4 Marketing & Business Secrets of the Least Likely to Succeed Singer in History
He played for 9 years before he had a “hit.” Reaching #30 on the Billboard chart, it did break into the Top 40, but it made little impact.
(I have no memory of hearing it.)
It took him 3 more years to score another successful single, the only real one of his 55-year career. And it maxxed out at #8. And was only the 12th Bestselling song of the year.
Yet that song is the foundation for a fortune worth $600 million. He makes around $100 million per year by branding himself and exploiting his intellectual property in ways nobody else in music would have dared to dream of.
In that pre-Internet era, radio airtime was the key factor in selling lots of records. With the exception of that one real hit, the radio stations never pushed his songs.
He didn’t fall into their convenient slots. He wasn’t rock, country, folk or any other label.
Meanwhile, the huge superstars of his time, who did enjoy radio airtime pushing their record sales and concert tickets, became mere shadows of their former glory, if they still exist at all.
He learned to entertain literally from the ground up, by busking for tips in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
While the Big Names filled the huge concert halls, he worked his way up from the street to bars and pizza joints.
He’s the most successful bar singer in history.
For years, he barely owned his flipflops. Now, he controls a mammoth licensing and holding corporation.
In an age when large companies hold the mainstream music industry in an iron grip, exploiting even superstars more ruthlessly than ever, he owns his market — including his own recording company.
He still tours every year. He still records. He does only what he wants to do, and becomes more successful — and wealthier — every year.
The 60’s Rock Stars Lived for Music
In the mid-60’s, while rock groups where pushing pop music much farther than anybody thought it could go — into art and revolution — I read countless interviews with these talented musicians in Hit Parader magazine.
I don’t recall the names, but I’m sure they included members of Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, Moby Grape and others making sounds never before heard on Earth.
The details varied, but overall pattern was consistent. They began to listen to and play music from an early age. They loved rock n roll even though their parents and churches hated it. They stayed up late at night to listen to the Grand Ole Opry and southern radio stations playing “race” music. They loved classical music, jazz, folk — you name it.
Currently they were studying the music of the Middle East or Bali.
They lived for music.
But his “origin story” is quite different.
Just 3 Chords, and the Girls Love You?
Soon after he started college, his fraternity held a party.
Of course, he wanted to meet women. But while everyone got drunk, the only guy there the young ladies paid attention to was the boy playing guitar.
Afterward, he asked his frat brother to teach him to play guitar.
It’s easy, the other guy said. All you need is three chords.
To be fair, he was a fast learner, and a hard worker.
He learned by playing. Not only frat parties, but the streets, bars, nearly empty auditoriums — everyplace that would have him.
He absorbed the influences of all the music he heard: rock, country, pop, folk and — eventually, the various Caribbean island genres from reggae to steel bands.
He absorbed everything, and transmuted it into his own, freewheeling, appealing style.
So, what can we learn from Jimmy Buffett?
1. Decide You’re Going to Control Your Own Career
When he was still very poor, and newly married, he decided to take a J.O.B. to pay the bills. He wound up writing for Billboard magazine’s Nashville edition. He got to interview a lot of country and blues stars all around the south.
In his book A PIRATE LOOKS AT 50, he makes a brief mention how it upset him to see highly talented artists in financial trouble because they let someone untrustworthy handle “‘all that stuff’” for them.
(He put quotes around “all that stuff,” and I’m quoting him.)
His book editor let him get by without explaining what he meant by “‘all that stuff,’” but it’s not hard to guess.
The music industry has been exploitative since soon after Edison invented the phonograph.
Buffett told a New York Times reporter record contracts were involuntary servitude. Although he tried, he couldn’t fight the system.
He must have done something right, however, because he retained basic control.
He’s not The Beatles, who had to watch on helplessly while Michael Jackson cheapened their brand by selling song rights to cheap, lousy movies.
He’s not John Fogarty, writer of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s long string of hits. He lost control of CCR’s songs. Years later, when he wrote and recorded a new song, the CCR songs rights holder sued him for copyright infringement. He was guilty of sounding too much like himself.
Did Buffett EVER Live the “Jimmy Buffett Lifestyle?”
The New York Times ran an article basically accusing Buffett of not understanding his own music because he’s now so rich, he can’t remember what it was like to live like he did as a young man.
His wealth has no doubt influenced him, but it’s probably a mistake to believe he ever spent a lot of time away from performing music. Yes, he went to Key West and rented the second floor of a house there, and has sung about the tropics in many songs.
