How to Get a Cruise Ship Musician Job

There are two ways to get a cruise ship musicians job – first, through a talent agency and, second, directly through the cruise line itself. There are benefits to both.

Talent Agencies

The talent agency will find you a job faster and, assuming you do well, keep you working for as long as you would like – and for that service they will take a percentage of your paycheck. The standard agency fee is 12-15%.

Some talent agencies claim that they don’t take percentages from your paycheck – but, of course, that’s nonsense. The agencies perform a valuable service and they are paid accordingly. Whether it comes out of your paycheck before or after you see it is not important.

Always remember – talent agencies are not necessarily on your side. They make money because of their positive relationships with the cruise lines, and it’s in their best interests to keep those relationships positive. Expect your talent agency to give you a reasonable amount of support – but don’t expect them to take your side if things go sour on your gig.

Talent agencies get you a job, and when you’re done with that one they’ll get you another. That’s what they are best at and that’s what they do to earn their fee. They aren’t (necessarily) there to make sure you are comfortable and happy.

The Cruise Ship Talent Agency Directory

The Cruise Ship Talent Agency Directory ($24.97 $14.97 via PayPal, immediate download, PDF) contains lists of all of the talent agencies in the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand and directions how to apply. 107 companies are included.

The largest talent agency in North America is Proship Entertainment, headquartered in Montreal, Canada. Other major agencies include Landau Music, Oceanbound and Stilleto.

The easiest way to get a job would be to apply to one of these agencies, complete and audition and take a gig. But The Cruise Ship Talent Agency Directory allows you to really do some research and shop around if you feel like it.

Proship and the other large talent agencies spend a lot of their resources stocking ships with the showband and lounge musicians on ships. If you are a guest performer you should dig deeper into the list of talent agencies and find a smaller, boutique agency that can give your act more attention.

Cruise Lines

Applying directly to a cruise line for a musician job allows you to circumvent the agency fee, but that does not mean they will give that agency fee to you – you might make the same amount as you would through a talent agency.

Also, it may take much longer to get a job directly through the cruise lines. The major cruise lines are all large corporations, and things move slowly in large corporations.

There are perks, though – if you show yourself to be valuable to the company, it’s likely that they will continue to employ you after your first contract ends. And because you are part of the company you might be able to choose your itinerary, your ship, and maybe other perks.

The Cruise Line Entertainment Directory

If you want to try this voyage solo and skip the talent agencies, The Cruise Line Entertainment Department Directory ($24.97 via PayPal, immediate download, PDF) contains a list of 50+ cruise lines and the information about how to apply directly to their entertainment departments.

This is a great option for guest entertainers or musicians looking for long-term career relationships with cruise lines.

Buy both lists for $39.97 $35.97 (immediate download, .zip files containing two PDFs with over 150 leads). Start your new gig right away!

Auditions

Getting a job through the cruise lines will also require an audition – sometimes in person, but increasingly, over the phone. The audition will include a lot of sight-reading if you are auditioning for the showband position, and the sight-reading portion of the audition can be quite difficult.

Questions

You’ll likely have a lot of questions about what it’s like to work as a musician on a cruise ship.

Your talent agency or cruise line will give you some information when you are hired, but you can find the answers to the most popular questions in our eBook ($4.97, immediate download, PDF).

Can I get a gig on my summer vacation? Can my girlfriend get a job too? How old a most cruise ship musicians? It’s all contained in here.

And if you have questions that are not covered here, visit the Chronicles of a Cruise Ship Musician and read through the first hand accounts from cruise ship musicians, guest entertainers and talent agents.

Photos of Crew Room vs. Passenger Room

Crew rooms are never as nice as passenger rooms – of course they aren’t. Crew rooms are generally located below decks – meaning below the water line – and usually lack windows. Musicians are typically paired with 1 roommate.

I would argue that crew rooms really aren’t that bad. I think what makes crew rooms suck is having a roommate. I don’t care how great your roommate is, it still blows to have to share such a small space with another human. Especially if they snore/smell/never leave the room.

Here are two pictures of the room I had on my first ship.


