing people anyway? I'm an ARTIST! They obviously know nothing about my ART! I learned right away that these "screeners" were not my friends.

And then I got my first "forward". It read roughly like this:
"Your vocal here Rachel is strong, engaging, seductive and haunting...all at the same time."

"Nice effort. Specifics in the verse lyrics really do create a nice sense of imagery."

"For the right situation or project, these songs can be a nice fit. It's a forward!"

Wait, maybe these folks aren't so bad after all? But then I was returned again, then forwarded, then returned. I grew a thicker skin, and waited for my reward. It never came.

It has been almost two years since I joined Taxi, and I have been forwarded about 20 times. Each time I'm forwarded, I have a rekindled hope for my floundering dream. Every time I read: “Congratulations Rachel! Your songs were forwarded to..." I still get excited. But a little less every time.

The last time I was forwarded I decided to contact the label. I know this is frowned upon, but I was starting to feel very suspicious. How come I haven't received a single phone call from these supposed "forwards"?

I contacted this particular label. I sent them a little note saying something like, "Hey, my music was just forwarded to you via Taxi, I hope to hear from you."

I got a note back that gave me the impression that they had not even solicited Taxi for artists, and that additionally my music was "not really what we are looking for."

The little wheels in my head starting turning. Are my "forwards" really being heard by anyone? Am I being scammed by Taxi?

So I sent Taxi a letter that said, in so many words, what the hell is the deal?

A couple weeks later, and to my surprise, I got a letter from Michael Laskow, president and CEO of Taxi. In it, he gave me a brief explanation of the forwarding process, the time it takes and the many levels of people involved. He said, "But I admit, that from the member's perspective (and that's the only one that counts), it looks like we're not forwarding your material." Yeah, it does look like that.

But the letter was enough, in my mind, to effectively exonerate Taxi of any foul play. The letter concluded by inviting me to Taxi headquarters to investigate for myself. No computer, filing cabinet or database, I was told, would be off limits to me.

Hey, that's pretty cool, I thought. But I believed him enough and was relatively satisfied by his explanation.

Then I read, "you can write about it for our newsletter." Because I like writing and road trips, I agreed to go. Besides, maybe there was something fishy going on. I told everyone I was going to LA to do some 'investigative journalism."

So I called Taxi, and Michael was on the phone within 30 seconds. The first thing I noticed about Michael is that he is well suited for his job. By that I mean he is charming and personable. I liked him right away. He made sure that I understood he was a family guy, and that he was on his way to a theme park with his kids. This made me suspicious. Only people with an agenda are this nice.

We agreed to meet the following Friday.

A nice woman from Taxi named Tina arranged for me and a friend of mine to stay at the local Marriot. My friend, Carly, and I drove up from San Diego late Thursday night, then drove to Taxi’s headquarters the next day.

We met Michael outside. He was smoking a cigarette, which is a great bonding agent, as it allows you to discuss the evils of smoking from one addict to another. We shook hands, smoked and chatted about quitting smoking. Then I put on my 'representing the starving artist' hat.

I told him how much it sucked to pay a membership fee only to get a negative critique from some nameless screener who maybe used to manage a hair metal band in the 80’s. OK, I didn't say that exactly, but that's what I meant. Michael understood, and he wanted me to understand that Taxi was not the bad guy, that they were working FOR the musician, not against them. This was the whole reason I was there. Apparently a lot of complaints similar to mine had cropped up recently, and he wanted me to see the truth and spread the gospel.

Michael led Carly and I into a tidy brick building full of different businesses. My first impression of the Taxi offices was that they were nice - professional and clean, with just the right amount of rock-inspired art. It's hip, but not too hip, with the kind of clutter that says, "People work here." Nothing too fancy, but certainly not the bare-bulbs warehouse I had sometimes imagined. My second impression was that I did not get the creepy, 'this is a scam' vibe that I get when I meet a telemarketer. Everybody was nice, everybody was working, and nobody seemed “prepped” in anticipation of our arrival.

As we walked through the different rooms, Michael explained their function.
"The is the meeting room, this is the receiving room, this is the listening room." The listening room impressed me the most. It is a large room featuring a library-style row of about 20 listening stations. Several people sat in the stations, wearing headphones and jotting down little notes. If you go online to http://www.taxi.com/abouts/webcam.html you can actually see it for yourself on the "Live A&R Cam." Have no doubt; people ARE listening to your music.

