tribute bands

Tribute Bands: Flattery Through Imitation

Erin O’Brien

Company: Ultimate Entertainment
Clientele: Mick Adams & the Stones, The Shagwells, more
Contact: ultimateentertainment.org

Erin O’Brien is married to Mick Adams, the “Jagger” in one of the country’s leading Rolling Stones tribute bands. About 16 years ago, she was helping to book his band and that quickly turned into a fully formed business, Ultimate Entertainment. Now, the successful company has many tributes, cover bands and impersonators on the books as they go from strength to strength.

You started booking Mick Adams, your husband, then who was next?
He’s got another band, a sixties band, called The Shagwells. I did that, then a couple of bands were referred to me that had been on AXS TV’s show The World’s Greatest Tribute Bands. It just snowballs. I kept having more bands call and ask if I’d be willing to work with them, and so I’m working with about 60 different bands now. 90 percent tribute but I have some cover bands as well.

There is often an amazing number of people at tribute shows right now—what do you put that down to?
I think people like to relive good times. The music brings people back to a different time in their life. I think it’s all about memories. Good memories. Not wanting a certain time to end.

What makes a great tribute?
Attention to detail. There are some bands that will play all the music, cover just one band, but don’t dress the part. I like the full experience. Play the material, dress like the band, move like the band—the whole thing. There are some great bands that don’t dress the part, but that’s my personal preference.

How hard is it to mimic the musicians? How much work goes into it?
It’s harder than being the actual band in a way. When you’re the actual band, you’re just up there being yourself and it’s coming natural.

Is booking tributes a national undertaking?
Very much so. My husband’s band I book probably the most of all the bands I book, and in the last few months we’ve been to Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona, Las Vegas, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina. We’ve got a cruise coming up and we’ll be playing in Honduras and Belize. We’ve been to Bermuda. So it’s international, actually.

Can tribute bands harm a local scene by taking paying customers away from original bands?
I think there’s room for everyone. I think there’s a market for all kinds of bands. There are venues that cater to original bands just like there are venues that cater to tribute bands. •


Michael Twombly

Company: Music Zirconia
Clientele: The Cured, Fooz Fighters, True Willie
Contact: mxtributebands.com

Twombly is considered one of the prominent bookers of tribute bands in the United States. He also plays in his own tribute to The Cure, called The Cured, and the former web designer started by booking that. Now, he says that Music Zirconia is the biggest tribute band agency in the world with nearly 1,800 acts on the books.

How did you get started?
When I first started The Cured, there were maybe a few dozen tribute bands where there’s a few hundred dozen now. I got my Cured band going. I had previously done a little bit of booking—I used to work for a female mud wrestling company. I booked that. So I knew that the buyers really didn’t enjoy talking to the bands, but as an agent you could open more doors.

I happened to be watching Jimmy Kimmel that night and he was interviewing Neil Diamond. He goes, “I had a Neil Diamond tribute when I was in college—we called it Neil Zirconia.” I thought that was the most clever thing. I slept on it and it came to me in a vision to create Music Zirconia.

What makes a great tribute?
If you can take the audience back to a time and place—it all depends what tribute it is. If it’s an act that you can no longer see, that’s a whole different thing than the guys doing Bruno Mars tributes. It’s a whole different thing doing The Beatles or The Doors—something nobody’s ever gonna see. So I think the best thing is that tributes take people back to a time in their life when they were happier.

How much work goes into the costumes and mannerisms?
If you’re Metallica, nothing. If you’re Lady Gaga, a lot. They’ve got to sound like them, they’ve got to be convincing. Every band has its identity. If you’re going to be Mick Jagger, you’ve got to run around like a rooster. If you’re going to be Freddie Mercury, you’ve got some big shoes to fill.

Are tribute bands taking audiences away from “original” bands?
Does Beatlemania take away from anybody going to see The Lion King? They’re two completely different things. Nobody is going, “You know, I was going to go and support local music, but instead I’m going to see a tribute band.” It’s two different audiences.

