In my previous life as a sales and marketing weasel that began in the early ’70s and came to an end about ten years ago, I worked for a number of record distributors in both the independent and major label world. A good deal of my time was spent on promoting tribute albums, which would usually feature at least one or multiple name artists performing other people's work, or at least have some sort of common theme.
The one-artist tribute album has been around since at least 1952, when Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson honored his musical hero Duke Ellington with a collection that spanned two discs on Clef Records. They sold well enough that there are now well over 30 Ellington tribute albums, with the most popular from singer Ella Fitzgerald, whose own discography is full of similar releases spotlighting individual composers. That concept lives on with, as an example, Steve Earle's Townes collection and his upcoming album of Guy Clark songs.
By the mid-1950s a different twist on the tribute album was the low-budget knockoffs. Labels would simply record the top hits of the day using studio musicians and sell them at a steep discount in places like supermarkets. These cover versions were a great way to get incremental business for the larger labels who not only distributed the originals and often owned the publishing, but each owned their own budget divisions that existed simply to squeeze out every ounce of profit they could.
Many independent budget-only labels sprouted up in order to duplicate entire albums or bands with low paid imitators. For example, in addition to the all-female Beatle Buddies seen above, there were The Beetles, American Beatles, Bearcuts, The Liverpools, The Liverpool Beats, and several more Beatle imitation bands than I recall. Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass were covered by The Mexican Brass, The Surfsiders did the music of Beach Boys, and so on. Re-recorded “golden oldies” or “dance party” compilations were also a large part of that market.
By the mid-’90s, regional and national record store chains, electronic retailers, booksellers, and discount stores began to roll out the “big box” concept, devoting a lot of floor space to music and featuring huge inventories. For the record labels it was a boom period, allowing them to increase production and sales simply to fill the pipeline for all that new shelf space. It also gave rise to a new type of tribute album that focused on the ultimate fan or completist.
Here's how that worked: A fan of Metallica wanders into a Tower Records store and looks in their bin. Already knowing that Metallica doesn’t have anything new, they'll see a bluegrass tribute album of their music. As crazy as that sounds, the completist would likely buy it. And in fact, on Oct. 4, 2003, CMH Records released Fade to Bluegrass, with a string band called Iron Horse playing the songs of Metallica. For a weird one-off tribute album, it sold unbelievably well, and the video below has five and a half million views. A little bluegrass and country label based in Los Angeles created a virtual tribute industry, with hundreds of titles in multiple genres, and a number of other labels followed their path.
It was a formula that worked pretty well as long as there were enough stores with enough shelf space to add them into their inventory, and different labels each had their own specialty. One would try to find at least one living member of a defunct band, throw them into a studio with session players, and crank out new versions of old songs. Another did straight, cheap soundalikes that sold at bargain prices, especially in places like military PXs or the early versions of dollar stores. CMH took another path, bringing out a series of over a hundred well-produced bluegrass recordings and later adding string quartets, techno, dance, and lullabies to their catalog. They focused on quality, using well-known musicians who were purposely uncredited and spending time and resources on cover art and packaging.
Somewhere around 2007, when record stores started going bankrupt and closing their doors, the market for tributes and covers was severely impacted. I spent my last year in the music business as head of sales for CMH, and we digitized their huge catalog for iTunes and other online retailers, started looking harder at non-music specialty retailers, and brainstormed new ideas and concepts. In a year I was done and gone, as was much of the staff. They made tough decisions, trimmed overhead, slowed down their release schedule, and appear to have continued to sustain their business.
While there are still labels that put out low cost digital-only tribute/cover albums, obviously without the big box retailers left it's now a business of pennies rather than dollars. And I can't figure out the how, why, and economics of it, but real honest-to-God tribute albums with various well-known artists are still being released, albeit sparingly. While you might get plenty of press and pull off one or two concerts to publicize the project, then what? Sell a thousand copies and sit back for the quarterly $5 check from each of the streaming platforms to roll in? I really like the recent Ray Stevens tribute, but can't imagine a market big enough to keep those type of projects going.
I've always been a fan of the quality tribute releases as well as multi-artist compilations such as the soundtracks to the American Epic series and Ken Burns’ Jazz. And I grew up listening to the Anthology of American Folk Music, which is still the motherlode for roots music. My favorite “current day” tribute release is The National's Day Of The Dead, a sprawling effort featuring dozens and dozens of artists across multiple genres interpreting the music of The Grateful Dead. It's simply stellar. As a long-time collector of all types of cover songs, I know that reinvention and reinterpretation can take a song far beyond the original concept, creating something new. Ask Bob Dylan about that the next time you see him.
I'm going to close this out with a few suggestions for those who haven't really paid attention to cover songs, tributes, or compilations. Some are historical, some whimsical. Most can easily be found somewhere, sometime, or someplace online or at your local sore. I'm primarily sticking to the “various artists” releases, but there's so much more to explore. Willie Nelson doing a tribute to Ray Price songs or Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Dawn McCarthy's exceptional album of Everly Brothers tunes are examples. And for those of you who have been following Mojo magazine over the years, their free samplers are a collector's dream. Tough to come by, but well worth the sleuthing. Have fun.
Keep Your Soul: A Tribute to Doug Sahm
Chimes of Freedom: Songs of Bob Dylan
Subterranean Homesick Blues: A Tribute to Bob Dylan
A Nod to Bob
Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration (Deluxe Edition)
Endless Highway – The Music of the Band
King of the Road: A Tribute to Roger Miller
Light of Day: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen
Reefer Blues: Vintage Songs About Marijuana
Let's Do Rocksteady: The Story of Rocksteady
Sing Me the Songs: Celebrating the Works of Kate McGarrigle
Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us
Will the Circle Be Unbroken
The Unbroken Circle: The Musical Heritage of the Carter Family
Looking into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne
The Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Folk Music
The Harry Smith Project Revisited
Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis
Smithsonian Folkways Classic Series
The Tejano Roots Series
Okeh Stomping Boogie: The Best of Western Swing
Hot Dance Bands from Okeh
The Okeh Rhythm and Blues Story
The Aladdin Records Story
Columbia Country Classics
Timeless: Hank Williams Tribute
The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams
Sweet Soul Music
The Doo Wop Box
We Love You Mr. Cohen
Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man (Motion Picture Soundtrack)
I Am Sam (Music Inspired from the Movie)
Beat the Retreat: Songs of Richard Thompson
Poet: A Tribute to Townes Van Zandt
Avalon Blues: A Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt
I Am the Resurrection: A Tribute to John Fahey
The Life and Songs of Emmylou Harris
Like a Hurricane: A Tribute to Neil Young
This Note’s for You: A Tribute to Neil Young
Cinnamon Girl: Women Artists Cover Neil Young
This One's for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark
Things About Comin' My Way: A Tribute to The Mississippi Sheiks
Big Bend Killing: The Appalachian Ballad Tradition
The Executioners Last Songs
Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears Revisited
The Oxford American Southern Annual Music Issue samplers
Sing Me to Sleep: Indie Lullabies
Commemorative: A Tribute to Gram Parsons
Return of the Grievous Angel: Tribute to Gram Parsons
Gram Parsons All Star Tribute Sessions
Tulare Dust: A Songwriters Tribute to Merle Haggard
Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie
R. Crumbs Heroes of Blues, Jazz and Country
Almost You: The Songs of Elvis Costello
Many of my past columns, articles, and essays can be accessed at my own site, therealeasyed.com. I also aggregate news and videos on both Flipboardand Facebook as The Real Easy Ed: Americana and Roots Music Daily. My Twitter handle is @therealeasyed and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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