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Shipping Out With Sixthman’s Andy Levine

05:01 PM Friday 6/17/11 | |

For 10 years Atlanta-based company Sixthman has been mixing live music with ocean cruises resulting in boatloads of fans experiencing unique, one-of-a-kind performances. Sister Hazel, Kid Rock, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Lyle Lovett, Sarah McLachlan, Zac Brown Band and Barenaked Ladies are just some of the acts that have gone down to the sea with Sixthman.

Come this fall you can add KISS to that list when the first-ever KISS Kruise sails out of Miami.

To get a better appreciation of how these floating music parties operate and what it takes to present a successful concert cruise, Pollstar spoke with Sixthman founder Andy Levine shortly before his company’s 10th anniversary celebration began.

  • Andy Levine

    Poses for the camera on “Formal & Flip Flops” theme night on the Sixthman Cayamo Cruise (click on image for complete photo).

    (Will Byington/Sixthman)

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How many people does it take to run Sixthman?

These days with our current responsibilities, 30.

Is that 30 people full time, or does payroll expand and contract depending on the schedule?

That’s 30 people full time. And then we probably add another, if you count [others added] per event – stage managers, techs, loaders, security and all that – that’s another 50 per event. So 30 full time and we’ll add 50 per event.

How did Sixthman begin?

I used to be in a band in college. Then I became a talent buyer down in Gainesville, Fla., at Richenbacher’s in the early ‘90s and I started managing the band Sister Hazel with a guy named Rodney Stammel. We focused on building a really healthy grassroots fanbase for the band and making sure that connection the band had with fans was strong. We also had the street teams going.

Then, in 2001, I was a little bit over the management thing. To be honest, I was a little bit over the industry part of it. I loved the fan part of it but I didn’t like the industry part – the label side and the radio side I wasn’t crazy about. Right around the same time the street team for Sister Hazel demanded a convention. They said, “Hey, we’ve done everything you asked us to do the last four or five years. We put up flyers, we called radio stations, we let them sleep on our coach. We want a weekend with the band to hang out.”

We went to the band and they said, “Yeah, they have done all that stuff. Let’s throw a party for them. So that turned into a cruise for 400 people in 2001.

We got onboard and we were scared to death. The band was like, “We’re going to be trapped on a ship with our fans for four days?”

We took everyone to this private bar onboard. We bought them drinks for an hour and a half. The band told their wives they’d meet them at dinner. They signed everything in the room, took every photo and we toasted the fans. We had an amazing four days. I remember coming back going “That’s it. That’s my future. This band and their fans on vacation.”

Is that a common reaction from most bands you approach? That is, are they apprehensive about being “trapped” on a ship with their fans for four days?

Yes, it is. It always crosses their minds. Some won’t say it, but they all think it. Now that we’ve gotten out and done 35 full-ship charters we’ve worked with artists who people will look at and go, “If John Mayer will do it, or Zac Brown, Kid Rock or 311, it can’t be that bad.”

  • Zac & Friends

    The Wood Brothers perform with Zac Brown in the Paris Lounge on the Sailing Southern Ground Cruise.
    September 4, 2010

    (John Davisson)

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You do have several repeat bookings. What brings the acts back for more cruises?

I always tell people that from the artists’ perspective there’s always three exchanges going on. There’s the guest-to-guest thing where it’s like, “Oh, my God. We have a lot in common even though we’re strangers.”

Then there’s this guest-to-artist mutual exchange of respect. The people who come, they pay a high dollar, they have all the band’s records and photos. They want to be there to say, “Thanks. The music means a lot to me.”

And the band is doing the same, saying, “Wow. Thanks for giving me my career.” Because they know it’s their core [audience] that’s there.

Then the third phase is the most entertaining. That’s the artist-to-artist. They pass each other on buses all the time but never get to spend a long time together. Here they are on a ship for four, five, six or seven days and they get to jam together. They get to go out to dinner with them. A guitar player and his wife get to hear another guitar player’s wife saying her husband is never home and he drinks too much,” and he’s like “I’m not the only douchebag in the world,” but in a good way.

We believe whenever you put people in an environment with others they have things in common with, they feel better about themselves. They don’t feel all alone in their choices.

We take great care of them. We bring first-class production and totally put the House of Blues and then some, on. We take care of them. We present them on the best stage that we can and we respect them.

But not all Sixthman cruises are artist-centric like the Kid Rock or Lynyrd Skynyrd Simple Man cruise, that is built around a single artist. You also have theme cruises, such as Cayamo, the singer/songwriter cruise.

We have two models. We have the host model, which is like the Kid Rock model. Yes, he brings 14 other bands with him that he likes, but it’s all about Kid Rock. He doesn’t count on them selling tickets.

