This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Jeff Cuellar, Vice President of Partnerships, Sixthman.
After being dry-docked by COVID, Sixthman returned to sea in late 2021 and is now skippering a rapid succession of immersive super-server fan-themed experiences in international waters.
With performances by leading talent in music, sports, comedy, film, and TV on Norwegian Cruise Line boats with fully stocked bars at almost every turn as well as impressive dining options, pool decks with multiple hot tubs, and casinos, fans come together with others sharing their same passions for days on end sailing to the Virgin Islands, Belize, Honduras, Mexico, the Bahamas, and the Mediterranean.
Since 2001, Sixthman has served over 300,000 guests on over 150 cruises. Their curated intimate events–non-stop performances, artist collaborations, panels, Q&As, and fan-artist activities–are calibrated to encourage community enjoyment and, perhaps, reimagine what a vacation really is.
In October 2021, Sixthman tapped Jeff Cuellar for its newly created position of VP of partnerships.
Based in Atlanta, Cuellar, who is recognized throughout America’s live music sector as a skilled creative force, has a deep background in event strategy, immersive brand partnerships, and marketing outreach.
He now leads Sixthman’s strategy and outreach initiatives to develop new festival concepts across all music, sports, comedy, film, and TV associations.
Previously, Cuellar held significant executive positions at AC Entertainment, and C3 Presents/Live Nation where he played a leading role with others in developing the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival since its inception in 2002.
In addition to Bonnaroo, the down-to-earth super promoter was pivotal in organizing such leading American festivals as Forecastle (Louisville); High Water (North Charleston); Railbird (Lexington); Moon River (Chattanooga); Homecoming (Cincinnati, and Moogfest (Asheville, North Carolina).
How long was Sixthman grounded onshore due to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID restriction?
We got off the ship on February 22nd, 2020 after the successful Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea VI, and a successful Spring run of events, and returned to sea on November 21st 2021 with Chris Jericho’s Rock N Wrestling Rager at Sea followed by 5 other festivals (S.S. Neverender, KISS Kruise X, Soulshine at Sea, The Rock Boat XXI, and The Melissa Ethridge Cruise) to close out 2021.
What was the first cruise that you went on?
The first one I went on was Michael Franti’s Soulshine at Sea last November, and it was fantastic. It was funny too for me because of so many years of land events. I got on a ship, and I was like, “Oh man, I’ve been doing this my entire professional life. And I’m not in Kansas anymore. This is a different feeling.”
You had just taken the Sixthman job a month before?
I had. My first day was Oct. 15th (2021). I had never experienced a Sixthman event. I knew of them, obviously. I jumped in having not done one. It is hard to believe that I’m coming up on a year of being with the company. It’s been a blast. The challenge it has presented has been amazing. You don’t realize sometimes that you need it (a challenge), and to be able to sink your teeth into something different. The people here are phenomenal. The fans are amazing. It is just so unique, and I saw it when I was going through the (introductory) process and talking with Anthony (Sixthman’s CEO/CMO Anthony Diaz).
The growth potential and the ability to deliver this to fans are off the charts. I think that this is something that truly is what fans are looking for. I will never say anything negative about all of the (music) festivals that I’ve produced, and the other ones that are out there. There is room for all of it. I do think that some people do graduate from maybe a 100,000-person festival day though. Some want different experiences. And you are seeing the development of that market with resorts and things along those lines. Fans and artists are looking for that kind of intimacy, and the ability (to provide an experience) beyond that is what we have, and what we offer far exceeds anything out there. I am excited to be part of the team here that is able to usher this into all of the directions.
Sixthman is owned by Norwegian Cruise Lines?
Yes, we are owned by Norwegian. That happened 10 years ago. That is what I think also makes us unique because we have that instant relationship with them owning us. It allows us to do things differently. They are extremely supportive, and they understand what they don’t know, and they want to be supportive with that. We understand where we fit into the overall picture. I can’t say enough good things about NCL and about their support in terms of growing the Sixthman brand, and how that fits into their overall vision.
Norwegian Cruise Lines is the third-largest cruise line in the world. It is an American cruise line founded in 1966, incorporated in Bermuda, and headquartered in Miami.
Norwegian hits more ports worldwide than any other cruise line which is another thing that makes it fantastic. We have these conversations about where they are looking to expand their business. We can participate in that if we feel we can do events out there, and that could aid the growth of their side (of the business) as well.
Are most of the cruises sold on a pre-sold basis with few or even no walk in sales?
You are 100% right on that. Our strategy is definitely a different sales structure than a standard (entertainment) event where you can get that 30 days of promo, and really beef up sales. Our sales cycle stops about a month out. Inside of 30 days before sailing, we can, maybe, gain some guests by targeting advertising to the DMA (designated market area) around the port we are sailing from. If the event is longer than three nights, that’s a lot to ask them (potential passengers) on. They are paying for a vacation, and guests need to plan well in advance. So typically 95% make their purchase before the 30-day out marker.
