Look through your local gig listings and chances are you’ll find as many tribute bands and singers as there are original acts. Their popularity continues to grow and not just in smaller venues. Some are able to fill the largest sites like Wembley Arena and the O2. The Australian Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin Experience, Bootleg Beatles and Hollywood U2 are examples of successful tribute bands that have performed thousands of shows across the globe, year after year. These acts have earned their success by replicating the original band’s music to a very high standard, as well as providing an exciting visual performance alongside the sonic conventions.
Although the level of musicianship amongst popular tribute bands is exceptional, where does the law stand in regards to bands that make a living by playing another band’s music, and trading off their original name and image?
Technically, a band that is still trading as a live act could have a case for legal action against a tribute act if it could be shown that they were losing audiences and revenue to the tribute act. An original band also has the right to preserve its brand from being undermined or devalued by the presence of a tribute act. Another legal issue is where an audience member believes he was duped into believing that a tribute act was the genuine original act.
In 2010, Lawyers for Universal Music in Sweden sent out legal notices to more than 15 Abba tribute acts demanding they stop trading off the name ‘Abba’. Well established tribute acts such as Abba Queens, Abba Mania and Swede Dreamz Abba Tribute were all ordered to change their names immediately, according to an Independent article published in June 2010. A spokesperson for Universal Music told the press: “We’ve had complaints from all over the world where fans feel they’ve been misled and we feel it’s our duty to protect the Abba brand from misuse.” A number of bands license out their name and ask tribute acts to pay to use it, but the spokesperson said Abba do not plan to do this.
Another relevant case that made newspaper headlines was when Bon Jovi sued an all-female tribute act called ‘Blonde Jovi’ in 2009. A legal letter from the law firm Blakely Sokoloff Taylor & Zafman to Blonde Jovi stated, “It has recently come to our attention that your band is using the mark and name BLONDE JOVI in connection with live musical performances; more specifically, a Bon Jovi tribute band. Unfortunately, and despite the fact that our client appreciates the reverence that your band pays tribute to Bon Jovi, as a tribute band, our client nevertheless is charged with the duty of enforcing its trademark rights. In this regard, BJP cannot allow your band to use the mark and name BLONDE JOVI (or any other BJP trademarks), as such use creates a likelihood of confusion with our client, and capitalises on the goodwill and reputation of its well-known marks.”
Here we can see two examples where bands do not approve of imitators making a living off of their original endeavours. As a musician and a member of a band, I can understand why bands such as Bon Jovi and Abba are protective of their brand name and music. Over the course of a band’s career, countless hours, days and weeks are spent crafting original music that has earned the band their place in the limelight. The music they have created is their own and holds an intrinsic value to the band members. It does not seem fair for an imitator band to capitalise off the immeasurable hard work of the original band.
However, some big acts are more than happy for tribute acts to ply their trade as it is offers free promotion for the original band’s records. Especially where the original group may have disbanded or no longer tour. Australian Pink Floyd was hired by none other than original Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour to play at his 50th birthday party. Clearly, Pink Floyd has no issues with a band imitating them and selling 3 million tickets to concerts worldwide.
Tribute acts have to pay PRS (Performing Rights Society) fees for sound clips used on their websites. As for live performances, it is the responsibility of the venue (not the act) to pay the PRS fees. Most major live venues will be well used to paying their PRS fees, but for private performances such as weddings and parties, the PRS won’t usually pursue fees where it’s too difficult to police.
As we have seen, original acts differ widely in their response to tribute bands. What is not in doubt is the popularity of tribute acts with the music listening audience. Tribute acts will claim that they are simply paying homage to the great originals that have inspired the millions of people worldwide. And they wouldn’t do it if there was no demand.
There may be no malicious intent to make a living off of other peoples creativity, but the original band should always have the right to protect its trademark if they feel their hard-earned and cherished name is in danger of being tarnished.
This article is a guest blog of mine that originally featured on Music Think Tank.