How to Become a Successful Tribute Act

Updated on March 9, 2017
DoctorDarts profile image

Luke has worked as a tribute singer for many years, as well as working as a full-time writer. He has performed all over the world.

Tribute acts have a unique appeal to Joe Public for one simple reason; they give the experience of seeing their musical heroes perform an up-close-and-personal show for a fraction of the cost of seeing the real thing, or even free. It's win/win for both sides of the equation too, as quality tribute acts can command up to 6 times the pay of a normal show singer, and mean performing to audiences that come prepped to pay more attention than they would to a regular gig. All of which sounds like a lovely little setup to make everybody happy... provided that

  • a: the act can get work, and
  • b: they're any good.

So, how does one go about getting themselves a piece of this highly sought-after pie? Of course, given the potential for working in the above ideal scenario, it attracts a lot of competition, so therefore it isn't easy (unless you are a bona fide, carbon copy, exact look, and soundalike of your chosen artist; unfortunately, this also means you don't exist and are a figment of a struggling booking agent's imagination, or you are insane. Either way, it's not going to be a long career for you.) But if you're prepared to spend a minimum of 2 years working at it, you can possibly find yourself making a well-paid living wearing Freddie Mercury's yellow jacket, Madonna's pointed bra, or the guy from Cameo's codpiece.

I never got any bookings as this guy for some reason. Maybe because I'm white.
I never got any bookings as this guy for some reason. Maybe because I'm white.

So, where do you start?

1. Be Prepared to Spend Money—Then Wait a Lot

This is the probably the hardest thing about starting out as a tribute act; spending money with little to no sign of making money on the horizon, nor of there being any for some time. It's all very well paying through the nose to get those Milli Vanilli extensions done or getting Elton John's entire wardrobe made from real, matching iguana scrotum, but the wait for the payoff will be a long one. So the very first thing to bear in mind is that this will not be a quick fix for your current finances; building a reputation is vital for filling that diary, and that will take a good two years minimum, or 1 if you are extremely lucky (or good.) So if you can't handle that, it's best to realise it now before you commit to growing that ZZ Top beard. Now you have that clear in your head, let's move onto...

2. Who You're Going to Be, and of Course, the Name

Good news; this is the fun part. First things first, don't base your choice of an artist on the fact that they're someone you like. Obviously, this helps (it's a 'tribute' act, after all) but it doesn't matter if you sound more like Barry Gibb than Barry White. Facial similarity is not important, believe me; if you do everything on stage right, no one will care. Play to your strengths. We'll come to more on this very shortly, but for now, even if you know all of your favourite artist's mannerisms and vocal tics, it won't count for anything if you can't mimic them. Conversely, think about how much demand there is for that artist. Are people going to want to see your act, and more importantly, are booking agents going to want to pay to get a tribute to your artist of choice?

No.
No.

Also think about staying power; personally, as a Buble tribute myself, I think if he manages to stay at the top for another 5 years, I'll have an act that will have booking appeal for far longer, as he'll be an established all-time popular act (providing it isn't revealed that he's a massive closet racist or whatever) but Justin Beiber or Olly Murs at this stage wouldn't be someone I'd hang my hat on (an anchor, deep in the middle of the atlantic ocean would in fact be my choice of neckwear for those two.) On the other side of the equation is the competition factor; if an artist is mega popular, expect mega fierce competition, unless they're somebody which such a unique sound that only a handful of people could pull it off. Very popular choices: Elvis, Meatloaf, Lady GaGa, Tina Turner, Abba, The Beatles, and, yes, Michael Buble. So you have to choose whether to go with a less popular act and get less work, or go for a more popular choice but have to fight for your piece of the market share.

Then you have to think of not only a name that is, ideally, some sort of a pun on the original name, or at least alliterated. Some of my favourites that I've seen: Real Dead Ringer For Meatloaf, Perfectly Frank (a Sinatra tribute), and my personal favourite, By Jovi. If you're stuck, don't worry; if you mention what you're up to to your friends, they will fall over themselves with suggestions, 90% of which will already be taken, but even so it always worth asking on facebook etc for ideas. Don't forget to google the ones you like to make sure they're not already in use; this is very important, and could save you a lot of hassle, so make sure you do it!

Unless you're this guy. He sings as whoever the hell he wants. This is his Dolly Parton tribute.
Unless you're this guy. He sings as whoever the hell he wants. This is his Dolly Parton tribute.