Do the Sixthman cruise ships operate year-round?
Our two primary seasons are what we call the Spring, which is January to the beginning part of April, and then we pick up back in the Fall from October to November. Those are the two anchors. We are usually in Europe over the summer and there are some other opportunities that we are looking at.
The majority of our events come out of Miami, but we have five events this Fall coming out of L.A., and we have some in Europe right now.
But if you can imagine that the primary cruiser season for Norwegian is that summer is their hottest season. So much like you are looking at a venue, they are already commanding high prices and they have booked ships during that season. So we are able to get a more competitive rate. Even though we are owned by Norwegian, we are still renting the venue otherwise that venue could be out making money for Norwegian in a different way. So we have to get what we call “charter rates” and our most competitive rates are during those other seasons. As we grow, and start to do more, I think you will see us expand into different parts of the year.
You are filling in their darkened nights.
Exactly. We work with them within a block concept where over a season we book over a ship. In 2023, I want to say that for the Spring season, it will be 77 consecutive nights.
There’s great sensitivity today about ticket pricing for land music events. Concerns that the live music industry may just be catering to a wealthy segment of the audience that can afford tickets, especially for superstar shows, and it is excluding those who can’t afford such shows.
Given the talent available on cruises, what you are offering is somewhat of a bargain against high ticket prices for land events. A music ship package is a good deal.
It’s a great deal. Your food and hotel are covered too.
Cruise fares are per person, based on double occupancy, and will include meals, and select non-alcoholic beverages with various soda and alcohol packages available for extra fees.
What roughly are the costs of a cruise?
You are probably looking at anywhere from between $1,000, and then on average, up to $2,500. The $1,000 gets you an interior room, and then it starts stepping up. There are some experiences that are above that. The suites. But we try to make it (the event) affordable for anyone who comes. If you think about a (regular) 5 night vacation with your hotel, all of your food included, and we have programs where alcohol and beverages are included as well. So your food, entertainment and your accommodations are all paid for. That is all in that pricing. Look at that value, and put it up against seeing the Rolling Stones for two hours, or going to a music festival with your hotel, and all of the concessions that you are paying for.
What it comes down to is pricing appropriately so that people are able to remain live experience fans.
Everyone is having to watch (pricing). The prices can be exorbitant in certain places. A lot of things are factoring into that. It’s hard, yeah.
Touring strategy these days is focused on moving artists around to venues as if they are in a bubble with as little outside contact as possible. No excessive backstage activities, no meet and greets. They perform and move on to the next city.
A boat event is in itself a bubble.
Exactly. We have the ability on our ships to do a bubble within a bubble. So it’s how we can keep artists separate, and give them a vacation experience as well, is one of our pitches. How we are able to say, “Hey, not only can you do this, but bring your family. You are going to have the most amazing experience, and it’s a heck of a lot better than being on a bus going from city to city. This 3 to 7 days off, enjoy it, be with the most passionate fans that are going to be with you for as long as you have a career. Keep them passionate.”
Arena shows and festival dates aren’t for everybody, particularly if the fan is older. Meanwhile, heritage performers remain among the top concert draws in North America. There’s a large number of fans who don’t want to shell out $40 for parking, and $75 for hot dogs and beer for an arena or stadium event or use a Porta Potty out in a field somewhere at a festival site.
Obviously I’m spoiled (from promoting festivals) being able to go back to a trailer and get food or relax. When I did the Soulshine cruise, if I had to use the bathroom, I’d just walk back to my cabin. If I was hungry. I’d slip out, and get food. Everything was so easy.
If it rains while on a cruise, passengers can go indoors. That’s not an option at an outdoor land event.
We are primarily sailing out of Miami and a lot of the ports are so accessible within the Bahamas. The ship can also drive around weather. You can avoid stuff, and you can shift it. So the deck isn’t getting wind on it that it would normally get. You can’t always control it, obviously. But the control that is there is so different versus a land event where you have to sit and pray and hope that the storm is going to go around you. And that you don’t have to evacuate or cancel or whatever it may be. You are right. There is so much more control on a boat that eliminates some of those challenges. Doesn’t completely eliminate all them, but a lot of it.
You first received a call from a headhunter for the Sixthman job?
Yeah, I got the call from a headhunter. I wasn’t looking at all. I was extremely happy (at C3/Live Nation).
You and your wife Megan had only recently moved from Chicago to California because of her job?
That’s correct. She’s a doctor, a professor, and she had left Knoxville where she had finished her Ph.D., and that took her to Chicago. With what I did, it didn’t really matter where I was as long as I could jump on an airplane, and be someplace. So we moved to Chicago, and we were there for almost 8 years. Then she came to me and said, “I have this opportunity at San José State (University) what do you think?” So we did it (moved). What better time to go across the country than in the middle of a pandemic (in 2020)?
