The Life And Work Of A Cruise Ship Musician

“Neither should a ship rely on one small anchor, nor should life rest on a single hope.”

 -Epictetus

 

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For the last couple of years, I’ve been making my primary income working as a showband musician in the cruise ship industry. I realize that there are probably a lot of musicians out there who have thought about working in the cruise industry but don’t really know what it’s like, so I figured I could use what experience I have to enlighten their curiosity.

 

In fact, I’m frequently asked what my life is like from both musicians and non-musicians alike. So the following is a sort of Q&A based upon my most frequently asked questions. I’m formulating the answers from my own personal experience, as well as the experiences of some of my colleagues. Every cruise line, every ship, and every band has its own experiences and challenges that can easily differ from my own.

 

What sort of band do you play in? How many instruments? What kind of music?

 

This is a loaded question. Most ships have a variety of musicians from 4 or 5-piece lounge bands to Latin trios to classical pianists to guitar/singer soloists. Each ensemble handles a variety of music and caters to a specific type of crowd.

 

I’ve had all of my experience in showbands. The showband generally ranges in size from a 5-piece band (sax/guitar/keys/bass/drums) to a 10-piece band (2 trumpets/trombone/3 saxes/guitar/keys/bass/drums). There is often, but not always, a singer that is featured during the showband’s live sets.

 

While the other musical acts on the ship play mostly consistent repertoire, the showband is required to be much more versatile; showbands generally function as the house band for the ship. This means acting as the pit orchestra for the production shows, playing live sets (ranging between jazz, Motown, country, rock, funk, etc.), and being on call for any special events or performances.

 

How many hours a day do you work?

 

Like every question, it depends on multiple factors. The lounge bands, soloists, trios, etc. generally work 3-5 hours a night (plus breaks). They get roughly one night off a week.

 

The showband works anywhere from 1-6 hours depending on the day and the schedule of the cruise. A normal day would be roughly 3 hours of work (minus any rehearsals). Showbands generally get a full day off every 1-2 weeks.

 

That sounds like a lot more work than I’m used to on land.

 

Playing on a ship is a lot like working in a touring band. You perform on an almost nightly basis for 5-7 months, usually for packed houses. I know many musicians making a good living for themselves on land, but few have 2-3 gigs every night of the week playing large venues. It can be very physically demanding at times and mentally taxing as well.

 

 

How difficult is the music?

 

If you’re in a lounge band or soloist position, you’ll be choosing most of your own repertoire, so difficulty isn’t really a factor. The challenge of those gigs is having a diverse enough catalogue of songs to satisfy all the requests you’ll get. It’s as much about quantity as it is quality.

 

The showband book varies from Michael Jackson to Tower of Power, from Aretha Franklin to Journey, from Peter Gabriel to Chick Corea. Anyone with a college background will find the bulk of the music challenging, but not overwhelming. There are usually a dozen songs in the book that will take a good bit of shedding.

 

The hardest part of the showband gig is playing a variety of styles. If you’re only a jazz player or only a rocker, parts of the job will be extremely difficult. The 3 most important skills a showband musician has are excellent reading chops, a diverse musical background, and consistency in their performances.

 

The actual production shows range from simple rock tunes to intricate orchestral scores to big band style numbers. On some cruise lines, the production shows are full-fledged Broadway musicals (Phantom Of The Opera or West Side Story, for instance). I’ve encountered both the easiest and the hardest professional charts in the production shows –it’s really just a matter of chance.

 

The most difficult (and the most rewarding) part of being a showband is working with fly-on acts. A fly-on act will come on the ship in one of the ports, rehearse with the band that afternoon, perform two shows that evening, and then leave in the following port. This is where it’s most important to be a good sight-reader, since you frequently won’t receive the music until that rehearsal. The scores are often highly intricate, and the shows are usually a blast to play.

 

How good are the other musicians?

 

For some reason, ship musicians have a stereotype as being subpar. Many think of ship gigs as being entry-level jobs. The truth is that you see all kinds out here. I’ve worked with some of the best and some of the worst musicians on ships.

 

Generally speaking, the level of musicianship is high. Most of the comments I hear from our audience is that the quality of music exceeded their expectations.

