Pros and Cons of Tribute Bands

When Steve Perry, the lead singer of the rock band Journey, became too ill to tour with the band, the other members actually hired the frontman of a Journey tribute band to replace him.  Other bands have also mined the tribute band pool in search of new talent. Some tribute bands, especially those who perform Elvis or Beatles material, actually become famous in their own right.  A good tribute band provides audiences with a visceral recreation of a legendary group without forcing them to pay legendary group ticket prices.  A less-than-stellar tribute band, however, can leave audiences and venue owners feeling like they’ve been cheated by an exploitative promoter or agent.

MBpromo0901One pro concerning tribute bands is the immediate name recognition.  A club owner may not be able to generate much buzz about a local cover band, but he or she can almost certainly count on the cache of a famous band to sell tickets.  A good tribute band usually chooses a name that instantly identifies the group they are emulating onstage, and potential customers know immediately what to expect. A Beatles tribute band called Rubber Soul or Twist and Shout is going to create an immediate buzz because of the positive association with The Beatles.  Other tribute bands may pay homage to Creedance Clearwater Revival or Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin or other legendary bands which have either disbanded or rarely perform live. Booking a tribute band with a recognized and well-respected repertoire is generally a good move for local venues.

However, there may also be some legal issues concerning tribute bands.  Some established rock bands are more aggressive than others when it comes to the performance of their copyrighted material. In general, most tribute bands generate so little revenue that it would not be cost-effective for the original band to pursue legal action or issue a cease-and-desist order.  But some high-end tribute bands, especially Beatles and Elvis impersonators, do earn enough income to draw the attention of the original band’s legal team.  Some tribute bands do receive official authorization to perform the original band’s material in live concerts, but they may not be permitted to sell recordings or other derivative materials.  A few tribute bands may actually be forced to disband or pay stiff penalties for violating royalty arrangements. Creating and promoting a tribute band may prove to be an expensive mistake for unscrupulous or naive band managers.

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For musicians, playing in a tribute band can give them a rare opportunity to explore an influential band’s material more in-depth. A lead guitarist who considers George Harrison to be an influence on his playing style may enjoy recreating Harrison’s famous guitar riffs in a Beatles tribute band.  A vocalist with a belting style might want to front a glam rock tribute band instead of fronting a generic cover band.  Musicians with extraordinary affinities for famous instrumentalists or singers could be recruited for top-end tribute bands, complete with authentic costumes, original instruments and elaborate stage lighting. While it might not be a long-term gig for a professional musician, playing in a respected tribute band for a few seasons could prove to be a satisfying creative outlet.  Some mainstream performers started their careers in tribute bands and were noticed by industry professionals as a result of their resemblance to established artists.

One downside to performing as a tribute band, however, can be the added cost of mounting a show. Quite often the band members are required to obtain vintage equipment in order to duplicate the sound of the original band.  A bassist hired to portray Paul McCartney, for instance, may have to locate and purchase Paul’s distinctive Hofner violin bass.  Others may have to invest in elaborate wigs and stage costumes in order to replicate the look of the original band.  Participating in a good tribute band often requires theatrical as well as musical ability, and some musicians discover they are not comfortable performing a character on stage instead of simply performing the material. A strong physical resemblance to the original musician is often seen as a plus, which means tribute band managers may have to hold numerous auditions before finding the best performers for the band.

For venue owners, hiring a tribute band can mean generating new out-of-town customers who are drawn to the promise of a good night’s entertainment.  Short of booking a famous band, which few local venues can afford to do, a tribute band is generally a safe investment. A Jimmy Buffett tribute band, for instance, can help generate more sales of tropical mixed drinks at the bar.  Bartenders can create specialty drinks based on the band, like Blue Meanies or Tequila Sunrises. Tribute bands of popular artists can create any number of profitable tie-ins for the venue that book them.

Some musicians may find tribute bands to be restrictive or limiting creatively, however. Playing material by the Beatles or the Eagles or Pink Floyd may be exciting for the first few months, but the grind of playing those pieces over and over again can become exhausting.  There is also the problem of finding musicians capable of duplicating the original artist’s signature sound. Audiences often expect tribute band members to recreate the original band’s material note for note. This isn’t always possible, especially with bands that used elaborate orchestrations on their original recordings. A tribute band member may sound eerily similar to the original artist, but there are always going to be some noticeable differences during live performances.  Tribute band musicians must learn how to duplicate very famous sounds and vocals without hurting themselves in the process. Unlike the original band, a tribute band may be on the road for months at a time, and it can be challenging to recover vocally from a demanding performance.

Overall, most tribute bands do deliver on their promise to the audience.  It’s obvious that the performers have a true love for the source material and work very hard to recreate the memorable sound of the original artists.  If the original band is no longer performing live or has disbanded, a good tribute band may be the next best way to experience a fantasy concert that should have happened.

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1 comment

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