Welcome to 'Margaritaville,' the Most Lucrative Song Everby
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie cut the ribbon on Thursday outside Atlantic City’s newest tourist attraction: Margaritaville. The $35 million, 40,000-square-foot complex houses two restaurants, multiple bars, a beach-themed casino, and several breezy, laid-back retail stores—all tucked away in a larger gambling mecca called Resorts. The singer and songwriter of the eponymous song was conspicuously absent from the festivities. For Jimmy Buffett, the grand opening was no special occasion: The Atlantic City outpost is the 27th Margaritaville in the world.
Margaritaville Enterprises, founded in 2006 and based in Orlando, sells everything from beachwear to furniture and also oversees at least one Caribbean island resort, two American resorts, and four casinos. You can buy Margaritaville rum and combine it with a Margaritaville drink mixer in your very own Margaritaville blender that costs $349.99. According to the Orlando Business Journal, the company brought in at least $100 million in revenue in 2007. As a private company, Margaritaville doesn’t release information about its holdings, but by all accounts it has only expanded since then.
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 melted 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.”