 

It is my understanding that many gigs on ships are more challenging than land gigs, and because of this, the level of musicianship is fairly high. I’ve certainly come across some musicians who severely lacked in certain areas, but even more that were intimidating powerhouses of musical prowess. Most are in the middle: solid musicians with a professional work ethic and a variety of talents.

 

But you have to live on the ship, right? What’s that like?

 

Ship life, for many, is the hardest and worst part of the job. For some musicians it can be a breaking point. Others actually fall in love with the lifestyle. Most long-term cruise musicians have a sort of love-hate relationship with ship life.

 

On every cruise line that I’m aware of, each musician shares a cabin with one other person (usually another musician, a dancer, a stage tech, or an entertainment host). Some common exceptions to this are singers, soloists, and musical directors. The cabins are usually cramped, but not suffocating.

 

A common complaint on ships is the food. Some cruise lines allow the musicians to eat in guest areas during certain times, and some do not. Either way, the majority of meals will be eaten in the crew area mess. Meals in the mess are frequently reheated leftovers from the guests’ meals; their lunch is our dinner, and their dinner is the next day’s lunch. Steak dinner becomes beef soup at lunch. Meatballs for lunch become meatloaf for dinner. Sometimes there are a few genuinely good meals, but most are mediocre at best.

 

Living and working with the same people day in and day out is a double-edged sword. Everyone on ships get very close very quickly. But getting space is hard to do on a ship, and the little things that bug you about someone on land can quickly spiral out of control when you eat three meals a day with them.

 

In general ship life is hard to explain to someone who has never experienced it before. I often use the analogy of college. It’s a slightly artificial mix of ages, cultures, interests, and personalities in a confined space. Often life on the ship is more foreign and exotic than the actual countries the ship visits.

 

Weird. Well you at least get off the ship in port, right?

 

Of course! This is one of the big benefits of working on a cruise ship. I’ve seen 8 different countries so far working on ships. By the end of next year, I’ll have visited more than 20. I’ve seen beaches and jungles, gone scuba diving, eaten amazing food, and seen exotic ruins. It’s a great perk to the job.

 

Occasionally there will be something preventing musicians from visiting a port, like some sort of training or safety drill. On most ships you will have to participate in something called port manning once every 1-2 months. Port manning simply means that you have to stay onboard the ship for one cruise as a precaution in case something goes wrong and personnel are needed to assist in an evacuation or other emergency circumstance.

 

 

Wait, so you have to do things other than play music?

 

Sometimes. It isn’t a huge part of the job, but it is a regular part of it. Every crew member onboard a cruise ship has a responsibility during an emergency. It is common for musicians to help guests at their muster station (the place they go to during an emergency, in preparation to board the life boats).

 

While these types of emergencies are uncommon, there is a safety briefing held at the beginning of every cruise to show the guests where they are supposed to go and what they are supposed to do in the event an emergency does happen. It’s sort of like what flight attendants do prior to a flight, showing emergency exits and how to put on a life jacket.

 

Occasionally musicians are called on to do other non-music jobs. One of these might include welcoming guests onboard the ship and answering their questions (this job would be on a rotation, not every cruise). Sometimes musicians help out the entertainment team during special events, like handing out red, white, and blue swag on July 4th or blowing up balloons for a New Year’s celebration.

 

In general, my job is just playing music. Any other duties are unwelcome, but thankfully few and far between. Random trainings and safety drills are just another part of ship life.

 

How much do you make?

 

It depends on the line you work for, whether you have an agent, how much experience you have, and which position you are filling. The more interesting question is: How much do you save?

 

Ship musicians have very low overhead: no rent, little to no food costs, a free gym membership, free laundry, many free medications and medical services, etc. There are also crew discounts around the ship. In the crew bar drinks are usually just $1 or $2 each.

 

Most ship musicians will find themselves spending roughly $50-150 per week on expenses. This includes getting off in the ports and having a nice lunch or going on an excursion. Frugal musicians can easily spend only $10-20 per week.

 

I saw a show on a cruise ship once. I heard a full string section but didn’t see any violins in the pit orchestra. Do you use tracks?

