Q&A: Michael Laskow

Predicting the future is never easy, but trying to anticipate what it will bring can help a lot as long as you really know the subject that you're speculating
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FIG. 1: Michael Laskow sees the emergence of a musician “middle class” in the not-too-distant future.

Predicting the future is never easy, but trying to anticipate what it will bring can help a lot as long as you really know the subject that you're speculating about. So when I was looking for somebody to forecast which opportunities and challenges independent musicians will face in the next five or ten years, I turned to Michael Laskow (see Fig. 1). As the founder, president, and CEO of Taxi (www.taxi.com) — an organization that helps unsigned bands, artists, composers, and songwriters get label deals and find placement for their songs and compositions — Laskow is particularly attuned to the circumstances that recording musicians encounter.

Initially a recording engineer, Laskow has worked with artists such as Eric Clapton, Neil Young, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, to name just a few. In his years working at Taxi, he has dealt frequently with record labels, music publishers, music supervisors, and production music libraries, as well as with other similar entities. In short, he has been living and breathing the music business for the past 32 years.

Where do you see the music business going in the next five to ten years?

Things are going to change. The major labels simply won't be able to operate the way they do now. However, the whole music-revolution thing isn't what it appears to be. Musicians are so used to hating major record labels, and it's easy for them to think, “Screw the major labels; I'm going to do the independent thing.” But truthfully speaking, most musicians don't really hunker down and do the hard work and the heavy lifting, so they stay right where they are. They might build a page on MySpace, but they'll be one of millions. They'll probably put their money into recording a CD, have it pressed, and make it available for sale online — all of which are good ideas. But then they stop right there, so that in the end, all those independent-music revolutionaries don't end up any better off than before their CD was produced. They are somewhat invisible today, and most of them will be relatively invisible tomorrow.

How do you see things changing? Do you think that technology will alter the delivery system for music?

The delivery system has already been changed. Downloading and streaming are certainly easy enough to do. In a perfect world, people could go to a Web page one time and fill out a survey, answering items such as “These are acts that I like,” “These are acts that I've liked in the past,” and “These are genres that I listen to.” They could subscribe to services that filter the music for them and deliver it to them in the order that they want. So they would be able to get whatever they want, wherever they are, whether it's tethered to a wire or untethered via satellite.

Into a portable unit of some sort?

Yeah. I think that someday in the not-too-distant future, you will be able to access your own personal jukebox of music that will reside somewhere else on a hard drive, so that you don't have to schlep a device with you. Why should you have to carry an iPod or a cell phone that has a hard drive with you? Why can't you just have your music and be able to access it wherever you are? Let's say that all the music is stored on a central hard drive; if I go to your house for a party, I could punch in my PIN code and pull up “Laskow's disco party mix” on your home stereo. Or if we're doing a road trip together, I could pull up my list in your car.

Do you think that the interaction of video and music will become more important as Internet video delivery becomes even faster?

That will be determined by demographics. It will be very important for the 13- to 24-year-olds; we're seeing strong evidence of that fact demonstrated on YouTube. Kids don't necessarily want to watch some $300,000 video made by a major label. Now they think it would be much cooler to shoot their own video, whack it together in iMovie, and throw some band's song underneath it.

How do you foresee that musicians will be marketing themselves and their music in five or ten years?

The key word is marketing. It used to be that you could just create great music, and maybe an A&R guy would find you because you were talented. But now, there's so much clutter out there. I came to a realization reading in bed two weeks ago: I was reading The Long Tail by Chris Anderson [Hyperion Books, 2006], which is an excellent book. My realization was that the type of people who got the attention of record companies in the past year or five years ago, built a following, got signed, and maybe even had a big success will probably be the same ones who will succeed in the future — because they work hard at it.

So even though technology is changing, only a tiny percentage (like about one-tenth of 1 percent) will ever have what I call a huge success — that is, one that puts hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in their pocket. What I'm hoping will come about as a result of the Internet and other delivery systems, though, is the creation of a musician “middle class.”

Can you expand on that concept?

The advent and continuous growth of high-quality, inexpensive recording gear for the home-based recording musician and engineer has created an abundance of good music that works for all kinds of things, not just hit records. Film and TV placements are the most obvious. You don't need to go to a $300-per-hour, 48-track digital studio with a 15-foot-long SSL sitting in the room to record great-sounding tracks that are just fine for film and TV.

So musicians who have a knack for composition, some recording gear, and decent engineering chops could be part of that musician middle class?

I think that we're 60 percent of the way there already. You can take somebody with a decent little home studio and reasonably good skills using that studio, and they can earn $150,000 a year creating music for film and television. It's absolutely possible. I know because I've seen it with my own eyes. I'm not talking about a scenario where you get a song placed in a movie and make $50,000 — that's not likely to happen. But it's definitely possible to work diligently and get dozens of songs placed each year in production music libraries. And over a five- to ten-year period, those songs multiply to become hundreds of songs in several different libraries, and this thing just snowballs over time.

How would you recommend that musicians prepare themselves in order to adapt to the changing musical landscape?

Technology has dramatically improved a musician's ability to create and distribute music. But technology hasn't changed a musician's ability to market their music. So if I were a musician, I would sit down and decide what my goal is: Do I want to be a rock 'n' roll star and fly around on a private jet and have a briefcase filled with millions? Or do I want to be able to make my own music, do what I love to do, and earn my living that way? Once you determine what your goal is, then make a list of steps. Most musicians are creative people and tend to skip those businesslike functions.

Figuring out a career path isn't that hard. What is hard is making yourself do the hard work and the heavy lifting. Don't rely on the technology to do the work for you. Yes, it can help you make better music. Yes, it can help you get that music out to more people. But you have to know how to do the marketing.

Mike Levine is an EM senior editor.