3. Mannerisms, outfit, and voice

In that order of priority. I've seen acts that sound nothing like their famous counterpart get away with murder because they move right and wear the right clothes. It might sound obvious, but this is extremely important: get a live video of one of their concerts and scrutinize it. What physical things do they do over and over? Every performer has their own way of moving, some are just less obvious than others. These have to be nailed. Even if it's just something as simple as they keep their eyes closed a lot, or sing with their head back a lot, you have to find them, and get as many as you can, then practice singing as you do them until it feels totally natural. I can't stress this enough, you have to get as many as you can or your act will look exactly like what it actually will be, someone just singing songs dressed like someone famous. It isn't enough, and you won't be booked back. The outfit part is fairly obvious; either pick their most iconic costume, and if they don't have one just pick whatever they wear on a famous album cover.

Not this one.
Not this one.

Lastly, the voice. If you naturally sound similar to them, this is easy, but if not, you have to work at it in exactly the same way as with the physical mannerisms. Listen to their vowel sounds first, then their general pronunciation. Look for patterns. This, again, has to be very thorough. Once you combine the physical with the vocal, and practice them both until you can do them automatically, you're golden. Even if you're not perfect-and there's going to be limits and how much you can be-it won't matter, as the combination will create the illusion, and that's what this is all about.

4. Call in the Professionals

Now we get to the money part. Unfortunately, there's no way around it; if you want to look pro, which means bookings, you have to pay the pros. Not those kind of pros, I'm reliably assured by Dire Straits that once you make your money, they're free. I'm talking photography and audio, as you'll need it for your website (yes, that too.) Obviously, shop smart; websites like Gumtree have semi-pro and even pro photographers and sound engineers who are on there doing a bit on the side from home, and whose work will look just as good as using a full-blown business at half the cost. University students on the relevant courses are also an excellent, if slightly lesser option if you can find them, as they know what they're doing and have spent all their money on chips and candy (uh... right?) and so are now starving to death; they'll do it for next to nothing (suckers.) Even better, Fiverr.com is full of people who are happy to do the legwork for you for a cheap price.

But either way, your end product represents you, so it's important to get it right. If you're clever, you should be able to get pro level results on audio on images for under £300. Web design, I can't comment on, I was lucky enough to know someone who did mine for me, but you need to get your webspace and URL bought (under £50 easily, shop around) and your website up and running with your audio, images, and contact details. Some search engine optimisation won't hurt either (want to know how? Lots of articles on here about it.) Whilst we're on the subject of money, you'll need to get your kit. I'm assuming you already work as a singer before trying this, so you probably already have a PA system, microphone, backing tracks, etc.',? Or maybe you don't. Either way, you'll need a quality pa system (at the tribute level, it's expected; you cannot skimp on this. I can recommend the HK Elias, portable, loud and top drawer sounding or even better: a nice pair of Mackies. Check out the links below) and obviously a mixing desk and something to play your tracks on (mini disc, mp3, or laptop. I use my iPhone, personally) and if you're buying all these for the first time expect to pay at least £1500. Your tracks can be found simply by googling '(song title) backing tra,' but again, shop around; the amount of garbage out there claiming to be professionally made is staggering. Preview before buying, all the sites should let you. Zoom Karaoke, Stingray, and The Tributes are all excellent producers of backing tracks 99% of the time, Zoom in particular. Try to avoid tracks that fade out at the end, which you often won't know about until you've bought them; if the originals don't, then the tracks won't, but if the originals DO, then you'll usually need to check a few until you find a company who bothered to actually edit them for them intended use, i.e. live performance. Believe me, singing over a fading out track is a feeling like slowly realising the story you're telling at a dinner party is boring everyone to tears, even when you know it's coming. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

That's it for the development stage; part 2 to come soon, where you make your money. But don't worry; you have practice to do first, and money to spend, right?

Check out the Links Below for Some Recommended Equipment!

First, you're gonna need something to sing into (it would be a pretty poor tribute show without it, let's face it...) So let's start with your microphone.