Well, Bonaroo wasn’t happening that year anyway.
Exactly. On my road trip across we were locking up all of the details for what we called “virtual reality,” where we did the online digital version of Bonaroo with all of the pieces. The majority of my driving across the country was having an insane number of meetings to get that up and rolling.
You get the phone call from a head hunter, and then you tell your wife. “Sixthman is a company that does music event cruises mostly out of Miami. What do you think?”
How did your wife take that news?
She actually took it extremely well, and she was the one who encouraged me to have the (job) conversation. She was like, “I know that you are happy, but we always talk about doors being opened, and if you don’t at least explore an opportunity like this, then what you will be left with will be regret.”
Why you really took the job is you had enough using Porta Potties out in a field somewhere.
Let’s be fair it (the job offer) was definitely very enticing, and a piece of it was having the conversation, “We are going to take a trip through the Dominican Republic, and the Bahamas, and we have a team that just boarded out of Athens, and they are going to Croatia and Turkey.” Yeah, the sceneries are pretty amazing in terms of where we are doing things, and I honestly can say that since joining Sixthman I have not used a Porta Pot.
Sixthman came to you to be VP of partnerships?
It’s a little bit of a misnomer They had different terminology with this. It is essentially overseeing business for all of our events. They viewed it as partnerships because there was a need. The original thought was that partnerships are to partner with a host artist. Whereas, I would say that for the rest of the world that partnership is sponsorship. So more so it was to bring in my festival expertise in building events, how we partner with an artist, how we create these events, and extend them to different verticals. What are the different places that we can go after? Sort of thinking about is it music? Is it a Comic-Con kind of thing? Is it film? Is it television? Is it sports? What Sixthman has specialized in, and continues to do in my opinion better than anybody else, is taking extremely passionate fan bases, and delivering immersive experiences.
A promoter doing a land festival is building a mini-city in about 10 days. From working out the concept, the creative aspect, the site visit, and dealing with objectives, scope, budget, staffing and acquiring sponsorship or other types of funding, vendors, and hiring a site operations manager, and a site crew
Among the things then considered are stages, power, lighting and sound, event offices, on-site gear storage, generators, tents, front gates, fence lines, loading zones, parking areas, and dumpsters.
A full city to organize in a very short time frame.
Bringing 2,500 music fans onto a cruise boat for several days the preparation is less, and the key things are dealing with weather concerns, health protocols, and ensuring all artists are on hand,
Our team is so skilled that we can do a 4 or 5-night event, and as fans are leaving, and newer fans are boarding (for the next event), we can do an entire flip of that ship in terms of the immersive experience, the branding, the visual design, all of it. And it happens within an hour. We’ve got this down to a science of how we can make that work.
Cruise ships were an early source of COVID outbreaks prompting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a no-sail order in March 2020.
As the Center allowed cruises to resume with some restrictions in July 2021, cruise operators had some of the most stringent protocols in the travel and hospitality industries. While restaurants, concert venues, airlines, and public transit systems dropped mandatory masking and proof of vaccination, cruise lines kept strict public health rules to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Starting in early September 2021, all three of the world’s largest cruise lines — Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise Line —have allowed passengers on board who haven’t been inoculated, with some exceptions.
For Norwegian Cruise Lines sailings now, guests ages 12 and over are allowed to board unvaccinated. Unvaccinated guests age 12 and over are required to show proof of a medically supervised negative PCR or Antigen test taken no more than 72 hours prior to embarkation.
Despite the intense precautions, COVID, and other contagious diseases still do happen on ships.
They do. It does happen. I still look at it as that it is still a live event. And whether you are in a farm in the middle of Tennessee or you are on a ship on the Atlantic, everything has its challenges, and any proper event promoter is going to be prepared for the challenges ahead. Some things you don’t plan for, but that is why there are professionals involved that can
Still just being just hired by Sixthman, you must have had concerns about how a COVID outbreak would be covered on its vessels.
It was definitely part of the conversation. That was definitely one of the questions that I had, “What does this look like? How do we envision this?” Looking at NCL (Norwegian Cruise Line) and the stance that they took, and the precautions that Norwegian put into place, and how they leaned in with the ability to say, “If we don’t figure out a solution, it could be harmful to us in our industry moving forward.” So we took the approach of, “We are going to make this the safest most possible thing.”
With almost 18 months off, Norwegian Cruise Lines had substantial downtime to fully plan precautions.
Exactly. But they leaned into, “How do we make this thing safe?” I think all in the back of our minds we were thinking, “What’s next? There’s COVID, now but is there something else looming on the horizon that we just aren’t ready for yet?” And I think of all industries, they have taken it upon themselves to come up with plans and solutions to be future prepared. That is another piece that really got me excited. When you are working on an 80,000-person (land) event, and as much as there is just something to be said to be in with all of that crowd, and to feel that emotion, you can fit it on a small scale, but (with a cruise) we have more control and the ability to protect our fans, our staff, our artists in ways, that honesty, no other live event can. That got me excited too.
