Can I Get a Cruise Gig During My Summer Vacation?

I have a question this week from Brad:

My wife and I are steel drummers and curious about a temporary ship gig. We are both music teachers in a public school.

I get another version of this question pretty frequently, and that is, “Can I get a gig during my summer vacation?”

The answer is yes, you can get a gig during your summer vacation.  In theory.  Unfortunately, the reality is that the odds are against you.  Let me explain.

Cruise musician jobs are hired by either talent agencies or the cruise lines themselves.  You can imagine that the personnel department of a cruise line is a busy place.  New employees need to be flown out to the ship, trained and acclimated to the job and this process ends up costing the cruise line money.  This upfront investment of time and money means that cruise lines try to hire crew members for as long as possible.  In the case of musicians, those hiring us are always pushing for 4-6 month contracts or longer.

Sometimes, though, both cruise lines and talent agencies get desperate for a particalar musician.  Maybe Joe Saxophone gets caught toking with the captains daughter in the penthouse suite or something equally scandalous.  They’ll need to fire Joe and get a new sax player to the ship right away.  If they can’t find somebody that will take a longer contract, they’ll take whoever they can find to fill the spot for now and try to get the next person to take a longer contract.

So you see that sometimes they do hire musicians for shorter contracts, but it’s often on short notice and only as-needed.  Furthermore, these short-term sub spots often go to experienced cruise musicians because they are already acclimated to the gig, trained, or just because the person hiring already trusts this musician to not screw it up like the last guy.

Ok, having said all that, I have heard of musicians working their summer or Christmas vacations anyway.  I don’t understand how they got that sweet deal, but there is a chance that you could get that lucky too.  I’ve seen this happen both with musicians that are hired by the cruise line and those with a talent agency – although I would think that the cruise lines would be more sympathetic to this.  When you submit your info or take your audition you’ll just have to let them know the deal – that you are a school teacher and can only work in the summers.  Then cross your fingers and hope you get lucky.  They will probably tell you that it’ll never happen, but again, I have heard of guys getting lucky.

How Old Are Most Musicians on Cruise Gigs?

Angela is about to finish music school and asks:

I’m curious how old entertainers tend to be?

Great question Angela, and congrats on getting to the end of your music program.  The age of musicians on cruise ships varies greatly, but in my experience, there are a lot of younger players on ships.

On my first ship most of the show band musicians were in their early 20s.  The majority of us had just gotten out of college and, not finding any performing jobs on land, taken cruise jobs to make some money and see the world.  In fact, the majority of the crew was somewhere in their twenties.  The crew bar was probably the best impromptu singles bar that I’ve ever found.

Of course there were exceptions to this.  On that first ship our sax player and bassist had each been on ships for 14 years straight.  Both of these guys had divorced somewhere in their 30’s, lost their house and kids and left soon after for cruise ships.  It was a pretty good deal for them – no mortgage, no cooking, an initial escape from troubles. And if you stayed with the company long enough you were sometimes able to reap the benefits of seniority.  For instance, if there were 5 guys in the band and 3 rooms to house them, the musician with the most seniority usually got the single room.  Also, musicians that stay with the company are often able to pick which ships and itineraries they would like take contracts on.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that many cruise ship gigs are supplied with musicians from one of these two categories – the older divorcee and the recent music school grad.

On my second ship, the whole band was older divorcees and certified bachelors.  This particular ship paid health benefits and pension to it’s employees, so it was an even better deal for these guys and they’d been around for a long time.

Outside of the show band, the lounge acts tend to be a more mature bunch. The lounge gigs pay better and usually have better accomodations, and perhaps for that reason, experienced performers are still willing to take those gigs.  Also, I would argue that the lounge gigs are more demanding and require a large repertoire and very young players often don’t have the stamina or experience to fill the spots.  Certainly I know I wouldn’t have been able to hack it right out of college.

