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The sincerest form of flattery

Features
12 April 2019

Oscar Wilde who coined that immortal line “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, and the evolution of the tribute sector over recent years to theatres and even arenas – helping to sustaining many venues large and small along the way – proves it’s now part of the mainstream live music industry, as Allan Glen reports on one company’s landmark anniversary

If you ever thought the epithet ‘tribute act’ was mildly derogatory, but have been having doubts over recent years, then an Essex-based family firm can likely help you resolve the issue.

While acts paying nightly homage to perennial favourites such as the Rolling Stones, George Michael, Elton John and Robbie Williams were primarily consigned to working men’s clubs and pubs in the early 2000s, certain entrepreneurial types began to see far greater poitential, not least the elevation of the art-form to traditional theatres and concert halls.

Now everyone is in on the act, as James Taylor, director of Entertainers, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, proudly declares.

“I would say Entertainers is the market leader in the tribute show space – we did 1,200 shows and sold more than 500,000 tickets worldwide last year,” he says. “Now you have all these big companies moving in.”

He cites Live Nation Entertainment’s acquisition of Cuffe & Taylor, which he says works with established tribute shows, and German entertainment conglomerate Deutsche Entertainment AG (DEAG), which through its majority ownership of Kilimanjaro Live, owns a majority stake in the Flying Music Group as indicators of how much the market has changed, with DEAG also parent company to Kilimanjaro Live, co-promoter of Ed Sheeran’s shows.

“If DEAG are doing Ed Sheeran shows [via Kilimanjaro] and tribute acts, it must show there is something in it – and we’re the forefathers of that.”

If Entertainers is the forefather of multiple tribute shows, then that must elevate Taylor’s father, Michael, to the position of godfather.

“Dad created The Magic of Motown 13 years ago and that’s the one that changed everything,” says Taylor, who joined his father in the business three years ago, following a DJ and acting career (see panel).

“That’s the show that got all the others work. We recently did the Echo Arena in Liverpool with that one, we had 4,500 people in there, the week after The Four Tops.”

Robert Owen, the arena’s sales manager for live entertainment, says Entertainers are always “very good to work with”.

“They bring us some great acts,” he says. “The Magic of Motown sold out our short hall arena [configuration] last December, while we recently hosted Fastlove in The Auditorium [1,350]. We have programmed a further five of their shows later this year, including Sweet Caroline and Thank You for The Music.”

According to Owen, tribute acts are now embedded in the venue’s programme.

“We have found the tribute market has evolved significantly over the past 25 years and we now host many more tribute acts than when we opened in 2008,” he says. “The flexibility of our venue means we can accommodate acts that work well in the more intimate setting of our Auditorium or a smaller configuration of the arena.

“We receive positive feedback from our customers, who appreciate watching songs by their favourite artistes at competitive prices, which makes for a fun, entertaining night out.”

The Magic of Motown is now a worldwide production, with shows taking place in Germany, Holland, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland, while forthcoming UK shows include arena dates in Cardiff and Nottingham.

At the time of its launch, however, venues and promoters across the UK were far from convinced of Entertainers’ vision for the future of this area of live music.

“Tributes at the time had no credibility, they were nothing, they weren’t even a thing,” Taylor says. “People associated tribute shows with pubs and clubs, and not with theatres.

“What Dad tried to do was to change that dynamic, through working hard and being relentless to get that show to where he thought it needed to be. He was a visionary.

“Now, of course, with the volume of tickets some of these acts sell, theatres have to have these shows. They now know the public want them.”

Starting with a laugh

It’s certainly been a rollercoaster ride for the Taylors. Growing up in an entertainments-based family in Essex had its benefits for James, with father Michael originally a comedian before launching promotions company Musical Memories Club, the precursor to Entertainers.

It was, however, far from an easy ride for the pair.

“Dad started bringing over and promoting acts such as Tony Bennett, The Four Tops and the Temptations, Chubby Checker – all these acts to the UK – and putting them on at the Butlin’s holiday camps,” he remembers.

“Before that he was a comedian – he was like the Mike Reed of comedy, a white guy with an afro – quite distinctive.

“I remember as a child going to see him performing on stage at all these venues around the UK, and then  I was growing-up and meeting all these great acts. Around about then, my Dad and his business partner went their separate ways.”

Following the split, Taylor senior launched Entertainers with one member of staff, the pair renting an office for £50 a week in Hadleigh, Essex. It was then they started working with tribute shows, the first one being a homage to The Carpenters, then a tribute to ABBA, called Thank You For The Music, and The Bee Gees. A few years later, he created The Magic of Motown.

Today the firm produces up to 30 shows a week worldwide from a roster of dozens of acts. It was James who created Fastlove, a tribute to George Michael, and now one of the company’s most successful shows,

Its genesis as a show was borne from a mixture of sadness and inspiration, as Taylor explains.

