His affinity for small venues, as well as an enduring relationship with Cisco Adler, led to Buffett’s support of NoCap (see page 18), a well-conceived concert streaming solution providing fans ticketed concerts from storied small venues from a wide range of artists including, at some point, Buffett. For an industry completely shut down by the pandemic, NoCap is a welcome opportunity not only for players to play and fans to rock, but also for venues like the Belly Up Tavern in Solano Beach, Calif., and Aspen, Col., to host concerts that can sell tickets, and for artist and venue crew to do what they do, as well.
Buffett quickly warmed up to the concept of streaming concerts. Early on in the industry shutdown, Buffett began streaming epic shows to his rabid Parrothead fans via his Radio Margaritaville and Margaritaville TV platforms, even staging a Cabin Fever Virtual Tour featuring legendary performances from around the world. Clearly, Buffett is all in on NoCap, as evidenced by this rare interview. Buffett spoke with Pollstar via Zoom, discussing his support of NoCap, as well as his own ascension from these small venues and the importance of live performance in his now diversified career. Friendly and chill, as one might expect, Buffett, taking his first summer off the road in more than 40 years, weighs in on why he finds this new concert streaming concept appealing, his nomadic DNA, and what he’s been doing on his summer vacation.
Pollstar: How did you become involved in NoCap?
Jimmy Buffett: It started from knowing Cisco Adler for a long, long time. My daughter and Cisco are about the same age and when we were in California for a stretch they went to school together and were close friends. And Lou [Adler’s father, legendary record/film exec] is an old family friend, so I always follow what Cisco is doing. I’d check in with him every time I was out in California. Then, in the pandemic world, we basically wound up spending almost four months out there in quarantine and that’s when I ran into him again. He always has some kind of little extra thing going on. Cisco was always a doer, and I knew that, and he had the Roxy and I followed him when he had a band.
As bad as it is now, nobody knew what the hell was going on back then. We were getting ready to go on tour, and the next thing we know, we’re not. What became apparent was how unfair it was to a lot of people and much more of a problem for people in small music venues around the country to survive. I knew about NIVA through Joe Walsh originally, and then the Goldbergs, they have the Belly Up in Aspen and San Diego. I know them very well and actually played the Belly Up about a year or two ago, just for fun, to warm up.
I came out of clubs, and have a very warm connection to them and opened the Exit/In 50 years ago in Nashville. It struck me as odd that the people who worked in those small music venues, out of which I came and many, many others, couldn’t get any relief from the government. I found it hard to believe. Cisco told me what they were doing when they got NoCap and I thought it was a great idea. It came along with [NoCap co-founder and musician] Donavon Frankenreiter, I knew Don real well as surfer and was a big fan of his. I liked the fact that here were kids that have also played these venues—kids that are 40, but I’m 73—who had a real feeling to try to help other people out.
We were in luck because we had Radio Margaritaville and Margaritaville TV and knew a long time ago that [livestreaming] was something we wanted to do. We have a structure in place where we can communicate with a substantial number of fans who know we’re not coming back out and still want to be entertained. What Cisco was doing as far as putting tickets up but not having people in the venue, I thought was safe. There were many other things, like the drive-in shows, people threw at me that never appealed to me. I didn’t want to go back to work until people were safe and could have the entire experience they expect from us.
None of that band-aid touring appealed to me. I’d rather put my time and effort, now that I’ve got more time than I had, into other things, like learning to play jazz guitar chords, keeping my French up, and also helping Cisco with this adventure. That’s how I got in.
I read this article by Scott Kelly, the astronaut, when the pandemic hit. It was a commonsense approach for dealing with the quarantine from a man, who’s spent more time in space than any human being, on the simple things he did to keep from going crazy. He couldn’t go out, open the door or go outside the Space Station. It was things like hobbies, keeping a diary and getting involved in other things. As a sailor who had done many, many long voyages, it’s basically the same stuff. You have to get into the right frame of mind to go a long distance and settle into a routine. A lot of time in the day that used to be spent getting ready for tours I could use to get other things accomplished. I’d talked about taking the summer off for the last 45 years—this isn’t exactly what I had in mind, but I try to make the best of it.
