'Blackfish' Backlash: Fan Pressure Leads Willie Nelson to Cancel SeaWorld Concert

The legendary singer-songwriter joins Barenaked Ladies in telling SeaWorld “thanks, but no thanks.”
(Photo: Douglas Mason/Getty Images)
Dec 5, 2013· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Country music legend and animal welfare activist Willie Nelson has canceled his performance at SeaWorld Orlando’s Bands, Brew & BBQ Fest, which Nelson and his group were to kick off on Feb. 1, 2014.

Nelson confirmed the cancellation Friday afternoon during a live telephone interview with Brooke Baldwin on CNN—marking the second musical act to recently back out of entertainment engagements at one of its aquarium parks. Despite SeaWorld’s claim of a “scheduling conflict,” Nelson said that it was his friends and fans who led him to the cancellation.

“I had a lot of calls from people asking me to cancel, and I understand there’s petitions going around, and you know, I just had to cancel,” Nelson told Baldwin.

Even his own great-granddaughter gathered 250 signatures from “people she knew asking me not to play the venue,” he said. “And also, I don’t agree with the way they treat their animals, so it wasn’t that hard a deal to just cancel.”

SeaWorld did not return email or telephone requests for comment.

Sources tell me that a quiet, behind-the-scenes effort was undertaken to reach out to Nelson with information on killer whales in captivity, especially in light of Barenaked Ladies’ cancellation last week and the October premiere on CNN of the anti-captivity documentary Blackfish.

The popular Canadian group canceled its Feb. 15 gig at SeaWorld after drummer Tyler Stewart watched Blackfish and was reportedly rattled by what he saw.

"We've talked things over and decided not to play at SeaWorld at this time," the band wrote on its Facebook page. "This is a complicated issue, and we don't claim to understand all of it, but we don't feel comfortable proceeding with the gig at this time. The SeaWorld folks have been gracious and extended us invitations to the park to learn more about what they do, and how they do it. It's not about money, or petitions, or press…but it is about our fans. We listen to them, and they're important to us."

The cancellation of two marquee acts is just one more blow to SeaWorld, which, it is fair to say, has had better years. Attendance in the first nine months was down by 1 million visitors compared with the same period last year.

Then there was the robust reaction to Blackfish. According to Nielsen fast national data, among the youngest viewers (ages 18–34), CNN wiped out the competition on the day the documentary premiered, with 471,000 people in this group tuning in—more than eight times the combined number for Fox (31,000) and MSNBC (25,000). Online activity was also vigorous. “Blackfish ranked #1 in page views among all CNN films this year,” according to the press release.

"I am thrilled that yet another world-famous, socially conscious artist has chosen to cancel his SeaWorld performance,” says Samantha Berg, a former SeaWorld trainer featured in Blackfish. “Mr. Nelson's decision sends a powerful message that the exploitation of whales and dolphins for human entertainment is unacceptable and that it's time for SeaWorld and other marine parks and aquariums to do the right thing and end the shows.”

When asked if there was “anything SeaWorld could say or do” to change his mind, Nelson said no way. “I don’t want to play there,” he said, “and that’s just the end of the story.”

For now, SeaWorld Orlando’s Bands, Brew & BBQ Fest has a rather anemic lineup. Booking major acts at the park, whether in February 2014 or any time after that, will likely become difficult as public pressure is brought to bear on potential performers.

That could hurt SeaWorld’s already tarnished reputation, not to mention its bottom line.