It was a news story that surely shook every fake Freddie Mercury, ersatz Adele and bootleg David Bowie. The real Tina Turner, 81, has sued a tribute act from Germany for being too convincing, a troubling case for every musician who makes their living mimicking major stars.
And there are thousands of them.
“Our roster, it’s actually 1,700 now,” says Michael Twombly, who runs the US’s largest tribute agency, the humorously named Music Zirconia (“fake diamonds!” he says with a laugh). Located in California, they represent acts emulating everyone from Prince to Daft Punk. Twombly himself is the "Robert Smith" in a Cure tribute, The Cured, which is how he started booking other bands too – and it keeps growing.
“I've been waiting five, 10 years for tribute bands to be like disco, just one day become very uncool,” he says. “But middle America is just now picking up on it.”
These unsung heroes, usually critically shunned, are a crucial revenue stream for a live music industry that needs it, particularly post-pandemic. Turner’s legal action is a salutary tale, though. The diva has sued the US-born singer Dorothea "Coco" Fletcher, arguing that her show Simply the Best could be confused for the real thing. A court in Cologne agreed, but Fletcher's company won an appeal after changing the posters. Now the case has moved on to Germany's Federal Court of Justice, with a final verdict due to be decided in February 2022. The tour show's lawyer, Brunhilde Ackermann, warned that this case could cripple the tribute industry, and only a "chronically stupid person" would expect the real Turner to appear.
Why aren’t many more copycat acts being sued, you may wonder? Generally, it’s perfectly legal, within reason. In the US, these performers are treated “no different than a cover band”, says Twombly. “That's how it was determined.”
Elsewhere in the world, the "trib" phenomenon encourages proper academic study. Shane Homan from Australia’s Monash University wrote the first serious book about tribute acts, Access All Eras, in 2006. “Most countries have 'passing off' or impersonation laws,” he says, to protect artists’ rights, but “you can't stop someone taking to the stage and belting out a Beyonce song”. Karaoke would have to go underground, otherwise.
Homan’s interest was sparked by experience. “I was a drummer in the 1980s in several cover bands in Sydney, once auditioning to be the drummer in a Blues Brothers tribute act.”
Good tribs can really take off. Back in 1990s "Britpop" Britain, Oasis became so popular that their foremost tribute band, NoWaySis, had a chart hit, toured Europe and the Emirates, and were given a guitar by Oasis’s Noel Gallagher.
One Australian act went further. “When I interviewed the founders of Bjorn Again, they said they were careful to get the permission of Bjorn and Benny to start an ABBA band in Melbourne,” says Homan. “There are now multiple Bjorn Agains across different continents.”
Bjorn Again took a comedic route, adopting jokey Swedish names (Benny Anderwear and Frida Longstokin, for example), but tribute acts are usually reverential. Certain stars still gripe about their copycats. Twombly mentions one major band’s guitarist who hassled them, “until his son joined one; now he kind of lays off them”. Even relatives hit roadblocks: Frank Zappa’s sons fought for years about performing his work.
How did this burgeoning business actually begin? The British music academic Georgina Gregory explored that question in her 2012 book Send in the Clones. Classical recitals were the original tribute shows, she suggests, while the first modern version would be “The White, who were an early tribute to Led Zeppelin in the 1970s”.
“Many sensible artists have embraced their tributes,” Gregory continues. It “keeps their music alive and brings in royalties from performing rights. I think it is rather petty to object, unless the tribute act is operating dishonestly and pretending to be the original.”
Sometimes a trib can look too good, though, Twombly admits, recalling an act who mimicked the EDM star Deadmaus, and “got the same guy that made his helmets to make identical ones for him”. Deadmaus objected “because it looked too much like him; people could be confused”.
So is the Turner case worrying? Not for the ebullient Twombly – yet. He says tribute acts are generally welcomed as a useful resource. “Occasionally, we'll get a call from one of the real bands: ‘our bass player can't make it, can you get us someone?’ So we can fly a bass player out to the real band that day – they’ll know their set already. Cheap Trick, their guitars got stuck on a plane, so we called our guy because he had Cheap Trick guitars…”
Turner may be more protective than most, however, which is understandable. As the documentary Tina recalled this year, the resilient singer gave up everything just to keep the rights to her name while divorcing abusive husband Ike Turner in 1978. That distinctive shorter haircut was then a conscious decision, to forge a striking new image. Ironically, she probably gets more tribute acts because of it.
Stars with “a very iconic brand identity” attract more tribute acts, says Gregory. “If you look at some of the top tributes like ABBA, Elvis and Queen, they are all easily reduced in visual terms to a strong brand.”
Think of Elvis and it probably is that trademark Vegas jumpsuit look that first comes to mind. “The same could be said of The Beatles, whose visual image was always much stronger than The Rolling Stones,” she says.
Interestingly, those three chart behemoths all started out covering blues musicians, which is one reason rock stars tend not to sue: many were cover acts, too. Gregory mentions current soul crooner Charles Bradley, who “went from being a James Brown tribute to become an acclaimed artist in his own right”.
It often comes full circle. “I do believe that, strangely, original acts are copying the tributes,” says Homan. “Much older 'heritage' acts - Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, The Eagles - now incorporate video montages before and during songs” - a key element of major tribute shows.
Bjorn Again’s success may even have inspired ABBA’s concert comeback. The pop legends “have seen the benefits” of their songs played live, says Homan, and next year’s hologram-based tour is virtually a tribute act to themselves. The many superstar-endorsed ‘jukebox musicals’ are also elaborate tribute shows. As Fletcher observed recently, the Turner lawsuit happened just as Tina the musical opened in Germany.
For new tribute acts, then, several rules are worth noting: get the look right, be respectful and beware of musical theatre. That town may not be big enough for both of you.