Supplier: USA Today
Location: United States
Country music has a well-documented love affair with the ocean. Zac Brown croons about his toes in the water and his butt in the sand. Merle Haggard longed for the seashores of old Mexico. Blake Shelton craves some beach somewhere, and Kenny Chesney built his empire on the salty, sand-crusted romance and relaxation of beach life. No shoes, no shirt, no problem.
When the decline of CD sales forced artists to re-evaluate their business structure more than a decade ago, many doubled down on touring as the surest way to stabilize cash flow. That, combined with America’s deepening love of music festivals, sparked a new cross-genre trend — music festivals at sea.
“Music festivals have experienced such amazing growth in the U.S.,” said Anthony Diaz, chief executive officer of Sixthman, a company that specializes in themed cruise experiences. “If people open their mind to the idea of a music festival at sea, it’s just a far more comfortable way to experience music.”
Companies including StarVista Live and Sixthman built their businesses on the concept of creating luxury, intimate festival experiences aboard cruise ships. Depending on the cruise company, there are genre-centric, themed multi-artist festivals, including the Country Music Cruise, the Flower Power Cruise, the Southern Rock Cruise, the Malt Shop Memories Cruise and the Soul Train Cruise, which are among those presented by StarVista. Sixthman often builds its themed vacations around personalities, with offerings including cruises with Kesha, Brantley Gilbert, Melissa Etheridge and 311.
“If you’re a fan of any of these artists, it’s the best vacation of your life,” Diaz said. “You’re like, ‘Oh my God, it’s everywhere.’ ”
The cruising experience varies by theme. StarVista’s Country Music Cruise is described as a floating Fan Fair — with nicer bathrooms, better food and seriously upgraded accommodations. Country music’s beloved Fan Fair moved from Nashville’s fairgrounds to downtown in 2001 and started its transition to CMA Music Festival. Over time, the festival shifted its focus from its famous autograph sessions to a more performance-driven event. Fans mourned the loss of the personal artist interaction they had come to treasure. Now that artist-fan connection can be found on the Country Music Cruise, which is packed with performances and interactive events with classic and traditional country singers.
“You’re running into the artists at the gym and buffet lines and all that stuff that is going to break the wall down between the artists and the guests,” said Mike Jason, a senior vice president at StarVista LIVE/Time Life. “It’s very different from a normal cruise that’s kind of leisurely, a slower pace. This is filled with activities. You wouldn’t want to go on the cruise if you didn’t like the music.”
In 2019, the Country Music Cruise will sail Jan. 27 through Feb. 3 from Fort Lauderdale to Key West, St. Thomas and Half Moon Cay and back. Its 1,800 guests can enjoy dozens of concerts from acts including Jeff Foxworthy, the Oak Ridge Boys, Patty Loveless and Ricky Skaggs, cooking demonstrations, songwriter sessions, celebrity breakfasts, country music-themed movies, games and more.
“This is one-on-one all day long,” said Pegi Ivancevich of her experience on the Country Music Cruise. “The best memories are of passing the singers on the boat and them stopping to talk. Many of those artists don’t do large tours so it’s difficult to see some of these people now unless you’re in Nashville. The music is what we’re there for. Most of us overfill our calendars and by the seventh day we are exhausted, but there’s nothing else to compare with what this corporation is providing.”
Marshall Tucker Band’s Doug Gray has been on multiple Southern rock cruises and will sail again in January alongside Lynyrd Skynyrd and Dickey Betts.
“I like cruises because they bring people together — the bands and the fans,” Gray said. “We get to do the whole cruise and we get to take the whole family. You’re going to run into people and get to know them. A lot of people save up all year to come. I’m one of those people who sit on the deck and take in the sun. I’m there watching those bands.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Johnny Van Zant has performed on countless cruises and said that they’re so enjoyable he plans to set sail as a fan after he retires.
“We’re there to work, and the fans are there to party and have a good time,” he explained. “I’d love to go sit and listen to some older country artists out on the ocean.”
StarVista has been in the business of music cruises for about a decade, while Sixthman helped pioneer the concept 17 years ago. The company launched with the Rock Boat, which will cruise with a lineup including Matt Nathanson, Sister Hazel and the Plain White T’s in 2019. The Kiss Kruise is in its eighth year, and Kesha’s Weird and Wonderful Rainbow Ride is new to Sixthman’s expansive roster.
“It’s not about the concerts,” Diaz said, quickly noting Sixthman does that, too. “But fans get to play basketball with someone from 311 or do a guitar solo contest with the guitar player from Kiss. It’s all the things that can’t happen in a Bridgestone Arena environment. What we’re able to offer fans is four or five days on vacation immersed in activities.”
“Our focus is on passionate communities that we can super-serve,” Diaz said. “We put a lot of rigor into who we feel will be the best suited for a venture like this. These fans are a community, and communities share a like-minded passion.”
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