Music cruises aren’t unlike house concerts or Blind Date concerts at small venues with only 1,200 or so people in the audience. The cruise events are on a bigger scale, but the concept is similar. It’s super fans coming for the bigger acts while smaller mid-level acts can expand their fan bases which may be with them for years, especially if the fan meets the artists or band members.
Exactly. Then you add in the other pieces. Most artists that we will go with have so many extensions. Whether they have a fashion line or they have their own bourbon. There are all of these different pieces that add to their persona, and who they are. We have the ability to incorporate all of that into this immersive experience. We add in panels, conversations, and podcasts. Jon Bon Jovi, when we had him, we recreated his restaurant (JBJ Soul Kitchen) on the ship. With Paul Stanley while KISS Kruise X sails…
If I’m not mistaken, Paul brings his mom’s meatball recipe.
It is a Stanley “family recipe” for the meatballs, and they are served in various places throughout the event for fans to enjoy. So our ability to really get deep in and to super serve the passionate fan is there. So fans get a chance to see an artist in other ways that can further solidify the fact that, “They are my favorite.” In addition, we are putting them together with their tribe.
I go back to Bonaroo and what makes Bonaroo so special is because Bonaroo is a community. Half of it obviously are the artists on the stage, and that is a big part of it, but it’s also the camping experience, being there together, meeting people from all over the world that have this shared passion for this one thing that is truly special. And at Sixthman, we are bringing that together on a very intimate level.
And that was the pitch made to me.
What is intriguing about the music cruise experience is that other aspects of live music can be adapted for cruises, from clubs, festivals, and even casinos.
All of it.
With the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, you had one of the best jobs in live music entertainment.
Yeah. I was with Bonaroo since its inception. I started my music career off working for a small music management company (26.2 Music) out of Knoxville, Tennessee before Ashley Capps (who left AC Entertainment last March after selling it to Live Nation in 2020) hired me, right before Bonaroo kicked off.
My first role was being his assistant.
The founder of 26.2 Music Ted Heinig used to work for Ashley, and he left to start 26.2 Music. My wife stumbled across them because we both had a passion for a band they managed, Grand Torino.
If you were around the East Tennessee music scene in the late 1990s, you’d fondly remember the Knoxville funk-soul jam outfit Grand Torino which called it quits in 2003, but reformed, and performed at Bonaroo this June.
So I kind of got in that way and made friends with Ted and Carey Archer and ultimately they ended up getting absorbed and going back into AC Entertainment, and that is when I came. Then through some of my skills with these two new relationships, I started to carve out my niché within Bonaroo, and then through the development of the festival business and portfolios. Going into different cities and really thinking about some of these off-the-beaten-path places where we could do events. Not only having amazing music and experiential events but also treating the city there as a destination. Promoting it is as being awesome to go to Louisville, and thinking about the nooks and crannies that make that very special.
For the most part, contemporary national bookings in America operated on a model devised by Premier Talent Agency’s Frank Barsalona in the ‘70s. Regional promoters had their territory and worked mostly major markets. Over time, a number of savvy promoters realized they could successfully work smaller markets as destination attractions.
In addition to Bonnaroo, you organized Forecastle (in Louisville); High Water (North Charleston); Railbird (Lexington); Moon River (Chattanooga); Homecoming (Cincinnati); Moogfest (Asheville, North Carolina), and the Gentlemen of the Road concert tours with Mumford & Sons.
Developing festivals led to you directly thinking, “What else is happening in Kentucky?” Horse racing, and “Hey, they have bourbon there. I know we could do a festival there.”
That is exactly it.
I can’t say anything but amazing and positive things about all of that. Our transition happened after AC Entertainment went under the Live Nation umbrella. I think that fully if I’m not mistaken in January 2020. Then, of course, the pandemic hit. Shuffling our festival division for AC Entertainment that officially moved all under C3 (Presents) and my new direct report was Charlie Walker (co-founder of C3 Presents). So I was working directly with Charlie.
C3 Presents set the model for major, multi-genre music festivals. In recent years its flagship Lollapalooza expanded to multiple continents. Austin City Limits Music Festival added a second weekend and boutique events like Sea.Hear.Now, Innings Fest and others blossomed.
There was a bounce back to some of their regional festivals following COVID. For example, Railbird in Lexington drew 15,000 people in 2019, and after a year off, came roaring back in 2021 drawing a crowd of 35,000. It more than doubled in size. A planned strategic move forward?
That is correct. We doubled down on talent and the experience. The plan for that festival was to start kind of small, and grow it organically. We saw the opportunity coming out of the pandemic, “Let’s go big for this thing. Instead of doing a 3 to 5-year build, let’s book talent that will make this a 30,000-plus event with a goal that we can even go higher than that if we make the site function for it.” Yeah, that was definitely strategic.