The cool thing about NoCap is you can employ crew and venue personnel and you’re monetizing the whole thing because there’s a lot of people who aren’t with big companies who normally would be working but are out of work. Helping them out is probably appealing as well.
It is, because my road crew, for as many years as we’ve had, it’s your other family. I only knew how to run this thing like you run a good boat and your crew is the most vital thing you’ve got. A lot of times with sailing destinations, you never reach them. There are a lot of factors that could either get you there or cause you to make different plans. That’s what this is. You’re trying to find the channel through it but again while trying to figure things we could do to keep people active and working and doing what was available. The other thing is, and what NoCap says, is we won’t go back until it’s safe and people are going to have that full experience. The good thing about having such a loyal fan base is we already know they’re sitting at home and they know we’re not coming. They’re basically tailgating in their backyards waiting for us to give them some kind of content, which we have been doing all along, from re-running shows to creating new content to doing our Cabin Fever [Virtual Tour] meet and greets with healthcare and first responders. All of that is aimed at the fact that you’ve got a captive audience. We can’t do what we want to do, nor can they. You go back to—not with any comparison historically—the Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats was the thing that kept people’s spirits going.
In that vein, I think we deal in escapism, which is necessary in the world we live, probably more so now than ever. While we could go virtual with it, our intention then and now is that it’ll probably be safer to play to people in a small venue that you can then stream to a larger audience. When it becomes safe, where you can get people in, that’s one thing, but in the meantime we can still do things to get to people.
Somebody said, “Well, how do you feel about playing for a small audience?” And I said, “Look, I’ve been doing this a long time. I played in Atlanta once where nobody showed up. And the manager made me play to the bartenders and the waitresses.” If you’re a real performer, it doesn’t matter. I’ll play. I’ll give as much quality as I can to two people as I can give to 20,000 people. The size of a crowd was not in any way, shape or form a part of this, it was about what we needed to do it, too. It’s hard not to get in front of a live audience when you’re used to it. I’m missing it, I very surely am. But I know we’ll be back.
When you do a NoCap are you going to have your full Coral Reefer band and the works?
Well, yeah, if I can get to them. We’ve got ideas as to how to do it. The simplest thing for me to do is get to Nashville when it’s safe for me and for everybody else. Most of my rhythm section lives there. But we already started doing that, when the album [Life on the Flip Side] came out, we did a video. The rhythm section was in Nashville, but some of our band was in California, some in Atlanta. We assembled a video where everybody was in it. So we’d get as many people as possible in to do [a show]. That would be my hope. If not I’ll do an acoustic show.
A lot of people may not realize that’s how it all started with you, for myself and longtime fans, like the Exit/In show you mentioned earlier. I was looking up the set list from ’74 there, that was the one and only performance of “The Ballad of Buford Pusser,” I couldn’t find another one.
(Laughs) I think that there was, because somebody had sent me one, too. Let’s just say it was an extended introduction, alright? That was Nashville. I think it was a 45-minute introduction into “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw” or a song like that, I went, “Oh my God, this is like going to confession. Please forgive me for this.” But that was a different day and a different time and as a solo performer you used whatever you’ve got to get up there. Those were wonderful days. I want to do acoustic shows, people like to hear me acoustic again. I’m doing some things with my daughter on our TV network now called “Songs you Don’t Know by Heart” that I had to go relearn some songs. We’re putting those up on our channel now. It’s good to play, even though you’re not having an audience. Of course you want a crowd out there, but you can create a crowd in your mind, there’s no doubt about it, if you’re worth your salt as a live performer.
I’ll tell you a funny story: I got a call from a producer [Phil Ramone], he did the duet albums with Frank Sinatra. He called me and said, “They wondered if you’d do ‘Mack The Knife’ with Frank Sinatra.” I said, “This is great, Frank Sinatra asked me to do ‘Mack The Knife!’” I was in L.A and [Ramone] said, “We’ll meet you at Capitol Tower at five o’clock.” And he said, “Frank’s not there, but you’ll be singing to the track.” He said, “He had a couple of drinks before, so he’s really wailing, so it’d be fun to do that.” I said, “I’ll do the same thing.”
