“Every night I read the guests’ comment cards, because retaining guests is our only way to success. Ideally, we want you to come back and to bring friends because you are so excited about it,” says Anthony Diaz, CEO of Sixthman, which for the past 15 years has worked to bring together fans and bands for unique, intimate music experiences via themed music cruises.
Sixthman’s emphasis on listening to customers’ wants, as well as facilitating a more intimate fan-artist relationship, has been a core value for Sixthman founder and now Chairman Andy Levine since he launched the venture.
Diaz and Levine’s working relationship began when they were college students in the early ‘90s. As bandmates in a group popular at the University of Florida, they had dreams of music stardom. “We recorded a CD in Nashville, did showcases, and thought we were going to be rock stars, but never got that record deal,” Diaz recalls. The band broke up and some members joined with an acoustic duo, Ken and Drew. The new group would rebrand as Sister Hazel.
Levine booked shows for the band and later managed Sister Hazel for several years. They would sign with Universal and score the 1997 hit “All For You.”
“They always made the pledge that they would put the fans first,” Diaz recalls. To that end, Levine sought ways to have the band spend time hanging with members of its avid street team. A change meeting with a travel agent during a flight convinced Levine to take a chance on a cruise with the band and team.
In 2001, Sister Hazel, Levine, and 400 of the band’s biggest supporters set sail from Tampa to Key West and Mexico, marking the launch of Sixthman’s flagship festival. The next year, they invited music friends including Edwin McCain and Cowboy Mouth, bringing in a total of nearly 2,000 guests for Sixthman’s first fully chartered ship, The Rock Boat. The initial outing wasn’t without a few learning curves (for instance, The Rock Boat ran out of beer and had to borrow from another Carnival ship). Still, the initial outing was a success and Sixthman was born.
A fully chartered outing became the genesis of a model Sixthman still uses. “We program stages, branding, activities, drink specials and shore excursions. That way it can be a fully immersive experience,” says Diaz.
For years, Diaz watched from afar as Levine’s company grew, adding concerts from Lynyrd Skynyrd and John Mayer. To date, Sixthman has chartered 94 full ships, and hosted more than 835,000 festival vacation days at sea for 207,000 fans, with artists including KISS, Kid Rock, Zac Brown Band, Train, Pitbull, Florida Georgia Line, Paramore, Chris Stapleton and more. The company’s 45 full-time employees work from Sixthman’s headquarters in Atlanta.
Diaz joined Sixthman five years ago as Chief Marketing Officer. Since then, he’s been on 45 cruises, and been promoted to Chief Operating Officer, and as of May, to the role of CEO. Prior to joining Sixthman, Diaz spent 13 years with media company Gannett, rising to VP, Sales Strategy and Development, where he was responsible for media sales efforts for 23 television stations and a 250-person sales force.
Diaz says cruises offer a unique concert environment by offering fans more up-close, personal interactions with their favorite artists. “There are only 2,600 people on the ship. You are legitimately on vacation with the band. When Kid Rock is sitting on the pool deck early in the morning with a coffee and just talking to fans, it just blows everyone’s minds. There are no sharpies and selfies.”
A smaller audience and the unique venue has allowed for magical, spontaneous moments over the years. One year, Sister Hazel performed until 6 a.m. when the ship pulled back into port. Another year, the alternative rock band Wideawake performed for two hours during a storm, while fans lined seven stories of the ship’s railing to watch the performance. During one of Kid Rock’s annual cruises, he took over the ship’s PA system at 1:30 a.m., inviting everyone to the pool deck, where he DJ’d for three hours.
For artists, cruises offer the time and space to collaborate with fellow artists. “In the regular festival model, bus number one pulls in, an artist plays a set, goes back to the bus and goes to the next festival. The next artist does the same. Maybe there is some backstage intermingling. With us, they are out there for five days, they are hanging out and they start to collaborate. All of a sudden you have Andy Grammer with Train all singing one of their songs.”
While the ships primarily sail November through April, the company’s operations team spends its off season from May through October arranging every nuance of the experience and planning for every contingency: which ports artists should fly into, emergency plans if bad weather hit, what cranes are needed to get artists’ production gear on and off the ship, and even bar setups and napkin branding.
“Every time, I’m amazed at the marvel of logistics that has to happen to put these events on. You are dealing with the elements at sea, and the fact that you sail with what you’ve got. You’re not running down to Home Depot to get more. It forces you to be very disciplined with advanced planning.”
Clustering cruises back-to-back is one efficient use of time and space. “We get on Feb. 3 and do seven cruises in a row,” says Diaz, who notes the cost of chartering a ship alone can enter seven figures. Guests typically exit a ship at 8 a.m., and guests begin boarding for the next cruise at 11:30 a.m. “Our team will fly people in and out to keep fresh troops. You put the full deck stage up once for multiple music festivals, instead of having to put it up and take it down over and over again.”
In the midst of the plethora of planning, Diaz keeps his focus sharp.
“I have three things I have to do: Make the team and guests the star, grow the festivals and take care of our artist partners. The joy I see on guests’ faces when we are pulling away from port and there is sunshine and their favorite band starts a chord on the pool deck, that’s why we do it.”
Upcoming Sixthman cruises for 2017 include the 2nd Annual Walker Stalker Cruise (Feb. 3-6), The Rock Boat XVII (Feb. 10-15), 2nd Annual Outlaw Country Cruise (Feb. 26-March 2), and Kid Rock’s 8th Chillin’ The Most Cruise (April 4-9).
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