How did you pick regional locations to build a festival? Was it, if we put an event here, we can attract music fans from a 100 to 300-mile radius as a destination spot? Was that how it was done?
Yes and no. For us, it was finding these hidden gems of markets that people, maybe, don’t realize are a destination to go to. So what is around us? What larger cities? What populations can access it (a festival) within a couple of hours drive? That factors into it, but it’s not enough. There has to be history. There has to be other things that make it special. Lexington, for example, had an absolute gem of Keeneland, and the history of horse racing. Just going closer, the things that we learned about Keeneland was that while it has racing there, it is primarily horse sales. That’s where Keeneland really makes its money.
(Founded in 1936, located in Lexington– the self-claimed “Horse Capital of the World”—Keeneland is an internationally renowned racecourse and the thoroughbred industry’s leading auction house in the world. Keeneland hosts four sales annually in January, April, September and November, and hosts racing twice annually during its Spring and Fall meetings.
Ten miles north of Lexington, there’s the world-famous Kentucky Horse Park Campground which features the International Museum of the Horse, with the Calumet Trophy Collection. A working horse farm that is open to the public, park, it includes demonstrations of the crafts of blacksmiths, wagoners, harness makers, and a parade of thoroughbreds. The Kentucky Horse Center there is also a training center for thoroughbreds.)
So understanding all of these nooks and crannies and tidbits of what makes this special for us. it wasn’t just that people get there. What’s the hook? Why are people coming? People will take notice of artists coming together, but there has to be something juicer than that, and that helps shed light on why this is such a great community. What makes Lexington special? What makes Louisville special? We took the time to dig into all of their pieces. So it wasn’t just a matter of finding a good piece of land, putting a stage down, and producing an event. There was a lot of research and a lot of digging into what makes these places tick. And getting buy-ins and support from the local community on why they should want to have an anchor event. And Lexington, for us, it was very fortuitous for launching that event
There had been a desire for several years to have a signature citywide event that would strengthen Lexington’s brand, both regionally and nationally.
Luckily, the tourism department (VisitLex) wanted us to do it. They valued what having an anchored music festival could bring. So they were working on studies and things like that because this was an objective for them. That made my job a lot easier in having that conversation with Mary Quinn Ramer (president of VisitLex), and with (Railbird co-producer) David Helmer, one of our partners on the event. David’s primary role was to connect us with key community members and be our local conduit. He is from Lexington. And he lives there.
So we had great and immediate support, and then with their ability to make some of the connections to other places, we started having conversations with others for events. We worked with Mumford & Sons on their Gentleman of the Road stopover in Bristol (August 11th, 2012).
There was a historical reason why their camp came to us to produce the event in Bristol which is on the border of Tennessee and Virginia. So we had an event that bordered two states.
AC Entertainment was selected to organize the Bristol leg of the Mumford & Sons’ Gentleman of the Road tour. AC knew of the three-day Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, and was quick to contact the festival as well as the Believe in Bristol non-profit. The deal was sealed upon a clandestine visit to Bristol by Mumford & Sons. They knew that was where they wanted to perform along with Dawes, the Brotherhood, the Very Best, Justin Townes Earle, Apache Relay, Simone Felice, and Haim.
In 1998 Congress passed a resolution recognizing Bristol as the “Birthplace of County Music.” Such musicians as the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest and Hattie Stoneman, the Johnson Brothers, and Henry Whitter were recorded by Ralph Peer there in 1927, and these “Bristol Sessions,” marked the birth of country music.
We worked again (with Gentlemen of the Road) in the St. Augustine (Florida) corridor (September 13th-14th, 2013) with the history behind that.
(Founded in 1565, St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied settlement of European and African-American origin in the United States.)
With AC our niché was determining where we could do an event with the proper scale that makes sense financially; but also could be an anchor for a city; that helps promote why it is so special there.
That is similar to Danny Wimmer Presents successfully experiencing the trifecta of live music in Louisville, Kentucky with three consecutive festival weekends: Hometown Rising, a country music festival; Bourbon & Beyond, a mix of rock, folk, and Americana acts; and Louder than Life (“The World’s Largest Rock ’N’ Roll Whiskey Festival”), featuring hard rock acts.
Bourbon and music are a natural fit. They share such elements as craftsmanship and dedication.
We were doing that before he was with the Forecastle Festival in Louisville (that began in 2002). That’s a 20-year event, and then they did it this past year. We launched the Bourbon Lodge. That was my brainchild and idea, and we incorporated that into Forecastle, and we did it in a way that celebrates bourbon.
