Before Jimmy Buffett, “rock ’n’ roll” and “leisure” hardly counted as overlapping industries. British rockers might have done photo shoots at their lavish country estates, but publicly, for the most part, the essential rock maxim remained: Never let ’em see you not sweat. But it was Buffett’s genius — as a businessman, if not necessarily an artist — to play down the shiftlessness of some of his early beach-bum character studies and play up relaxation as an aspirational lifestyle. Cut to now, when Margaritaville, the company named after Buffett’s sole No. 1 pop hit, brings in between $1.5 billion and $2 billion annually.
The singer-songwriter’s last studio album, 2013’s “Songs From St. Somewhere,” debuted at No. 4, not bad for a pirate looking at 66 at the time. But as income streams go, new — and even catalog — recordings count as an asterisk on a pimple on the empire the singer has amassed as one of music’s savviest branding kings. In 2016, Forbes declared Buffett America’s 13th-wealthiest celebrity, with a net worth of $550 million, so Spotify royalties are the least of his concerns. Margaritaville’s physical locations clearly attract more than just hardcore Parrotheads; the company’s 70-plus restaurants, bars, hotels, resorts, casinos, cruises and vacation rentals draw more than 20 million visitors each year. And no one need leave home to experience a piece of Margaritaville when there are tequilas, rums, lagers, iced teas, shrimp, tortilla chips, clothes, shoes, bedsheets and pool and tailgating accessories designed to make the most landlocked hovel seem downright Gulf Coast-adjacent.
The ancillary branding began modestly but early with the 1987 opening of the first Margaritaville restaurant in Key West; it took until 1993 before they got around to a second location. Now there are 32, and that’s not counting the three Air Margaritavilles in airport terminals, nine Landshark Bar & Grills, seven Cheeseburger in Paradises and seven 5 O’Clock Somewhere bars. There are two casinos and the hotel/resorts are up to eight, with eight more on the way in the coming years, including a 234-room, 29-story property set to open in 2020 in beachy Times Square. If the danger remains that Buffett’s fan base might age out of the leisure sector, there’s some accounting for that with two planned retirement communities for the “55 and better” set, with Latitude Margaritavilles being developed in Daytona Beach and Hilton Head that promise a Buffett-esque headspace 24/7/365/∞.
Not everything he touches turns to golden sand. His jukebox musical, “Escape to Margaritaville,” had more trouble finding crowds after opening on Broadway in March than it did in landing out-of-town tryouts; after sliding down to a reported 33% of its potential gross and zero Tony nominations, it posted a closing notice as of July 1.
Apparently, “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere” is not the perfect 11:00 number after all. It will go on as a road show in October and plans to tour through 2019, but the message is clear: Buffett fans aren’t sure why they need to experience a hero finding the bliss of sea air in a theater when they can book a resort stay for their own latitude- and attitude-changing interactive theater.