In Southern California, there’s 30 million people. There’s not even a rock genre anymore––there’s 40 rock genres. They ain’t hurting anything. They’re not hurting the original band either, because half the time the original band doesn’t exist, or they don’t play in that area. If somebody’s a real fan, they aren’t going to say, “I’ve just seen the tribute, so I won’t go see the real thing.” That’s never a realistic scenario.

Do you ever receive cease & desist letters from the main bands?
Journey’s lawyer calls us—they harass the California band. We’ve gotten a letter from their lawyer. Actually, because I was a web designer before this and I knew internet law, I got to have a little fun with them. Selena’s dad sent a cease and desist to a venue a few days ago because they had used a logo that was too close. They could have fought it, but they just took it down. I have way more stories of the actual members sitting in with the tributes than of them harassing the bands. Most of them think it’s cute.

Is there competition between the bands?

A Pink Floyd tribute can’t really go on the road. Those things are eight people and a couple of trucks full of gear. Some of them have to stay regional. People get loyal to venues. Competition doesn’t come into this a whole lot. Some of the bands have personality conflicts possibly, but there’s currently enough work for everybody. Some places have run their cycle on tributes and have gone back to original bands, reducing the number of tributes.

Is booking tribute bands a national undertaking?
Some bands tour. My former business partner is in a Depeche Mode tribute—they’re doing 14 shows in Australia right now. After Bowie died, the David Bowie tribute show did big performing arts centers in Europe. Some of these guys are on another level. And he wasn’t getting that work before Bowie died. The biopics help too. •


David Hewitt

Company: DMH Enterprises
Clientele: Queen Nation, The Canyon Clubs
Contact: dmhenterprises.com

Hewitt manages top Queen tribute band Queen Nation among others, and books tributes for the Canyon Clubs throughout Southern California. He’s been in the industry for 30 years, and says that he has found an effective formula for assembling a successful tribute.

How did you get started?
I used to run a nightclub in the [San Fernando] Valley, when I was in college, called Pelican’s Retreat. A nice room with a nice stage and patios. I booked all the rock. There was pay-to-play, but I would actually pay the guys, so they were stoked. This was in the ‘90s. There were a couple of tributes out there, and I put together a whole month of October and called it Rocktober Tribute Month.

I had Atomic Punks [Van Halen tribute], Sticky Fingers [Rolling Stones], a Doors tribute called Wild Child—so I put that together every Saturday. This was way before it took off, and it was pretty successful because it was new. You could see there was a market if it was done correctly and not cheesy. I put a few together, but the big one that’s out of control is Queen Nation. I put those guys together in 2004. That’s gone to the next level. They’re in the pinnacle.

You can’t see Queen, at least in the classic form—does that make a big difference?
I have rules that I came up with. My formula that works for me. You have to pick a tribute to an act that’s mega popular. Ultimately not touring together as their core unit. You have to pick these acts and there’s a lot of things that change that make them popular—if there’s a deceased member, if they get elected into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—that can help spike that tribute. But that tribute has to be the best at what they do. The Queen Nation guys study film, watch concerts. You’ve got to love the music. The fans will call you out if you mail it in.

What do you think of accusations that tribute bands pull audiences away from bands playing original material?
I think there are so many different types of music. Tribute bands aren’t pulling away from original bands. It’s my opinion that everybody’s music is, no matter who they are, pulling from different bands. Music is music. If anything, the tributes offer a more affordable and available way for people to see a show that they couldn’t have seen. My kids can’t see Queen because Freddie’s been gone for years. They can’t see that show intact. If it’s done correctly, it exposes the market. Look at the biopic. That’s exposure and people can’t ridicule that. It just created more exposure.

Is there competition between tributes?
There is a lot of competition, though it’s a lot harder for people to compete with Queen. If you talk to a vocalist or a performer, there’s a difference between going up and being Freddie Mercury or one of the other bands. That’s a tough one. But there’s competition. Worldwide there’s four or five acts that are popular. When you get to a high level, just go look at Pollstar. You could be the best band in the world at what you do, but it doesn’t mean anything unless you put bodies in the building and create revenue. If you’re selling tickets, they’re gonna rebook you and that will lead to bigger rooms.