Crew room on a cruise ship
Crew room on a cruise ship

Crew room on a cruise ship
Crew room on a cruise ship

You’ll notice a few things. There’s a desk with a TV. The crew channel is on the television, showing (if I remember right) the movie 6 Days, 7 Nights. There’s two bunk beds and a folding chair. Under that bottom bunk is the storage area for your luggage (you have to flip the mattress up to get under there). There’s a bookshelf and a full-length mirror mounted on the wardrobe. There are two spaces in the wardrobe for the two different crew members. The mattresses are regular foam (mostly uncomfortable) mattresses with cheap bedding. The ladder is to get to the top bunk, but it’s rarely used. There are privacy curtains mounted on each bunk. If you’re roommate wants to sleep and you want to read, you can turn your light on and close the curtain.

The bathroom for this crew cabin is behind the camera, and I never did take a picture of that. To take these pictures I think I was probably standing in the bathroom, which might give you an idea of the size of the room. The bathrooms are the same in both crew cabins and passenger cabins. Toilet, sink, mirror, shower. There’s nothing special about the bathrooms.

This is a regular crew cabin similar to what many musicians would find on a ship. If you are a headliner, or a music director, though, you’d get an “officer cabin”. These sometimes have small windows, usually have a full-size bed and sometimes a fridge.

If you are a guest performer, you usually get a passenger cabin. Here’s a picture of a passenger cabin.

Passenger room for a guest performer
Passenger room for a guest performer

You’ll notice it’s much larger, and in this case has a window with a wonderful view of a lifeboat. These kinds of cabins are called “obstructed view” cabins, and they are sold to passengers at a cheaper rate (although still more expensive than rooms without windows at all). Having a window is a huge value to a room because of the natural light and because it often allows you to have cell phone service in your cabin (if that’s important to you).

You’ll notice this room has a couch (where my suitcases are sitting), a desk, a TV, full-size bed. There’s also a fridge behind that small wooden door. The bathroom is, again, behind the camera but is exactly the same size as the one in a crew cabin. There’s also a wardrobe behind the camera. Look – there’s even a hair dryer! Remember, this is a normal passenger cabin, so there is also room service and a passenger room steward (read: mints on your pillow), and (on this ship) beach towels are provided. Obviously, having a cabin like this is one of the best benefits to being a guest performer on a cruise ship.

Also: no roommate!

Below is another passenger cabin, this one from a different cruise line. The basic difference here is the mattress (that’s a hella comfortable bed you’re looking at).

Passenger room on a different cruise line
Passenger room on a different cruise line

Average Pay for Cruise Line Musicians

Estimated salary range: $450 – 2,000 a week

When I was employed as the keyboardist in a show band, I made $350 a week, or $50 a day with Holland America. I understand Holland America pays near the lower range of salaries for musicians, but I did hear that they have raised their minimum salary to $65 a day ($455 a week). If you had been with them for many years, you could expect to max out at about 150% of minimum, which these days is probably just under $100 a day.

I can tell you from experience that $50 a day doesn’t go very far. I didn’t save anything (but I did have a good time).

Headliners and guest performers can make much more income, between $800 and $2,000 a week, and probably more. Guest performers also typically work less hours than musicians in the house band or lounges and are housed in single passenger cabins.

There are other aspects of cruise ship employment that add value. Cost-of-living at sea, for example. Say, on land, you spend $100 a week on food – you no longer need to pay that $100, as all food will be provided for you. Also, you live rent free. Same for utilities, gas for your car – maybe you put your cell phone service on hold because you’ll be out of the country. In my opinion, you should factor those savings into your cruise ship salary. Let’s be conservative and say you save $200 a week by living at sea. To make the same value, then, you’d have to find a job that makes $800/month more on land.

In this way we see a cruise job that pays $27,000/year ($75/day) is similar to a job that makes $36,000/year on land.

Whether or not you are able to save money on your job depends a lot on where you are cruising. If you are in Alaska, you will have a hard time finding somewhere to blow your money. In Europe, especially with the current exchange rate, forget about bringing any of that cash home. The Caribbean and Mexico are still cheap – you get the picture.

Little luxuries really add up on a ship, and its typically little things that add up to crew members not saving money. Partying can become an expensive habit, souvenirs for family and friends add up, “cheap” electronics in the Caribbean or Asia are still big purchases – again, you get the picture.