But he apparently did stay there for long stretches of time. He was too busy performing everywhere he could book a job.
What He Told High Times Magazine
This is NOT what hippie stoners expected to hear back in 1976:
“You gotta be calculating, you gotta bust your ass if you want to do anything. For me, it’s like I can’t be a sensitive artist and still be out here surviving. Certain things have got to be done in order to get where you want to go.”
Buffett’s Shameful “Secret”
Once, a friend found him holed up alone in his hotel room, refusing entry to everybody else.
What vice was he indulging in?
He was organizing receipts.
Apparently he had to prepare expense reports for the record company, and he didn’t trust anybody else with “all that stuff.”
But he was in hiding because he didn’t want to spoil his hard-partying, laid-back hippie musician image by letting people know he was more concerned with getting the paperwork right than the most button-downed bean counter.
More Than Just a Song
In 1983, the Mexican restaurant chain Chi-Chi’s tried to trademark “Margaritaville.”
They told the court that to Buffett it was just a song, but they served actual margaritas to customers.
Buffett sued, and eventually won.
He and a partner opened the first J.B.’s Margaritaville Store and, later, the first Margaritaville Cafe.
Now, Margaritaville is restaurants, resorts, hotels, casinos, snack foods, t-shirts, margarita mixes, tequilas and much, MUCH more.
How Much is 25% of “Margaritaville” Now Worth?
An ex-manager of Buffett’s once owned 25% of “Margaritaville.” During a slow period, he sold it back to Buffett for $100,000.
That’s not quite as bad as Apple’s ex-founding partner Ronald Wayne selling his 10% share of that company for just $800, but it’s close.
Producer Norbert Putnam Grilled Buffett About Everything Except Music
When Putnam started out in the music industry, a lawyer advised him to work only with musicians who would have long term careers.
They all devote 90% of their lives to music at first, the lawyer said. That’s fine.
But when they hit the big time, they’ve got to scale that down to 10%. They’ve got to understand business and life as well. Or they won’t make the long haul.
So, Putnam took musicians out to eat before deciding to work with them, and talked about everything else.
Putnam saw Buffett’s potential (though probably underestimating it). He took over producing Buffett’s albums, adding Trinidad steel drums, wooden flutes and anything else he could think of to make the sound more nautical and tropical.
Buffett’s earlier albums captured the low-key feel of Key West, but Putnam kicked all that up a notch. He made Buffett’s seventh album the breakout point of his career. It contains the title track, “Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude” (my personal favorite Buffett song) and — even more notably — “Margaritaville.”
If Buffett had impressed Putnam as a narrow, 90%-music “artiste” instead of a broad-minded businessperson, there’s no telling where he’d be now.
2. Engage With, Delight, Connect With and Entertain Your Fans
Decades before social media made connecting with and engaging your fans a cliche for Internet marketers, Buffett was practicing it.
No doubt he quickly learned that people on French Quarter street corners tipped more when the guy with the guitar talked directly to them.
You can tell how much he loves to talk, crack jokes and appeal to the crowd.
He sounds like he’s still just another guy at the frat party, playing songs to pick up girls.
Frank Zappa of the Mothers of Invention used to make fun of audiences who requested they play “Louie Louie” (the greatest frat party song of all time). I don’t know if Buffett has ever performed “Louie Louie,” but he probably would if convinced that’s what his fans really wanted
HIGH TIMES also asked Buffett what he thought of artists who shun their followers. His answer:
“I don’t think they’ll be long-lived.”
Even Without Intending It, Buffett Created a “Tribe” Bigger than Seth Godin’s
Although the radio still didn’t play Jimmy Buffett songs, the word about him spread via word of mouth. People played his albums for their friends, converting them.
It was in the early 80’s when Buffett and his band noticed their audiences becoming “different.”
They not only began to recognize many of the same faces, those people were came wearing grass hula skirts and Hawaiian shirts — and dressing up, putting on parrot masks.
Michael Nesmith of the Monkees pointed out their similarity to the people who compulsively followed the Grateful Dead around — Dead Heads —making them Parrot Heads.
His fans reproduced, and took their children — Parakeets — to Buffett concerts with them.
Give the People What They Want
He once told ROLLING STONE:
“I’m not out to make statements. I’m descended from court jesters, not theologians, and I just go out there to entertain.”