So that evening I get a phone call, “Things have changed a little. We actually need you to do this in the studio and send it over the web to Miami so it’s not going to happen at five.” And I went, “Oh, that’s okay.” And he said, “Yeah, we got to do it at eight in the morning L.A. time.” And I went, “In the morning?” I’m staying down in Santa Monica, I’ve got a Mustang convertible, I’m thinking I was going to drive to Capitol and sing with Frank Sinatra, “Mack The Knife.” So I got to that studio at eight in the morning and I said, “I have to imagine it’s five in the evening and I’ve had two rum drinks and I’m singing with Frank Sinatra.” And I did it. So you gotta make things up. Can I make up an audience? I’m pretty sure I can.
That’s what did it. Because the thing of it was, other than the lucky shot of working for Billboard for two years just to learn that the music business was all stacked against you, was one of the great arrows in my quiver. But the other one was spending two-and-a-half to three years as a performer on Bourbon Street. I went from a year after being an ex-Catholic Jesuit altar boy to living in sin in the French Quarter. That was a big transition. I learned how that, for some reason or other, this child altar boy could connect with an audience and was able to utilize my skills as a performer.
By the time I got to Nashville, the ironic thing was, I figured I could get any job singing somewhere and make enough money while trying to be a songwriter. Other than Printer’s Alley in those days, there were very few places in Nashville back in the early 1970s that had live music. Which was an astonishing, they called it Music City. I came off Bourbon Street, where it was much more alive than anywhere I knew. I had to basically live on being a performer and that’s what I did until things came around. I still am, I still feel that that’s our strong suit. And, like you said, we earned our reputation as being professional and giving you a bang for the buck at shows by being good entertainers, not about being a songwriter.
It’s the truth, and you’re 100% right about Nashville in the ‘70s. I think it was Dwight Yoakam who said it was ‘Music Business City,’ not, especially then, Music City.
I hadn’t heard that. That’s a good one.
You had the Bluegrass Inn and the Printer’s Alley joints and there wasn’t much else in the seventies going on here with live music.
There really wasn’t. And the guy who really saw me was [artist manager] Ken Levitan. There was a coffee house in the basement of Carmichael Towers, the [Vanderbilt] student housing thing, and he was the first one that showed an interest in me as a performer. He and I remain dear friends to this day, because I never forgot. Then Exit/In came along and then [agent] Don Light found me gigs in Atlanta, so I was able to play. I don’t think I even played Nashville, other than a couple of anti-Vietnam War rallies and coffee houses.
In the fishing business, they say you either catch a wave or catch a fish if you spend time on the water. We worked and worked and worked. There’s no secrets of success, but there’s some things that help. To me it’s talent, luck and hard work. But percentage wise, I’d say hard work is 90% of it, and maybe 5% talent and 5% luck. In the beginning, you have to be a control freak, because nobody else gives a damn about you and you have to be able to deal with failure and rejection before you could ever deal with success. I was never deterred from going this way because I also knew at one point I had made enough money to buy a sailboat and had a guitar. So worst case I had was it was “Landfall,” a song I wrote, “what would they do if I just sailed away?” I thought when I bought my first sailboat that was my insurance policy. I could sail it, cook, write, and perform and I’d find a bar somewhere in the Caribbean and would be one of those people if I didn’t make it. That was always my insurance policy, I thought.
Now, oddly enough, everybody’s in those bars playing your music. I looked on Pollstar, there’s 17 Jimmy Buffett tribute acts that are actually official acts out there booking shows. That’s got to be more than anybody.
Well, you know, Ray, that’s one of the things I feel the most proud of, getting back to the point of small music venues. I didn’t know there are 17. I was surprised because one of the bands, I think they’re from Birmingham, they had a road manager and a bus and were getting work, because we don’t work as much as we used to. I’m glad that that sprung out of what we did, that there are that many bands out there in small venues being able to make a living, probably through this. That was definitely on my agenda to help people like that out with getting music back into those venues.
I’ve gone over a lot of your tours before this [interview], it was 70, 80, 100 shows a year, year after year after year, for years. And then the last ten or however long you were doing it, you settled into this groove of 20 or 30 shows a year. It seems like you’ve found a comfort zone. And then all of a sudden, boom, nothing. I couldn’t find the last time you took a summer off.