Have you or one of your bands ever received a cease & desist letter?
Each band has their own opinions on how they want to go after some of that stuff. Some see it as a threat, others as a compliment. It just depends on the band. I think a good show done correctly just creates more exposure. •


Julie Dolan

Bands: Undercover Girls, INXSVE, etc.
Contact: ucgband.com

The mercurial Ms. Dolan performs with a number of tributes; the talented keyboardist has made herself in demand, and she’s also a dynamic and driven booker for her bands.

How did you get involved with the booking side of things?
When you’re in a tribute band, a lot of venues don’t pay much, so you don’t really need an agent. You just call them up and make a deal with the promoter of that particular venue. Some venues, like casinos and big festivals, they like to go through the agent. They don’t want to deal with the artist themselves.

How I started was, my brother’s Michael Dolan and he and I started jamming together years ago. He told me I should audition for an all-girl band that was looking for a keyboard player. I didn’t want to be in a band. I’m an actor and I do voiceovers. This was 2003. I auditioned for this band, and I have not stopped working as a musician. I started in an all-girl cover band called the Undercover Girls, which have been together for 14 years now. Then I moved into the tribute band world, which is double the money for half the work.

For some reason—maybe being an actor and being good at marketing and negotiating—the job of booking the band fell to me. I developed my system. I know a lot of the agents; they all come to me asking what my next band is. I learned how to negotiate. You develop relationships with the agents, and they help you out. Most of them do. But if you’re dealing with the buyer, the club, it’s hard. They demand that you bring in 1,000 people. It’s hard negotiating. There are so many bands around the corner that will do it for nothing.

Undercover Girls

What makes a good tribute?
I would say trying to sound as much like the original artist as possible. If you can look like them organically, it’s great. A lot of them throw on wigs, and sometimes it’s a little cheesy. But there are a couple of bands, like DSB (they can’t call it Don’t Stop Believin’ because Journey put a cease & desist on that)—they don’t dress like the band at all, and they are one of the biggest tribute bands and have a huge following. They sound like them and they have a great following.

What do you make of accusations that tributes drag attention from “original” bands?
When I would post that my INXSVE band was playing somewhere, I would get replies from one particular guy: “What about original music? Why do you have to do that?” And I said, “I don’t write music, and I make money keeping other people’s music alive.” You can’t see INXS anymore, or Queen. Or you can’t afford to go see Journey or Aerosmith. You want to see them in their younger heyday. Fans will never see David Bowie again, but David Brighton takes people on a journey with David Bowie.

Do bands need a manager, for finances and taxes?
With my bands, we’ve formed a partnership and opened a business checking account. We have a tax ID number and do it all ourselves. We do our own taxes and run it like a business. Some people will do cash if they can, but some of the gigs we play—where we’re making seven grand—they’re not gonna do cash. I certainly don’t want that on my Social Security. So we have a checking account and pay the band members, have business expenses and so on. A lot of venues and casinos prefer to work with certain booking agents and only go through them.

Is this a national thing now?
We travel all over the world. My Cheap Trick tribute guitar player plays with an all-girl AC/DC tribute and they just got back from Germany. That’s ThundHERstruck. One of my best friends is the drummer in The Iron Maidens and it’s rare that they play their home base California. They’re always out of the country. •


Chris Freeman

Band: GayC/DC
Contact: gaycdcofficial.com

Freeman is a name known to punk rock fans already—he’s a longtime member of San Francisco queercore pioneers Pansy Division. He was also a member of Go-Go’s tribute The Gay Gays and, when the singer of that band moved on to other things, formed AC/DC tribute GayC/DC....

Why AC/DC?
The singer [of The Gay Gays] got tired of doing it. He wanted to take a break. We wanted to go on, so we started throwing names around of what else we could do. Karl [Rumpf], our rhythm guitar player, threw out GayC/DC and snickered after he said it. I said, “Wait a minute, that’s actually not a bad idea.” It was as simple as that. We were thinking of Slayer and call it Gayer. That one may happen anyway. I was in Pansy Division and we did the For Those About to Suck Cock (We Salute You) EP, and it started to come together in my head––the logo, all the other stuff. It just wrote itself.

