While music fans struggle to get tickets to the likes of Glastonbury, Reading and the Isle of Wight festivals, many are turning to so-called “fake” versions of these music events featuring tribute acts to get their live fix.
Over the past five years, ticket sales for Glastonbudget, Tribfest and The Big Fake Festival have seen a healthy increase, according to The Entertainment Agents’ Association, and there are now more than 30 outdoor music festivals in the UK showcasing tribute acts, such as Coldplace, Antarctic Monkeys, Guns2Roses, Stereotonics and Blondied.
Like Glastonbury, fake festivals present live acts on multiple stages alongside camping, glamping, food stalls and face painting.
The big draw is “price and accessibility”, says Neil Tomlinson from the Entertainment Agents’ Association.
“The price is right, at the top end the quality’s right and it’s family friendly,” he tells Radio 4’s You and Yours.
“If you love the Killers but they’re touring or having two years off you can see The Killerz who’ll play all the songs you love, hit after hit after hit!”
The idea is to get people into the “festival mood” and “to try and replicate the real thing,” says Paul Higginson, who regularly performs as Liam Gallagher in the band Oasish.
The former welder can play two or three festivals a week during the summer to crowds of 1,000 to 10,000 plus.
‘Just a bit of fun’
“The feeling you get when you step onto the stage is uplifting and exciting. Your shoulders go back and the chest goes out, all of a sudden the swagger arrives and I pick up the tambourine and you think, ‘This is what it must have felt like for them’. I feel like a rock god!”
When he’s not playing in Oasish, Higginson is a session guitarist for Chesney Hawkes and is also Kelly Jones for the Stereotonics.
“It’s just a bit of fun,” he says but admits they take Oasis’s music “very seriously”. “We’re doing well out of it and I’m dreading the day Noel Gallagher knocks on my door asking me for commission!”
Tribute acts have come a long way since first performing in social clubs in the 1960s, impersonating the likes of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley.
With advances in lighting, stage make-up and sound technology, musicians can pretty much “look and sound like the real thing”, says Tarquin Shaw-Young, managing director of Stagecoach Talent Agency UK.
He says the biggest markets are in America, Germany and the UK, particularly for outdoor festivals. “The industry generates £20m to £30m each year,” he adds.
For the organisers of The Big Fake Festival the most exciting bands are those that can fill entire stadiums and don’t have to rely on backing tracks or lipsyncing.
These include acts such as Green Date for Green Day, New2 for U2 and Flash for Queen, whose lead singer “Freddie” is an Italian former opera singer.
He regularly flies to the UK perform at one day fake festivals in places like Leeds, Reading and Chelmsford, which all have their own established real festivals.
But are imitation bands any good? And can fake festivals compete with the real ones?
Broadcaster and music journalist Paul Morley says what you’re getting is “a cheap thrill” and an “Aldi cut-price version of the real thing”.
He believes audiences are experiencing “the intense diluted version of the iconic properties of the pop star when they were at their heights”.
“If you’re nostalgic for it you’re just as likely to go to the tribute version as you are the real thing.
“My way of establishing the good from the bad now is their names and I know that Oasish is the real deal in that world.”
But he warns of fake reviews and believes the industry could benefit from specialist critics.
“I should be ‘Paul Nearly’ reviewing them because you’re applying different standards. It’s a bit like a mainstream theatre critic reviewing a pantomime.”
Yet rather than hinder the reputation of real bands, tribute bands can actually “enhance them”, according to Jez Lee, co-founder of Fake Festivals.
“When people come to Fake Festivals and listen to Queen’s greatest hits they’re reminded of how good they are and will go back home to their local supermarket and buy that CD. It’s like a badge of honour having a tribute band.
“You’re no-one until you’ve got one and it’s a bit of a compliment.”
He reveals that tribute band Kazabian were given a drum kit by the real Kasabian because they wanted them to sound authentic.
Jon Bon Jovi has performed with the Bon Jovi Experience and some cover acts have gone on to form bands that are commercially successful such as The Rolling Stones (who started out as a blues cover band). “There’s also Queen + Adam Lambert,” says Lee, “a part real, part tribute hybrid”.
Tribute bands are now becoming super brands in their own right like the Bootleg Beatles and Bjorn Again, who have been paying tribute to Abba longer than Benny, Bjorn, Frieda and Agnetha were together. They also play at real festivals such as Glastonbury and Reading alongside the likes of Cher, Kylie and Metallica.
“Given that a lot of our musical heroes are no longer with us, they’ll be more tribute festivals in the future,” says Rod Stephens, co-founder of Bjorn Again. “People want that live experience, they want to see and feel what it’s like to watch The Beatles or Pink Floyd up on stage.”
When Stephens set up the band in the late 1980s Benny and Bjorn invited them to help promote their album Abba Gold, which is still in the charts. Even if Abba got back together it wouldn’t be curtains for the tribute act, according to Carla Winters who plays Agnetha.
“I think it would complement our business because every time Abba do something or there’s a Mamma Mia movie people have the need for Bjorn Again – and again and again!”
You and Yours is on BBC Radio 4 weekdays 12:15-13:00 BST. Listen online or download the programme podcast, Smart Consumer.
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