AC Entertainment became a co-producer of Forecastle in 2011. In 2012, Forecastle Festival partnered with The Kentucky Distillers Association to launch The Bourbon Lodge a facility styled as a combination of a turn-of-the-century rickhouse (named after the traditional oak used to make whisky barrels), and a prohibition-era speakeasy, where patrons can sample bourbon from distilleries in Kentucky.
The Forecastle Bourbon Lodge has grown into the 4th headliner of the Forecastle event featuring local eats, drinks, fireside chats with master distillers, mixology sessions, and culinary pairings.
We created a massive event. We launched The Forecastle Bourbon Lodge in 2012 as a test with a 30×30 activation with air conditioning After its first year’s success we jumped it to a 120 x 80 clear span style activation with air conditioning, memberships, education, music, celebrities, mixologists, curated food, and bourbon rarities.
In 2013, bourbon writer Fred Minnick called the Forecastle Bourbon Lodge “the most important bourbon venue in the country to reach new consumers.”
There was some local resistance to the Forecastle Bourbon Lodge?
Having that conversation with the distillers, there was, “It doesn’t make sense.” “Well, yes it does because everybody in Louisville hears about bourbon, but nobody else does. That is another draw and experience for people to come here.” We were doing that well before bourbon exploded to where it is today.
The first Coheed and Cambria cruise between Miami and Nassau in the Bahamas (from October 26 to 30, 2020) was the fastest-selling event for Sixthman?
The first S.S. Neverender event with Coheed and Cambria was the fastest sell-out in Sixthman history until Emo’s Not Dead event that went onsale this past January, and sails this fall, November 8-12, 2022, out of Los Angeles. That now is the new #1 spot. Coheed and Cambria is the second fastest-selling event in Sixthman’s history.
The Emo’s Not Dead Cruise–full name Emo’s Not Dead Cruise: Sailed On A Sea Of Tears festival–will set sail from Los Angeles to Ensenada, Mexico with actor influencer, and social media star Matt Cutshall along with such acts as the Dashboard Confessional, Underoath, New Found Glory, and Plain White T’s, and debut of Cutshall’s own emo outfit, Your Broken Hero. Also expected to perform are Thursday, Silverstein, Hawthorn Heights, William Ryan Key (former lead singer of the now-disbanded Yellowcard), Cassadee Pope, and Emery.
Since 1995, Coheed and Cambria has released three live albums and 10 studio albums, the latest in June being, “Vaxis – Act II: A Window of the Waking Mind,” a concept album that continues the Amory Wars universe.
The band is more than just music The “Vaxis – Act II” box set comes with a 96-page illustrated hardcover novel of the same title, written and developed by frontman/guitarist Claudio Sanchez and his wife, Chondra Echert. It also includes an 8-inch Quintillan Speaker Containment Unit Lamp, and a ‘black card’, which grants the bearer early access to ticket sales and tour venues
Nobody would call Coheed and Cambria a mega global act or even a household name, but they have had a passionate and dedicated fan base for several decades now.
Definitely. It really goes to show you that if you can tap into that passionate fan base they are coming. If you’ve got a good event, there are fans who will come. There are a lot of fans that I call my sideline sitters, that love an artist, but aren’t traveling to see them. If the artists are coming to their local arena or their local venue they are going to see them there, or listen to them on the radio. They may be one of their Spotify followers or they may own a couple pieces of vinyl, but are they going to spend $2,000, and have a 3 to 7 nights vacation with them?
There are a lot of artists who believe they sell out a ship.
It’s hard. It’s not easy. It’s about being able to tap into that passionate fan base.
Anyone approaching you to headline a cruise, you have to look at such factors as will they enthusiastically participate in the experience?
One hundred percent.
There are certain artists or bands that have sizeable fan bases, but would many people want to spend 3 to 7 days on a boat with them?
Yes, and to your exact point, it’s the buy in. This isn’t an arena date. This isn’t a local venue date. This is celebrating years with an artist, and the things that come with them on a vacation experience, and they have to participate in it. And the fans will see it If they are going to half-ass it. They are going to see it for sure, and I don’t think that they (the artists) are doing themselves a proper service either. But to your point, with the deal structure and things along those lines, we want the artist to be excited; if not more excited than everybody else. So yeah, it’s a full proper business proposition. We want them to make money, and the opportunity is there. It can be very lucrative to do an event, but there has to be that understanding that they are getting out what they are putting into this. We’ve got countless examples of artists that understand that, and they help out by working for the event on the marketing side, on the creative side in terms of, “Hey I know that my family loves this. Let’s figure out a way to incorporate it into the event.”
For 6 years I was on the board of the annual Mariposa Folk Festival, Canada’s oldest folk festival. The artists that made the most impact over the 3-day event were those that played their main show, then took part in workshops, signed merchandise, and stayed throughout the entire weekend. Those artists who played their one spot, and immediately left made little impact. Some didn’t even turn up at the festival store to help sell their music.
Not participating in the experience isn’t going to work on a boat cruise.