How do you pay tribute with a gay twist?
First of all, we wanted to make sure the music was right on. So we could not proceed until we had a fireball guitar player, so we got Steve. Then he said, “If we’re doing GayC/DC, it doesn’t make sense for me to do the schoolboy outfit, I should do the Catholic schoolgirl outfit.” That was an obvious change on it.

The main image is all t-shirts and jeans. We decided to turn that around. No black t-shirts on stage and no jeans. We went the opposite direction to their uniformity. As daring as possible. Each person was allowed to come up with their own personality. We changed some of the lyrics, but honestly some of them didn’t need it. “Big Balls”––we didn’t have to change a word.

Do you find that GayC/DC makes more money than your original band now?
Funny enough it has. At this point in time, we’re booking some shows for Pansy Division—we’ll be 30 years old in 2021—and we’re 20 or so shows shy of 1,000, so we’re planning to hit our 1,000th show in 2021 in San Francisco. But we have some shows in February and we’re making half of what GayC/DC’s making. I never expected that. It’s unnerving. I don’t actually talk to Pansy Division band members much about that because they don’t wanna know.

Who comes to see you?
In the same fashion as we discovered in Pansy Division, the primary audience is straight. Especially in the case of GayC/DC, there’s so few people that are gay and like hard rock like that. Even myself—for me AC/DC was a guilty pleasure. I loved them all along, but everyone was like, “Ew, that’s for straight people.” I had to do music that I liked, regardless of whether the gay crowd was coming along. Straight women especially. They look at it like it’s a bachelorette party. •


Colby Veil

Band: Hollywood Roses
Contact: hollywoodroses.com

Hollywood Roses is the premier Guns N’ Roses tribute band in the United States, and they’ve been given the nod of approval from GN’R members Steven Adler, Slash and Duff
McKagan. In fact, frontman Colby Veil has fronted Adler’s own band, Adler’s Appetite.

When did the band form and why?
1999, September. 20 years ago. It was just an idea, because there were no stigmas about being in a tribute band, and you couldn’t see the original band then. I just thought, let’s give it a try. We played a show in Marina del Rey and it was packed. I played with Steven Adler’s Appetite for the 20th anniversary. Why a tribute? I want to preserve that real rock & roll edge.

What makes a great tribute?
You have to have a sense of humor. We’re not a Vegas impersonator show. The songs kick you in the nuts. Appetite for Destruction is never old. You blur the lines; it’s fantasy but you’re feeling authentic feelings. I step outside myself and just listen. There are some actual Hollywood Roses fans. Then there are people who can’t afford a Guns N’ Roses ticket, but can bring their kid to see us. I’m not a big fan of wearing a Halloween costume. I have real hair and I sing. It’s amazing the depths some bands will sink to.

Give us an example…
A perfect example is, we had a show at a casino in Indio, California. It was all set up, and the guy that booked it went on vacation. Another band came in and played the show drunk, spitting on people. We cleared up the fact that it wasn’t us, but you have to prepare yourself for that kind of treachery.

You played the first Rocklahoma—one of just a couple of tribute bands among masses of ‘80s hair bands...
I got that because we’re good friends with Joe Lesté [Bang Tango] and Taime Downe [Faster Pussycat]. The truth is, The Atomic Punks were asked to do that show originally. Ralph [Saenz] was starting to do Steel Panther full time. The people at The Whisky suggested us instead. That first Rocklahoma was awesome.

You’ve been endorsed by the real band, correct?
We’re totally endorsed by Duff, Slash and Steven—everybody but Axl. Axl acknowledges that we exist, he just says that he doesn’t care about us. Gilby Clarke is a good friend. So we’ve at least got the nod.

Are you in an “originals” band as well?
I have a band called Dopesnake on Cleopatra Records. That’s with Danny Nordahl from Faster Pussycat and The Throbs, and Marc Diamond from The Dwarves.

Is it easier to book Hollywood Roses, though?
That’s been a hard road to keep it real. I’m so grateful to headline The Whisky for 12 years. I love to play, sing those songs and see people light up!