In her question Angela also asked if musicians needed to be over 21 to work on ships.  I actually don’t remember exactly what the rule on that is – but if it helps – I at least don’t remember ever working with anyone under 21. *See Ryan and Steve comments below – you can work on a ship you are under 21 and I remember now working with a few cast members under 21.

Are Taxes Taken Out of My Paycheck?

There was a question a few weeks ago from Ryan:

What do you do about taxes? Are they automatically deducted, or do you just get cash and expected to 1099 everything? I’ve heard some people say you only get paid cash, some say you can direct deposit, and some say that Americans get deductions, but generally not anyone else.

Uh…ok, so I’ve been obviously stalling on this one because I’m not entirely sure of the answer. I don’t really remember what happened when I was a crew member. I’m sure that there are others on the site that could give a better explanation – perhaps someone can leave a comment with more info.

My Father is a CPA (accountant), which probably explains why I know so little about taxes (he does it all for me – thanks Dad!). I asked my Father about this, and I will relay what I remember him telling me about this.

  • Taxes were not taken out while I was a crew member in Europe, but I did have to pay federal taxes, even though I was out of the country.
  • As a guest performer, I was hired by a production company and paid through wire transfer as an independent contractor (again, no deductions).

In both of these situations I had to keep track of my income and pay my taxes quarterly.

Regarding payment in cash, it is true that they pay in cash. If you don’t have direct deposit set up with the cruise line, they will pay you in cash once a month. Obviously, it can get a little hairy to have that much cash sitting around, so unless you’ll lugging along a safe or have some other plan, I would recommend setting the direct deposit up as soon as you get on the ship. Ghostwriter recently reported that he is able to set up wire transfers directly from his cruise ship, so you might consider looking into that too.

Can I Bring My Bike on the Ship?

Starkey is leaving for his first cruise gig this week and has a question about bringing a bike:

I’m an avid mountain biker and would be sad to miss the opportunity to bike through some awesome Mediterranean country side. What are the thoughts out there [about bringing a bike]?

I’m a huge fan of biking. I think it’s a great mode of transportation – cheap, environmentally sound, a good source of exercise, and invaluable source of independence on gigs like tours and cruise ships.

I started thinking about finding a way to pack a bike when I was on a Broadway tour. I did a bus and truck tour which included 25,352 miles on a bus around American and Canada. Blech. I ate at restaurants 3 meals a day, sat on the bus 8-14 hours a day and spent every night in a new hotel room. I felt like one of those poor farm animals that are force fed food and kept in their cages without exercise to fatten them up for the slaughter. I gained 15 lbs and, generally, recreated the movie “Super Size Me” for 9 months. I would have given anything for a bike.

The problem is that bikes are poorly suited for airline travel. They don’t fit very well on trains, buses or, for that matter, cruise ships. If you can get your bike to a cruise ship, some ships have extra storage rooms for crew members where they can store their bikes, which is great because you’ll have a hard time fitting a full-size bike in your cabin with a roommate and all the other stuff.

In other words – if you can get the bike to your ship, you could have no trouble if your ship accommodates crew bikes. (Although, finding out if your particular ship will accommodate bikes is hard to do before you get aboard.)

Also, some ships actually have bikes already available for crew members.

Personally, I’m a big advocate of folding bikes. I know, I know, lots of people think they look like clown bikes. 20″ tires are a little strange I guess. But I own a Dahon Vitesse D7 and I think it’s great (although the color bugs me a little). The bike is so practical for my lifestyle. It fits in a standard 30″ suitcase, it folds up and fits on cruise ship elevators, trains, buses, free cruise ship shuttles, crew rooms – even in a shopping cart if you don’t want to lock it up outside.

Say you’re in the Mediterranean and you’re ship stops at Civitivechia (the port city of Rome). You’ll need to get off the ship, walk 1/2 mile to the train station, take the train to Rome, then find your way around Rome by city bus or by foot. How much better would it be to bike that 1/2 mile, fold up your bike to put it on the train, then bike around Rome like a local. You’ll see a hell of a lot more of Rome on a bike than on foot, for sure.