But what are their qualifications? What makes these people eligible to decide if my music is going to the next level? I asked Michael, and he told me basically that not just anyone can be a screener. They have to have real "industry" experience, whether it's songwriting, producing, engineering or managing. And those that do qualify go through a rigorous training and screening process themselves. This training teaches the screener what to listen for, and what they are often listening for is the catchy song formula. Well no wonder, I thought. I don't write songs for their catchiness, I write them for their moodiness. This gave me much food for thought.

Indeed, nothing was off limits to us, and we could clearly see what looks like a legitimate operation in progress. People hustled about, doing their various jobs. Michael introduced us to many people, including a guy named Chris Baptiste, who has been with Taxi for eight years, and is currently Sr. Director of A&R. Clint McBay who is also a Sr. Director A&R joined us as well.

Chris, Michael and occasionally Clint sat with us for more than two hours, explaining in great detail the ins and outs of the entire process. We learned about everything from the listings database to the mailroom. I saw first-hand the way the listings come in, and the way they are sent to the screeners, complete with special instructions that say stuff like, "they are looking for a polished act," or "Music library wants radio-friendly ballads," or "No crap." By "no crap" they mean, be very selective. Some clients will say, "Let us hear it all. We want to find that gem in the rough." And then they are irritated to find themselves having to sift through the, uh, crap. That is why submissions are screened so rigorously.

One thing that was made very clear to us is just WHY it takes so long to hear from a label or publisher after it's been forwarded. Initially, it's because it can take up to a week of processing after you've been notified for the to be sent. There’s a lot more to that process than you think.

After that it comes down to something very simple: people in the music industry are busy. Nobody has time to waste. I get the distinct impression that these people don't even call their own mothers, let alone some songwriter who they may or may not be interested in. Simply stated, if you've been forwarded by Taxi, smile and forget about it. Not because it isn't going where they said it would, or because it won't be just what they were looking for. But because after your music leaves Taxi's hands it goes through a brand new process entirely, where it can very well sit in somebody's in-box for a year before it's listened to. And if they're not interested, you simply won't hear from them at all. So, seriously, let it go.

OK, let’s say you can’t let it go. It’s perfectly natural. So you contact the label and they have no idea what you’re talking about. That’s probably because the person you’re talking to is not the one who placed the listing. But now you’re pissed off and feeling swindled. So you contact them again and ask to speak to the person in charge. But they won’t call you back (because, like I said, these guys have no sense of urgency to return phone calls.) So now you’re really freaking out. You’re thinking, “My very future is in their hands and I must KNOW what’s GOING ON! Are they gonna sign me OR WHAT?!?” So you call again. And again. Apparently this happens all the time. Eventually, the person who placed the listing calls up Taxi and says, “We’re not running listings with you anymore. Your members are crazy.” I guess what I’m saying is that it just isn’t productive to contact these companies. For your own peace of mind, take up knitting or soccer and keep your mind in the present moment. Learn to trust that your music was delivered where it’s supposed to and let them come to you. I liken this situation to meeting someone you really like. Nobody wants to date a stalker.

When it was all said and done, I found that I'd had a good time. I left with a positive feeling, if only because I got to meet some very genuine people. The agenda I had imagined Michael would have was only to show me that, "We are not the enemy. We do what we say we do." And they do.

I think a lot of people are at the end of their dream by the time they get to Taxi. They are looking for that one last push after an endless stream of fruitless efforts. It can make the world feel like a very vicious and unwelcoming place. Once you've reached that point, it's easy to find evidence that the entire world is out to get you. The most important thing to remember is that there are a million avenues toward success. Do not think that Taxi is the only way, and give them the power to single-handedly crush your dream. Even in my advanced state of bitterness, I still believe there is a home out there for my music.

The bottom line is this:
Is Taxi legit? YES. But don't expect to get your money back if they don't think your music is ready for human consumption. Sometimes what you are paying for is just the critique (and two tickets to Taxi’s yearly convention). It IS possible to grow as a songwriter with Taxi's help, if you truly absorb and apply the reoccurring theme in their critiques. And I bet, for some people, that alone is worth the membership fee. It can be hard to accept, though, when you've worked hard at something, only to be told that it should have been done differently. If you are looking for validation that you are a musical genius, you are not going to get it from Taxi. Call your mother for that.

