He joins bands with fans, then sets sail

What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.

Tod Elmore, 43, is a native of Warner Robins, Ga. He is based out of Atlanta, where he is a partner in Sixthman, a firm that produces music cruises and concerts.

Q. How often are you at sea?

A. Several times a year - about 20 days in 2006 - though that's increasing. Through 2006, Sixthman produced one cruise a year; we're doing three in January alone. Our goal is to expand, and we could be doing eight to 12 of these a year.

Q. You have quite a niche market in cruising. How did you get into it?

A. Sixthman started as a music-management company, with my partner Andy Levine. I was the record-company guy; he was a musician and the artist manager. We joined to start Sixthman in 2001. We had our own label, marketing and so on; the cruises were born out of that.

Andy had always managed a band called Sister Hazel that had played Memorial Day weekend in Charleston for several years. That became a fan-vacation package because more and more people would travel for this. It got to the point where the event outgrew the venue. And that's how we stumbled on the Rock Boat concept.

The first one had Sister Hazel and Dexter Freebish. It was for a large group; it wasn't a full chartering of the ship. We were executing our programs - concerts, meet-and-greet events - while Carnival was doing their program for regularly booked people on board.

It was a lot of fun and taught us we were onto something - bringing fans to their favorite bands. But we also learned we had to have our own ship, to displace all the things Carnival does - otherwise you're stuck doing your program in a small window of opportunity.

In 2002, we did our first full-ship charter: We bought out the Carnival Sensation for about 1,800 people. We had our roster of about 16 or 18 bands, and some that were in our circle of friends - Edwin McCain, Cowboy Mouth and the Pat McGee Band.

So with our own ship, we could do all the programming - do the onboard events, cater the menu to our liking, and everything else. We can change the destination, too, as long as the ship can get there.

Q. What's the biggest you've done?

A. The January cruise involves the largest ship we've used, the Carnival Legend, for 2,600 passengers. Sister Hazel is a partner in this; we've got about 30 bands in all.

Q. With megaships, can you do megabands?

A. The business model doesn't lend itself to superstar acts. There are only so many beds on a boat.

If Dave Matthews played Charlotte's Verizon Amphitheater, they'd probably gross $700,000 to $900,000 and net half a million.

On a ship, for a band to net that kind of money, we'd have to charge $3,000 a head.

Also, a cruise takes three to six days off their working calendars plus travel days to get to the ship and back. All that time, they could be elsewhere making money.

Q. On the ship, are the musicians your employees?

A. They're hired talent.

Q. How many are you hiring for these January cruises?

A. The first, Gimme Three Days, is hosted by Lynyrd Skynyrd and billed as Southern rock. They're the host band, but there are another dozen acts, including 38 Special.

The second is The Rock Boat, with five or six stages operating at all times. This is the Mac Daddy cruise in terms of the number of events taking place. We have 35 or 36 artists confirmed.

The third is Ships `n' Dip, with Barenaked Ladies as host. This one is different - a cruise by and large that's all about Barenaked Ladies, one band that has a variety of offshoot bands and side projects. So we have those people plus two comedians. The Barenaked Ladies play every day - acoustic shows, offshoot shows, all during the four-day cruise.

All three sail out of Florida, by the way. The Skynyrd cruise is out of Miami; the others are from Fort Lauderdale.

(All three cruises were sold out by late December.)

Q. What's the hardest aspect of pulling this off?

A. We like to work a year in advance: It takes 14 to 16 months to pull this off right. We're already three months into January 2008 - we picked the ship, looked at destinations and so on.

The one thing we haven't done is secure artists: Most simply can't do that 14 months in advance.

Q. So you have bands and fans at sea - where you can't up and leave. Do fans drive the musicians nuts?

A. "Bands living with fans" is a hard selling point if you've never done it before. But these bands come back year after year because they love it. Once your band has done this, you want to come back. We've had to ask bands to take a year off!

One of our 2008 programs is a Beach Boys cruise. We met with them. And when we said, "Here's how it works," Mike Love had the expected concern: captive on a cruise ship with 2,000 fans.

On these cruises, bands are diving in with the fans but want a place to retreat when they need to. We take precautions so musicians get a piece of serenity when they need it. A private pool deck or private VIP green room.

Q. Who exactly goes on these cruises?

A. We know the Rock Boat audience well; when we get home from the cruise we survey them, and get a 70 percent response rate.

The average dude is 34 and single and in some regards is white collar. The "dudette" is 29 and single and in middle management - an administrative assistant or a schoolteacher; there aren't a lot of Donald Trumps in this crowd.

Q. How much for these cruises?

A. The average person will spend $1,000 or $1,200 for the cruise, in the ship casino and on air fare.

Q. Any concerns about performers going nuts - throwing TVs in the swimming pools and so on?

A. We don't have those scenarios. It boils down to the artists we've been working with. If you buy into going on a cruise with your fans, you're probably not an "extreme" artist.

Q. What about noise? How does one get to sleep on a concert cruise?

A. That's not a big issue for us because of how cruise ships are designed. Passenger cabins are not adjacent to any of the big theaters. We tend to know in advance which cabins could be too close to performance venues and could be too loud. We put our staff there.


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© 2007, The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.).