Or…say you are on a cruise in Hawaii, as I was recently, and you have a friend in Oahu, as I did. You can bike over to Waikiki for the morning, then fold your bike up and fit it in the truck of your friend’s car when they come pick you up to hang out.

OR! You can ride your bike to a cafe a few miles away from the ship. If it starts raining, fold up your bike and call a cab. Try doing that with a standard bike!

I dig my folding bike for all kinds of reasons, but I can understand why others wouldn’t. Especially, maybe, in Starkey’s situation, where he’d like to go mountain biking overseas (although Dahon does make a full-size, folding mountain bike). Starkey, in your case, you might find it worthwhile to box up your bike and pay the extra fees to get it overseas. It might be more convenient to rent a bike when you’re there, but that could be hard if you don’t speak the language. Another way would be to buy a bike when you get there and try to sell it before you get it home, but expect to sell it for less than you bought it.

Provided Backline Equipment

David asks:

What is the backline like? Do they use in-ear monitors?

David is referring here to the sound gear that is provided by the cruise ship for it’s performers – amps, monitors, etc.

Usually, cruise lines have great gear. After all, they can afford it. As a keyboard player, I usually find top-shelf keyboards (Roland, Korg) and Roland keyboard amps.

Cruise ships make generous use of “hot spot” type monitors (small, powered speakers usually placed close to a performer), especially for lounge acts. These speakers have their strength and weaknesses, but usually work well enough for the venue.

I’ve never seen an in-ear monitor system specifically. Shared headphones amps and cheap over-ear headphones is more like it.

You will find headphone-based monitors if you are in the showband and you are playing with a click track. If you are in this situation I recommend bringing your own headphones, as the quality of the ones you’ll be given can be suspect. I also recommend using an open-ear design, such as the Sennheisers pictured to the left, as it allows you to wear both headphones on your ears and also hear the sound of the other performers around you.

Cruise Ship Jobs for Couples

Sharon asks:

I am a singer and my husband is an alto sax player, what do you know about getting a job as a married couple? Do cruise lines like to hire couples or do they find it annoying?

Cruise lines do hire couples, although I might not go so far as to say that they give couples preference in the hiring process.  Married couples are good for cruise lines because it tends to make the couple feel more satisfied about the gig, and they therefore last longer than other crew members.  In other words, the turn-over isn’t as quick.

Also, they don’t have to worry about roommate problems with married couples (usually).  They know that they can match up the couple in a room and everyone will be happy (usually).

However, from what I’ve seen in entertainment departments, these married couples are usually hired within the same group.  I mean that two singers could be married, or the lounge duo, or the magician and his assistant – I don’t often see them hiring couples ala carte and putting them in different groups.  (The musicians are considered a different group than the singers.) I think this has a lot to do with housing – the singers are given a block of rooms and the musicians a different block of rooms, and combining a singer and a musician in one room would require cutting through a truly preposterous (and unnecessary) amount of corporate red tape.

So in your case, Sharon, this could be a hurdle to get over when looking for a cruise ship gig for you and your husband.

I don’t mean to be too discouraging.  Certainly I don’t know everything that these cruise lines think, or if they think at all, so there’s always hope.  If you do get a gig with your husband, it could be a really incredible experience to have together.  I can think of nothing better than traveling the world with a husband or wife and making a living playing music.  I would think that having your loved one with you could solve the great majority of the challenges of working on a cruise ship.

In order to do this, I would contact the cruise lines directly and not bother with talent agencies.  Singers and musicians usually go to separate talent agencies, and you’ll never end up on the same ship like that.  (Although: I hear that the talent agency Stiletto Entertainment has started hiring musicians as well as singers and dancers.)

Or better yet – try to come up with an act that incorporates both of you.  Then you’d be in the same group.

About the Author

Dave from Cambridge, UK sent a request today –

It’d be good to find out more about your musical background – i.e. where you studied, when you started playing etc.