Then we have what we call “festivals,” which are contexts we try to build. We only have three of them right now and they’re great. The songwriter festival, that’s our “Bonnaroo” as we like to call it. We don’t even announce the entire lineup before we go on sale. You build that trust. We’re five years in and we’re getting to the point where people don’t care much about who’s coming. They’re like, “I’m going to see some of my favorites, I’m going to discover new stuff and I’m going to be on a ship with just 2,000 people instead of 90,000.”

  • Michael Franti

    Performing on the Sailing Southern Ground Cruise in the Gulf of Mexico.
    September 4, 2010

    (John Davisson)

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Then we have an event like the “Rock Boat,” which is the first one we ever did. We’ve done it for 12 years. And the biggest band on the ship is Sister Hazel. That’s just the thing. That band would probably only sell, maybe 400 or 500 seats in a lot of places, maybe 1,000 in some places. But that’s 12-years-old so we put the community of family around that band and all the other bands, like Stephen Kellogg who have played it and the Hansons and other bands that have played it along the way – hard working, touring bands.

I think the biggest band we ever had on the “RockBoat” is probably Ed Kowalczyk from the band Live. We haven’t really had a huge, huge band on that cruise but it sells out every year. It’s become like a family.

The cruises also have a rep for unique moments where musicians from different bands jam together or do spur-of-the-moment performances. What are some of the most memorable performances that have taken place on your cruises?

Something I saw this year that was really fantastic was on the “Cayamo” cruise. We had Brandi Carlisle and the Indigo Girls. They rehearsed an entire set together – each of their songs, some cover songs, doing each other’s songs. It was the last show we had on the cruise and it was just one of those lucky moments. It was the perfect way to close it. It was this seamless things And they were inviting other artists up on stage. John Prine came up for a song, other artists came up. That was pretty spectacular.

We also had this artist, Chuck Cannon, who was playing this small room. We wanted to have a jam in the atrium that he wanted to be a part of, but his show was overlapping. So he said, “What if I just lead everyone through the ship down to this place?” And he literally ended his set with, “Hey, everybody, follow me.” He stands up and starts running down the hall with his guitar with a few hundred people following him. Then he runs up on stage and they kick off a three-hour jam.

We had an amazing thing happen on the “Rock Boat” where Sister Hazel was playing the main theatre which holds about 1,400 people. They walk off the front of the stage and told everyone to follow them. We had a little P.A. set up in the atrium, which is like a hotel atrium. There are seven or eight floors and people can see from each level. Sister Hazel came out. They had stopped halfway during one song and picked right up and finished it in the new area.

We had all the other artists from the cruise on the side, and I challenged them. I said, “I want you to get up there and play the one song you would play if you had to play a song to get into Heaven. And it can’t be ‘Stairway To Heaven.’”

So they all went up and played whatever was on their minds. The one song to get them into Heaven. That went to four or five in the morning. It was fantastic. It sounded like crap but it was beautiful. They asked why we didn’t record it, and I said it wasn’t like what they were hearing.

  • Comparing Beards

    Andy Levine, along with a couple of Sixthman staffers, hanging out with Zac Brown.

    (Will Byington/Sixthman)

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Do all artists stay on the entire cruise? Or do some, depending on schedules, connect with the cruise at certain points?

On all of our short cruises – the four-day cruise which is most of what we do – they stay. We had a situation with Colbie Caillat. She was planning on staying the entire time, but she was asked to do something for the Royal Wedding in New York so she had to fly in. We have seven-day cruises where some of the bands will go for four days and some people switch out because it’s a long cruise. If we have, roughly, 200 artists a year on all cruises, I’d bet there are five that join mid-stream.

What can you tell us about the “KISS Kruise?” Are they on the entire voyage?

If it goes horrible they have an option to leave on the last night. It’s four nights. All accounts are showing they’re really excited about this. They’re going to do a sail-away show – acoustic without makeup, unplugged. They’re going to do two main shows, a Q&A and take a photo with every guest over the four days.

When not performing, do the bands socialize with the guests?

It all disappears. We don’t use the word “V.I.P.,” we don’t sell gold circle tickets, we don’t sell any packages like that. The only thing we do for artists is we have an area inside and outside where they can meet up, eat dinner and hang with each other. But there aren’t a lot of ropes and things like that. The walls tend to come down and everyone is on vacation together. The guests are really respectful. If we’ve ever had a problem, we’ve usually caught it before the cruise even started because of the way they are behaving. Or the band will tip us off. We just take care of it. We just say, “Hey, we’re not comfortable having you.” But that’s a few times a year.

We take the performers on a beach party. We try to give them time to connect, too, because that enriches their experiences. But every body is on the elevators together, on the beach together.

Are many of your passengers amateur musicians who bring their instruments with them, if only to play for their own amusement?

