As we entered a new year, we found ourselves getting settled into a brand new office. The team members that we’d brought on months prior had gone from timid toe-dippers, to salty sailors eager to explore greater depths of our expanding company. Based on what we learned in 2014, we scaled back the number of events with the intention of working smarter, not harder. The Rock Boat hit the high seas for it’s milestone 15th voyage, and we introduced another new event, Blues Alive at Sea with Joe Bonnamassa. Our CEO, Andy Levine, joined the Sixthman Home Team for the first time ever and remained on land during the first round of cruises, leaving the events in the capable hands of his team. When he sailed later on in the season as a guest, we didn’t believe he’d stay hands-off and actually enjoy a much-needed vacation…he proved us all wrong!
After the end of a successful spring season, we headed back to Atlanta to give our sea legs a much needed break. The recently launched Sixthman Sessions gained a great deal of momentum during the next few months as bands from all over the country graced our new office stage with live performances during the work day. October arrived like a freight train and we suddenly found ourselves aboard Norwegian Pearl ready to blow our final three events of 2015 out of the water.
One of the unanswered questions in our industry is this: What is the growth potential if we were to have a partner to invest with us, allowing us to take more risk? At the beginning of 2014, Norwegian brought a new ship to Miami and the Norwegian Pearl was available for an 8 week window between January and March, so we took it. We produced our annual cruises and added some new ones that we had been curious about over the years. Our new additions included Sail Across The Sun with Train, Progressive Nation at Sea and PARAHOY with Paramore. We gained a new partner with Delbert McClinton's team and helped them produce the 20th Sandy Beaches Cruise, and we experimented with programming the entertainment on a normal Norwegian sailing with the first-ever LIVE LOUD Festival. We probably bit off more than we could chew. But we learned a ton about executing back-to-back festivals and finding the amount of new cruises that we could successfully nurture each year. After taking some time to rest and reset, we prepared ourselves for the fall cruise season and introduced the world to two new events; Florida Georgia Line’s: This Is How We Cruise and Mad Decent Boat Party. Both events were highly successful, creating two new communities we loved serving. But with new beginnings came the end of an era as the 8th Simple Man Cruise with Lynyrd Skynyrd made its final voyage, closing out the fall season of 2014 with fond memories and bittersweet farewells.
Norwegian made investments in the Norwegian Pearl to make it more “Music Cruise Friendly” and we moved all of our cruises over in 2013. It was nice to be such a priority on board and be able to work closer with the ship to deliver a world class experience to our guests and artists. While our guests preferred the Norwegian Pearl, there were little things that they missed from other ships we had used. We worked quickly to identify those things and fill the gaps to make it a better vacation overall. We realized the ship had 1200 crew members and we only showed up with 80 staff to work alongside them for each Sixthman sailing, and finding ways to allow them to be more engaged made a huge difference. There are 14 of them for every one of us, so we appreciated them having the enthusiasm needed to make our festivals happen. This year we added two new festivals to our lineup - ALABAMA Festival at Sea and our first bluegrass event, Mountain Song at Sea.
In the summer of 2011, we were approached by Norwegian Cruise Line to become a part of their family via an acquisition. After months of discussions and negotiations, we agreed to become a Norwegian owned subsidiary in February of 2012. We produced 8 cruises in 2012. It was less than 2011, but our roster was strong - The Rock Boat, Simple Man Cruise, KISS Kruise, 311 Cruise, Cayamo, TCM and Kid Rock Cruise were all solid, recurring annual events. We wrapped up our 3-year stint with Graceland, our partners for the Elvis Cruises, and also enjoyed the adventure of bringing the 1st Weezer Cruise to life. This year, we were finally able to bring The Rock Boat back to New Orleans, after our "unfinished business" there in 2005 due to Hurricane Katrina.
Kid Rock and VH1 returned for their 2nd year and we were fortunate to be able to start partnerships with 311, KISS and Turner Classic Movies to create new festivals. 311’s fans crashed our servers for the first time ever during their presale signups, but the band and their excitable fans created the most amazing, energy-filled atmosphere for any Sail Away Show we had ever witnessed. KISS attracted fans from 30 countries and performed a 2 hour "unmasked and unplugged" set for their first Sail Away Show. Our first film festival with TCM gave us a chance to work with Celebrity Cruise Line and earn our first non-music driven sold out cruise.
After our spring events ended, we worked with our new sponsor, Cabo Wabo Tequila to plan Sixthman's Summer Road Trip, our second-ever bus tour. We loved the idea of bringing some artist favorites from the cruises to guests in their hometowns!