Thanks Dave. Bloggers always like to talk about ourselves, so I should take the opportunity while it’s here!

It’s also not a bad idea. This is an advice-based blog, so I should probably put down some credentials.

I studied jazz piano at Northern Illinois University and composition at Indiana University here in the U.S. During and after college I played keyboards in a variety of rock and reggae bands in the Midwest. It was after a particularly (financially) disappointing gig at the Cubby Bear in Chicago that I decided to look into working on cruise ships.

I auditioned for cruise ships in spring of 2004 and I was put on a ship that summer as the keyboardist in the show band. I cruised North Europe, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean on a 6 month contract. We also spent 2 weeks as the floating hotel for Russians at the 2004 Olympic games in Athens, which was quite a treat. I made a lousy $350 a week on that gig, but I saw 29 countries, made a bunch of friends and had a good time. Still, I was happy to get off that boat by the end of it. 6 months is a long time on a ship.

Working on that ship improved my sight-reading and improv chops and also seemed to give me some “street cred” among musicians back home. When I returned to the Chicago area after the contract I started working steadily as a freelance accompanist for schools and theatre companies in suburban Chicago.

A few years later I started touring with Broadway shows. First was a short tour as a keyboardist for a concert-type show in Taiwan, then as the MD and conductor of a 9 month bus-and-truck North American Broadway tour. I met L., my girlfriend, on that tour. Sometimes she reminds me of that so that I’ll admit the tour wasn’t all bad :-)

Since then I’ve been working in regional theaters around the U.S. – NY, AZ, VA, Chicago…3 months here, 3 months there…you get the picture. I work primarily as a music director or pianist at these theaters.

February of 2008 I got a call from the same producer who put together my first tour in Taiwan. He had sold the show we did in Taiwan to a cruise line in Hawaii and he needed someone to MD and accompany the gig. The gig seemed pretty easy, the bread was good, and L. could come for a cruise whenever I liked.

That’s the gig I’ve been working for the past 3 1/2 months. I’ll be getting of the ship on Saturday, visiting L.’s family, then my family, then starting a new gig at a theater in Virginia.

I have mixed feelings about working on a ship. I feel that it’s a good gig if you are good enough to play full time, but you aren’t getting enough gigs to do so. I would take a cruise gig over a day job any day. It can be a great way to see the world, it can be a lot of fun, and it can be a great way to get experience and improve your playing. It can also drive you crazy, make you feel isolated and the material is not always creatively satisfying.

You can see that I’m not a cruise ship fanatic. I don’t know the names of all the cruise ships in the world, I haven’t spent half my life going ship to ship. I’m just a normal, working musician and sometimes I need a gig. That’s what most cruise ship musicians are.

I do like writing, though, and that’s where this blog comes in. It’s a nice hobby, and I enjoy helping people. When I first went on a ship I had no idea what to expect or even what to pack. It was a little nerve-wracking. I know that there are other musicians out there that feel the same way, and I’m happy that my experiences and my writings can be of use.

I’m not paid by any cruise line or talent agency, but even if I was I’d give it to you straight. I try to cover myself by not specifically mentioning what cruise lines I’ve worked for, or anyone’s names. Frankly, the name of the cruise line doesn’t matter. I’ve worked on two now, and heard lots about others, and I think all these cruise lines are run by the same idiots. Or at least the same types of idiots. You see the same problems over and over – and the same benefits – no matter what the line. So much of what you find here is probably applicable to whatever company you’d be working for.

Vegetarianism

Todays question comes all the way from Sweden.  L. asks:

Is there any problem being a vegetarian onboard a ship?

I know a little bit about this.  I recently spent a short time as a vegetarian – enough time to understand the challenges involved.  I think being a vegetarian on a cruise ship isn’t any harder than being a vegetarian on land.  There are fewer options, just like on land, but there are still options.

As a musician, you’ll have officer status which means (among other things) that you eat the same food the passengers eat.  Cruise ships are known for their food and their cuisines are very diverse.  That includes vegetarian options at almost every meal.

