A Look At The Unlikely Billionaire’s 30-Year History With Forbes

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The singer opened his doors to Forbes in the early days of Margaritaville. He landed among the world’s richest people in 2023.

The first time Forbes sat with Jimmy Buffett, business was booming. He’d made the magazine’s list of the world’s top-earning entertainers for the third straight year thanks to his legendary live shows that were a staple of the summer concert scene.

He had a few hit songs, a best-selling novel, was working on a Broadway play and had begun to see the early days’ success with the t-shirt shop turned restaurant chain he named after his biggest hit, “Margaritaville.”

It was in 1995, at his home in West Palm Beach, Florida. His two young children splashed naked in the pool under the watchful eye of Donna “Sunshine” Smith, a long-time Buffett friend who also bore the title of the fledgling Margaritaville empire’s “keeper of the mist.”

She greeted me warmly and from the pool directed me to the kitchen, a bright, breezy open room where I found the pirate poet hunched over a keyboard, fiddling with a CD machine and some scattered pages of sheet music. There were not melodic strains, no catchy hooks, just a staccato burst of labored notes as his fingers punched at the keys. The country-pop icon had decided it was time to try learning how to play music.

“I picked up the guitar in college to meet girls,” Buffett said, as he grabbed an apple from a basket on the counter for himself and tossed another my way. He was nearing 50, and starting to wonder just how much longer he could maintain the grueling tour schedule that had led Forbes to his door. “I don’t really know how the record business works, nor do I care to.”

Already a cultural icon for an army of “Parrot Head” fans, Buffett, who died of skin cancer late Friday at age 76, was as unassuming, unguarded and unpretentious as his public persona. He lived up to his brand — as he did until the end of his life – a mix of the artist’s temperament and a slacker’s persona with the singular focus of an entrepreneur that ultimately earned him that most elusive of accolades: entertainer billionaire.

In an era that has made turning lifestyle into fortune a fixture of pop culture, Jimmy Buffett’s story has a lot to offer anyone who aims to rise above the din and break out on their own terms.

“I knew Margaritaville was a hit, but there are lots of hit records,” Buffett said. “They knew before I did that it was an annuity, it was not just a song. It took me awhile to figure that out. Jimmy Buffett Burgers were popping up everywhere,” Buffett said of his early efforts to build the Margaritaville brand. “The lawyers and the business men, they wanted me to fight every one of them and I just thought I got better things to do with my time.”

Taking the advice of his friend (no relation) and longtime advisor, Warren Buffett, he left the mom-and-pop knock offs alone and focused on the ones who could really affect him financially. So when a California corporation claimed a copyright on the name and tried to build a global empire on it, he fought – and won – the right to control it.

It was, by then, vintage Buffett. In the 1980s, when MTV snubbed him and radio ignored him, he found a way to get airtime through the back door by muscling in on a sponsorship deal the band Chicago was considering with Corona Beer.

“I looked at my peers – the Bonnie Raitts, the Van Morrisons – and realized the singer-songwriter went out and new wave came in. I thought well Bonnie got dropped from a label, Van got dropped….people were dropping like flies. Our time was basically over and it was a new kind of music and that’s what rock and roll is all about.”

His manager at the time, Howard Kaufman, was also managing Chicago, and Buffett talked him into delaying the Chicago deal to give him a chance to pitch.

“We were looking for sponsorship at the time, they were looking for awareness and I was looking to defray my costs,” Buffett said. “At the time I couldn’t get airplay on the radio so I said ‘look, let’s do this, you need commercials and I need to get on the radio, so we’ll buy time, we’ll make my songs the commercials. They gotta play them if they’re paying them! I never thought about it, it just solved the problem at the time. I never wanted to sell. I just thought I deserved to be on the radio as much as everybody else.”

And when executives at Walt Disney
DIS

DIS
and MCA, his record label at the time, began inquiring about the early success he had with Margaritaville-themed restaurants, he had no patience for their dithering. He formed Margaritaville Records in partnership with Island Records and joined forces with a former finance executive to create Margaritaville Holdings, a brand licensing business that by 2022 had grown to sales of more than $2 billion.

It wasn’t until December 2022 when Forbes chatted with him a second time, to talk to him about DJ Kygo, the tropical-themed musician he discovered through his son, Cameron, and who was inspiration for Kygo’s fledgling island-themed music and lifestyle business.

Buffett put $50,000 into the business and began acting as an adviser to the next generation of beach-culture profiteers. “I loved what they were doing with festivals and I love that I’m doing that for him, going back into my history and knowing what I could get the most out of by putting the hard work in.” He added: “Warren said Margaritaville was like Coke. It makes everybody happy.”

In April 2023, the “other” Buffett landed on the Forbes World’s Billionaires ranking with a net worth of $1 billion.

“It all started because I didn’t know if I was still going to be a viable act. I didn’t realize until later that I’d put my thumb on the generic pulse of people who associated that lifestyle with that song.”

With additional reporting by Jemima McEvoy.


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