Eight years ago, Atlanta native Andy Levine knew he had a problem on his hands. Levine, then the manager of Gainesville, Florida’s Sister Hazel, was watching the band score hit after hit, like 1997’s “All For You,” on the Hot AC radio format. But the airplay success seemed to be growing its fan base only in what Levine calls the “soccer mom” segment.
These fans, most with families of their own, weren’t a demographic prone to attend a live show or even frequent a record store. And from the start, Sister Hazel put an emphasis on building relationships with fans. With limited options on the touring and retail fronts, the band turned to the Web to connect, holding weekly message board chats with these fans, among other things.
Soon enough a number of these fans began urging the band to hold a Sister Hazel “convention” of sorts. Levine and the band thought a cruise might be the right venue for the first one. “We could hardly get these fans to pay $10 for a CD, but they had no problem forking over $1,000 for a cruise vacation,” Levine says.
So, right before Labor Day in September 2001, Sister Hazel and 400 fans set sail on a Carnival cruise alongside a boatload of regular vacationers. “The band had to play at noon on Sunday, so as not to interfere with the regularly scheduled bingo game,” Levine recalls with a laugh.
Nevertheless, the band’s fans loved the intimate, easygoing aspect of the event. Many of them begged for the band to organize another one the next year. Meanwhile, Levine was growing increasingly frustrated with the traditional music industry and thought he may have just stumbled into new a line of business for himself and his bands.
So, immediately after that first cruise, Levine started calling some of Sister Hazel’s friends and tourmates—other artists like Edwin McCain, Cowboy Mouth and Pat McGee Band—seeing if they’d be interested in joining Sister Hazel on a cruise the following year.
“We thought if we had enough bands involved, each with their own couple hundred fans, we might be able to charter our own cruise,” Levine says.
After hearing Sister Hazel’s review of the initial cruise, the other artists immediately agreed to go. Each band asked their fans for a refundable $99 deposit, and within days they had more than 1,000 fans committed for the cruise. Shortly thereafter, Levine had the irrefutable evidence he needed to get that new business off the ground. Several investors came to the table, and Sixthman and its inaugural cruise, The Rock Boat, were born, with Levine at the helm.
Since 2001, Sixthman has matured from that one cruise to a dozen annually, each involving dozens more artists, and from a staff of three to a staff of 25, all based out of offices in Atlanta’s Grant Park neighborhood.
“I don’t think I am really surprised at how fast they have grown. For the past several years Andy Levine has made it his mission to learn everything he can from the smartest people in the fields of travel, event management, marketing, customer service and all the others areas that a business needs to grow profitably,” says Chérie L. Weinstein, vice president of Group Business Development at Carnival and a 30-year cruise industry veteran.
A huge part of that growth can be attributed to Sixthman’s deep understanding of the band and fan relationship. Two overarching themes guide every cruise they organize (a process that starts some 15 months in advance): create an unbeatable experience on the cruise itself and foster community between artists and fans before, during and after the cruise.
“We really do look at ourselves as wedding planners,” Levine says. “The bands get married to their fans on these cruises. And all the fans are the brides. So, that’s a lot of weddings to plan for one trip.”
An addictive experience
That approach is readily evident to both artists and fans. Sixthman consistently maintains a 50 percent return rate for cruise goers year after year. And megastars like John Mayer have organized cruises in conjunction with the company.
“Every artist I’ve had that’s gone on one of these cruises has immediately wanted to do it again the next year,” says Ken Levitan of Vector Management, who manages Lynyrd Skynyrd, Lyle Lovett and Kid Rock, all of whom have organized cruises with Sixthman.
From a fan’s perspective, Levitan thinks Sixthman’s cruises offer a number of perks—from a flat-out vacation to a heaping of great music—as well as a special connection with the artist.
“As the music business is in a bit of a transition, artists are looking for more creative ways to interact with fans, and I think what Sixthman does is one of those things,” Levitan says.
Perhaps it’s only fitting then that one of Andy Levine’s favorite moments from over eight years of Sixthman cruises involves that special artist/fan interaction. It occurred a few years ago on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Simple Man Cruise. Five cruise goers from five different countries all claimed that they were individually in separate Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute bands. The Sixthman staff thought they should form their own tribute band while on the cruise.
“So, you had these five guys, none of whom spoke the same language, up on stage performing three songs together in front of their heroes, the actual members of Lynyrd Skynyrd,” Levine recalls. “We called them the United Nations. It was a really special moment, and sums up exactly what we do best.”