On my current ship there is a section of the buffet just for vegetarians.  In this section usually have a few Indian curries, brown rice, and a few vegetable dishes.  There is also a large salad bar and a separate large fruit bar.  And don’t forget the deserts…cookies are vegetarian!

Tonight, for instance, I ate a spicy lentil curry over brown rice, a large salad and an ice cream cone.  I didn’t mean it to be, but that happened to be a vegetarian meal.  And delicious.

On my last ship there was an even larger salad bar with plenty of nuts and beans and other things vegetarians need to stay healthy.

If you are strict vegan, or don’t eat any animal by product – you will have a harder time.  The ingredients of the dishes on the ship are not made public, and you’ll have a hard time trying to find out what you can eat and what you can’t.  Although if you are a vegan, you my very well be used to this sort of thing and you’re likely to stick to the salad bar anyway.

Piano Bar vs. Guest Entertainer

It was good to hear from a few of you this week. I understand T. is putting together a demo and audition for a few talent agencies, and I think our friend M. should be on a ship by now.

I was emailed a question this week from M.B.:

Could you please tell me how the work as a guest performer differs from the standard piano bar work? I am not talking about the living/lifestyle conditions, but what the performance entails and how it differs. Many thanks.

That’s a good question and I can definitely answer that.

We just got a new piano bar performer this week, as a matter of fact. He’s one of the best piano bar performers I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. His lounge is packed every single night with standing room only. If you want to go see him, you almost have to take a number and wait in the next room over for a space to clear. I think he’s the most popular act on the ship.

The piano bar gig is very specific on ships. On every ship I’ve seen, there is a dedicated piano bar lounge that includes a piano, a microphone, a bar and several dozen seats. On my current ship he lounge is out in the open, right in the middle of everything on deck 5. On my last ship is was a little room off of the casino on deck 4.

The piano bar entertainer performs 6 to 7 nights a week, 3 to 4 hours a night. They must sing and play piano. They take requests and banter with the audience all night. Often, the passengers get to know the piano bar entertainer on a personal level that is not often possible with the other entertainers on the ship because of the interaction and the amount of time they perform each night. Some passengers come to the piano bar every single night, and by the end of the cruise, the piano bar entertainer is often the most popular entertainer on the cruise.

I’m not certain what they get paid, but I understand the compensation can be lucrative. Bear in mind though, that these entertainers work an awful lot by cruise ship standards. Singing 4 hours every night can really get to your vocal cords. I don’t know how they do it.

What is sung and played in the piano bar is mostly up to to the piano bar entertainer. Sometimes you have a piano bar not unlike the pop/rock piano bars on land – like Jelly Roll’s in Orlando or Howl at the Moon in many other cities. More often than not, though, the piano bar on ships will be more like a cabaret of jazz songs, or R’n’B hits, or musical theatre. Our current entertainer plays primarily old school R’n’B and contemporary musical theatre songs. The personality and repertoire of the piano bar is entirely controlled by who’s playing in there.

Being a guest performer is another gig entirely. Guest performers perform on the main stage, not the piano lounge. While the piano lounge usually seats 25-75 in a casual atmosphere, the main stage seats 500-700 in formal theatre seating. Guest performers put on one 45 minute performance, usually twice a night for 2 separate seatings (i.e. 7:30 and 9:30 pm).

My current position on the ship is a guest entertainer. I, and the group I perform with, put on two separate shows during the week – Tues. & Fri. We typically have a run-thru in the morning and two shows each night. Sometimes we only have one show Friday night, as it’s the last night of the cruise.

Cruise Ship Locator Websites

Do you know someone working on a cruise ship? Want to see where they are? It’s possible to look up the location of any ship in the world through the Sailwx website. All you have to know is the name of the ship, and it’ll give you a map of exactly where it is. It’s really pretty cool!

You can also look up cruise ship locations through Google Earth, if you have that installed on your computer.