Probably the most serious conflict he ever faced was when Jamaican police mistook him for a drug smuggler, and tried to shoot his plane down. But, hey, he just wrote a fun song about it: “Jamaica Mistaica.”
Buffett is Apparently Just a Highly Likable, Can’t We All Get Along, Kind of Guy
I’ve never met him, but that’s what comes across strongly in his concerts, in his music and in everything people write about him.
The music revolution of the 60’s and 70’s was about songs to change the world. To launch a literal hippie revolution. To bring about peace. To destroy racism and injustice and the forces of fascism. Up against the wall, motherfuckers! the MC5 shouted. And they meant it. And if they didn’t, the Clash did.
Some of it was meant to help listeners transcend their human identity and merge with the cosmic mind. To see God.
To wipe out all problems through the power of music and love.
Buffett sings songs that make us feel good.
And, because he sings of “exotic” people and places most of us can only dream of going to, we project our tropical fantasies into his music.
Good Friends Stay With Him
One early member of the Coral Reefer Band was a new, young piano player named Michael Utley. Since then, Utley has played on every Buffett album. He’s produced and co-written music for Buffett. And he’s still one of the band.
It’s not like he doesn’t have options. He’s played for many big stars on tour and in the recording studio.
Mac McAnally came along a few years later, joining the Coral Reefer Band as a hungry, ambitious guitar player. Since then, he’s played with many country stars and put out his own albums. Not incidentally, he’s won the Country Musician of the Year award ten out of the last twelve years. He too is in high demand.
Yet both Utley and McAnally drop everything else to tour with Buffett every year.
The Friendship and Scheduling Snafu that Made Musical History and Buffett’s Fortune
In late 1971, Buffett landed a gig at the fabled music club and coffeehouse, The Flick, in Miami. In its short life it was legendary, with Joni Mitchell, Dion and other stars playing there.
He eagerly reported on the day given him, only to be told he was a week early. Come back in seven days.
Never mind, his friend Jerry Jeff Walker (then well-known for writing “Mr. Bojangles”) told him. Come with me and meet the gang in Key West.
Where? This was before the tourists found Key West. It was still just a small island full of literary outlaws, hard-partying misfits and drug smugglers.
By the time he reported back to play The Flick, Buffett had found a home in Key West.
And, clearly, telling the stories Key West inspired totally shaped Buffett’s career.
He may still have achieved success, but it’s truly difficult to imagine Buffett’s career if you take away the influence of Key West.
The island not only inspired him, it gave him the kind of material nobody in New York, Los Angeles or Nashville could hope for.
He was no longer just a random hippie outlaw, he was a hippie outlaw who knew what paradise on Earth looked like.
Take Good Care of Your Fans (Even If They Don’t Appreciate It?)
Buffett’s original fans are, like him, no longer young by the calendar.
Of course, that’s true of many rock and country stars, but only Buffett came up with the idea to build a paradise for his fans to grow old in.
If you’re 55+, you too can buy a home in the retirement community Latitude Margaritaville, in Daytona Beach, Florida.
The words “retirement community” send cold chills down my spine second only to “nursing home,” and, I suspect, Buffett agrees.
Still, if I ever wind up in such a place (unlikely), I’d pick Latitude Margaritaville. It must be the most fun. Buffett will make sure of that.
Even if you prefer to live somewhere else, Buffett’s watching out for you, though not everyone appreciates it.
Buffett’s Margaritaville Life brand puts out supplements, smoothies and coconut oil.
But someone at the Palmetto Parrot Head Club of Columbia, South Carolina said: “Are you kidding me? . . . The name of Margaritaville is antithetical to healthcare supplements.”
Keep Recruiting New Fans
I worried whether enough members of Medium would even know who Buffett was, or care, to make writing this story worthwhile.
I still don’t know, but he has established Margaritaville University to aggressively recruit Millennials.
Buffett thanks Parrot Heads for bringing their children, and many of the kids, starting out as Parakeets, grow up to be full-fledged Parrot Heads old enough to legally sing along to the songs.
3. Have Something to Say Even Though You’re Not a Theologian
In researching this article, I discovered that, thanks to Buffett, there’s now a entire “genre” of music called trop rock. Short for tropical, of course.
Maybe I watched the wrong trop rock playlist on YouTube, but, while some of the songs are kind of fun, they left me cold.
And, for a genre that celebrates hot weather, that’s an insult.
