Music Cruises Have Caught Major Wind — And This Company Is The Motor Behind Them
From Broadway divas to metalheads to EDM DJs, stages on ships offer all kinds of artists a unique platform — and Sixthman has cornered the market.
Usually when Lyle Lovett performs, the stage does not move. But the 2010 Cayamo music festival took place on a luxury liner in the Caribbean — and 14-foot waves shook him out of his usual stoicism. “I grew up being the carsick kid. Couldn’t ride in the back seat,” says the Texas singer-songwriter. “I was doing an interview with Steve Earle for his Sirius radio show [while on board], and I had to step out of the room and come back in.”
Cayamo is one of 18 festivals this year run by Sixthman, an Atlanta-based company founded in 2001 when Sister Hazel’s then-manager, Andy Levine, invited 400 of the rock band’s superfans to take over 200 cabins of the Carnival Jubilee. It ended up kicking off an appealing new concert-business model: Music cruises gave artists the rare opportunity to play intimate shows for core groups of well-off devotees — all while enjoying access to high-end meals, luxury hotel rooms and slot machines (the occasional need for Dramamine notwithstanding).
Since then, Sixthman (which is now a subsidiary of Norwegian Cruise Line) has paid hundreds of acts to perform on various cruise-ship decks — at first, late-1990s stars like Edwin McCain and Tonic; then a relatively unknown Zac Brown; then bigger names ranging from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Kid Rock to KISS to Paramore. Today, Sixthman focuses on booking veteran acts with loyal, affluent fan bases — big enough to fill a 2,500- to 4,000-passenger cruise, but generally not an arena.
Lovett is one of dozens of artists, from Broadway divas to metalheads to EDM DJs, scheduled to headline Sixthman cruises over the next year. That’s because, unlike traditional, tightly curated festivals like Bonnaroo or Coachella, the company is open to booking acts of any genre — as long as their fans can afford roughly $600 to $5,000 for a cabin over four to seven nights.
In 2023 and 2024, Sixthman’s headliners include 311 (which just finished a cruise from Miami to Mexico and Honduras), guitar hero Joe Bonamassa (whose two Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea voyages per year include a trip from Greece to Croatia in August), Stevie Van Zandt (who curated this year’s eighth installment of Outlaw Country Cruise, topped by Blackberry Smoke, Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle) and Lamb of God (which headlines the Headbanger’s Boat on Halloween, along with GWAR, Mastodon, Hatebreed and others). “If it’s a passionate community, that is an opportunity for us,” says Jeff Cuellar, Sixthman’s vp of events, community management, marketing and branding. “We’ve done our research. We know their numbers.”
Although the COVID-19 pandemic dealt music cruises a one-two punch in 2020, when both cruises and concerts were shut down, the sectors have returned to full strength. Almost every event sells out quickly, according to Cuellar; some, like the old-school hip-hop Rock the Bells festival, even before their lineups are announced.
“You’ve got a really dedicated fan at your fingertips that artists get to be in front of for three, four, five, seven days,” says Lindsey Myers, a CAA music touring agent whose team has handled cruise bookings for artists including KISS and Kesha. “They wouldn’t necessarily have the same sort of avid fan at your average festival.”
Cruise attendance in general has boomed since the lockdowns: According to the latest Cruise Market Watch report, passenger numbers rebounded in 2021 with more than 13 million (though that’s still nearly half of 2019’s pre-pandemic attendance). The top company, Royal Caribbean, recently reported that yearly revenues jumped from $1.5 billion in 2021 to over $8.8 billion last year (due to high operating expenses, the cruise line did experience a net loss of $2.2 billion in 2022). Norwegian, according to its fourth-quarter 2022 results, disclosed a higher-than-expected loss (mostly due to $13.6 billion of debt), but overall revenue was up 225%, to $1.6 billion, and revenue generated from each passenger rose 23% compared with the same period in 2019.
Many cruise companies have music events — Royal Caribbean’s annual ’80s Cruise starred Devo, The Church and Living Colour in March, and Celebrity Summit’s Disco Cruise recently had Kool & The Gang and KC & The Sunshine Band. But Sixthman excels at lineups that feel contemporary — not like Sailing With the Oldies. “Sixthman have really become masters at determining which artists will work and which ones won’t,” says Cory Brennan, founder/CEO of management company 5B, which represents perennial Norwegian headliners like Flogging Molly and 311. “There’s a lot of homework and research that goes into this.”