Sixthman's Summer Road Trip · Sixthman Sessions
After holding at 5-6 festivals a year in 2008 and 2009 to build our foundation and process, we had the opportunity to take on new events in 2010. We moved all but two cruises to Tampa and spread them out over 5 months to give ourselves a better chance for success. We brought the VH1, Zac Brown Band and Kid Rock cruises to life for the first time and we also ventured into lifestyle cruising with a Jillian Michaels Cruise. One highlight during this year was when Kid Rock decided to get on the Ship’s PA System at 1:30 in the morning to invite all the guests up to the pool deck for a party while he DJ’d for 3 hours. We also achieved a milestone by celebrating the 10th Rock Boat, which was still going strong as our flagship event.
We applied our lessons from 2008 and were able to execute the Simple Man Cruise, The Rock Boat, Ships & Dip, Cayamo and Mayercraft Carrier to our standards. We had only worked with Carnival in the past but selected Norwegian Cruise Line to host two of our cruises this year. The idea of going to a new cruise line was daunting but our team did an excellent job. Getting to work with two different cruise lines helped us learn much quicker and would end up being worth the extra work to build relationships and understand two styles. This was also the first time we jumped up to bigger ships, going from 2,200 person capacity ships to 2,800 person capacity ships. Our team used the term “huggable” to describe the difference between the smaller ships and the bigger ships. We felt like somewhere in the 2,500 person range, it lost a little bit of intimacy. Since then, we've mainly used the smaller ships because it felt like more of a "huggable" family.
That fall, we added one more new event to the roster with The Elvis Cruise, a partnership with Elvis Presley Enterprises.
Rock Fore! Dough · Sixthman Sessions
With 10 months to prepare, we felt that producing 5 cruises in one month was doable. In the end, it nearly brought us to our knees. The funny thing about our experience is that we were constantly in a position with our guests where we were asking them for a chance to make something right. While it took a huge emotional and physical toll on all of us, that experience had a profound impact on how we would prepare, staff and anticipate our guests' needs in the future. It’s almost like we had to go through that to see what we were made of. It also allowed our guests to see what we were made of. We never gave up and did not rest until all our guests were back on track. We still reflect back on this year as the one that defined what our recipe needed to be in order to grow without compromising the quality of the experience. Our new cruises this year, Cayamo and Mayercraft Carrier, proved to be great experiences and both signed on again for the following year. At the end of 2008, Sixthman had outgrown the little yellow house we used as an office since 2004, and moved into a bigger space next to the Zoo in Atlanta.
Rock Fore! Dough · Sixthman Sessions
Going from one cruise a year to three in one month was overwhelming. Lynyrd Skynyrd went first followed by the the Rock Boat and then the Barenaked Ladies. We pulled it off and both Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Barenaked Ladies committed to doing it again because they loved it so much. That was a huge moment to see all three events become annual festivals instead of just one-offs. That’s when we really knew we had a business we could build. Within a few months of completing these festivals, John Mayer agreed to do a cruise and we decided to start another festival of our own, Cayamo, a singer-songwriter based event conceived by Ken Levitan who managed Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, John Hiatt, Shawn Colvin and Buddy Miller.
Rock Fore! Dough
The Rock Boat was hosted in January out of Galveston, TX due to the port of New Orleans still being closed from Hurricane Katrina. We allowed guests who had been booked on the cancelled TRB V to transfer to TRB VI, and ended up with a great crowd on board. One day, we hit some bad weather on the way back from Mexico and had to move all the shows indoors. The band Wideawake stole the show by playing in the Atrium as guests lined the railings of 7 storeis and stayed there for 2 hours. On the last night of the cruise, Sister Hazel kicked off a jam and every artist from the lineup got up and played one song. It went 'til 6:00am as we pulled back into Galveston. Sister Hazel brought their new manager on the cruise and he liked it so much he asked us if we could do a cruise for his other band Lynyrd Skynyrd. This was an exciting time for us, but the idea of doing 3 cruises in a year totally freaked us out. Each one was like giving birth - just as painful and just as rewarding.
That summer, we took The Rock Boat on the road for the first time and produced a bus tour called The Rock Bus, featuring two of The Rock Boat's most popular acts from that year, Wideawake and Zack Brown Band.