Do you want to see where your friend is? I mean, actually see what the ship sees? Several cruise ship websites have set up direct webcam feeds from their ships “bow cams” (the cameras on the bridge). A directory of cruise ship webcams can be found at Krooz-Cams.com.

Edit: Just for kicks I went to this site today and tried to locate all the fishing ships from the TV show “Deadliest Catch,” but I had no luck.  I guess that makes sense – they don’t want the other fishing boats to know where they are!

What is a Guest Performer?

I’m leaving next week to work as a guest performer on a cruise ship in Hawaii. Rehearsals for the show began this week in New York. So far, so good, the job seems satisfying and the other performers seem like they’ll be very nice to work with. The production staff is very supportive as well, and generally its all good news so far.

Guest performers are a different kind of gig than most cruise ship jobs. There are basically two classifications of musicians on each ship, crew members and guest performers. If you are auditioning to be part of the show band, or if you are going to work in a lounge, you will mostly definitely be a crew member. You’ll have a crew cabin and access to the crew amenities like free laundry machines, cheaper internet, and the crew bars (where all the good stuff happens).

Guest performers, on the other hand, are more like passengers. They have a passenger cabin and passenger status. Passenger status means that they don’t need to follow rules like wearing a uniform in passenger areas, they can use the passenger gym, etc., etc. – the point is that guest performers are essentially regular passengers who perform.

The down side of guest entertaining is usually the travel and schedule. Many guest performers fly into the ship for their 1 show and leave very soon after for home or the next ship. For instance, maybe you’ll fly into Barcelona for 2 nights on Ship A, then fly to St. Maarten in the Caribbean for 3 nights on Ship B. Then you’re home for 3 weeks, then off to Greece for 4 nights on Ship A again, followed by a 1-nighter on a ship in Alaska before going home again. That’s a lot of traveling and probably not a lot of enjoying the scenery.

On the other hand, the compensation for guest entertainers can make it worthwhile. Guest entertainers can make about 50% more than crew musicians, and the travel and many expenses are all paid for.

The other kind of guest performer job – the kind I’m doing – is a “resident guest performer” gig. That means you live on the ship for an extended period of time and perform each of your shows once for each cruise. If you have 2 shows, then you work 2 nights for each cruise.

There were 2 guest entertainers on the ship I worked on several years ago – the magician and a singer. The magician had his wife and daughter on board as well, which ended up being a pretty sweet deal for them (the daughter was too young for school at the time). The singer, on the other hand, was mostly pretty bored most of the time it seemed. You have to admit – that is an awful lot of time to fill. Sure, there are books and things that you’ve been meaning to get around to reading or doing – but what’ll you do with the other 5 1/2 months of your contract? Better find something.

For me, it will be different still. My contract is 3 months long, which is a nice length of time – any more than that and it will probably start to feel like forever. I have passenger status. We’ll work 2 nights a week. The ship is supposed to be massive – 14 stories tall! It only cruises the Hawaiian islands and there are zero sea days in the itinerary. I will be on the beach everyday. There was also more good news today – my girlfriend L. might be able to join me for a little while on the ship as my guest. Its unclear yet whether I’ll have a passenger cabin for the entirety of my contract, or if they’ll eventually move me to a crew cabin. If I keep the passenger cabin, it is possible for L. to come stay for a week or so with me in Hawaii.

If you are wondering how to get a gig like mine, I’m afraid I can’t give you much tangible advice. I acquired this job not through my cruise ship connections, but through my theatre connections. Since I left cruise ships several years ago I’ve worked almost exclusively in Broadway-style musical theatre. One of the producers I’d worked with before in musical theatre called me and offered me the job – there wasn’t any audition since I’d already worked with him and with other people he knew. They fact that this job was on a cruise ship was just a peculiarity of the job offer – it could have just as well been in a theatre in Spokane or something. It was just coincidence that I had been on ships before and had an interested in cruise ship musician jobs. I was in the right place at the right time.