Nope. You are 100% correct You nailed it on the head. If this is just about a paycheck for you then it’s probably not in your best interest, and we should go our separate ways. But if you understand the opportunity then we can have some fun together, and you can make money.
Sixthman has been very successful with 311 Caribbean Cruises with Caribbean Cruise 7 – 311 Day at Sea, taking place March 8 – 13, 2023. The 7th edition of the cruise leaves Miami and heads to Harvest Caye, Belize, and Roatán, Honduras aboard the Norwegian Pearl with 311, and other artists onboard.
Exactly. And the next 311 Caribbean Cruise in 2023 has already sold out.
I can’t imagine how crazy the two KISS Kruises will be (Oct. 24-29 and Oct. 23-Nov. 3rd) on the Norwegian Jewel with the KISS Navy leaving from Los Angeles and sailing to Ensenada, and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Besides concerts, a KISS Kruise typically features theme nights, game shows, cooking demos, Q & A panels and autograph sessions with the band members. Passengers also have access to a showcase room, where they can see the band’s instruments, drumming contests, KISS memorabilia swaps, and karaoke contests.
KISS is a band where the fan base skews heavily male, and many guys likely will travel with their buddies.
Come join us.
We are sailing out of L.A. with KISS. Why don’t you join us on that first weekend? The invitation is on the table.
I have enough to do here.
You let me know when you want to take me up on the offer? All you have to do is get to the port, and I’ll take care of the rest.
Sixthman offers all kinds of unusual, themed cruises.
We did Walker Stalker cruises for a number of years. And that had Norman Reedus and the entire (The Walking Dead) gang as part of that. Some of the major actors and producers as well.
Created by Walker Stalker Con and Norwegian Cruise Lines, Walker Stalker Cruise set off on its inaugural cruise from Miami to the Bahamas in January 2016 and ran until 2019.
Some of the performers you book I wouldn’t expect to be enticed by a cruise.
The 15th edition of the Cayamo Cruise) Feb. 10-17, 2023), sailing from Miami to Tortola, and St. Maarten aboard the Norwegian Pearl, features the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Jeff Tweedy, Andrew Bird, Neko Case, the Jerry Douglas Band, David Bromberg Quintet, Shawn Mullins, Steve Poltz and the Rugburns, Jorma Kaukonen, Larry Campbell, the Fairfield Four, and Amy Helm.
Outlaw Country Cruise 7, (Feb. 21-27, 2023) sailing from Miami to Great Stirrup Cay, the Bahamas and Cozumel, Mexico aboard the Norwegian Pearl has a lineup that includes” Steve Earle & The Dukes, the Mavericks, John Anderson, Lucinda Williams, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Old 97’s, Kathleen Edwards, Carlene Carter, Mojo Nixon, Elizabeth Cook, Linda Gail Lewis, Joe King Carrasco. Augie Meyers, and Rosie Flores.
Many of these artists don’t seem the cruising types.
I look at it from the standpoint that they feel safe because they are with their tribe. We have been very fortunate to build up that success and reputation of a good place to be. When you pull that kind of talent together, they want to be in the same room. They want to be in the same place. And a lot of them are friends. It’s almost as if you are giving them that space, that vacation to come and enjoy themselves, and be creative and have some songs.
The Outlaw Country Cruise is in its 7th year. Its draw, like many of the other cruises, is that it doesn’t rely on one primary headliner as if the strategy was to have fans of different artists and bands come together on the boat, and hopefully get turned on to something new.
Yes, and we have the Outlaw Country Cruise, and now for the first time, we have Outlaw Country West.
Outlaw Country West (Nov. 3-8) sailing from Los Angeles to Cabp San Lucas and Ensenada, Mexico with Lucinda Williams, Social Distortion, X, Los Lobos, Steve Earle, Dave Alvin with the Guilty Ones, Jimmy Dale Gimore, Jim Lauderdale, the Long Ryders, Rosie Flores, and Mojo Dixon, and others.
The Outlaw Country Cruise 6 in 2020 featured 47 artists, more than 100 scheduled sets, Tai Chi with Jim Lauderdale, an art experience with Lee “Scratch” Perry, movie screenings, and a tribute to Kris Kristofferson. It was the 84-year-old last public performance as he officially retired from performing, recording, and acting.)
Outlaw Country Cruise 7 will have 5 unique venues stacked with performances, collaborations, tribute shows, and SiriusXM Sessions at Sea radio tapings.
Are those levels of activity the norm for your cruises?
No. I would say Outlaw and even the Rock Boat which is the longest event…
The granddaddy of music cruises.
It’s been going 22 years if I’m not mistaken. Those two are very heavily programmed, but that’s not to say that the other events aren’t heavily programmed they are just done in a different way.
All of these performances and events over 3 to 5 to 7 days can be overwhelming. even for the most avid music fan.
