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.

Published by

David J. Hahn

David J. Hahn

David J. Hahn (@davidjhahn) is the co-founder of and a former Broadway conductor. He grew up near Chicago, lived in New York City, and settled in California. In 2012, he left the music business to found California Surfcraft, a San Francisco-based start-up that makes high-performance surf gear out of fiberglass-reinforced cork. He is the inventor of the Bodypo®, a sustainable alternative to the traditional bodyboard. He is a cancer survivor, an advocate for unlikely career paths, and, beginning in spring of 2015, a father.

63 thoughts on “Cruise Ship Musician Employment – FAQ”

  1. Hi David:
    I like to first say this is a really great blog. I’m really enjoying it and thanks for posting all of the wonderful information…..My question is this: What would a paycheck look like (ball park figure) for a first time cruise ship musician? Thanks:)………Jeff Gee

  2. Hi David , yep , i think you hit the nail on the head with all your info.I worked 15 years on cruise ships as a trumpet player .-it reminded me of a velvet cell , really comfy -but you still felt like a inmate by the end of the contract !–but – i may have to venture back–work is pretty slow in the U.K. !
    All the best

  3. Hey David,
    Again, thanks for your info. Its hard to find the real deal amongst the glossy posts of talent agencies.
    I am a 20yr old Aussie pianist, two years ago I was offered a cruise job but then subsequently denied due to my age. Obviously since then I’ve been concentrating on getting on board.
    My questions..
    1. As a cocktail pianist do I have to play a real piano? (90% of my show is based on splitting the keys with an acoustic bass sound).
    2. 3hrs a day!! I think I’d go overboard, is it possible to play in the showband as well?
    3. I have spent the last year singing, I am not great, merely in tune. Would it be a better idea to hold back 6months and enter as a piano bar entertainer rather than a cocktail pianist? What are the main differences (on the ship).
    4. Who decides on $$?? on land I hassle publicans and alike for more money nearly every 2nd gig if all is going well. What happens here??

    Thanks for your time


  4. Hey David
    Do you have to be less than a certain age to work on a ship? I am nearly 40 but I know how to read charts and I know how to improvise. How does the audition process work to get on board? I once auditioned and I could have gone out, but things started changing in a little thing called Life. I think I have the chance to do it right now.
    I was wondering if there were any other physical requirements of working on these ships. Do you really have to pass a physical and are those physical examinations just as rigorous as the ones they do for the military? I understood that you have to be really healthy to be able to work on ships such as no obesity, no diabetics and nobody else with any big health concerns.
    What is your answer for these questions?

  5. Hi Cindy –

    Thanks for writing. Have a look around CCSM and I think you’ll find the answers to a lot of your questions. Here are a few to start with:

    How Old Are Most Musicians on Cruise Gigs?
    How to Get a Cruise Ship Musician Job

    Regarding the health question, cruise ships are very sensitive about health ailments. You are required to get a full physical (on your own dime) prior to beginning your gig, and if they find anything they don’t like they can dismiss you immediately. It depends entirely on the cruise line and the cruise line’s doctors, and you never know what they’ll say.

  6. Hey Dave,
    I’m a solo guitar/singer and I got 6 months to kill due to a class that’s offered every other year.. I’m a music business major, and I know how to look at music and figure it out, I’m not a fluent fast reader. I’ve heard there are jobs where you are your own show, so the reading isn’t as important. Would you consider that to be true? Also how many songs would you think would be necessary to start? I have 100 covers ranging from Now, 90’s 80’s and classic rock.

    Also, great site. It’s something I’m highly considering!


  7. Hi Derek –

    Yes, you’re thinking of one of the lounge positions onboard. I know that NCL has a solo guitarist position on at least some of their ships. I think it’s like a 3-4 sets a night kind of thing.

    I would contact the cruise lines directly and see how you do like that. Try contacting the entertainment department of NCL and asking if you can audition or send your material in.

  8. hi!

    just a quickie and maybe i have missed something on your useful blog/site here….what’s the deal re. musicians etc being able to communicate home while on board the vessel? are there generally e.mail facilities for crew musicians to use….are they generally free to use or is it pay per min. etc ? thanks…D

  9. Hi there!,

    Firstly am so glad ive found this site….Its really very useful so well done for that!

    Im a drummer from the UK looking to work on a ship….for an agency like Proship who are obviously not based in the UK would I still be able to work for them or even audition?

    I guess what im asking is,if your from the UK do you have to apply to work on a cruise liner through an agency thats based in the UK??

    Many thanks,

    R x

  10. I know you talked about praticing already, but I’m the kind of musician that will still be praticing even though I’m already in a gig. You mentioned that it was difficult to practice aboard a ship. However, my question is if you really looked hard enough would you be able to find a spot to practice all day, or at least most of it?

