A science fiction writer raises a glass to Jimmy Buffett

Musician and businessman Jimmy Buffet died the other day, aged 76. Beneath the beach-bum vibe there’s a lot to learn from his life and work.

“Margaritaville,” of course

Start with his most famous song. “Margaritaville” is a great piece of lyric writing. One of the points Brandilyn Collins makes in Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors is that the emotions of real people, or believable and engrossing fictional characters, aren’t single notes. For example, romantic love is more than just greeting-card sap. It contains within it affection, lust, jealousy, anger, frustration, forgiveness, hope, and more.

“Margaritaville” contains within it a huge range of emotion, tied into a riches-to-rags character arc. A relaxed and self-unaware character plays his guitar and cooks shrimp on the beach. A verse later, it turns into a harrowing descent into binge-drinking blackouts and alcoholism. It ends with a moment of clarity (“It’s my own damn fault”) shared with a vocal tone that makes clear that the narrator won’t turn off his path of self-destruction. Which somehow totally meshes with the cheerful ’70s tropical soft rock music.

We sing along with “Margaritaville” because we want to imagine how close we can get to the edge without falling down the slippery slope. We’ve all had our hearts broken, and there but for the grace of God…

Speaking of singing along… one of my strongest memories of my freshman year at Rice came on Parents’ Weekend. We ended up in the student center to find the football team singing “Margarita” to a piano accompaniment.

“Margaritaville” and Buffett’s music generally doesn’t strike me as science fiction adjacent, but some of the song’s vibe applies to my story “Return Blessing”. Though I never thought of that connection till now.

Cover of "Return Blessing" by Raymund Eich
He just wants to have fun. Why won’t the aliens let him?

Island escapism? Science fiction? Creatives, retain your rights

We’ve talked about Buffett’s music, but creative professionals should take a close look at his business ventures. I’m writing this post while sipping a tequila cocktail made from Margaritaville® tequila. If we had frozen limeade in the house, I’d take some time this holiday weekend to make margaritas in our Frozen Concoction® maker. (Which is also good for making non-alcoholic snow cones, FYI). We’ve been to Cozumel, but didn’t have time for a meal at the Margaritaville restaurant, nor have we visited an It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere bar at various resorts we’ve stayed at in the US.

At the time of his death, Buffett’s net worth was in the ballpark of $1 billion, mostly from the savvy commercialization of a 1977 song to drinks, hotels, restaurants, and lifestyle products. How was he able to do that? By retaining as many rights as possible in his music, including merchandising rights in one song recorded almost 50 years ago.

Creative professionals, read your contracts. Be zealous about licensing rights (never “sell” or “assign” a creative work) that are as limited as possible and revert to you when the license term expires. There’s no guarantee those rights will be worth billions to you or your heirs, of course. (Remember, Buffett worked hard, aimed to please audiences, and was authentic in his music. If he’d just been phoning it in for decades, the public wouldn’t have responded to his recent business ventures the way they did). But if you sell or assign your works, you guarantee those rights will be worth zilch to you and your heirs.

RIP, Jimmy Buffett. Your music made the world a brighter place. It will continue to do so for decades to come.

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