×

Wild Mix of Tribute Bands, DJs and Rappers Vie for Slice of Music Biz Pie

To the outsider, the music business has always seemed not only cool, but downright surreal. In film and TV, for example, stars still have to act, but in the music world, the hottest acts don’t always sing. And some of the big names that fans are lining up to see often aren’t even alive.

But then no one expects things to make sense in the recording industry — or even to make money:  “When music moved into the cloud, not much revenue came with it,” David Carr, a fellow outsider, wrote in The New York Times last week.

Streaming services like Pandora and Spotify are energizing fans by giving them access to millions of songs, and record bosses are hopeful the services can stanch the biz’s flow of red ink, But so far streaming offers little remuneration to talent, which has been taking to the road to make its stake. Promoters like Irving Azoff and James L. Dolan are investing tens of millions in new arenas (witness the restored L.A. Forum).

Music lovers are still paying Broadway prices to see acts ranging from the Eagles to Tiesto, the 45-year-old Dutch DJ who gets as much as $250,000 a gig to spin disks. His younger rivals are packing show rooms in Las Vegas, where VIP packages sell for $2,500 for deafening front-row seats and a private bartender.

The talent agencies are taking notice. Paradigm seems to annex a new music agency every few months — London-based Coda most recently, in January — and WME and CAA, while talking a great deal about their sports stars, sweat even harder for new music clients, such as rappers Wale and Pusha T, respectively.

Meanwhile, the major casinos are paying $250,000 for Dolly Parton — and a lot less for the Commodores, the Temptations and Petula Clark. And new Indian casinos are popping up outside the major markets, ready to pay big bucks to performers I thought had retired a generation ago.

At times it’s difficult to figure out which of these acts are real and which are merely brand names. At least two Queen tribute acts are on the circuit — not to mention the surviving members of the actual group, who are plotting a North American summer tour with Adam Lambert in the deceased Freddie Mercury’s role — as well as several Pink Floyds, Platters and even a Glenn Miller act (Miller died in 1944). In One Night of Queen, the part of Mercury, who died in 1991, is played by a British sound-alike named Gary Mullen, a former Glasgow karaoke singer.

The sudden proliferation of Indian casinos (there are now 68 in California alone) increases the competition for venues like the McCallum Theatre, an elegant 1,200-seater in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Mitch Gershenfeld, the McCallum’s savvy CEO (and a one-time tuba player for major orchestras) books a mix of Tony-winning shows (“Peter and the Starcatcher”), plus self-produced tributes (a recent one was for Marvin Hamlisch), as well as personalities like Garrison Keillor and Lily Tomlin, who appeal to his more senior audience.

The McCallum won’t play any of the touring tribute acts unless at least one member of the original group is on hand. And it declined to play any of the 12 Il Divo-like tenor acts on the circuit — until, that is, Gershenfeld caught an obscure Australian act called the Ten Tenors, who have been filling the McCallum twice a year.

While touring keeps many entertainers busy, the big money in the music business still clearly resides in the grand venues like Staples Center or 4,000-seaters like the Axis in Las Vegas or, even more important, in brand tie-ins like Lady Gaga’s informercial for snack chips.

The mega-commercial SXSW extravaganza last month vividly reminded audiences that bands love brands — and why even hip-hoppers such as Ludacris and Schoolboy Q go Gaga for Doritos.

Popular on Variety

More Music

  • Queen and Adam Lambert Live

    How the Queen + Adam Lambert Tour Brought the Opera to Arenas

    Just as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the biopic of late Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, wowed moviegoers last year, stage design firm Stufish Entertainment Architects has helped Queen + Adam Lambert’s current U.S. tour deliver a screen spectacular of its own. The tour, which plays New Orleans on Aug. 20 and Atlanta on Aug. 22, touched down at [...]

  • Mass Appeal and Universal Launch Hip-Hop

    Nas, Mass Appeal and Universal Music Launch Hip-Hop Label in India, Sign Divine

    Mass Appeal and Universal Music Group today announced the launch of Mass Appeal India – a new label dedicated to amplifying India’s burgeoning hip-hop culture on a global scale. The new label’s operations will be based Universal Music India’s headquarters in Mumbai and will function as a multi-channel partnership between the two companies. According to the announcement, Mass Appeal India will sign and [...]

  • Trey Anastasio of Phish performs at

    Phish Concert Camp Out Canceled Due to Plague-Infected Prairie Dogs

    The plague, or Black Death, decimated the European population in medieval times and has returned to ruin Phish concert-goers’ camping plans. The band announced Tuesday that camping and vending will be canceled for their Labor Day weekend performance at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce, Colo. due to concerns of plague-infected colonies of prairie dogs. [...]

  • Songs for Screens Powered by Mac

    Songs for Screens: 'American Horror Story' Makes 'Suddenly Last Summer' Sizzle Again

    FX Network’s “American Horror Story” returns for a ninth season next month, and promos for the next chapter of the anticipated series, dubbed ‘AHS 1984,’ have been airing frequently across cable television throughout August. In the short yet effective spot (see below), the Motels’ melancholic, moody “Suddenly Last Summer” plays as aerial footage of an [...]

  • Edge, left, Adam Clayton, and Bono

    New York’s PlayStation Theater to Close (EXCLUSIVE)

    New York’s PlayStation Theater, a 2,100-capacity venue located in Times Square and operated by Bowery Presents, will close at the end of 2019, a source close to the situation tells Variety. The venue will close with a New Year’s series of shows from the Disco Biscuits. The theater, which is located two stories beneath the [...]

  • Jonas Leijonhufvud and Sven Carlsson

    Yellow Bird U.K. Developing 'Spotify Untold' Limited Series

    Yellow Bird U.K. has optioned the screen rights to tell-all book “Spotify Untold” with plans to develop it into a limited series for television. Sven Carlsson and Jonas Leijonhufvud’s novel details the story behind the Swedish start-up which became one of the world’s leading music services and its attempts to take on U.S. giants including [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content