Copyrighting the words of “Margaritaville” as well as trademarking the name has been quite lucrative for Jimmy Buffett:
To think that all of this poured forth from a goofy, three-chord song—a mere 208 words, roughly half the length of this article—written about being lazy and getting drunk. But as Buffett’s Parrothead empire continues to spread, one can’t help but wonder whether a more lucrative song exists. “If there is anything on the same scale as a Margaritaville, it’s not a song—it’s a motion picture,” says Robert Brauneis, a professor of intellectual property at the George Washington University Law School and author of a research paper on Happy Birthday to You, which continues to generate upwards of $2 million a year. “When you’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars, you have to think in terms of Star Wars, Winnie the Pooh, or Transformers. That’s probably in the same order of magnitude.”
As a recording, Margaritaville doesn’t post stratospheric numbers. After debuting on Buffett’s 1977 album Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude, it peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard 100 charts. According to the 2012 BBC documentary The Richest Songs in the World, Margaritaville doesn’t crack the top 10, which is populated by three Christmas songs. The two highest-ranking pop songs are You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, by the Righteous Brothers, and Yesterday, by the Beatles. (No. 1 was Happy Birthday to You.) “If you want to get technical, there are two Margaritavilles,” says Brauneis. “There’s the copyright that protects the song, which is valuable because of the stream of income. Then there’s the trademark that has developed out of the song’s title, and legally that’s a different piece of intellectual property.”
Of course, this means the song and the brand are separate legal entities and could, in theory, be sold separately. But this isn’t the case. If you want to check Buffett’s tour dates, there’s no JimmyBuffett.com—there’s only Margaritaville.com, where his music career and the rest of his empire are seamlessly melded into one site.
“From a larger business perspective, when you combine the two and look at what the song stands for as a lifestyle and as a branding vehicle,” says Brauneis, “it’s worth far more than Happy Birthday. I can’t think of another example of a song that has that total impact.”
The key here is not really the song itself but the business opportunities the song has led to. This is spectacular branding: Buffett and others have created a sellable lifestyle out of the song and there has been a willing set of consumers willing to eat at the restaurant, buy merchandise, and go to concerts. It is hard to imagine a “Yesterday” themed restaurant – the song is really sort of sad – or one centered around “Happy Birthday” as this is an event that only comes around once a year. Indeed, it would be interesting to see how other artists have tried to capitalize on individual songs and the outcomes of those ventures. Is there any other song that could potentially lead to such financial opportunities? Is this a future source of income for musical artists?