Will Taxi make you a rock star? It could happen. Will it earn you a royalty check? Maybe. But your chances of getting one as an experimental math-rock band are far less than if you're a spit-polished pop songwriter. But, as Michael said, even so-called 'alternative' bands have used the catchy song formula. You can be artsy or edgy and still be catchy. Regardless of the kind of music you play, if it's memorable, it can potentially put money in your pocket. If you're like me, you'll say, "This isn't about money. I'm an ARTIST!" Don't let anyone tell you otherwise, the music business is about money, not art.

The fact remains that if you want to succeed with your music (and by succeed I mean make money), you probably still have some flyers to pass out. There is no substitute for hard work, determination and real-world interaction (as opposed to sitting in front of the computer all day like I do, waiting for the email that will change your life).

As for me, I won't be quitting my day job any time soon.

6 comments:

KleoPatra said...

Wow, that was a great read.

Having dated for three horrific years a musician who made it to the "big leagues" but then wrote his own ticket into obscurity by screwing the people who helped get him there (i'll tell you about it some other time, in person) this fascinated me.

Anonymous said...

I joined TAXI and received very generic "your lyrics need more focus" kind of critiques, and was "forwarded" to online music licensing places I could have submitted my work to directly. In my opinion, there are much better uses for the initial $299 annual fee plus the $5 per song submission fees that TAXI charges. How about a couple of nice mics, or some gas for the van? Just two cents worth of advice from someone who's "been there, done that."

smytor said...

For first year taxi members who are not sure they want to continue with taxi, and may end up wanting a refund, please take note. Taxi hates to give refunds, and will find ways to squirm out of it, so you need to be sure of several things before asking.

You phone in to ask about your refund which was what convinced you to join in the first place. You are told by the friendly employee, 'just send a note to our CEO stating your reasons and it'll be taken care of.' However, DO NOT write a note until you have reread the refund offer AS IF IT WERE A LEGAL DOCUMENT. You must state reasons that are specifically covered in the offer. Don't be fooled by their repetition of the misleading phrase 'if for any reason', because there's ALMOST NO REASON that they will accept. They will be happy to trap you into having written a note that doesn't conform to their strict specifications, and once having written the note, you cannot elaborate or add to it, and your request will be denied, case closed. I speak from recent experience.

I have to wonder if the kind of trickery I experienced when I tried to get a refund extends into other areas of the operation as well. It would seem from the article on this page that whether or not Taxi actually submits songs to various customers might be called into question. Evidently there's no proof that songs are submitted in some cases at least.

The bottom line is, don't be taken in by their friendly, jovial demeanor. They can't be trusted when it comes to money.

Rachel said...

I should amend this to say that I only remained a member of Taxi for two years, and have since decided that their service is, for the most part, a waste of money. However, I did recently meet a musician who got a publishing deal through Taxi, and said it was a result of consistent submitting and patience. I don't have that kind of patience, so there's no way of knowing if Taxi would have eventually paid off for me. I doubt it. I'm about to submit to Pump Audio to see if that yields actual results, and not just watery critiques from anonymous "screeners."

Michael Laskow said...

Hi Rachel,

I was googling "smytor," looking for another post (which you should do sometime for entertainment's sake), and saw your blog again.

I thought your original post about TAXI was honest and pretty well balanced. I was surprised to see your later response. It was as if your visit to our office never happened.

In the interest of remaining fair and balanced, would you please be kind enough to post this link to our forum so your readers can also see the success stories from our members (in their own words) who DID stick with it?

Here's the link: http://taxi.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=success

I hope this finds you doing well.

warm regards,
Michael Laskow
CEO, TAXI

Anonymous said...

I'm a first year Taxi member, and will probably not renew my membership at the end of the year. I wouldn't say it's a complete waste of time, but it's a pretty expensive way to find out you may not have the requisite talent to produce marketable music. A much less expensive way is to just put your music on YouTube and you'll find out soon enough if your music has mass appeal. If it does, you'll then have the credibility to approach labels, A&R people, music libraries, etc., directly.

I will say this about Taxi, though...they are pretty tactful, e.g. "your vocals are not broadcast quality" versus saying "your singing sucks"...LOL!