Facing The Truth

Imposter groups beware: Former Sha Na Na man Jon “Bowzer” Bauman and Supremes diva Mary Wilson could be headed to a state near you.

The two – and a host of others – are involved in a nationwide campaign to promote legislation that would stop phony groups that deceive concert-goers.

“We have no laws to stop them,” Wilson told Pollstar. “They’ve taken over the monikers of famous groups and that’s basically what we’re trying to stop.”

The concept behind the Truth In Music bill is for an act to have at least one musician on stage who was part of the group. In recent times, there has been a growing problem with imposter acts that have fooled audiences into believing they’re the real deal.

“The public generally doesn’t know the difference,” Bauman, who helped write the bill, told Pollstar. “I describe it as a sophisticated form of identity theft.

“These phony groups are pretty astute about it. They’ll put one old guy up there, and [fans] say, ‘Oh, that must be the real one.'”

Doo-wop acts likes the Platters, Coasters, Marvelettes, Supremes, and Drifters are often the most abused, Vocal Group Hall of Fame President/CEO Bob Crosby told Pollstar. And not only do fake groups deceive concert-goers, but they limit authentic musicians from getting work because imposters charge less, he added.

“The original group members are having an extremely hard time getting work,” Wilson, who recently proposed the bill in Illinois, explained. “They’re moving the original people out of the marketplace. Agents will gladly take the ones who are cheaper.”

That is one reason Bauman became chairman of the Truth in Music Committee, which was formed through the Sharon, Pa.-based Vocal Group Hall of Fame. He got tired of watching his older friends spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in court fees to stop imposters.

“I’ve seen so many of the real pioneers of [doo-wop] music be ravaged by this,” he said. “I’ve talked to people like Carl Gardner (Coasters) and Herb Reed (Platters) who are spending the later part of their lives doing this when they should be enjoying the fruits of their efforts in changing musical history. Instead, I watch them struggle while other people are taking their applause.”

Wilson said the bill isn’t aimed at legitimate tribute bands, as long as they advertise and promote gigs as just that: a tribute performance. Trademark holders of band monikers would also be exempt.

“If you’re a tribute band, then that’s what you have to say,” she said. “We would be fine with that. We’re not trying to stop them from working; we’re trying to stop them from using our history.”

Jim Udell, owner of St. Louis-based booking agency Metronights Entertainment, books many tribute acts in Illinois and says it’s not always the band’s fault when an audience is deceived.

“No matter what a booking agency does and what a [tribute band] does, sometimes you can’t control what the venue does for advertising,” he told Pollstar.

Udell said he once booked Strutter – a KISS tribute act – at a small club in Missouri, and when he pulled up to the venue for the show, its marquee read: “Tonight: KISS.” The band’s contract specifically read, “Must be billed as Strutter: America’s No. 1 KISS tribute band.”

“Just because you put that in the contract doesn’t mean the venue is going to do what it says,” he explained.

Part of the effort with the Truth In Music bill is to help educate agents, consumers, venues and acts to be careful of what they’re buying – whether it’s a ticket or the talent itself.

“The people’s awareness of this problem may be as important as the law itself as a practical way of curing it,” Bauman said.

The legislation has been introduced in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, California, Illinois and New Jersey. It has 27 senators signed on as co-sponsors. States in the works include Michigan, Ohio, Nevada and Missouri.

At press time, Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives unanimously approved the bill. It will now go to Gov. Ed Rendell for his signature. Bauman is confident the governor will sign it.

“We have no reason to believe [it won’t] become law in Pennsylvania, which will be the first state,” he said.

If the bill is enacted, violators could be fined up to $15,000.

Similar bills have been passed in South Carolina and North Dakota, but the language needs to be revised, Bauman said.

He hopes the bill will become a federal law one day.

“We’re running around the country trying to make this happen,” he said. “We’re well on our way to having something here.”

– Mitchell Peters