Recommended microphone setup

Shure BLX24/SM58-H9 Wireless Vocal System with SM58 Handheld Microphone, H9
Shure BLX24/SM58-H9 Wireless Vocal System with SM58 Handheld Microphone, H9

The industry standard; the Shure SM58. Yes, a wired microphone (one with a cable attached) will be a lot cheaper, but trust me, you will want to go wireless. It looks more professional and gives you more options to work with your audience. You do not want to skimp on quality with your microphone, and I recommend this wireless mic and recover combo emphatically. I started with a cheaper mic, and I now use this.

 

Now what are those lovely vocals going to be played through? Here's what I would strongly suggest for your speakers/PA setup.

Recommended speaker setup

(2) Mackie Thump15 15" 2000W Powered DJ PA Speakers+(2) Speaker Bags+(2) Stands
(2) Mackie Thump15 15" 2000W Powered DJ PA Speakers+(2) Speaker Bags+(2) Stands

Super reliable, beautiful sound, plenty of volume for any space, and easy to transport (do not underestimate this last part!) Again: you simply cannot afford to go cheap on your speakers (and these are not expensive for the quality.) Very highly recommended; I've not really heard anything better for the price.

 

And lastly you're gonna need to adjust the levels between your track and vocal, and adjust the sound to make sure its perfect for the room you're playing in (as well as add a little reverb and echo to suit...) Here's my third and final recommendation, and its for your mixing desk.

Recommended mixing desk

Yamaha MG10 10-Input Stereo Mixer
Yamaha MG10 10-Input Stereo Mixer

Probably the best piece of kit I ever bought. Fantastically simple but effective, great built-in effects like reverb, a great price, super portable... I could go on. If you don't take my advice on any of the other kit, take it on this. Thank me later.

 

Questions & Answers

    Comments

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      • profile image

        Emma Lucas 

        3 weeks ago

        Hi there great article & Recommended Equipment but was wondering about where I can get backing track music from as I'm a lone singer trying to start a Tribute to either The Pretty Reckless or Florence & the Machine & I can't find any, please can you help me?

      • profile image

        Beth Harper 

        3 months ago

        Thanks for this great advice. The only thing I just want to check is do we have to get permission from the original songwriters or pay any royalties if you become a tribute act?

      • profile image

        Marc Burns 

        5 months ago

        Hi great info and advise I'm jurently working on a Tom Jones Tribute Act and the movement, expression and clothing is so important. There is a guy in the States called Tom Jones Clone, he isn't fabulous vocally but nails it on every other area and that gets him through the act very comfortable and he plays Vegas.

      • profile image

        Scott Bowie 

        11 months ago

        Thanks for the article very interesting read.

        I'm a David Bowie tribute (with full band). It's worth mentioning the "full band" approach as well as solo with backing tracks. It will potentially get you into bigger and better gigs having a band behind you.

        A friend of mine who is a Queen tribute artist has the best of both worlds and does both - he can perform on his own at smaller functions, and with a full band.

        Stephen1962 - Part of the fun of seeing a tribute act is that you are in character. You absolutely should work at adopting their spoken manner as well between the songs - people will love it.

        Steven - OnePlay: A tribute to Chris Martin and Coldplay sounds like a great idea. Any reason not to try and put a band together? For a band of Coldplay's stature, if you're a good Chris Martin you shouldn't have much trouble attracting other band members to fill the roles.

      • profile image

        Stephen1962 

        11 months ago

        Hi, A further question on mannerisms, if I may. Do you imitate the artist between songs, i.e. talk like him? My favourite Elvis tribute act does this when doing a larger gig with backing band/singers, but when he pitches up on his own he talks between songs in his normal London accent. This seems to work for him - what do you think? Thanks. Steve

      • profile image

        Steve 

        12 months ago

        Thanks for the advice...i have done quite a bit of research on this and so far haven't found anyone doing it solo. Maybe I should call it Oneplay lol...i must also mention that when I said nobody listens to me in pubs/clubs, I do get good gigs, and I do have a good voice, but a lot of times it's like you ain't there, and it can sometimes be a bit soul destroying! But you'll no what I mean, I suppose we have all been there at some point...thanks again...

      • DoctorDarts profile imageAUTHOR

        DoctorDarts 

        12 months ago

        Hi Steven. I would avoid calling yourself a straight 'Coldplay' act because your act isn't a full band, as you say, but maybe something along the lines of 'A Tribute to Chris Martin and Coldplay.' Not very punchy but says what you are, and as you say you then have the advantage of being cheaper as a solo guy. Get your photos and demos done bud, and get yourself to Keeping It Live (the annual showcase) so agents can see your show. Good luck.

