Tribute or intellectual property rip off?

(April 28, 2014)

‘They’re only a tribute band, nothing original there. They ought to write some new stuff and not rip off someone else’s music’ … that gem of wisdom was passed to me on Saturday last. And true though the first part of the statement undoubtedly was, to be fair the band in question had done nothing other than live up to their own promotional blurb and turned out a pretty good, at times excellent, (tribute, compliment, imitation, impersonation – choose your own word) to their considerably more famous subjects.

Now, this bunch of ‘sound-alikes’ may never move beyond the club realm they currently inhabit and never reach the elevated heights of stardom enjoyed by the band they replicate, but they’re good at what they do and presumably comfortable with that. If people turn up to hear a tribute band then it’s reasonable to expect to hear well-known and sometimes not so well-known versions of ‘greatest hits’. Why else would one go to see a tribute band? Now, at this point I do have to confess my presence was more by accident than design, even so they were pretty good.

The point of all this is to examine why it’s considered reasonable to criticise this band as ‘ripping off’ someone else’s music when many purloiners of other people’s talent are frequently allowed to get off scot free. That’s what tribute bands do for crying out loud. As some marketing copywriter once opined: ‘…it does exactly what it says on the tin’. The tribute band is doing just that. In my humble view it is far more heinous to pretend that what you’re playing/ singing is entirely original, especially when the musicians involved are patently blagging someone else’s style and the singer is duplicating another’s voice and delivery.

Surely, turning out music, albeit original, that is a dead-ringer for another artist’s work isn’t a tribute it’s verging on a rip off. So why then do I frequently hear musicians and singers trying hard to replicate another artist’s output? And it’s pertinent to point out to explain that I’m not referring to yet another pointlessly cloned ‘boy or girl band’ extruded and packaged from some plastic ‘hit factory’, I’m talking about bands that inhabit the folk world.

It apparently matters not through whatever central plains, high mountains or dark corners of folk you decide to search, there they are, artists that have patently studied their chosen victims and then proceeded to duplicate their sound or vocals. The usually more famous and well established artist may or may not care, they may well be totally secure in their own skins safe in the knowledge that be it imitation or flattery the ‘pretenders’ will not steal their crown. However, as an audience member I care. And from experience so do many others. Should I want to hear this or that band being replicated then I’ll (possibly) seek out a tribute act that performs ‘as advertised’ but to hear an act peppered with ‘knocked off’ vocals, riffs and melodies leaves me stone cold. I’ve even heard lead singers alter their accents between songs to sound even more like the artists they are replicating. And that for a genre that continues to pride itself on its inventiveness is frankly appalling.

There’s another important point worth covering, to clarify my view on this subject. I’m not talking about artists that add a ‘cover’ to their album or performance. I’ve listened to thousands of them and the vast majority are brilliant. Those artists take a song or tune they admire from an artist they respect and then add their own edge to create something new, exciting and different. The original artist receives a credit and moreover it can happen that the song in question benefits from the makeover. On numerous occasions I’ve also heard the original artist deliver the ‘cover’ version and credit the covering artist because they loved what had been done to their work.

So there it is. Want to be a tribute band? Be a tribute band. Want to be an original artist? Write something original. Want to have your own style? Then stop passing off someone else’s and develop your own style. As another marketing copywriter once said: “Simples.”

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