Tribute Bands – Cruising in the “B” Ark

(or Shooting Free Throws Whilst Stand on a Ladder)

I was going back and forth with a fan from Chicago this week on the topic of original music verses playing covers and tribute bands. It got my wheels turning.

Before you read this, know that I don’t hate tribute or cover bands and I think that comparing them to original bands is not apples to apples:

I don’t remember much about my first gig in LA except being surprised to find almost nothing but tribute bands in the show listings of their weekly paper.  Someone (I think Bill Petersen) predicted the scourge of tribute bands would find it’s way across the country and it sure has.

Though I mostly feel neutral about them now, the idea of tribute bands becoming the primary contribution of a music scene to its region still bugs me. “Los Angeles – the Copy Cat Music Capital of the World” doesn’t seem fitting for a town that creates tons of good original music – even if it’s just as obscure as anything from any other city.

Maybe that’s what happens when a scene gets so big and saturated though — when a community has so many options that the fleeting and unrefined tastes of the majority practically dictate that anyone who wants to play the game must deal in lowest common denominators. The idea of asking the audience to make an investment as simple as listening to a whole original song or watching a whole original short film becomes too big a request. They don’t have time for that when they could be seeing one of two Led Zeppelin tribute bands tonight!

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about giving your audience what they want – and don’t tribute bands do that better than any original act possibly can?

I mean, The Egg Men are about as close as anyone under the age of 50 will ever get to seeing the Beatles live. That’s valuable to a scene – and possibly even outside it! Plus, it helps keeps the Beatles’ alive beyond recorded media. Cool.

But that’s not giving your audience what they want. That’s giving The Beatles’ audience what they want.

And this is why it’s so easy to hate tribute (and cover) bands when you’re a snobby, self-proclaimed artist like me (hey, at least I’m not alone!): They get to skip past the years-long investment and trial and error of creating music and a b®and and building an audience. Instead, they tap into an already-existing catalog of beloved classics that audiences already love thanks to the work of the most popular bands in the world ever and their team of managers, arrangers, handlers, publicists, etc. etc etc.

That sounds pretty smart from a business standpoint – but it’s kind of like shooting free throws on ladder three inches from the basket. Either you’re cheating or you’re not really playing the same game.

If you don’t care about playing the same game, that’s great because you are now mentally set to play high paying gigs right off the bat while furthering the catalog of your favorite band.

That’s why I now feel pretty neutral about tribute bands. They’re not playing the same game. I already know I can shoot ten out of ten free throws on the ladder as long as I don’t mess up majorly. I don’t really care about playing that game.

That’s oversimplified. Good tribute bands take work, talent and dedication just like original bands – but (I say this with total respect to The Egg Men and any really good tribute band) tribute bands aren’t artists.

OK OK OK – yes, there are some very cool tribute bands out there like that put their own spin on the music they tribute – Jazzus Lizard, Dung Beatles, Dread Zeppelin.  In that way, they’re more like a band covering the material in their own style rather than striving for an exact replica of what’s already been done.

But there’s probably a Beatles, a Led Zeppelin and a Pink Floyd (why are they all British?) tribute band in every major US and European city. Why should anyone outside of Austin care about the Egg Men when the Day Trippers and the Paperback Writers and the Number 9s are all playing the same songs we all know and love?

I posit that the number of people who choose to listen to a recording of The Egg Men over a recording of the Beatles is very low and probably even lower than the number of people who listen to recordings of obscure small time bands.

Original bands have the opportunity to make a direct and much deeper connection with their fans. Even if it’s small, it’s real, lasting and valuable to both parties.   Original bands can change lives and that can go beyond the boundaries of their home town or region.

Tribute bands only validate changes to lives already made by the band they tribute.  They don’t make as direct a connection so much as they act as a medium for one.  They’re valuable and even memorable but… ultimately they’re cruising through universe of music in a Douglas Adams-esque “B” Ark and the music business knows it:  Ever see a review of tribute band’s album?  How many tribute bands play at ACL, SxSW, FPSF or other music festivals?  Not many… if any.

Side Note: Anyone want to start a NoMeansNo tribute band?

One thought on “Tribute Bands – Cruising in the “B” Ark

  1. I’ve played in three tribute bands: Summer Breeze—a soft rock tribute to the seventies, Captain Smooth—nautically themed soft rock, and Magnifico!—a Queen tribute band that I wanted to call “Queer Heart Attack, but I digress. Your observation that tribute bands are a different game is astute, but I’d compare it more to the Harlem Globetrotters. The very first Summer Breeze show sold out and I stood on the stage thinking “where the fuck have you people been for all of our real bands?!” Certainly, I understand the appeal. I mean… sold out first show and people singing along. But ultimately, I found it very very empty. Similarly, I can’t really stomach watching talented musicians I admire settling into the cover band life. If you’re a working musician and it pays the bills, I give it a pass, cuz baby gotta eat. But otherwise, I think it is a waste of musicians’ talent and the audience’s listening bandwidth. Especially in a town like Austin. But then again, not all musicians have something original convey and not all audiences want something original to hear. They really just want the musical equivalent of a chain restaurant.

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