  • Jason Isbell

    Sailing Southern Ground Cruise, Gulf of Mexico
    September 3, 2010

    (John Davisson)

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About 33 percent play an instrument and I would say maybe five percent bring their instruments along. We give them areas to play, to express and connect with other guests.

Do some of the passengers ever get to play with the acts onboard?

I want to tell you a great story. It was 2007 and I was on a “Rock Boat” cruise. It was about 3 in the morning and I was going back to bed. I was walking through the atrium and sitting on the couches were a couple of guests I knew really well who were listening to a young girl from Australia playing guitar. And they said, “Andy, come here.”

She played this song for me and I was blown away. She said she was an artist and her name was Claire Wyndham. I said, “Can you do what you just did in front of a lot people?” She said yes. I said, “Tomorrow at 5 o’clock, I want you to meet me at this lounge. And bring your guitar.”

I went to Ken Block, lead singer for Sister Hazel who was playing his acoustic solo show at that time. I said, “Ken, I saw someone really special. I would like to bring her in. I want you to hear her play and I’d like you to consider asking her to come up and play this song during your show.

So she came in and played, and he felt the same way I did. He waited until the last song of his set to bring her up. She was shaking but she delivered, she totally nailed it. There were only 500 people there, but she got a standing ovation. And we’ve had her perform on a couple of cruises since then.

Another time, we did a Lynyrd Skynyrd cruise in 2008. We’ve done like 5 of them and this was the second one. I’m at the pre-party and I’m walking around saying hello to people. I start meeting people from different countries who all say they’re in international Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute bands. There was guy from Germany who played bass, a guy from the U.K. who sings, a guy from Spain who plays drums. So I grabbed them one by one and said, “You guys are all collectively in a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute band in some part of the world. If you guys can get together and come up with three songs, I’ll put you on stage.”

They’re freaking out. Language barriers [and] God knows what else they had to go through. But they were so excited. We called them the Simple Man International Tribute Band. We got them a rehearsal space. We did a talent show with guests as contestants and Lynyrd Skynyrd members as judges. As a surprise, while Lynyrd Skynyrd was deciding who won the talent competition, these guys got up and played three or four songs. They did great. You had this band representing five or six countries, playing together for the first and only time.

We’re constantly on the lookout for opportunities like that. It essentially makes the experience a real connection between guests and artists.

What are some of the more unique problems not encountered by landlubber promoters? Do you ever encounter seasick artists?

There are some people really sensitive to motion sickness. Fortunately, technology and medicine have come a long way, so you can manage it if you get on top of it early. I would say in the company’s 160 days being on the ocean, we’ve only had one really, really bad six-hour period. So we’ve been really fortunate.

The main challenge is that the main theatre only holds half the audience. So the band has to play two sets so everyone can see them once. You can do stuff outside but then you’re vulnerable to winds and rain. But that’s our biggest challenge, I would say. That’s where we put most of our energy, working that out.

From an artist manager perspective, what should bands consider when they first think about doing a cruise?

The first thing I would say is these people who attend are the most passionate and financially able fans you have. If they’re going to come, they expect you to treat it like a vacation, not a concert. This not just a concert where they pay 20 bucks, eat their own dinner and sleep in their own house. [Guests] pay a thousand dollars to come on vacation and they want it to be right. They want their cabins to be right, they want to know what to bring, they want to make multiple payments. They want to work with a company that’s going to treat them like their favorite band treats them.

There are a lot of mistakes that can be made Unfortunately, after they’ve paid their money, when they step on that ship their expectations are so high that if you’re not fully prepared it’s going to reflect very poorly on the band and its brand.

The KISS Kruise is a perfect example of this. They were going to go in a different direction. Fortunately, I knew the manager. I said, “Doc [KISS manager Doc McGhee], you never go with a company that hasn’t done it before. These are your most passionate and financially able fans. Do you know what you’re getting ready to potentially put them through? We’ve made all the mistakes, but we’ve made them over the last 10 years and we’ve learned from them. You’re putting your brand on the line. You’re saying, ‘Hey, fans, trust us. Come [and] vacation with us.’ Present them with someone who has already done this and knows the expectations that come with a vacation.”

Is that an important aspect of your cruises? That from your customers viewpoints, this is the big vacation of the year?

It’s a big deal. We have seven moments we want every guest to have. We go through this with the bands. We want the guests to feel genuinely invited to be a part of this. We give them forms [detailing] what they bring and what to wear. We want them to feel excited. Sometimes they book the cruise nine, ten months in advance. They go on with life and they’re bummed out. Then, 45 days before the cruise they get something in the mail – a pair of flip-flops or whatever – and they’re like, “Oh, yeah! It’s going to be all good.”