    Thank you.

  11. Hey David!
    Or anyone! Is still anyone in here? I’m trying to get on board a ship but i dont know where to look! The information is just too much now days and they send you from click to click! Any suggestions?!?

  12. Good-day …what would your opinion be on a 4pc Band trying to book a Cruise ship gig..we are Not new at this and have a well established following on land and are more looking to a semi-retirement so to speak ( as families are at a mature age) allowing us to travel for 6 months at a time …however we are looking at rooms provided and a descent salary as well…One we have looked at is offering $2500 a month each musician and rooms..does this sound even possible though your experience…we are 2 male vocals one female vocal and do every genre of Music..our drummer does not sing but he rocks…Thanks

  13. Hi David. This is a great site. Especially as it comes from the inside as it were. I’m hoping to start a cruise as a cabaret lounge artist in a few weeks from now, and was wondering what to expect in terms of hours? Best wishes.

  14. Hi David,

    Thank you for all your articles, I’ve really enjoyed reading them. One question though: Do cruise lines ever hire cellists for their orchestras? I’ve looked on several websites about playing on cruise ships and none of them have mentioned cellos (or any other string instruments besides bass, for that matter) in their orchestras

  15. Hi Jen,

    I figured I’d respond to your question about cellists. To my knowledge, no cruise line hires string players as individuals. However, Holland America does hire string quartets.

    It’s a lot of work for the quartet. They usually perform in the Explorers lounge every night. It’s usually 5 hours a day, every day. If tea time is involved, it means that port time is shortened. I was an MD on ships for 5 years, and the most complaints I got for exhaustion were from the quartets. They also prefer that the repertoire be of the lighter variety. No Elliott Carter quartets here! Tangos, Air on a G string, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Beatles songs, Memory from Cats, stuff like that. Once, I had a cruise director who wanted to fire a group because they played a late Beethoven quartet! (they weren’t fired.)If your typical cruise is 7 days, it means that you need at least 35 hours of rep not to have to repeat something. Occasionally, they may ask you to play outside for the Dessert Extravaganza. In the humid, salt air. Not good for the instrument.

    All this being said, I had a great time on ships. I saw the world and met some amazing people. The money is OK, and if you give up your apartment on land (like I did), you can save a fair deal of cash.

    Here’s a link to the HAL website

  16. Hey David,

    Great site, very helpful!
    I’m a professional cellist and i’m living and working to travel.Like all young people I wanna see the world and it looks fun to me to visit some city’s and play for living in the meanwhile. I can’t complain about the jobs and my salary right now, so I don’t know if doing cruise gigs are the best thing to do at this moment? But, I think I have to do it when I’m still young. I don’t have problems with being from home for 6 months and all the other negative things that comes with cruise gigs, but a real important question for me is: Are you doing the same cruise for 6 months??? Or can you switch boats and explore other parts of the globe? Or, is your boat doing other cruises in that period :-) Cause I can’t find information about this part of the job. Example: Your cruise boat is doing a cruise of only 7 days. Do you have to go to the 7 same harbors for 6 months than?? Looks boring to me…
    Thanks for your answer and good luck with your career!

    Best regards,

  17. Your website has been very helpful! I am doing a project and there is just one thing I’m missing, and this is the only website I am allowed to use. The question I need to answer is about how many people are currently employed in this career?

    1. Hi Beck – well, I don’t think there’s any way to know that. I certainly don’t know. You can tell your teacher I told you that this statistic is currently unavailable. Does that help?

  18. Hey, this is a great article. My question is, I play piano and I know how to sight read very well but I can’t play by ear or improvise too well. I’m also not too great with jazz. Would this hinder me from getting a gig playing with the show band?

  19. Hi David,
    I auditioned for HALCats about 2 months ago and haven’t heard anything back. I thought I did ok; however, maybe I have to work a bit harder. Is it possible to apply for an audition again for the same company, and how long should I wait to try again?



    1. Hi Hug – I can only guess and say to wait…I’m not sure…4 months? Just a guess. Who knows for sure?

      I understand this to mean you’ve only applied directly with HAL, am I right? I think you’ll get much better results if you apply as many ways, and with as many companies, as you can. Try the talent agencies, they move a lot quicker on hiring. Audition for everyone and go with whoever hires you first – it’s not worth it to be loyal before anyone has given you a job.

      1. Hi David,

        Just thought I would put my two cents in…I think when a musician auditions sand applies everywhere it is not the best way to go about it. At least when it comes to bands. i see bands submitting to every agent and cruise line and they are not submitting the best work they can do. I would rather see someone get an agent that will guide them (not just for commission sake) but to make sure they get work. When they just sent out links to everyone, and they do not know what is required they will not get work. My thought for today!!