Honestly, it is one of those games you kind of play. We do this on land side of the tours as well. When is it too much? We want to provide the value for the fan. We want to give all of the opportunities to get deep in it. But almost when is it too much? I would say that some events have the reputation of really going for it, and others are like, “Hey we recognize too that this is also a vacation for you as well. So we want you to have some potential downtime. Some of the ports that we go to there will be an excursion. Go and experience St. Kitts.”
Does Sixthman do shows in any of the ports?
There are conversations happening now about expanding some of that. We do performances on our islands–Norwegian owns two Islands, Harvest Caye (a 75-acre resort-style island off the south coast of Belize in Central America) and Great Stirrup Cay (a 268-acre island that is part of the Berry Islands in the Bahamas). We have done events on those. Built stages and all. Yes, there are things that we are exploring how to better partner and work with the ports and the locations that we go to.
In 2019, Sixthman expanded their festivals at sea program to Europe, sailing from Barcelona to Mediterranean ports.
That was our first jump into the European market. Obviously, we had stuff planned for 2020 that didn’t happen. This year we have one Joe Bonamassa’s Keeping the Blues Alive At Sea event. This is his second time sailing in Europe. And he’s announced his 2023 dates (sailing March 13-17, 2023) out of Athens again, and we’ll hit Dubrovnik, Croatia, and Santorini, Greece.
So we will continue our expansion into Europe, and then beyond. We are very fortunate being owned by Norwegian. Anywhere that they go we can go. So if we can find a concept to develop, and to create, and then determine where we want to go, we’ll do it. Is it Alaska? Is it Africa? Is it Japan? Australia? Those possibilities are endless. Europe is a natural expansion for us. We have had some success there so we have to build on that success. But we can go anywhere. We can go to Iceland. Where do you want to go?
Sixthman Services now offers event organizers a suite of virtual and on-site event control services.
We have developed a path in terms of how we work. How we treat our guests. How we treat our artists. And it is something that we offer up to other companies. Our guest services, our community management division, I would rival them with anyone in the business. We look at ourselves as almost a hospitality provider that also produces large-scale live events. So this is our opportunity to say, “We can work with you to take on certain aspects of an event.
Sixthman worked with 311 this year for their land event in Las Vegas.
We have helped out a couple of other promoters before for certain pieces of their business for land events. And the services are also available to our charters. So part of the Norwegian business is that it doesn’t have to be a Sixthman event. Someone can charter a ship, and there is a team dedicated to that side of the business for Norwegian. Part of their pitch is, “If you don’t have a team to execute, we can engage Sixthman, and they can supply their services.”
Is that how it worked with Danny Wimmer Presents which teamed with Sixthman to launch a new destination music festival that debuted in 2022?
No. Danny Wimmer Presents was a co-pro. That was us doing a 50/50 deal in creating a joint festival together. That was about how we divided up responsibilities and dealing with what they do best, and what we do best. In the end, we were partners in the event.
In essence, you can approach most festivals and say, “Let’s expand your brand, and do a boat cruise.”
We could. The trick is, and obviously, we were what Coachella did (offering at-sea versions of their concert series with The S.S. Coachella cruise in 2012). There are others that have tried.
(Among the other cruises are Holy Ship! Wrecked, held annually since 2012, produced by Beats at Sea in a partnership between HARD/Insomniac, Cloud 9 Adventures, and The Bowery Presents. Cloud 9 Adventures also has the annual five-day Jam Cruise which has run since 2004.)
So is there an opportunity to take a land-based event, and put it out to sea in a similar destination place?
There is a possibility but I think that it has to be thought through strategically to ensure that there is a passion. Sometimes events are successful because of where they are at, and if you try to move them from that place, you lose say the ability to get there easily. Maybe that fan base is more fickle because they are coming every year or only coming based on talent. So there are a lot of things that go into play.
The concern is the fan expectation. So when a fan hears “Coachella” what does that immediately mean to them? And do they think that they are going to get a Kanye and something else? So I think the understanding has to be who is the audience and making sure that we are very clear in terms of what they are going to get with this.
Gauging the potential size of a cruise audience must be challenging.
We have learned that through a lot of failure and success. But where we have really carved out our niché is super-serving the passionate fan bases. We have some proprietary technology and ways of looking at data that determines how passionate their fan base is.
When you book a performer are their team, including management, and agents, invited?
Sure. It behooves us to have them as a part of it. A manager, booking agent, and part of the team. But the economics of doing that, we have to pay attention to.
Unlike a standard land event where there are hotels everywhere, our capacity is our capacity. I can’t add another deck to a ship. That factors into all of it. But we want the full team to be invested because we think it makes for a more successful experience, and it fosters (relationship) longevity. No event that we are going into is ever intended to be a one-off. This is something that we want to build.
You are building a brand.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is a co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide,” and a Lifetime Member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.