Sixthman cruises take the show to the seas

It’s a beautiful spring day as passengers board a cruise ship for the Sixthman’s first annual “Ships and Dip” event. As each person climbs the gangway and turns around the corner onto the ship, they are face-to-face with the band they are here to see – Barenaked Ladies. The band proceeds to have a picture taken with every person, then immediately goes to the main deck for an unannounced impromptu concert. As the ship gradually leaves the dock, a patron turns to Sixthman owner Andy Levine and says, “If we turned around and went back right now, I would have already gotten my money’s worth.”

For nine years Levine has been organizing and promoting Sixthman’s music cruises, and these moments make it all worthwhile. In a recent interview, the former band manager recalls a discussion with a travel agent: “In 2001 about 400 fans of Sister Hazel were part of our street team, and they wanted a convention. I was discussing this on a plane with a travel agent, and she suggested we do a cruise. The infrastructure is there, we could do a concert and a meet-and-greet, and everyone could have a nice vacation. The band was a little scared about being ‘trapped’ on a ship, but they got over that really quickly. We had a really great time.”

Levine sensed that he was on to something, and called the office to tell them.

“This is it, this is our future, the essence of the music business, just the band and their fans. Since then, I have just been committed to doing this,” he said.

Since that first cruise, the Sixthman company has grown significantly, working from a spacious compound near Atlanta’s Grant Park. Instead of renting 200 cabins, Sixthman now commandeers entire ships for each music-themed cruise. Planning six or more events annually, Levine devotes time and energy into defining the target audience, matching bands to events and marketing.

“In terms of a target audience, we are aiming at the 28 to 60-year-olds, and most of our attendees are in the 35 to 45-year-old range. I use the ‘Hero’ concept to define the potential artists for each cruise. There are certain artists who are known heroes in a particular genre, so we book them, and also up-and-coming artists who many folks may not know about yet. Once we identify the acts, we then look at ways to market the events to already existing communities. We have our Web site, we use social media networks like Facebook and Twitter, and the acts promote their appearances through their own Web sites and at shows.”

Factors such as cost and the social community are taken into consideration.

“It may cost 2-3 times more than a regular cruise (rates run from about $500-$2,000, depending on accommodations), but what the attendees get is far beyond a basic cruise. On Sixthman cruises, you can have 10 people with completely different tastes, and they will all get what they want,” Levine said.

When asked which artists seem to have the most success on the cruises, Levine is quick to mention Georgia’s own Zac Brown. “Zac is one who really takes advantage of the opportunity. He has done nine cruises with us, starting out playing poolside gigs, and in September he is headlining his own cruise, called ‘Sailing Southern Ground’.”

The impact and importance of exposure on Sixthman cruises is clear to Brown, who said, “We have done the cruises for years, but this is our first chance to do our own. The great thing is knowing that everybody shares in the experience, it’s really cool.” Brown also relishes the chance to work with other performers.

Another impressive and ongoing success story is the late Winter Cayamo cruise, geared to Americana and acoustic music fans. Three-time Cayamo performer John Hiatt said: “It’s fantastic, what’s not to love? You have a captive audience, a week on the open seas, and you get to hear other performers you rarely get to see because everyone is usually touring. I get off more on the fans who have followed my music for years. Plus, I often see people at shows who I met on the cruise, which is really fun. They are great for the baby boomers.”

Artists already signed up for the 2011 Cayamo cruise include Decatur’s Indigo Girls, Steve Earle and the legendary John Prine.

But what matters most to Levine and his staff is the satisfaction of the fans who attend the cruises. “We have about a 50-60% return rate, which is pretty amazing,” he said.

Former Atlanta resident and massage therapist Carla Linden recalls herexperiences on her first cruise. “I went on the Cayamo cruise because I'm a huge live music fan, I am a member of the ‘Brandi Carlile Adoration Society’, and love singer-songwriters of all types. One of the major highlights for me was that there was so much live music happening, there was almost TOO MUCH to take in! The discoveries of bands and performers I hadn't known before Luke Ducet and Melissa McClelland, Chuck Cannon, and even the winners of the open mike contest, were wonderful surprises. I am definitely planning on coming next year.”

Sixthman contact information for booking a cruise:

877-SIXTHMAN (749-8462)

Upcoming Sixthman Cruises:

VH1 Best Cruise Ever (April 15-19, 2010)

Kid Rock Chillin' the Most Cruise (April 29-May 3, 2010)

Sailing Southern Ground (September 2-6, 2010)

The Elvis Cruise (November 4-8, 2010)

The Rock Boat XI (January 6-10, 2011)

Cayamo Cruise (February 13-20, 2011)

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