  20. Hi Hug,

    Sorry about that. I know it can be frustrating not knowing what is going on. We try to get back to people either way in a timely matter but it looks like you slipped through the cracks. You’ll be contacted shortly with a follow up.


  21. Hi David – great blog! I’m considering applying for a position on a ship, ultimately as a cocktail pianist but my repertoire needs expanding (about 120 tunes at the moment – plus a good ear!). In the meantime, a job as a keyboardist with one one of the bands could be a possibility – I sight-read fine. My question is this – is the gear (keyboards, modules etc.) generally already in place or would I have to drag my own along?

    1. Good question – all gear is provided for keyboardists on ships (unless your act requires something special). On the ships I worked it was usually a Yamaha p-250 in the lounges and a Korg Triton in the theater.

  22. Hey David,

    I’ve discovered some great insights on your website so far, and I’m enthralled with the idea of being a cruise line musician. My question is, do cruise lines or talent agencies ever hire solo vocalists? I play piano, but not confident in my skills yet, however I am a professional level singer in most styles. Thanks for all the great info.

  23. Hey there David,

    Thanks for the information provided on this website – it’s a tremendous resource! I’m hopefully about to embark on some cruise ship piano bar work through an agent who is interested in me and as of next week, will start looking for work for me. This will be my first cruise ship gig.

    I hear all sorts of stories about having share cabins. Would you say it’s fair to request a single cabin, considering it’s my first time on board?



  24. Hey, great article. Just wondering, what styles do they want on a cruise ship? i.e. classical, jazz, pop etc…? do you need to be diverse? I am studying classical piano, and my jazz abilities extend about as far as improvising on c-blues. also, if hired as a soloist, will/can you end up playing with other musicians?

  25. Hey Dave! I really like the articles about working on a Cruise Ship. Are cruise ships still hiring musicians at his point?

    1. Jacob,

      As an agent who works with all the lines, I can tell you they are still hiring musicians, and with more ships being built every year it should continue for a long time.

      Mike Moloney Entertainment

  26. Hi david

    First of all i would like to thank you for all of your helpfull information

    Do you know if there a cruise agency that will hire any musicians from israel?
    I do understand that most of the agency’s are from the usa or from Europe

  27. My father-in-law is a 78 year old widower. He’s done yoga for decades and is in great shape. He is a sensational classical guitarist and nails everything from Segovia to the Beatles. I would love to send him out to sea for six months. Would any cruise lines take an old soloist who can pick it?


      1. hi david,
        I am a flamenco dancer and I dance along with my guitarist. We perform everywhere in Melbourne and are interested in working on a lovely Cruise Ship.
        I have been dancing all my life flamenco and the guitarist has performed in mor than 20 countries for 18 years. He goes from flamenco playing to latin, samba, jazz, we improvise…. and we enjoy it which is most important and get people involved when the it’s the right occassion. We live in Melbourne, do they hire from Melbourne. Thanks David, Awaiting for your reply

  28. Hi, David,
    I am well trained pianist (masters in piano), but I live in awful country, so I need an escape. Since I am not very good with popular and jazz music, is it possible to use sheets? I can memorize Brahms, Beethoven, Bach, etc, but simple pop music is killing me!
    Your web cite is great!


  29. Been playing piano for 41+ years. Back in 1989 I had cruise director for a carnival ship ask me to send him an resume. I told him thanks but being married, with family would be tough. Currently it wouldn’t be so tough am divorced and now have better experience. Have played at store opening lately, at a big farm market in lansing, MI.
    Play ragtime, popular songs, movie tunes. love songs, enjoy playing.


  30. Hi Dave, I would like to find out if i can work in the restaurant or bar and in my spare time and as my side job, play jazz with a jazz on the ship?

  31. Can you possibly recommend which cruise ship lines in your experience have the lowest rate of passengers (or crew, for that matter) who smoke? I’d like to work as a pianist on a ship but am acutely allergic to smoke (yes, as an entertainer it’s been a problem). I don’t like the idea of spending almost all of my time aboard ship in non-smoking areas indoors. Can you also comment on the chances of a retiree over 65 finding cruise ship work as a pianist and whether or not proficiency at reading the bass clef is usually necessary? Thanks!

    1. Hi Gene –

      That would be hard to know. I was only on 2 cruise lines myself. Smoke doesn’t really bother me, so I never paid much attention to us. Since it is a closed atmosphere (there’s no getting off the ship once you’re out at sea) I think it might be problematic for you. You certainly couldn’t go to the crew bars…and it’d be a problem if you had to pass the crew bars on the way to your own cabin (which you’d likely have to do).