  • Party On The Sea

    Michael Franti onboard the Sailing Southern Ground Cruise.
    September 4, 2010

    (John Davisson)

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We want to get them excited about this experience they’re getting ready to have. We want them to feel welcome. As soon as they see that ship we want them to feel as if we’ve been waiting for them. A sea of Sixthman staff is all around ready to get them on track. We want them to feel “looked after’ onboard if they get lost, confused or frustrated. We want them to have an amazed moment. A moment, whether it’s on an elevator, on a beach or in a venue, where they’re like, “I’m in the perfect place in the Universe.” And we want them to feel appreciated for giving us their time and money for their vacation.

Do you have a dream booking? Is there an artist or band that you’d love to have on a cruise?

I gotta get James Taylor. I haven’t even put that much into it. I don’t know if I’m scared or what. But James Taylor – I gotta do it.

Who would you book to appear with James Taylor?

I dunno. We had his son, Ben, on a “Cayamo” cruise a couple of years ago. He was fabulous. The thing with James is he’s influenced so many people. Even if you just had him, Carole King and let his band do some side gigs – we’ve had some of those guys on cruises – then let all these other bands he’s influenced come and celebrate him. He’s probably one of the biggest influences for these artists. I think it would be great.

Do you have the best job in the music biz?

I do. We’re celebrating 10 years today. We’ve made a ton of mistakes, and we’ve learned from them. We continually put the guests and the artists in the very front. We’ve made a strategy of taking such good care of our artists and our guests, that they come back and they bring their friends and their peers with them. That’s why a lot of people have never heard of our company, because we don’t spend money on talking about it. We spend money on the experience, the caring and all that. I love it. It’s what I was born to do.

Upcoming Sixthman cruises include “Rombello” Sept. 29-Oct. 3 featuring Slightly Stoopid, Michael Franti and Spearhead, G. Love & Specail Sauce and Citizen Cope; The KISS Kruise Oct. 13-17; Cayamo Feb. 5-12; and The Rock Boat XII featuring Sister Hazel March 1-5, 2012. For more information, visit Sixthman.net.

And be sure to check out contributing photographer John Davisson’s account of the 2010 Sailing Southern Ground Cruise. Just click here.


Comments

  1. Bluemoo wrote:

    08:07 AM, Jun 22, 2011

    Great Job Andy and great story.  He's always been one hell of a nice guy and a class act.  I am thrilled to death over the cruises success. Again, great job Andy.   - portis

  2. JimRow wrote:

    07:01 AM, Jun 20, 2011

    I'm sure they do a good job but there are actually a bunch of other music cruises out there run by other people. I have been on both Jam Cruise and the Blues Cruise they were both fantastic experiences. And I have a friend who goes on the Jazz Cruise every year and she loves it.

  3. cmdell wrote:

    04:35 AM, Jun 20, 2011

    WOW! Fantastic Interview! You nailed it, Andy! Over the last 10 years, the 18 Sixthman events that my wife and I have attended have been the highlight of our musical entertainment. Your great description of events brings back some wonderful memories and only serves to rev up my enthusiasm to get back out there on one of your cruises again, no matter the band or the port. It may be "Bonnaroo on the Water," but without the hot, muddy tents to go back and sleep in! It's a crying shame that work gets in the way of attending ALL the Sixthman cruises. KUDOS Andy and the Sixthman staff, for figuring out how to get music-loving Baby Boomers (and X, Y gen, etc.) on a boat! [Sorry, Cruise Industry, I meant "ship"]

  4. GBSGirl wrote:

    05:38 PM, Jun 18, 2011

    Andy Levine has created an experience, not just a vacation.  We have been on 3 of the Sixthman cruises.  2 Ships & Dips and the Zac Brown one.  You hear so much good music and we've made many new friends.  I can't wait for my next one!  I'll never be able to do a "regular" cruise again.

  5. kdegeorge wrote:

    11:50 AM, Jun 18, 2011

    Kudos to Andy and his Sixthman team.  Andy greeted us as we boarded and thanked us as we stepped off the boat!  The entire team is a class act and all of what they strive to provide for their guests is delivered and so much MORE!  My sister and I kept saying .. "THIS is that moment we'd relive if we could only select ONE!  no wait.. THIS is that moment!!"   There were just so many and it had EVERYTHING to do with the guest/artist dynamic that Sixthman works so hard to provide.   I had the first real vacation of my 40+years and will do it again and again - but only with Andy and team!    Congratulations, Sixthman on 10 years of AMAZING!!  and thanks again for one helluva ride! :-)  

  6. dacsmom wrote:

    05:49 AM, Jun 18, 2011

    Sixthman really puts together a fantastic cruise, the amount of effort they put into a cruise shows. If you have never been on a Sixthman Cruise before, try it. There is nothing like it, non stop music and fun for all ages. There are infants to 80+ year olds.