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Fitting Tribute Bands

This article is reproduced by kind permission of Marc Gregory from UK Live Magazine. It was an honour to be featured, associated and mentioned in this article alongside such great tribute bands as Bjorn Again, The Bootleg Beatles and the Conterfeit Stones. 

Although dismissed simply as copyists by some in the music business, the performers and producers of the best tribute shows can claim credit for helping to keep countless venues alive and giving tens of thousands of people a great live music experience. Rob Sandall reports.

The notion of a tribute act once conjured up visions of naff costumes and a bit of a laugh, but now even the word 'tribute' understates what many absolute professionals have created as a powerful force in live entertainment. While the Bootleg Beatles and Counterfeit Stones cornered their respective markets many years ago, ground-breakers Bjorn Again - which have several touring units worldwide - took the concept to new heights, followed by acts such as The Australian Pink Floyd Show (TAPFS), who now play arenas. People who go to a TAPFS performance pay a respectable ticket price and expect a major audio-visual production. The band is even experimenting with state-of-the-art 3D visuals this year and uses a top London production facility for full sho' rehearsals.

Among those driving the market is Sweeney Entertainment Julie Sweeney, whose roster includes Abba Forever, T Rextac and The Jacksons Live In Concert. Early on, she saw the potenti. of the quality reproduction of legendary artistes who were n longer performing live. "We started in 2004 and back then trying to shoe-horn ac into a theatre was a nightmare," she says. "At that time venues were still getting art funding. The wanted the names, but not the tributes. That side of the music industry was confined to holiday camps and club nights." But, the recession has opened new doors for the company; theatres struggle to fill their schedules. "They need the tribute market to pad out their diary because fewer new shows are around at the moment,” says Sweeney. "Venues are rethinking the way they see tribute acts, are even more so once they see box office sales.” Sweeney says that the company is committed to fully-live' acts, "because if you're playing £20 for a ticket you don't want see a mime or someone singing to a backing track.

She notes that finding the right acts has to be a cautious process of trial-and-hopefully-not-error. "You have to remember that if an act has only been playing holiday camp gigs a company like us will need to invest significantly in the show's production values before they'll be fit for theatre performances." It means that when you go to audition an act and see them live it's important to see the potential, not just their effect in that environment."
Steve Barker of Morningside Entertainment, now in its sixth year of trading, originally started the business after leaving a job in sales and marketing with Columbia Tri-Star. "My brother asked if I'd like to represent and manage his Neil Diamond tribute act, and, of course, to begin with I couldn't stop laughing”, he says. "The industry has, or at least had, something of a seedy image and was a tacky endeavor in a lot of peoples' minds, mine included. "But when I actually saw the act, I thought 'this is good and this is marketable', but it was clear that there were quite a lot of things wrong with the way the industry worked. "Due to the saturation of acts, it was almost impossible to get theatre bookings and you'd have to sign up with multiple agencies to have a hope of getting anything booked at all." Barker decided to "turn the business model on its head" and made sure that the acts he was carefully picking guaranteed exclusivity with him for theatre bookings.

"I had to work hard with our Neil Diamond tribute, but now theatre managers know that I won't risk damaging my own reputation by putting on a bad performance. "We have The Bon Jovi Experience, The Stones, Jimi Hendrix: Are you Experienced and even an Elvis show. Everyone has one of them, but this kid in particular was too good not to hire.” Barker points out that the real test of a tribute act is how well they achieve a balance between the authentic recreation of an artiste's sound and a celebration of that nostalgia without poking fun. "People who go to these shows are doing so because of fond memories, which means the bar for expectations is raised very high indeed,” he says. "An act has to be able to let a little of its own personality shine through, and make sure it's clear that they're enjoying performing the songs as much as the audience is enjoying listening to them.”
Rod Liessle, who first created the Bjorn Again show in 1988 in Melbourne, Australia, is quick to point out that the performance is neither a tribute act nor a band. "It's scripted as a spoof show, which is a tongue-in-cheek parody of ABBA," he says. "It's been acknowledged by ABBA for single-handedly initiating the revival of interest in their music in the early 1990s, and Bjorn Again has done 5,000 performances over 23 years in 65 countries, grossing around £50 million

