Monday, July 21, 2008

Tribute Bands: A Tribute

Last night I attended another free concert in the park - this time it was TICKET TO RIDE, an excellent Beatles tribute band. I wasn't close enough to see how they handled the string parts but I'm guessing that they either used some sequenced playback or they had an unseen faux fifth Beatle (maybe "George Martin" in the backstage area) handling the trickier parts. And of course, maybe there was a "Murray the K" around the front, shilling for them. No "Yoko" in sight, which is good for band stability I guess.

Enjoyable but it got me thinking of tribute bands in general. I'm totally down with the concept of a Beatles tribute band. For one thing about half the songs they performed were never performed live by the Beatles themselves - too complicated, and you wouldn't have heard them over the hysterical screaming anyway. So Ticket To Ride perform the valuable service of allowing the communal live enjoyment of this material. Next week, however - a Steely Dan tribute band called REELIN' IN THE YEARS.

I'm going to see them, but I have serious reservations about this. The obvious one is, of course, the need for a Steely Dan tribute band when Steely Dan is out there, healthy as a horse and available for bookings. Maybe not for a free concert in the park, but if you offer them enough money they'll happily play the Greek Theatre a few miles down the freeway. The other reservation is about the quality of the imitation. It's not so difficult to duplicate the Beatles's smooth Liverpudlian harmonies, but Donald Fagan's chalky whine is largely considered inimitable. Probably because, really, do you WANT to make your throat do that? So there's that, then there's the fact that Le Dan sound the way they do because they used the best studio musicians and did 1000 takes for every song. They are the Stanley Kubricks of music. That's why they take 25 years to make a record.

A few months ago this girl took me to a ZZ Top tribute band at a local club and we got to go backstage to meet them as they were gluing on their beards and practicing their "circle pointing finger" move. And I was thinking with the money they spend on spirit gum, they could be buying better amps. With the time they're spending learning to keep the hair out of their strings, they could be writing new material. And again, ZZ Top is still available. Not only that, they look almost exactly like they did in the eighties. Though under all that hair, they probably look like Aaron Spelling or something.

If the R.I.A.A is suing 90-year-old ladies, 6-year-old girls and in one notable case, a networked printer for file sharing on the grounds that it takes money out of the pockets of the artists, why don't they go after tribute bands? These guys are keeping Steely Dan and ZZ Top from getting gigs, aren't they? Maybe Instead Zeppelin and Grey Sabbath are the real reason why the music industry is failing. Go get 'em boys.

1 comment:

Skot said...

Why don't the bigs go after tribute bands? I'll tell ya why, bub. Three basic reasons:

1. When a tribute band plays in any promoted venue (whether or not admission is charged) the venue must pay a fee to BMI, ASCAP or both to license the performance of copyrighted songs. It's usually a nominal fee for smaller places.

High-profile gigs sometimes get charged by the song, however, and the setlist has to be submitted to the appropriate property-holders. This sort of licensing kerfuffle sets an upper limit on tribute band success, in that bigger venues prefer to book bands with original songs, which have no implicit publishing fees.

2. Tribute bands are free promotion for the acts they are pretending to be. Sure you can see a Beatles cover band, but you can't buy their album. If it existed, which for manifold financial reasons it doesn't. Besides, why would you want to, when the original is cheap and widely distributed already?

3. The financial impact of tribute bands on the originals is pathetically small. Nobody in their right mind-- if ticket prices are NOT a factor-- will choose a cover band over the real thing.

Hey, we have a Beatles cover band up here in the Bay Area too: THE SUN KINGS. They are a five-man band, which is apparently what you need to reproduce each era of the Beatles sound. I bought my bass guitar, a 1981 Rickenbacker 4003, from their Paul.

We also have a very good Steely Dan cover band as well, AJA VU. Nine members, including a dynamite brass section. We opened for them once.