But if you are frugal, you could come off of a cruise ship job with a lot of money saved up – even if you make near the low end of the salary range.

How Good Do You Have to Be?

I received an email this week from a reader who wanted to know how good a musician you should be to play on a cruise ship. He asks:

I’m comfortable playing with a jazz (definitely pop/rock) band once I know the tunes, but wouldn’t be confident to play solo jazz standards in a lounge for an hour without sounding like I was faking my way through it. Does that sound like it would be decent enough to get on a ship?

Essentially, that’s for the cruise line or the talent agency to decide. Whoever runs or reviews the auditions probably has a pretty good eye and ear for what they’re looking for. But I can say a few things.

It is, essentially, a job for full-time, professional musicians. That is, people who, when not on the ship, still make their living playing music. In theory, at least. The reality, though, is that making a living playing music on land is a lot harder than on ships, and some musicians work on ships for a few years and then trail off to more lucrative lines of work later. You should be, however, someone who does or could make a living playing music full-time, were there enough gigs to go around.

Now – more specifically:

If you are going to work in the show band, the band that backs the guest performers, you need to sight-read very well. You usually have a short rehearsal in the morning of your show, and that’s it until you play two shows that night. You should probably have been trained to be a professional musician either at a music school or through many years of lessons.

The show band, at least in my experience, also plays impromptu jazz sets now and then for special events. On this gig the leader calls tunes out of a real book and the band makes up arrangements as they go. For this, it also helps to have a good training in jazz, but I did see show band musicians that weren’t good at jazz – especially British musicians who didn’t get as much jazz training as the Americans and Canadians. If a show band musicians played so-so in the jazz sets, but continued to perform well in the guest performer shows, their jazz sets were mostly over-looked. I think the idea was the that shows were the priority on that gig.

If you are one of the other bands – the bands assigned to a certain lounge in the ship – it might be a little different. Even to this day I know guys who’s heads are full of standards and tunes, and can play just about anything, but have trouble with written music. You might be able to get away with this if you were, say, the piano trio/vocal jazz band in one of the smaller lounges. If you have your act together, you sing well, you play well…people might not ever notice that you’re reading chops are a little shaky. Its not like guests would be bringing you charts to read down during the night.

If you are a guest performer you should either be really incredibly good, or have some schtick that is good enough to make people forget that you aren’t that good. This is probably true of all musical acts, and you all know what I mean. Guest performers don’t sight-read nothing for nobody.

Bottom line, if you are a member of the show band you should be well educated and trained in many different commercial styles. This gig gets populated by a lot of people fresh out of music school. If you are lounge band, that jobs seems to carry more autonomy with it, and your skills can be more concentrated on your particular kind of music and act.

Aside from that, I would generally suggest that you should be a really good player. If, when you play gigs, you regularly have people you don’t know (not your mother) come up and tell you they enjoyed your playing, that’s a good sign that you might be good enough. If you don’t have those people yet, or more to the point, if you don’t play gigs – keep shedding and get your chops up to speed before you audition.

What Was There to Be Dark About?

I wanted to respond to a comment I received a few months ago on the Adjusting to Land After a Cruise Job post. My apologies to Michael for taking so long to get back to him. This is the comment:

Dave,
Thanks so much for all your entries. I’ve read them all tonight looking to find better insight into this industry and that I have. I study drums at Berklee and finish this May and highly considering this for a while. Your last sentence about finding disgust with your “company” has throw me afoot. I’d love to talk more as I’ve read some of your daily blog too and see you’re still playing. Maybe via email you can fill me in more about your liner you worked with and all that jazz, thanks again so much, this has been a huge help in going through my decision process. -Michael

First off, many thanks for the comment, Michael. I enjoy hearing back from people that read the site.

Second off, Berklee puts you in a good position for work in commercial music. There’s a lot of criticism of Berklee, I know, but I will say this – there is a Berklee cat on every gig I play. Everywhere I go I gig with guys from Berklee. So as you graduate, keep your head up and throw around the name of your alma mater. I think you’ll find it helps.