      As for the chances of a retiree – it all depends on if you can pass the audition and the physical.

      1. Thanks for your answer (valuable info) and sorry for the misunderstanding, my possible paranoia (something maybe borne of too much smoke inhalation.)

  32. hey. I study drums at the Atlanta Institute of music and media. I was wondering what kind of music is played on cruises or does it depend on the cruise? As a drummer I get sheet music for guitar or bass to follow. Thru my studies I hear that that is not that unusual to have happen so I was wondering is that the case for cruise lines?

    1. Hi Jonathon,
      To answer your question regarding the kind of music. Think very mainstream, in the realm of radio hits from the past 60 years or so, along with some jazz standards. As drummer you are likely to get all sorts of charts. Generally official company charts will be written out drum charts, but you are most likely also to see a bunch of lead sheets and even the piano vocal score on rare occasion.

  33. Dave,

    Thanks for your insight. I’m a jazz pianist student in my final year and I’m looking for work post-graduation. I have a couple of friends who have already done cruise ship jobs but I have no experience in this field. My question(s) to you are:
    1) Would it be possible to bring a pair of headphones along to plug into the keyboards to practice on?
    2) What sort of attire is required as a cocktail pianist? Would you be a solo act or would you play in a band?
    3) How many standards would you be required to know off the top of your head (and by ‘know’ does that mean being able to play that standard in any key?)
    4) Are there any UK based cruise lines you would recommend?
    5) Can you mingle with guests?
    6) Do you have access to any of the sports facilities onboard? (E.g Swimming pool)
    7) Is food provided?
    8) What talent agencies can I sign up to?

    Sorry for bombarding you with questions, I just want to be as prepared as possible come May.

    Thanks very much and Happy New Year!

    Jonny Lawrence

  34. Great Site! Thank you. I have been offered a contract with HAL as a solo singer/guitar player. As a solo do you know if I have to share a room? Thanks again have a wonderful day!

  35. Hi, here one for you, I’m a handy sax player, good reader and good improviser too, but I don’t double so well on clarinet or flute – but I am pretty handy on the trombone, strange combo I know. Do you think there would be work on the cruise ships with those skills?


    1. Hi Mark,

      We are looking for horn players, drummer, guitar, keyboard, lead singer for a Caribbean cruise leaving in November and one in Dec. If you are interested, please email me for more details and send me your information as soon as possible (


      1. Hello David,

        I’ve only just seen this reply. So sorry. Not a great start i know, I always looked for a reply in my email.
        Well, in the unlikely event you could forgive me – got anything for a handy sax/trombone player?
        I could start tomorrow.


      2. Hello

        I’ve only just seen this reply. So sorry. Not a great start i know, I always looked for a reply in my email.
        Well, in the unlikely event you could forgive me – got anything for a handy sax/trombone player?
        I could start tomorrow.


  36. Hi Dave,

    Im 18 and going to college for Music Education and minoring in Communications. After going on a cruise ship this past week i fell in love with life at sea. I also love performing and would love to work on a cruise after I graduate from college. Any tips on the audition process? I am an Oboist, but I also love to sing and want to audition as a vocalist. I have had musical training in theory, sight singing, etc. for 6 years and will continue in college. Any advice on auditioning and information on work hours? Also is the salary enough to be able to travel and do things on your two months off? And do you get to use the guest amenities like the pools and workout gym on your free time?

    Thank you!!,


  37. Hello everyone.

    Is there a way to evolve from an onboard nomad job to an “in land” job?

    There is a certain cruise line which runs a Music Direction department in my country.
    I know the musical director lives/works in land and I think he must have some employees.

    Is there any administrative job (into music area) where you can work in land, I mean, in a fixed place?


  38. Dear everyone,

    we are two young professional cellists, looking for a new experience. We are very interested in playing on the cruise ships because it would give us new perspective in performing. We have many experiences in playing as a duo in festivals, both classical and popular music. We are also very good in sight reading and playing in small and large ensembles (professional orchestras). Is there any possibility to get hired as a duo for summer 2015? Thank you very much in advance!

    Kind regards,
    Duo Furioso

  39. Hi,
    I’m considering applying for a cruise ship position as a harpist. My concern is that I have type one diabetes. I know employers aren’t allowed to discriminate against people with diabetes in terms of hiring, but then I also know that companies like peace corps can deny employment (for our own safety/benefit). I also read on this site that some of the passenger rooms (reserved for band leader type gigs) have refrigerators – I would need one of those rooms to store a 6 month supply of insulin! Any information would be so helpful!

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