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

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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.