For me, and millions of other Spotify listeners, there used to be only one way to rock out to Led Zeppelin in front of a mirror while wearing a post-shower bath towel. And that was by turning up the volume on the sweet, sweet sounds of Led ZepAgain, the tribute band dominating the Spotify charts with hit covers of "Whole Lotta Love" and "Black Dog."
There's a reason ZepAgain—and not Zeppelin—crushed it on Spotify: They all but had a monopoly on the band's catalogue. For years, Jimmy Page and crew abstained from joining the subscription-based music service, like many big-name hold-outs including the Beatles and AC/DC, allowing Led ZepAgain to rack up more than 8 million plays alone for "Stairway to Heaven." But earlier this week, the real Led Zeppelin finally decided to join Spotify, leading fans and reporters alike to rejoice. But often overlooked in this adulation for Spotify is the negative impact such decisions can have on one forgotten group: The growing roster of tribute bands that once filled glaring holes in Spotify's music library, but that are now essentially being put out to pasture.
To Led ZepAgain frontman Swan Montgomery, the news that Led Zeppelin was coming to Spotify was bittersweet. He loves the band and is happy to acknowledge that "there's nothing like the original." But as the go-to Zeppelin cover band on Spotify over the past several years, ZepAgain certainly benefited from the attention—not to mention the revenue. Montgomery declines to share specific numbers but says his group earned annual revenues in the "six figures" from Spotify. (It's legal, he adds: ZepAgain pays Led Zeppelin licensing fees.)
"It wasn't bad getting that check, but in my mind, I said, 'Don't depend on it, because one of these days, it's gonna go away,' and there ya go!" Montgomery says with a chuckle. "When I heard the news, I was like, 'Oh nooo!'"
Since joining Spotify roughly five years ago, Montgomery has come to appreciate how much Spotify was able to boost the band's fan base, especially with younger listeners. He recalls "a lot of kids coming up after shows" telling him how they discovered ZepAgain on Spotify. "It definitely introduced us to new fans, especially over in Europe," he says. In fact, the band was gearing up to launch a new album of live songs on Spotify before the Zeppelin news hit. "I was sort of hoping Spotify wouldn't want to do that—you know, stick with the underdogs! Go up against the big guys!"
It's not the first time ZepAgain has hit a bump in the road toward tribute band superstardom. A similar hiccup happened years ago on iTunes, which, before Spotify, was the music service that legendary acts avoided like the plague. "We were initially on iTunes and the band was doing extremely well financially," Montgomery says. "But, as you know, Led Zeppelin then went up on iTunes, which killed a little bit of the market for us. It definitely impacted sales."
That eventually led the group to Spotify. "The company that we were dealing with had heard of Spotify, and they said, 'We should try this—they [Led Zeppelin] are not on there yet,'" Montgomery recalls. "Zeppelin wasn't on iTunes [before], and now they are. And now, darn it, they're going to Spotify too!"
That leaves a dwindling list of cover acts still taking advantage of holes in Spotify's catalogue, including #1 Beatles Now and the AC/DC Tribute Band. The success of bands like Led ZepAgain show how far Spotify has cover as a business. After all, if a cover band was able to generate six-figure revenues, imagine what the original could do.
But for Led ZepAgain's Swan Montgomery, living the dream and filling in for Robert Plant had to come to an end at some point, like most Almost Famous-esque fantasies. "I feel great that Led ZepAgain got a good run at it—it could only last so long," Montgomery says. "ZepAgain was doing the best we could to recreate Zeppelin as close as we could, and we were good enough for the moment, and everybody loved it. But now [fans] can get the real thing."
"In the beginning, I wasn't even sure about doing [Zeppelin] recordings in the first place," he continues. "People used to say, 'You guys should do a record!' And I would say, 'What are you talking about? You can already get us down at the record store—we're under Led Zeppelin!'"
The same is now true on Spotify—though, yes, the song remains the same.