How to Become a Successful Tribute Act
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.
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?
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!
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.
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
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
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
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.