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Originally published Tuesday, December 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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More than cheeseburger in Paradise on his plate

It's like the world's biggest beach party, hosted by the world's richest beach bum. The 15,000 fans packing the sold-out MGM Grand arena were enjoying the final concert of the season by Jimmy Buffett, the singer whose popularity and fortune grow greater as he grows older.

The Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — It's like the world's biggest beach party, hosted by the world's richest beach bum.

The 15,000 fans packing the sold-out MGM Grand arena were enjoying the final concert of the season by Jimmy Buffett, the singer whose popularity and fortune grow greater as he grows older.

Buffett, who turned 62 on Christmas Day, long ago became an icon of certain baby boomers — perhaps the least-hip demographic in the country — by offering the dream of throwing off their responsibilities for his tropical-party vibe.

But in the past decade, this chronicler of Margaritaville has really cashed in on his image.

How big is Buffett?

With his estimated annual income of more than $40 million, you might mistake his portfolio for that of Warren Buffett (not a relative). He's done it by sailing beyond most musicians' ticket, T-shirt and poster revenue stream.

The title of his most popular song shows up on restaurants, clothing, booze and casinos. Among the products he's involved with are Landshark Lager, the Margaritaville and Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurant chains, clothing and footwear, household items and drink blenders.

The Margaritaville cafe on the Las Vegas strip is said to be the top-grossing restaurant in the nation.

Buffett writes best-selling novels. There's Radio Margaritaville on Sirius. Even his recording career is booming as the music industry tanks: His recent album, "License to Chill," was the first No. 1 album of his career.

In October, Buffett was chosen by Vanity Fair as No. 97 on a list of the 100 most influential people. In the world. He's nestled between Universal Music Group CEO Doug Morris and anti-poverty crusader Jeffrey Sachs.

But the exact scope of the Parrot Head empire is secret. Buffett's privately held Margaritaville Holdings does not publicly disclose its finances, and his publicists declined numerous requests for interviews with the singer or anyone connected with Miami-based Margaritaville Holdings.

"He wants to be known as an artist and musician, but he's an extremely savvy businessman," said Brian Hiatt, an associate editor for Rolling Stone who covers the concert industry.

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Buffett is somewhat unique among aging crooners in that his fan base is broad and is not tied solely to a string of past hit songs. For most of his career, Buffett had only one Billboard Top 10 hit, "Margaritaville," in 1977.

What he offers his fans is an accessible fantasy.

"Anyone of any age could imagine retiring to a tropical paradise and drinking margaritas," Haitt said. "There is something extra-musical about the whole thing."

You don't have to go to a concert to buy his stuff. Margaritaville boat shoes and flip flops are in shopping malls.

Margaritaville Foods sells salsa, hummus, tortillas and dips in Wal-Mart and other stores. Landshark is sold in groceries, and Margaritaville tequila is in liquor stores.

And concert tickets sell out in short order, despite prices that run well over $100. The Buffett brand is on a growth spurt, usually as a result of marketing deals.

The Cheeseburger in Paradise chain was founded in 2002 and owned by OSI Restaurant Partners, owners of Outback Steakhouse, among others, under a license from Buffett.

Landshark Lager, made by Anheuser-Busch, and Margaritaville Tequila, made by Seagram, are sponsors of his concerts.

Last May, the Trump Marina Hotel Casino in Atlantic City, N.J., was purchased by Coastal Marina, which will convert it into a destination resort under the "Margaritaville" label.

"Jimmy Buffett and his team at Margaritaville have created an extraordinary brand that is instantly recognizable to an enormously large and dedicated fan base," said Richard Fields, CEO of Coastal Development. "The brand implies quality, value and good times."

Meanwhile, Harrah's Entertainment has teamed up with Buffett to develop the $700 million Margaritaville Casino & Resort in Biloxi, Miss., near where he was raised.

That project has been delayed by the economic downturn, but Harrah's and Buffett already have a profitable relationship.

According to Buffett's Web site, the first Margaritaville opened in Key West, Fla., in 1987.

The chain has since grown to 16 outlets, including a new one at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut.

Margaritaville at the Flamingo Las Vegas takes in more than $43 million a year, said casino President Don Marrandino.

"It's been pretty consistent for five years," Marrandino said. "It speaks to the Buffett lifestyle."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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