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  • Writer's pictureJohn McLachlan

Tribute Shows H’uh. What Are They Good For?

In recent years the increase in tribute shows has risen dramatically. Why? I think it’s that the original artists are getting old (or dying) and the baby-boomer audiences are seeking safety in the comforting music of their youth.

There are degrees on an imitative scale with tribute shows which range from personalized takes on the original versions to the full-on impersonators. There are different audiences for all these variations.

I’m guilty of presenting a tribute show. In my case it’s the music of Gordon Lightfoot. I’ve tried to bring my own interpretations to his songs — to make them mine — and I’m about 50% successful, with the other half being somewhat like his versions. I like to think the more personalized renditions work the best but I know some audience members would prefer more direct copies of the originals.

As I’ve presented my show I’ve had feedback from audiences and I’ve reflected a lot on why they attend. In my case, it’s not to see an impersonator but rather to hear personal interpretations while still getting to experience many songs done such that they harken to the originals and the time the songs came from.

My ideal audience demographic is 70-85 years old with a shoulder group on the lower end to about 60. Anyone younger doesn’t have the memory of the time when Lightfoot was at his commercial peak in the 1970s (In Canada, you couldn’t “not” know who Lightfoot was even if you weren’t a fan).

Tribute Shows include Impersonator Shows

I like to put tribute shows on a scale of 1 – 100 where 1 is the equivalent of performing an artist’s songs so differently that they are barely recognizable (like an edgy jazz group) to 100 where everything is an almost perfect match of the original down to instrument makeup, solos, vocal copying, costumes, stage sets. My own show is about a “45-50” which is a nice sweet spot for me. It’s a balance though I wish I could take the number down further, but I’m just not musically adept enough to get too radical with my renditions. 🙂

I want to be clear: no matter where on the scale a tribute show falls, I personally admire the skill and artistry of musicians/performers who do any of these presentations well. It’s an art in itself to create totally new versions of songs or to copy songs down to the finest degree.

As far as impersonator shows go, I personally, don’t get the appeal. To each their own.

Tribute shows are popping up a lot these days and it’s because there is a waiting and willing audience for them. I know for the more “artsy” crowd these shows are totally looked down upon, but this is often coming from people who don’t actually have to sell tickets. And these shows do sell tickets.

When will this trend end? I think we are in “peak tribute show” now. As the baby-boomer audience starst leaving the market (to put it creatively) the shows will stop and I don’t think will be followed as strongly over time by other tribute waves that harken back to other previous periods.

The pop music scene in the last ten years has grown increasingly “siloed.” A big act can be utterly unknown to another segment from the same age group. The lessening influence of radio and the days of just a few networks (pre internet) has meant this demographic will not move into their older age with a coherent, shared musical background (the same is likely true for movies and TV).

When baby-boomers were in their 20s, even if one didn’t listen to a particular pop artist, they’d know who it was and even have heard their songs. For those in their 20s now, the market is fragmented. It’s all niche markets.

All to say if you are sick of tribute bands, fear not, they will go away soon enough. Even I am retiring my Lighfoot tribute show.

You’re welcome.

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