 

On many lines, there are backing tracks to support the live music. There are many reasons to do this: it’s a lot cheaper and easier to have a Koto on the track than to hire a Japanese folk musician to play one song every cruise, there are electronics and pyrotechnics that accompany the show and need to be fired of at precise moments, musicians can get sick or injured during the cruise without anyone to sub in like on land, it keeps the shows uniform in length in order to schedule other activities appropriately, and it is a back-up in the event of a complete malfunction between the live band’s microphones and the sound board.

 

In general, it’s like any modern stage show outside of major opera or Broadway shows –a mix of live music and electronic backing that create a polished, professional sound. The drums you’re hearing are real drums. The horns you’re hearing are real horns. The singers are really singing. Those bagpipes are probably prerecorded.

 

Tracked instruments are often supplemented with live ones. A strings section might be doubled by the keyboards. A banjo part might be doubled by guitar. Pan flute might be doubled by a modern flute.

 

It’s way more live music than a Super Bowl halftime show, that’s for sure.

 

As an aside, I’ve always worked with some sort of a personal mixing board. Each instrument has their own track on the board, and I can dial them in or take them out entirely. Any strings, folk instruments, auxiliary percussion, etc. will be on a different track. This way everyone has control over their own in-ear monitor. Mixing the monitor is a skill inside itself, but a useful one to have.

 

I never feel like having a track of supplemental instruments takes away from my musical integrity. It’s a support factor that helps ensure consistency and adds texture to the overall sound of the pit orchestra. A bad band will still sound bad, and a great band will still sound great. No amount of tracks can hide talent or lack thereof.

 

 

This whole cruise thing doesn’t sound half bad. How do I sign up?

 

There are generally two ways to go about it: Applying through an agency or applying directly to a cruise line. Agencies take a percentage of your paycheck but can open doors to a number of cruise lines. Theoretically, agencies can get you your first ship gig faster than if you audition with a single line.

 

If you want to apply directly to a specific cruise line, you can usually find an email link via the line’s website. A simple Google query of “X cruise lines careers” or “X cruise lines musician jobs” will help you out too.

 

Two of the major agencies are Proship and Landau Music, but there are others. Searching for “cruise ship musician agency” will yield plenty of results.

 

The audition process I went through was very intensive. The audition was conducted over the phone (and videotaped to confirm that it was actually me auditioning). Music was emailed to me roughly 30 min. before the audition took place. The audition was somewhere between 2-3 hours, playing a large variety of styles. I was required to play with backing tracks, play alone, and to improvise a few solos in multiple styles.

 

I know others who have had similar audition processes. I also know some who had a considerably easier audition. It seems to vary based on the agency, the cruise line, and which instrument you are auditioning on.

 

After passing the audition, I was required to get a physical done. This included blood work and a urine test. A valid passport is necessary, and if your homeport is in a foreign country, a work visa will also be required.

 

Is there anything else I should know about?

 

It’s impossible to cover every aspect of living and working on a cruise ship. The audiences are usually a very diverse demographic ranging from young families to college kids to retirees. Spending 6 months working while everyone else is on vacation can be a strange experience.

 

There might be 1,000 other crew members onboard a ship, and interacting with them is also a very unique and sometimes daunting practice. In my experience, most are friendly, but there are exceptions. Sometimes the musicians, dancers, and entertainers onboard are treated differently by the rest of the crew because we work fewer hours than they do.

 

The hardest part for most ship musicians is the sacrifice of living at sea. Being away and out of touch from friends and family can be difficult. Internet is slow and expensive. There is a significant loss of freedom and individuality.

 

If a guest onboard is rude or offensive, you have to be polite to them regardless of how tired or stressed out you might be. You’re living where you work, and the line between the two can get grey at times.

 

One of the big upsides is that I am one of the few musicians I know that actually gets a vacation. I will usually have some work on land between ship gigs, but for the most part I get to relax. I have time to practice, compose, visit friends and relatives, and basically enjoy life. I’m not constantly hustling my next gig or worrying about whether or not I can pay rent.

 

Working on a ship is not for everyone. It’s not a paid vacation. It’s not a “starter gig”. It’s a unique touring engagement with a lot of sacrifices and a lot of perks. It takes a certain type of person to handle the worst parts of the gig –otherwise the benefits just won’t be enough.

 

If you have any questions, I encourage you to leave them in the comments section, and I will do my best to answer them.

 

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