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.