What’s in a name? For musical posers bill could bring hammer of justice

State Sen. Bill Cowsert of Athens says growing up in a town known for incubating musical acts like REM spurred his interest in a bill aimed at discouraging recording artist imposters. “If you come to the Georgia Theatre in Athens and you say ‘We are Joe Blow Band playing music from The Beatles,’ that’s OK,” he said. Adria Carpenter/Flagpole

Georgia is known for having lots of artists who are making waves within the music industry today, but a bill backed by a local organization hopes to bring protection to legacy artists living in the state.

A Senate bill, SB 157, seeks to outlaw the “deceptive practice of musical performance groups advertising and appearing as the recording group without the recording group’s permission or denoting that it is a salute or tribute performance.” The measure is nearing a final vote in the House with just three days left in this year’s session. 

Legislators and music advocates say the bill is aimed at protecting artists such as Georgia resident Sam Moore of the group Sam & Dave. The 85-year-old artist, known as one half of the duo behind songs such as “Soul Man” and “Hold on I’m Coming,” said he and his wife, Joyce, suffered financial hardships in the mid-1980s when his former collaborator began performing with another man named Sam Daniels under the duo’s popular moniker.

“I don’t want these guys to not make a living, but fair is fair,” Moore said. 

“Even though it was Dave, he didn’t have the right to invade Sam’s name and likeness, and his persona and his history,” Joyce Moore adds. “The idea that it’s not who you think you’re paying to see that’s fraud. That’s consumer fraud. It’s fraudulent advertising.”

Republican state Sen. Bill Cowsert of Athens, who chairs the chamber’s Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee, introduced the bill last month, noting that it passed unanimously in the senate in 2020 before it stalled when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Legislature to abruptly adjourn for three months.

The bill proposes civil liability for imposters who pose as bona fide musical acts. It takes aim at musicians who are “stealing and appropriating” the likeness of other artists,” Cowsert said.

“A lot of these older groups are having difficulty. Their music is being copied and hijacked basically,” Cowsert told lawmakers recently.

The senator, an Athens native, said growing up in a town renowned for incubating musical acts like REM inspired his interest in the legislation. Still, he stresses that cover bands who are properly marketing themselves won’t be harmed by the bill. 

“If you come to the Georgia Theatre in Athens and you say ‘We are Joe Blow Band playing music from The Beatles,’ that’s OK,” he said.

Cowsert recalls seeing fraudulent acts passing themselves off as legacy bands such as The Drifters or The Tams performing throughout the region. Under this bill, original members of a group would have to have permission or own the trademark to continue using the group’s name.

The Recording Industry Association of America is urging Georgia lawmakers to pass the legislation this year. The association is also pushing similar bills in other states throughout the country.

“The music labels, our members, came to us a few years back and said that there was a movement back in the early 2000s with artists who have had some problems with copycat-style groups and individuals that were falsely advertising themselves as the artist or groups,” said Rafael Fernandez, senior vice president of state public policy and industry relations.

Similar legislation had already passed in more than 30 states before the association persuaded Hawaii to join the chorus in 2020. There is no federal law to crack down on musical act imposters.

As noted in her recent obituary by Rolling Stone, the late Mary Wilson of The Supremes had also been a vocal advocate for bills that target these performances. The music publication reports Wilson was “involved in the fight against the misleading use of band names (after later members of the Supremes toured using that name).”

The Moores say these deceptive practices continue today with promoters putting on small concerts, but also with television stations advertising the appearance of old groups without specifying a lineup change. 

The House version of the bill also includes a provision that would require third-party streaming companies to include contact information on their websites.