Yeah, the gig had some darkness in it. The first ship I did was 4 years ago, and enough time has past now that you’d think I’d have the darkness all wrapped up into a nice perspective, able to dole out with aged wisdom. I’m not sure I do.

It was a weird thing, really. You were on this ship, and you got to travel the world, and eat lavishly, and drink all you wanted and play music. It was like a heathen playground of excess at times. Maybe that’s an exaggeration – all I mean to say is that it was a classic sweet situation.

Nevertheless, everybody was dark. It was weird! What was there to be dark about? We were living in the garden of eden! I remember being to confused at first why there was such a general grumpiness in all of the crew members. I wrote about it at the time.

And yet, but the end of it, I was the same way. I started counting down the days until I could leave – I started at 41! I marked them off a calendar like it was prison. What was the deal?

I’ve come to believe that there are three things that are important in life. People, place and work. That is, who you’re with, where you are, and what you’re doing. The best you can expect in life is for two of those three things to be going well at any given time. You should never settle for less than two, but sometimes you have to. Sometimes you have to deal with none of them, but that’s rare as long as you stay out of, say, prison and the military.

I think maybe what happened is that people came on to the ship expecting to find all three things waiting for them, and were disillusioned when those things came up short.

The places you go are great, but you quickly find that the place you live is a tiny crew cabin below deck, sharing a bunk with a smelly, drunk reed player and possibly his girlfriend-of-the-week.

The people you meet are fun, too. But you quickly find that everyone’s on a different contract schedule, so the fun-loving Aussie you just met is leaving in a week. And the cool Scottish dude in the bar is leaving in a month. And then somebody else come on, and they are great, but you’re leaving in a month. Or worse, there’s that one officer who’s a total jerk, and he’s staying indefinitely. After awhile its like – why bother meeting anyone?

Granted, I’m kind of a nostalgic, social guy – especially when I was younger – and this kind of thing probably wouldn’t be a problem if you’re a little more stoic about social arrangements. Its best to enjoy the time you have with people and let it go when its done. There’s a lot of that on ships. Its not fulfilling.

And regarding the work…as a musician it can be very boring, or it can be grueling. If you’re in the show band, you better bring a hobby. If you’re the piano bar singer, you better bring some tea and honey, because you’ll be singing 5 hours a night, 7 days a week. And furthermore, both of those schedules are exceptionally light compared with the hours that everyone else is working. 12 hours shifts, 7 days a week for 9 months can be the norm for some of the jobs. People work incredibly long hours without any break. (And the fact that you sit around deck all day reading a book and eating dessert doesn’t make you very popular, believe me.)

In the end, I think it was a deterioration of expectations that made people dark on the ship. I’ve seen this before, too. In college I worked as an intern at Walt Disney World in Florida. I adored the job, but lots of people hated it. They came with the wrong expectations – they thought working at Disney World would be a lot like taking a vacation to Disney World. And when they had to take out the trash and clean up vomit…they became severely and irreversibly disappointed with the whole thing.

That may not be an apt comparison, but the point remains – a job in paradise is still a JOB. And it sucks sometimes just like all other jobs. And if you’re not expecting that, it can be a real shock, and it can make you really dark.

Cruise Ship Musician Employment – FAQ

This blog is a fair and honest representation of the cruise jobs I had in 2004 and 2008. Some have asked whether or not the writing was filtered to stay out of trouble with management, and yes, of course it was. It was filtered in the same way everything that has your name on it and is on the internet is filtered – with the idea in mind that the person that reads this could be your boss, and now-a-days, a potential client.

I wrote many of these posts while I was on the ship, and I haven’t changed them since. I haven’t even taken out typos, which might be more laziness than anything else. They are as close an assessment of the good and the bad as I could present.

There are a lot of questions that come my way, especially since traffic to the site has increased. This post is in no way an effort to stop emails and comments from coming – on the contrary! – its always fun to hear from people that read the site. By all means leave a comment or drop me an email.