I never did. Once we started playing, I didn’t. Even when I broke my leg three times, in a cast, I went back on the road, because I couldn’t stay still. But that was when I was young and stupid.
I loved it that much. But the thing of it was, I come from a sailing family from Newfoundland, and I truly believe we have nomadic genes. I wanted to see the world. I came from a family that had, from a little town in Pascagoula [MS]. My grandfather sailed the entire planet, and I wanted to do it, too.
I guess you’re the modern interpretation of what’s in your DNA, you have it in your genes.
I do. And then Mark Twain, as Huck Finn, says, “You got to light out for the territory.” Mark Twain was always a huge inspiration for me to light out into the territory.
Has this down time been creatively fertile for you?
Yeah, it has. I’ll tell you what I just started doing: I’ve had a book that I’ve wanted to write for a while. And then, it’s been seven years since we made an album, but five of those years were spent gearing up and producing and going on the road with the musical [“Escape to Margaritaville”], so it took a lot of time, a lot of rewrites and working, putting that creative energy into those things.
Then we wanted to do an album again, because we all just simply wanted to get back into the studio and we’ve got a great little studio in Key West. We were writing good, and my wingman, Mac McAnally, [Michael] Utley, and people that I go to, Will Kimbrough, and people that are kind of in our circle, people I rely on, my wingmen and women out there, we wanted to go do it. So when we were done and ready to take this out on the road and go with this album, the road goes away.
But I said, “album’s got to come out, because these are songs that I think will help people deal with the shock and the reality here.” Why wouldn’t we put an album out and in the
middle of a pandemic? Life On The Flip Side wasn’t meant to be compared to this, it was meant to be about taking a picture on the other side of the Gulf Stream, but if it’s working for people, then we’ll put this record out.
In terms of having time alone to work, I started getting back to ... it’s kind of a rock n’roll book, and it’s based on our adventures of going down to Montserrat to do the Volcano record . I wanted to write a book. I’ve had it in there for a long time. I can’t tell all the factual stories, so it’ll be a fictitious book, I think Freddie and the Fish Sticks will go to the Caribbean to record. I’ve got four to six months before we’re even possibly thinking of going back out. And as my dear friend and one of my great influences, Herman Wouk, one of the great American writers, said, “Just get one good page a day. Don’t try to go write 10 or 12.” If you get a page a day, in 30 days you have 30 pages.
So using the old Herman Wouk formula, that’s what I do. I’m starting to outline and get back to it and utilize that time creatively to write this book.
Oh, I do. Yeah, beer business is good, and the medical marijuana business is good.
I read about your Coral Reefer. Low Tide, High Tide, and then Mid Tide. There’s a place for all of it.
There definitely is, and we were lucky enough to be diversified enough that those things are doing okay and helping everybody along. Again, we’re still keeping people working.
So what would be your best hopes for NoCap?
NoCap is such a great ladder back. Everybody wanted to get back so fast, and promoters are going, “Yeah, we’re doing this and that,” but promoters are doing it for a different reason, because they got stockholders of people who say that.
But acts out there that I know and talk, some of the bigger acts, they’re more concerned about our audiences’ welfare. The reality is, we understand, but we are not running public companies here. I understand that everybody wants to get back out, but in the meantime, you gotta do what you can. What NoCap has is that ability, once it catches on with some of these smaller acts, I see bigger acts going in and using that template to reach their audiences.
It seems like a natural thing for somebody like, well, take Lady Gaga. She’s a great performer, but she’s a bar singer from New York. I’ve always liked her because she is a real performer. I don’t see any reason why she wouldn’t go in and do a club date so that people could see her and put it up virtually. All we’re waiting for is that next stage, for it to be safe.
I would definitely, up the road, look at doing something like that. We’ve talked about doing it, like you and I said, if it was up to me, when it’s safe for me to go back. I’ll go to the Exit/In to do an acoustic show.
You better believe I’d be first in line, put your theory to the test.
Hey, if it’s an audience of one, I’ll play!