We've staged everything from intimate shows for [Russian president] Vladimir Putin to Brockwell Park's PRIDE festival, which drew 300,000 people.” Liessle says that the relevance of tribute acts in general is something akin to the demand for modern-day orchestras playing centuries-old classical music. "The problem is that the vast majority of shows utilise low production values and semi-professional performers, which only serves to cheapen the genre," he says. "There is a small handful of tribute bands that I believe are justified in touring and playing the big venues - the remainder are sub-standard but serve a certain budget audience that are easily entertained." Liessle blames any cynical or derisive attitudes towards the tribute sector on the lack of professionalism present in "the majority" of shows. "It isn't enough to just attempt to copy a major act with some pun for a name," he says. "The acts that simply can't or won't bother to present the required level of professionalism tend to make a mockery of the entire genre.”
John Hammond, director of The Tribute Show, says that since the act has started managing its own affairs the rewards have been plentiful. "Although we were managed by an agency for 11 years, we have made more headway in the past two, managing ourselves,” he says. "I don't want to sound too disrespectful because at our peak we were averaging 200 dates per year, but in the end it was very much a case of becoming complacent while we were managed and had very little say in what we were doing.” Hammond says that since the split from management, The Tribute Show has diversified into a "multi-tribute to the legends of past and present". "We now have a '50s and '60s tribute, a 70s tribute, an '80s tribute and a legends show that covers all decades, as well as the ever popular ABBA tribute.” "The band line-up is flexible enough to suit varied budgets and ranges, from a 12-piece cast with brass section and dancers down to a five-piece band that can still perform most of the tributes required.” Hammond points out that, despite a clear need for top-notch production values, one of the most insidious problems lately has been a reliance on technology. “It's been all too easy to put things on a sequencer, a Minidisc or now an iPod," he says. "Instead of working hard to make an act better, improve things or maybe sort out personal differences, the musicians see pound signs cut back by putting things on track. "Six-piece bands cut down to five, five-piece went to four anc so on. Before we knew it there was an abundance of trios anc duos replacing what bands used to do." Hammond says that the wider effect of this is that fully-live acts are forced to give ultimately unworkable quotes to be competitive. "Why should a trio in a people carrier with a minidisc get the same money as a five-piece band turning up in a 7.5 ton truck: But that's what was happening."
Danielz of T Rextacy, another self-managed act working with Sweeney's for UK booking, has enjoyed his band playing sell­out support shows at venues such as Wembley Arena (cap. 12,750) and Birmingham's LG Arena (15,700), performing before established artistes. With multiple album releases and tours of Japan under their belt, he believes that the band's goal of "bringing Marc [Bolan] into the 21 st century” has been achieved. "We play the songs howT Rex used to play them live, and incorporate the record versions as well, so that fans get the best of both. "What makes a tribute band special is playing totally live without the aid of any backing CDs - this is how we helped obtain respect from Bolan's contemporaries. "One excuse made by some bands is thatthey could not obtain the original sound without the aid of tracks, but my argument is that if those original bands did it without tracks then so should they. Danielz admits that growing the act's popularity was a slow process, but points out that in many ways it helped to ensure the show's longevity. "I didn't form T Rextacy to make quick money - I wanted it to grow and carry on as long as it could, and the only way to do that was to keep the performances fresh and upbeat," he says. "The bands that have lasted 15 years or more have that same approach, and if it ever starts to feel stale or going through the motions, then it's time to call it a day." He believes that many bands are forming solely to make what they see as easy money without a real love for the music they're performing.
Jake Blues started the Black Rhino Band - originally Jake Elwood and the Best Blues Brothers - in 2003, and now has a 12-piece group which has played the world over, with the addition of James Brown, Ray Charles and Motown tributes, and a Soul Revue show. He says that conviction is the most important weapon in a tribute act's arsenal, and that a lack of it will be immediately obvious. "The audience needs to be able to suspend disbelief while watching the show," he says. "Everyone knows it's not real, but if you can manage to do it right people will just buy into it as if it's the real thing. "It does make a difference if the person you are paying tribute to is not around anymore, because, as with James Brown and Ray Charles, the only way to have any idea what it would have been like to see them live at their peak is to see our show." He notes that the recession has taken something of a toll on sales but believes that, if anything, it's an encouragement for acts to go that extra mile.
"It is harder to get people to buy tickets and there are a lot fewer corporate events than say three years ago,” says Blues. "But this is the time to make sure the standard of show you are putting out is better than ever. “It's the only way to survive and when times are like this, it helps sort out the wheat from the chaff''