“I was a lifelong George Michael fan, and was very sad at his passing,” he says. “I realised people still wanted to hear George Michael’s music and that was how it started.”

He began looking at every George Michael tribute and came across Joseph Samson. “I said to him, ‘Come join me …”

Then the planning began. “We looked at every element of the show – the branding, the songs – and we put it together in the January following the passing [of Michael], and we spent the next six to nine months booking the shows into theatres, finally going live the following September.”

It was an almost instant hit. In 2018 alone Fastlove sold 101,000 tickets across Europe, while it was the 54th best-selling act out of any artiste – singer, comedian or band – in Europe last year, according to US industry publication Pollstar.

Revenue driver

Other regular venue associates of Entertainers include Bedford Corn Exchange (950), and Newcastle City Hall (2,000).

“The Entertainers are a great company to work with,” says Paula Mitchell, programme coordinator at the City Hall. “It’s always a calm, professional and fun atmosphere on the evening of the shows.”

“The tribute market is extremely important to regional venues,” she says. “We have found that different promoters offer different shows of the same artiste. It can be difficult choosing the right one, but we have achieved great success in those that we have programmed.”

For Tony Milioti, senior team leader at Bedford Corn Exchange, which has booked dozens of shows from Entertainers, including Fastlove, In The Air Tonight and Islands in the Stream, Entertainers is simply, “the best company I have worked with”.

“They are always very professional, with great marketing support behind all shows,” he says. “We have always had positive feedback from all the acts provided by Entertainers, and it is clear they hand-pick only quality members of staff to join their ever-growing team.

“This is why I continue to work with them year-on-year. They always seem to come up with fresh and new ideas.”

According to Matt Brinkler of Red Entertainment, which produces WANNABE – The Spice Girls Show, the one word that describes Entertainers is ‘honest’.

“They say exactly how it is,” he says. “You know what you’re getting and they don’t mess around. Honesty is so lacking in the industry and Entertainers have it in abundance. They’re worth their weight in gold.”

James Taylor puts the success of the company down to several factors.

“We create, produce and promote the shows ourselves and don’t sell to other promoters,” he says. “So we have everything in-house, from the marketing to selling the tickets. We also do all the sound and lights, and have our own trucks, tour buses and video walls.”

In one week in March alone, Entertainers had up to 30 shows on the road, including The Magic of Motown in Switzerland and the UK, Fastlove in Germany and the UK, Big Girls in the UK, and Simon and Garfunkel – Through The Years, in Spain.

“We’ll use other production when needed, but for Fastlove in Germany we sent our own team out there.”

Back to the start

As for the future of the company, Taylor says it has now come full circle following a recent programming deal with the Trust that runs Brentwood Centre (2,000) in Essex.

“When I was a child I remember going to see The Four Tops at the venue,” he says.  “It’s a really strong memory for me, as I remember going on stage and being given a signed $100 bill from them.

“We approached the venue last year, as we wanted to put Fastlove on there, and we asked, ‘So who’s doing your events?’ They said, ‘Well, we’re not really doing events just now’, so we struck a deal with the Trust.”

That led to creation of Brentwood Live, the entertainment arm of Brentwood Centre, and a £200,000 investment from Entertainers.

“We now have an exclusive contract to put all the shows in there, and are responsible for all the branding, all the banners in the High Street, the brochures,” says Taylor. “We’ve recently sold-out a Jimmy Carr show there in December.”

Other concerts at the venue include Alexander O’Neal, Fastlove, The Magic of Motown, and Radio GaGa.

As for the continuing appeal of tribute productions and where the future of the market lies, Taylor believes the possibilities are endless.

“We’re expanding and have got shows all around the world – we’ve got Fastlove in Dubai next month, and we’ve developed a great partnership in Australia, so we’re putting it on there too.”

Other Entertainers’ productions include Deadringer For Love, a tribute to Meatloaf and Cher, Lost In Music, a tribute to disco, and Soul Legends, featuring Lemar.

“Audiences now take the tribute market seriously,” he says. “They want to have a good night out with the full production.

“A lot of the great original artistes are, sadly, approaching the end of their careers – Rod Stewart, Elton John Tina Turner. They are all of a certain age and there are lots of people who still want to experience live the music of artistes such as Prince, David Bowie and Freddie Mercury with Queen.

“People now understand that tribute shows are a good night out, with great production and are theatre-worthy. It’s £25-£35 a ticket, and a fun evening.

“Also, people sometimes don’t have the budget for all these big acts who do still tour or perhaps they don’t want to go to the big stadiums. But there are people in every single town around the country who want to watch live music in their local theatre.

“And that’s what is key for us – giving people the chance to enjoy the music.”

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