The Rock Bus · Rock Fore! Dough
The Rock Boat was set to sail out of New Orleans at the end of September and sold out months in advance. We decided to add a 2nd Rock Boat in January of 2006, thinking we would have one event every 6 months. One month before we were scheduled to sail, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and Carnival rented our ship to FEMA so they could use it to house relief workers and families that had lost their homes. The Rock Boat was cancelled. We were sure we'd go out of business. Even though the cruise line owed us our charter fee back, we were still out all the money in marketing, artist fees and a year's worth of general operating costs. After a trip to Miami, Carnival agreed to pay us all our unrecoverable expenses and allow us to stay in business. Guests were calling us saying, “keep our money... just don’t go out of business." This is when we realized we were in the community business, and that was a defining moment for sure. In an effort to make the best of a bad situation, we invited guests and artists to Atlanta during the weekend we were supposed to be on the cruise, and 500 guests traveled to "Rock For Relief," a concert with most of the bands scheduled to play on board. We ended up raising $55,000 for Hurricane Katrina Relief that weekend. At the end of December, Andy got a call from the Barenaked Ladies manager asking if we could help them host their fans on a cruise. We said “We’ve been waiting on your call.” We also decided that we would no longer represent Sister Hazel as a management client, but help them find a new manager and continue being their partner on The Rock Boat.
Rock For Relief · Rock Fore! Dough
We put The Rock Boat on sale in November of 2003 and it sold out within a few weeks. The hard work and patience had paid off. Gavin DeGraw joined us for this sailing with 20+ other artists. Zac Brown performed on his first cruise with us after winning a Battle of the Bands contest in the Southeast. We were learning so much about producing a vacation rather than just a concert. We didn’t have to vote anymore about whether to do it or not. The Rock Boat was here to stay, and we even ventured into producing a similar festival at a ski resort in Colorado, and called it The Rock Slope.
We couldn’t wait to announce the next Rock Boat. We invited a lot of the same bands and Tonic jumped in on the fun. The event grew a little, but it didn't sell out. It was a lot of risk and work, so we had a meeting afterwards to vote whether to keep it going or shut it down. In the end, we determined that we'd give it one more year.
We launched the first Rock Boat and sailed out of Tampa on Labor Day Weekend. We made so many mistakes, but we had over 2000 guests and a festival was born. We even ran out of beer and had to borrow some from another Carnival ship when we were in the Bahamas. Pat McGee led an all night jam playing covers, and Edwin McCain delivered a Braveheart speech while standing on the bar, inspiring the bartender to stay open.
During a weekly message board chat with the Sister Hazel street team, fans requested a weekend hang with the band since they had been working so hard to promote them. Andy relayed the message to the band and they simply said, “lets do it”. Andy didn't know where to start, but while traveling on a flight from New York to Atlanta, fate placed him in the seat next to a travel agent who suggested a cruise. So... we did it! We invited 400 fans on a cruise over Labor Day for what we dubbed, “Rock and Roll at Sea". We had no idea what we were in for, but it was a ton of fun. It was while we were stopped in Key West on that trip that Andy decided he wanted to build a business based on bringing fans and bands on vacation together. The cruise returned, and we soon set our sights on chartering an entire ship for the next year so we could make it a real festival. We called Edwin McCain, Pat McGee, Cowboy Mouth and asked them to join us in 2002. If they could bring 400 fans each, we could fill an entire ship. We began getting prices from cruise lines to rent the ship on September 10th, 2001. The next day, the world changed and a cruise was the last thing we could think about. When we picked conversations back up with the cruise lines, prices had dropped significantly. We still had to come up with $750,000 to rent a ship, and none of us had the money. So we built a website and asked 1,000 fans to put down a $99 deposit, and then took our plan to a local Atlanta businessmen who loaned us the money. We were on our way!
Andy Levine played in a band called Waterdog with Jett Beres and Ryan Newell from Sister Hazel. He wasn’t very good, but he booked all the gigs so they let him stay in the band. When the band dissolved in the Spring 1994, Andy began promoting concerts for a local Gainesville club called Richenbachers. Sister Hazel was starting up and Andy had a great relationship with the band so they decided to work together. In 1996, Sister Hazel released an independent album and sold 10,000 copies in 90 days, leading them to sign a record deal with Universal Records. From the beginning, Andy and the band invested heavily in connecting with their fans and organized an official street team to help spread the word about Sister Hazel. In 1997, the band earned a #1 song, “All For You”, which propelled the album to Platinum status. As the band toured, the street team, called “The Hazelnuts”, continued to grow.