Although Buffett inspired trop rock, most of its players seems to miss a lot of what makes Buffett popular.
The trop rock playlist videos were all about drinking, the sun, beaches, resorts full of hot young babes, and on and on.
I’ve nothing against those things. I’ve spent time in the tropics myself, and plan to go back. Even as I write, I’m dreading the onset of another St. Louis winter.
But, for the most part, Buffett sings stories OF the tropics — not “about” the tropics.
“He Went to Paris.” “Cowboy in the Jungle.” “Last Mango in Paris.” “A Pirate Looks at 40.”
“Margaritaville” is the anthem of trop rock, but there’s a central contradiction within it.
The song’s singer is NOT celebrating his stay in “paradise.” He’s “wasting away.” He’s avoiding responsibility. A woman is to blame for him staying in Key West for the entire season, with nothing to show for it but a tattoo.
For an ambitious type A, obsessive compulsive overworker like Buffett, the words “with nothing to show for it” are a harsh rebuke.
As described in A PIRATE LOOKS AT 50, when Buffett’s not touring he goes fly fishing, travels and hangs out with his family.
And, no doubt, he takes a lot of meetings with lawyers, accountants and the managers running his businesses.
Buffett DOES “Make Statements,” but Without Hostility and Self-Righteousness
Quite a contrast to most of American culture, which is increasingly divided.
Many of his songs contain some degree of “social consciousness,” but without offending anybody.
I’m a whole foods, plant based diet guy, but I still love singing along with “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”
I’m able to understand it’s meant to be fun, not an attack on vegans.
Some would no doubt argue with this.
After all, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, Jim Morrison and others all enjoyed tremendous success despite dying so young.
It’s entirely likely that had the above lived longer, most of them would have self-sabotaged their careers with drugs and other poor lifestyle and business choices — the way so many other artists of all kinds have done.
Michael Jackson is an obvious example. How differently would the world feel about him if he’d died soon after the megasuccess of THRILLER?
However, most musicians would prefer to stay alive.
Soon to be 73 as I write this, Buffett’s longevity is not (yet) amazing.
But to the extent he did live the “Buffett lifestyle” of nonstop partying, drugs and booze, it is.
Plus, he’s survived a number of dangerous situations. As a teenage surfer, he rode a wave that almost killed him. He nearly died in a scuba incident. In A PIRATE LOOKS AT 50, he describes overturning his seaplane, getting out alive only thanks to having taken Navy survival training.
In one famous incident, while drunk, he couldn’t find his car in a crowded parking lot. To get a good look around, he climbed onto a Cadillac while wearing golf cleats.
The Cadillac belonged to Buford Pusser, the Tennessee sheriff famous for taking on the Dixie Mafia. Pusser inspired the movie Walking Tall.
According to somebody I once met who’d lived in Tennessee and once met Pusser, the sheriff lost his re-election because he’d beaten up so many of the guys he arrested.
You didn’t want to get on his bad side, that’s for sure — yet Buffett got away with telling him, “You kiss my ass.”
He’s broken his leg three times.
Once, he passed out in a dinghy and the knot came undone, so when he finally woke up, he had drifted into the ocean. Some drug smugglers passed by and pointed him back to land, but if he hadn’t been Jimmy Buffett, they’d probably have killed him.
Part of what makes Buffett, Buffett is a taste for adventure. In A PIRATE LOOKS AT 50, he tells the story of a family vacation into off-the-beaten path parts of the Caribbean and South America. And he tells stories of earlier vacations (not performing tours) where he traveled to places the average American or Parrot Head would never think to go.
Still, the point is, if Buffett had met his end before his 30th birthday (like Janis, Jimi and all the rest), he never would have written “Margaritaville” or experienced the success it brought.
I wonder how many stars the world has never known because they died before they became successful?
Don’t Retire is the Flip Side of Don’t Die Young
So it’s a good thing Buffett didn’t fit in as just a rock star.
Still, he’s certainly wealthy enough to stop. He could devote his time to his beloved fly fishing, sailing or flying wherever in the world he decided to visit.
I believe he’d enjoy changing longitude, and discovering some tropical paradises other than the Caribbean, especially in Southeast Asia. But maybe that’s just me.
He could disappear to that “One Particular Harbor.”
But, when asked, he quotes Willie Nelson:
“Retire? To what?”
“Don’t ever stop. Retirement ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. There are only so many golf tournaments and chicken dinners. After that it gets real fucking boring.”