Tribute Bands Rock the Dead to Life: Is That a Job or Vocation?

Some of them make a lot more money than you might think.

Joel Hanks, Pat Downes, Scott Begin, and Dorian Duffy take the stage at hallowed Sunset Strip music venue the Whisky a Go Go, and an immediate attack of nostalgia overcomes the seen-it-all L.A. crowd. The four members of the Rhode Island-based tribute band Badfish are in the business of replicating Sublime’s inimitable riffs to a tee—and looking dead-on like them, too.

Sublime, the late-’80s ska punk band from Long Beach, California, was, for many of us, the soundtrack to our youth. Sublime were playing when we drove a car for the first time, when we had our first kiss, when we smoked our first joint—sometimes all on the same hazy afternoon.

Sadly, our enjoyment of the band has always been limited to recordings: Just as Sublime entered the national spotlight in 1996, its frontman, Bradley Nowell, died of a drug overdose.


Badfish's goal isn't to be the next best thing; the idea is to be Sublime reincarnated. Tribute bands, at the highest level, make the impossible possible for fans, paying homage to musicians past and bringing them into the present in the most convincingly live way possible.

Recognizing the generation-added value of what were once dismissed as copycat groups, AXS TV has createdThe World’s Greatest Tribute Bands, hosted by Katie Daryl, to showcase the most iconic rocker duplications. The current season, which has been airing live from the Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip every Wednesday for the past few weeks, culminates on April 20 with a Pink Floyd tribute act playing The Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety. The date of the performance is no coincidence.

“Tribute bands are important to keep the music alive,” Katie Daryl tells The KIND, emphasizing that many classic rock bands are missing key members or no longer touring due to irreversible circumstances.

Also, small or mid-sized venues generally can’t afford the $500,000 to $1 million required to book the world's most popular artists or bands. The fees of almost-identical counterparts in knockoff groups are notably cheaper. All things considered, tribute acts can provide just as or more enjoyable fan experiences than the real thing: They draw smaller crowds, and concertgoers won’t spend an arm and a leg to see and hear cherished songs played live.

Impersonating iconic artists requires serious skill from talented musicians who are channeling their creative identities through the songs of someone else.

Scott Begin, the drummer for Badfish, views performing in a tribute band as far more exacting than playing along in a covers band. To him, it's more about finding how to be creative within set boundaries, so the music still sounds like Sublime but has its own edge.

“Without even trying … we’ll let the songs meander,” he says. “When we take a strange left turn, the audience seems to like it.”

Some artists are attracted to performing in tribute bands by the stability it provides. The steady tribute-band income pays to support passion projects. For instance, Badfish, at one point, were opening concerts for themselves as Scotty Don’t, their original band.

Larry Cornwall decided to become a tribute artist after determining that the struggle of being an original musician wasn’t worth it.

“I’m older. I’m not in my 20s. People don’t really come out to see many original bands,” he says. “But we can have a thousand people come out pretty easily to see tribute bands. People who love the whole scene of ’80s rock ‘n’ roll.”

“In the tribute world, egos and attitudes are left out the door.”

Cornwall sings and drums for a few tributes acts, including Vintage Halen and True2Crue Motley Crue. He was at the Whisky a Go Go last week in full-on Alice Cooper garb to see Badfish. AXS TV’s weekly special attracts scores of local tribute artists who are keen on supporting others in their industry.

“One thing I’ve learned on a personal level is tribute band guys are the nicest, kindest, most professional guys out there,” says Daryl of AXS TV. “In the tribute world, egos and attitudes are left out the door.”

The bands that have been fortunate enough to make it onto one of the six seasons of The World's Greatest Tribute Bands have seen as much as a 50 percent spike in bookings, according to an AXS TV publicist.

“Being on the show boosts their legitimacy,” he tells The Kind.

If a band is good enough to be selected by The World's Greatest, chances are it was already doing pretty well financially. Badfish, for instance, which plays 200 or so dates annually, grosses around $1.5 million per year.

Image via Renee Silverman Photography

Michael Berton, president and CEO of West Coast Talent Agency, which handles bookings for both tribute and original acts, says lesser-known tributes earn around $500 per booking. Popular acts can ask $20,000 for a single performance.

Tribute bands fall in a sort of gray area when it comes to licensing, and are rarely required to pay royalties; this duty is left up to the venues hosting them.

“Everyone wants to be a tribute band,” Berton says. “If they don’t look the part, act the part, I wouldn’t put them on my website or book them.”

“It is the responsibility of the business owner to obtain a public performance license for the music to be performed in a public space,” says Jodie Thomas, executive director of licensing agency BMI’s corporate communications. “A public performance license can cost an establishment as little as $350 a year, and is calculated based on the size of the establishment, the type of music being played (recorded, live, dancing/DJ, karaoke), and how often that music is performed—once a week, once a month, etc.” 

Once the establishment has paid the necessary blanket fees, it can play an unlimited amount of music in any format it wants, whether through records or tribute bands.

To really be accepted on the circuit, tribute bands must be signed to a talent agency. Berton decides whether or not to add an act to his roster based on production quality. He has turned away a KISS tribute that refused to wear leather, studs, and make-up.

“Everyone wants to be a tribute band,” Berton says. “If they don’t look the part, act the part, I wouldn’t put them on my website or book them.”

Some well-known artists are notorious for refusing to play their mega-hits in concert. They find the same old tunes boring and would rather showcase new stuff. Tributes don’t see it that way. They regard their gigs as jobs, but jobs they enjoy doing.

Begin, Badfish’s drummer, recalls the first time he performed Sublime songs with the other members of the band. They drew an enormous crowd, leading them to wonder if they should take the act a step further.

“What the hell? Let’s try to turn this into a band instead of a one-time show,” Begin remembers saying.

Not only have they kept the spark of Sublime alive for more than a decade—the Whisky a Go Go performance was their 15th anniversary—they’ve made Sublime a part of the high school and college experiences for younger generations, too.

Do they ever tire of playing the same songs over and over? Begin responds: “Strangely, no. We just love the music.”

Images via Badfish.com unless otherwise noted.