      • profile image

        Steven 

        12 months ago

        Hi there...im so pleased I came across your article! I would love to start a solo tribute act to my favourite band Coldplay without a band but with backing tracks and me doing the chris martin part vocals/guitar...my only problem is that Coldplay are a "band" and I'm not sure if Coldplay fans would appreciate it, but on the other hand could I appeal to smaller venues due to the fact I'm self contained, and going to be a lot cheaper than a full band...any advice very much welcome and ps...i have already been a solo singer that has done gigs, and no one been to interested...thats why I want to do this plus I absolutely love there music! Thanks again!

      • DoctorDarts profile imageAUTHOR

        DoctorDarts 

        14 months ago

        My pleasure, good luck! And if you wouldn't mind, give this article a share somewhere! :-)

      • profile image

        lucy-may gee 

        14 months ago

        Hiya thank you so much that has helped me I'm just so excited to start :)

      • DoctorDarts profile imageAUTHOR

        DoctorDarts 

        14 months ago

        Hi Lucy-May, no advice needed, that's a good idea. Stick to her most well known hits, and let that guide how much you do of each era rather than think 'I have to do x amount of songs from each era.' If most of her hits are later in her career, that's where most of your show focuses. Make sense?

      • profile image

        lucy-may gee 

        14 months ago

        Hiya I'm thinking of doing a Miley Cyrus tribute but not focusing on just one stage of her career but more of a through the years sort of show so it would be suitable for all ages (mainly because I'm 21 years old and grew up while she was in Hannah Montana) Have you got any advice to help me get started?

      • DoctorDarts profile imageAUTHOR

        DoctorDarts 

        15 months ago

        Hi Hayden, you need to get your promotional material together - demo, photos, video even better (set up on a stage somewhere and film yourself, audience not necessary) and then send it to entertainment agencies. The smaller ones won't want you as they're booking for working men's clubs, but the bigger ones very well might want you for corporate work as a more modern act. You need one hour minimum but you will need at least an hour and a half as a lot of venues will want two 45 minute sets.

      • profile image

        Hayden Oberg 

        15 months ago

        Also, how long is a ideal show? the track ive made so far lasts about an hour, but i can make more

      • profile image

        Hayden Oberg 

        15 months ago

        Hey man, thank you so much for the info. I really wantt o do a Daft punk tribute act, mainly because i am a die hard fan, and have been for years. i have experience making techno music, and remixing songs. It almost feels like a calling to do it, but i am having just a bit of trouble getting started, and finding a way to get he word out there, any advise?

      • profile image

        Dave Murray 

        16 months ago

        Brilliant information always great when someone take he time to speak the truth, it helps, I have taken many of your ideas and use them as a stepping stone, cheers Dave

      • DoctorDarts profile imageAUTHOR

        DoctorDarts 

        16 months ago

        Hi Derek, thanks for your comment. And nooooooo, no no no no no! :-) Its ok to do a medley during the show at some point - perhaps 3 or 4 of his less popular songs to please the hardcore fans - but a whole show of medleys is not an approach I would advise. Remember that the approach is simulate a Neil Diamond concert, so when it comes to making a set list, think what he would do. You'll need an hour minimum of material, and ideally an hour and a half as most venues will want two sets and you do 45 minutes a half.

      • profile image

        Derek Byrne 

        16 months ago

        Great article, with honest information, based on your experience so thanks for sharing. I am looking at a Neil Diamond act, and funnily enough, as you mentioned earlier...I am not overly a Diamond fan, but I'm told I sound exactly like him. I am 50 soon and my look is not too dissimilar to him wit a little help of course :) When I was younger I won several talen competitions doing Diamond, and it is etching my brain now to get out there and enjoy the exerience. I would love to do it in SPain, Portugal etc during the summer and back home to Ireland in the winter, how ideal does that sound :) It was the music arrangement I wasn't to sure on. I don't plan on doing the full songs, just a kinda medley where each song blends into the other over say an hour show. Would you recommend that ? I was going to speak wit a sound engineer perhaps to discuss the layout, is that something yo would also recommend ??

      • Rain Defence profile image

        Rain Defence 

        6 years ago from UK

        Great stuff, keep it coming. I'll be an Arnold tribute act one day. I have the muscles, just need to perfect the accent.

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