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A Tribute To R.E.M.? Or Not?

This one goes out to the one I love. Yesterday R.E.M. broke up. What the pilgrims were to Plymouth Rock, R.E.M. was to college rock. The band formed in 1980 and outlasted its competition with astounding longevity (31 years) and productivity (15 albums). As the news of the band’s break-up trickles down, a nation of Gen-Xers will be crushed, hurt, and in danger of losing its religion. But while a rock music landscape without the Athens, Georgia four may seem like the end of the world as we know it, I for one, feel fine. And that’s because I know that if we can put a man on the moon, we can put out a great R.E.M. tribute band. Unfortunately, the problem with bobbing our heads to an R.E.M. tribute band isn’t merely that the performance is a poor imitation of life. It turns out that the royalties tribute bands pay to music venues rarely end up making it back to the bands themselves.

According to a 2006 paper published in the Cardozo Arts and Entertainment Law Journal called “Identify Theft,” because of a broken system of royalty dispensation, the money small venues collect from performances by tribute bands mostly stays in the club’s pocket. Here’s why: The club pays a music licensing agency (like BMI) a fee for all the tribute acts it hosts. When it comes time for BMI to funnel that money back to the artists being covered, they don’t allocate it according to how many times their songs were performed live (too hard to calculate), but how many times their songs appeared on the radio or on television. In other words, a tribute band could play R.E.M. songs every Sunday night for a year at a certain club, but unless R.E.M. happened to be getting a lot of air time, their royalties would remain small. At least for the next few days, however, R.E.M. will garner enough radio play to have you asking, “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?”