At first, it was as it has been since the advent of rock 'n' roll—harmless, relatively small collections of musicians playing the current day's hits at weddings and high school reunions. These were folks involved with local bands that played original songs in seedy nightclubs all across town. Problem was, those club gigs were paying next to nothing, so in order to survive, the musicians started cover bands. The money increased—sometimes by a lot—and a cottage industry was born.
"Quality cover bands can make good money, particularly with the huge wedding and corporate event market that exists in DFW," says Mark Nesmith of the cleverly named cover band Hackberry Road. "It's definitely a business. We practice, we market ourselves, and we work hard to keep the gigs coming and try to constantly get better at what we do."
With more than 400 tribute or cover bands scattered across the area, Dallas has become somewhat of a mecca for those who like playing other people's songs. For folks like Nesmith, it's all about diversity and learning as many songs as possible in order to satisfy a variety of audiences. But for others—folks like Mike Alves, the bassist for the Elvis Costello tribute band Oliver's Army—it's about the almost obsessive love for one particular artist.
"We play the music of Costello because we enjoy and respect it," Alves says. "I love Costello's music, and I think sharing the experience through playing it is a lot of fun."
But the increased number of tribute bands around town is a recent phenomenon. Groups such as Beatles tribute act A Hard Night's Day have been staples of the local scene for many years, but these days, the number of tribute bands has multiplied exponentially. A casual glance at any weekend's concert listings will reveal just how much the tribute band industry has grown: Kiss; Judas Priest; Bon Jovi; REM; The Doors; Tom Petty; AC/DC; Steely Dan; Crosby, Stills and Nash, and many more have area tribute bands playing their songs, dressing like them, standing in for the real deal in front of a bunch of inebriated 40-somethings who couldn't be happier dancing the night away, listening to music they knew in high school.
"Dallas is, and has been for 40 years, a regular stop on most classic rock bands' tours because these bands can still expect to see a respectable amount of ticket sales," says Bob T of the Kiss tribute band Destroyer. "It is only natural that bands that are able to re-create the music faithfully are able to draw fans looking for that same live experience."
Faithfully is the key word. While some cover band might take a few liberties with a song or two, tribute bands take pride in hitting the exact notes in the exact way that their heroes have done in the past. And while members of cover bands come across as a rather jovial lot, those in tribute bands are a serious and, quite frankly, obsessive collection of what could most commonly be referred to as geeks.
Mike Rhyner, leader of Tom Petty tribute act Petty Theft (as well as the host of The Hardline on KTCK-1310 AM The Ticket) sees the recent influx of tribute bands as a natural evolution in the Dallas music scene.
"In the '70s, playing one's own stuff was something everybody wanted to do, but almost nobody had the vaguest notion of how to go about it," Rhyner says. "There were almost no places that would harbor that sort of thing."
Rhyner believes that, in the '70s, the lack of quality acts performing original music and the lack of venues who would book such acts forced many musicians into cover bands. Once the scene in Deep Ellum exploded in the '80s and '90s, bands that played original material became the norm. And with the decline in Deep Ellum and in other areas of Dallas, the resulting re-emergence of cover and tribute bands seems only natural.
"The mercenary factor does come into play too," Rhyner explains. "The fact is many of these cover bands command more [money] than original bands. Why? Because the vast majority of the masses, when they go out to check out some tuneage, [they] don't want to be challenged. They want to go somewhere where they can get their drink on, have a good time and hear something they know well, without having to pay any more attention to it than they might wish to."
On the whole, cover bands do indeed make more money that original bands—and, most of the time, quite a bit more than tribute bands. Payment depends on the location. Some cover bands charge up to $4,000 for a lengthy wedding gig, but, then again, the musicians in most cover bands have to learn hundreds of songs in a variety of styles.
Tribute bands are another matter. Some have been quite successful, but most acts languish in the same nether regions of popularity as most original acts, and with about the same pay. "We play because we love Judas Priest," says Scott LePage of the Judas Priest tribute band Judas Rising, a 43-year-old engineer by day. "We dress in the leather and the spikes and the studs, but we don't make a bunch of money."
But even without a true financial incentive, tribute bands continue to pop up across North Texas. And as the number of cover/tribute bands has grown, so too has the number of venues that choose to book them. House of Blues, Lakewood Bar and Grill, Lee Harvey's and the Barley House are four of the more well-known establishments that consistently book tribute bands, but other locations across North Texas are beginning to see the benefits of booking bands that play absolutely no original material. In fact, many see a clear advantage in booking a tribute band instead of an original act.
"Tribute bands can draw well, and they create a great live music experience at a low ticket price," says Brian Lowe, marketing manager at the House of Blues, sounding like he's promoting the upcoming Destroyer and Judas Rising tribute bill at HOB this month.
At other venues, things are not as clear-cut or centered on the bottom line. Seth Smith at Lee Harvey's books original, cover and tribute acts for about the same percentage of time.
"The fact is," he says, "I just don't see that much of a difference between original, cover and tribute acts. I just want the caliber of the band to be good."
Amongst tribute bands, the issue of quality is sternly debated. Members of one act can be quite critical of another, sometimes ridiculing the other band's authenticity. If a tribute band dares to stray from the confines of its chosen artist, then that band basically falls into the lowly (but better-paid) ranks of a cover band.
Much like any other genre of music, the tribute/cover band circuit seems to have its own subdivisions and parenthetical offshoots. Acts that sound, but don't look the part, are happy to be called cover bands. Others that attempt to replicate the entire look and sound of a band in an effort to, at least for a moment, transport the audience (at a greatly reduced price) to a show by the original act are adamant about being referred to as tribute bands.
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One thing both cover and tribute bands are certain about, though, is the talent of the musicians involved. Acts that play original music sometimes take a derisive tone when talking about cover and tribute bands, claiming that playing original music is somehow superior than mimicking a favored artist. To the great number of musicians who painstakingly learn every note and every move of their beloved band, this criticism is unwarranted.
"It does irritate me when someone looks down on a player just because he's in a cover band," Rhyner says. "In most cases, that is no reflection on a guy's talent. There are plenty of guys in cover bands—tons of them—who can blow anybody in any original band away."
In the end, it all comes down to what brings folks into a bar, or what makes people dance at a wedding, a class reunion or the party for the second vice president of some corporation.
"I do know this," Rhyner says. "People get into the cover band/tribute thing because they want to play. If you want to play in the path of least resistance by doing music that's well-known, then it's because Dallas has never been a good market for original music."