Are tribute bands legal?

There’s a surprising amount of money to be made as a tribute band. Here, we’ll explore what such acts must consider to make sure that they’re making money fairly.

Tribute Bands

There’s a surprising amount of money to be made as a tribute band. These acts look to give the best imitation possible of internationally beloved artists, mimicking them down to appearance and mannerisms as well as sound. As a result, many are celebrated for more than just their very witty names.

Indeed, acts offering a live experience approximating that of titans like Queen, Fleetwood Mac or Pink Floyd can sell out impressively large venues and, in some cases, even record albums of their own. With an in-built fanbase for any such endeavour, it makes a lot of business sense of start a tribute band – but are there legal risks involved as a result? Here, we’ll explore what such acts must consider to make sure that they’re making money fairly.

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What separates a tribute band from a covers band?

There are plenty of acts out there who you can book for events like weddings or parties to perform music written and released by other artists, but a tribute band is not the same as a covers band despite that common link. The key difference is that a covers band is not attached to a particular artist, or sometimes even a particular genre – their wide repertoire is what can make them successful.

A tribute act, by contrast, will exclusively imitate one particular artist, recreating the experience of seeing them in concert as closely as possible. Some can be astonishingly close to the real thing. And it’s that inclination towards plying their trade directly based on the appeal of that original artist that raises more questions about legality.

What makes a tribute band legal?

Covering a song in a live setting is not dangerous in itself; most reputable venues have suitable licensing arrangements with the performance rights organisations (PROs) representing the original artists. When those songs are performed, royalties are paid to those artists.

Where the real pitfalls occur are in regard to trademark, copyright and the risk of a tribute act presenting themselves as the real thing. It must be crystal-clear to audiences that they are not paying to see the original artist.

To that end, tribute bands must pay close attention to their presentation, from their names to any symbols or imagery used in promotional materials or merchandise. Band names themselves are not always registered trademarks in the UK but, even if they are unregistered, it is possible to bring a case against a tribute act for passing themselves off as the better-known users of the name. The more different the branding that you can use while still attracting the right audience, the better.

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What legal obligations fall to performance venues?

The responsibility to properly compensate the original artist when their songs are performed by a tribute band falls to the venue itself. That’s done through the venue’s licensing agreement with the PRO in question and it’s part of the deal when a tribute act is booked to play there.

On top of that, of course, a venue has further legal obligations to look out for the safety and security of both audience and performers alike – through measures such as making sure that performers have public liability insurance in place.

The tribute act has a rich history and can provide incredible entertainment, in some case offering opportunities to share in the joy of an artist who may no longer be able to perform live. As long as they take sufficient steps to differentiate themselves from the original artist beforehand, it remains very much legal.