And for such headliners, a ship is one giant marketing and branding opportunity. Train, which has its own wine company, holds tastings on its Sail Across the Sun cruises; singer Hayley Williams has sold her Good Dye Young hair color on Paramore’s Parahoy! cruises in recent years; and Melissa Etheridge raised money for her charitable foundation, which supports scientific research on opioid addiction. “That’s invaluable advertising,” Cuellar says. “Now everybody who’s there is converted: ‘I’m not only a fan of Hayley, I’m going out and spreading the word.’ ”
Artists who headline cruises participate in an economic “host model” as opposed to a standard flat-fee festival model, according to Cuellar. Part of their income is usually a guaranteed payment, similar to what they might receive at any land-based event. But they might also share some of the revenue from food and alcohol sales, which is not part of the deal for most concerts and festivals.
Most music cruises offer all-inclusive meal packages as part of the cost, but attendees pay extra for what Deb Klein, Etheridge’s manager, calls “onboard revenue” — including casinos, excursions in destination cities, art auctions and alcohol. Etheridge, whose most recent Sixthman headlining date was last fall, takes a guarantee, then participates in a 50-50 “rev share” deal for the rest of her salary, Klein says. (Transporting band, crew and freight to the cruise docks and on and off ships costs artists out of pocket.) “It’s really a joint venture,” Klein says. “Believe me, it’s a lot of work. For us, it’s about the community and the connection. And the finances, too.”
Overall music-cruise revenue, Bonamassa says, can be 30% to 50% higher than what a club promoter might pay for a Wednesday-night gig. So an artist making $10,000 for a dry-land festival date might make $15,000 for a cruise. (Nonheadliners’ salaries are comparable to traditional festivals, artist representatives say.) “Why does it cost more?” Bonamassa asks. “You’re doing multiple shows. You have the band and crew out there, you’re paying salaries for a week. By the time you add it all up, it’s an expensive undertaking.”
But other artist reps say expenses are low compared with traditional arena, amphitheater and festival dates. “The narrative you are going to hear from agents and managers is a justification for charging outrageous guarantees, because ‘you are locking up our band for a week and asking them to play multiple times,’ ” says Mark Willis, host partner for pro wrestler Chris Jericho’s Rock ’N’ Wrestling Rager at Sea, a Sixthman cruise that sails every January and stars Jericho’s own metal band, Fozzy. “But that agent/manager will never admit how much money their budget saves in accommodations and meals and drinks and backline and crew and staging and production and runners and bus drivers and hotels.”
As for the cost of admission, the ticket price is in line with a Bonnaroo or Coachella VIP experience, with Sixthman more like a travel agent than a box office, helping fans coordinate advance planning for food, lodging and transportation in addition to the concerts themselves. Attendees are what land-based concerts and festivals might call “super VIPs,” Cuellar adds — they pay extra to experience artist meet-and-greets, unexpected musical collaborations and glimpses of, say, The Beach Boys participating in a Family Feud game somewhere on deck or singer Mike Love bowling (as they did on their own cruise). Lovett has spied his bandmates playing poker in the ship’s casino. Headlining artists can “curate” their own festivals, too: Flogging Molly, for its cruise in November, will offer “the only floating skate ramp that I’m aware of,” says Brennan, and during its cruise, 311 plays basketball with fans. “Every aspect of the cruise is a chance for you to be involved financially and creatively,” he adds.
When cruises restarted in mid-2021, they required proof of vaccination and conducted COVID-19 testing on board — which worked for early music-cruise headliners such as Etheridge, who was doing the same for her own shows at the time. For Norwegian, COVID-19 remains a concern: In its December financial filings, the organization predicted the virus will still have “a significant impact on the company’s financial results and liquidity.”
But from a concert-business perspective, cruise-ship life is back to normal. “For a while, it seemed like, ‘Were people going to want to do these things anymore?’ ” says Bob McLynn, whose management clients include Train. “Just like the live industry, as far as I’m concerned, it’s fully back.”
This story will appear in the April 1, 2023, issue of Billboard.