Regarding how to get on a ship in the first place, there are two ways. First is through a talent agency, and second is directly through the cruise line. A talent agency will take 10-15% of your paycheck, but will get you on a ship the quickest. In fact, once you get in good with a talent agency, you may find it hard not to get work from them. As cruise ships tend to be a passing career paths for most musicians, these talent agencies seem to be constantly searching for new musicians. They are so hard up sometimes that they’ll just take anybody and throw them on a ship. If you talent agencies are reading this, don’t get upset because you know that’s a fact. The most common complaint about talent agencies, in fact, is not the bite they take out of your paycheck, or the lack of support while you are on the ship – no – the biggest complaint when I was out was that these agencies get desperate for players and sometimes throw terrible musicians on the ship and hope that they work out.

The second way I never did myself, that is, to contact the cruise line directly. Cruise lines used to get their musicians entirely from agencies, but for the problems listed above, they seem to not be doing that as much anymore. This route is pretty simple, but it takes much longer from what I hear. Basically (and I know it should be harder than this, but it isn’t), you call up the cruise line’s main number and ask for the entertainment department. When you get them on the phone tell them that you are a musician and you want to play on their ships, and how can you apply for a position. I don’t know much else about this way of doing it, other than it can take months for them to get around to your application (so I’ve heard). Perhaps someone who’s done this could explain the process to us in the comments.

A quick google search will show you talent agencies. Proship and Oceanbound seem to at least have the most internet presence. They are both Canadian companies – perhaps the same company for all I know – and I will endorse neither of them here.

Regarding how often a cruise ship musician works – I can only speak for my experience. On my ship I worked 0-3 hours a day. Its pretty cushy, but beware: it gets boring. Bring something else to do! A hobby, your computer, video games were popular – bring something. I had brought with me none of the above, but I enjoyed my spare time anyway with all the reading I got through on the ship. I was reading a book every few days by the end of it. Just as a means of contrast, I hardly ever read books lately. Who has time?

Can you practice? No. They say you can, but you its hard to find a private space on a ship. Practicing in your room might be alright, but your room may be next to another crew member that works nights, and you practicing during the day when they want to sleep might not be allowed depending on the situation. As a pianist, its even more difficult to find a place that both has a piano and is private enough to let you practice in peace.

Nevertheless, because of all of the playing and sight-reading that you do, you’re chops will probably get better – or, at least, the chops that you use on this gig will get better. I sounded great when I got off the ship (great on Capacabana and bossa nova hits at least).

Can you work in the summer if you have summer’s off? The typical length of time agencies and cruise lines try to get musicians to commit to is 6 months. Contrary to what they’ll tell you, they do accept shorter time periods, although they really push hard to make you take 6 months for at least your first contract. If they are desperate for players, though, they’ll send you out for whatever length of time they can get you. In the case of the agencies, at least, everyday you spend on a ship is a day they get 12% of, so of course they want you out there. You’re big business. So yes, you could, in theory, go during your summers off. But its very difficult to coordinate. If you’re going that route, try it through a talent agency, as they’ll be able to negotiate shorter contracts easier.

Yes, you have to be able to read music. Well. End of story.

Would I go out again? Well…my life is different than it used to me. I make a living playing music on land now. I have a girlfriend. My brother just had a kid. Things like that make it hard to imagine committing to 6 months alone on a ship with a roommate and a tiny paycheck. At the time none of the things I just mentioned were happening. I didn’t care about the cash and I just wanted to see the world. I also needed to learn a few things about being a pro musician. It was really good for me…at age 23. Now I’m not so sure. It sounds like a step back now. But if things were really slow, I might take something again. Not for 6 months, though. That’s a hella wicked long time on a ship.

That said, I’m taking another cruise job right now. This time, though, I’m the music director of a guest performer act – a gig that is much, much, much different. The bread is great, I live in a passenger cabin with all the benefits of a passenger, its in Hawaii…its all pretty slick. So yeah, if the gig paid great and I had my own room (and in this case, I only had to go out for 3 months) – yeah, I’d go back out.

If the question is – if I had it to do over again, would I – if that’s the question the answer is undoubtably yes. Absolutely. It was really good for me, and really helped to launch my career on land. It was one of the first real professional musician credits I had. I felt people treated me differently after I came back – as if I was a REAL musician now. Everywhere I go – even Broadway in NYC – there are musicians that paid their dues on ships, sometimes for many years. Its a very good thing for young commercial musicians to do – hey, its a gig playing your ax, right? Those can be hard to find.