The morning after a '90s Night with The Bayside Tigers is a rough one.
The band, arguably the most prominent Clinton-era nostalgia act in New York City, parties as hard as they play. The set starts after midnight, with a booming count-down to start. Your voice can be hoarse before the music even begins. What ensues is a surreal experience that has to be one of the few places in the world where Juggalos and Bachelorette party attendees coexist in harmony, goaded on by rounds upon rounds of complimentary shots. By the time it’s over, the backstage crew has consumed an ample supply of Budweiser, liquor, and two cheese pizzas.
The Bayside Tigers have been at this for a while. They've been written up a couple of times, with Time Out New York calling their 2014 residency and dance-party "famous-ish." Last year, they outgrew their original home in the Lower East Side, moving to the second stage at mega-club Webster Hall. The band says they sold more than 100,000 tickets in 2014 before they stopped keeping track.
Those numbers were enough to capture the attention of Joe Fucigna, and old friend and talent agent with United Talent, one of the largest talent agencies in the world. (They represent a huge roster of artists, from Kanye West to Guns N’ Roses to Ben Gibbard.)
It's not uncommon for tribute acts to get management, and many garner large followings in their own right. Badfish, a Providence-based group of computer-science majors who cover Sublime tunes, grossed $1.4 million playing 152 shows in 2008, according to Spin Magazine. The Fab Four, one of the most popular Beatles tributes, even won an Emmy.
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The Bayside Tigers wouldn’t give me precise revenue figures, because club promotion is a delicate art. But they aren’t raking in quite that much.
The band plays every Friday and holiday, meaning there are about 60 shows a year, and according to them each one sells around 1,000 tickets. Tickets cost $5 to $30 apiece, depending on the show—though The Bayside Tigers are generous with comps for fans and people who arrive early. Let’s say half the audience pays, and the average ticket price is $15, gross ticket sales would be $450,000 a year. That's a long way away from what marquee acts pull in on a single night, but The Bayside Tigers are in it for the fun as much as the potential earnings.
"Everyone always asks us that!" co-founder and drummer Nat Esten says, when I wonder aloud if it gets tiresome playing the same songs over and over. "But we really don’t. We know how to change it up."
After six years, it's become second nature to them. Most bands devote considerable uncompensated time to practicing, but for The Bayside Tigers it usually happen during sound-check. And they're a little different from other popular tribute acts, insofar as they cover songs by multiple artists. In fact, members of The Bayside Tigers don't refer to themselves as a band or act; instead, it's "the company." Their shows aren’t concerts; they’re Saved By The '90s events.
"It's more of a party, an experience,” said Esten.
I met Esten and another Bayside co-founder, Alex Rossiter, at 10 p.m. on New Year's Day, a couple hours before their set would begin. (A third co-founder, Danny Finerman, runs operations in San Francisco.) Esten and Rossiter were in good shape, despite having played another show and partied til the wee hours the night before.
The band started informally six years ago when Esten and Rossiter were students at Berklee School of Music in Boston, one of the most prestigious music schools in the country. It all started by jamming together on campus and in small venues, replicating songs they liked by Green Day and the Foo Fighters.
The two were caught off guard by the audience fervor for their scrappy covers, but things really took off when they added a female vocalist. That was the moment they became a true '90s act, pushing beyond the handful of vaguely similar sounding bands they knew and loved to add Spice Girls, No Doubt, and occasionally some hip-hop.
Once you've seen a couple of Bayside shows you get a sense of what everyone means by experience. The band taps campy '90s throwbacks like Dustin Diamond—better known as Screech from Saved by the Bell—to make appearances. Their costumes are meticulously planned and coordinated, to the point that Alex Miller, the guitarist, was barely recognizable to me out of costume. The costumes and kitsch get at the band’s appeal, which sits at the crossroads of playfulness and legit musicianship.
“With us, people know what they're getting,” said Esten.
It's no secret that the rise of streaming has made it more difficult for musicians to make money. After his recent death, many noted David Bowie's prescience for having said way back in 2002 that in an age when music is "like running water or electricity” touring is the only way to earn a living.
Bayside’s Saved By the '90s franchise is a logical extension of that. Most full-time musicians split their time between the road and the studio, making some money off of album sales, then touring the country to sell tickets and promote the albums.
The Bayside Tigers are hoping to develop the same cultish following that they've amassed in New York in other cities. Last year, their Saved by the '90s franchise expanded to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Columbus, Ohio. The band is looking to add two more cities this year, ideally one in Texas and one in the Southeast.
Fucigna, their United Talent rep, said he has had to be more hands-on with event promotions because the band is relatively unknown in other cities.
"People get that it's a '90s party but we've also had to get a little more creative," said Fucigna. That means “talking to different bookers, maybe offering a Groupon or getting a co-sponsor or guest DJ."
The Bayside Tigers aren’t alone in profiting from '90s nostalgia. A handful of party bands are strikingly similar, including one called I Love the '90s with the Fresh Kids of Bel-Air, which plays a regular set at Bayside's former home. Meanwhile, Nickelodeon and others sponsored a big party called '90s Fest in Brooklyn last summer, featuring real '90s artists like Coolio and Smash Mouth. (The Bayside Tigers also performed there.)
And that may be the biggest roadblock facing The Bayside Tigers as they take their act nation-wide: as older millennials look for places to spend their nostalgia dollars, lots of entities want a piece of the pie. The Bayside Tigers emphasize quality-control, but there's no guarantee that a better funded, more aggressive competitor won't spring up to steal their slice, and then some.
Esten argues there's more of an art to playing other people's songs than meets the eye. According to him, The Bayside Tigers are so attuned to their fans’ proclivities, they’ll be difficult to unseat as the No. 1 '90s nostalgia franchise.
"We always close with Semi-Charmed Life,” he said. “We're not sure why but it always kills."
Editor's note: This post has been updated to include information about a third co-founder and remove incorrect information about when the band began touring and about a show in Pittsburgh.
James is a writer from New York City who has worked for startups, and now works at a brand consultancy focusing on tech startups. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, Investopedia, The Street, BlackBook and AmericaBlog.