This is something I get asked about a lot by students and other musicians. They’re always curious to know what it’s like to play on a cruise ship. Here are my thoughts about it.
I think playing on a couple of contracts out of music school is a great way to save some money and travel. A lot of guys will graduate with a music degree, then move to a scene and get a day job to pay the rent while trying to do as much as they can with music when they’re off the clock. This has worked for a lot of people, but in my experience, having a bank account saved up from playing on ships allows you to live for a year plus (depending on your rent situation) while focusing exclusively on playing, practicing, networking, and just generally focusing 100% on music. And that’s if you make ZERO money, you can still live off savings.
The great thing about ships (and overseas hotel gigs too) is that they’re always there. If you have to, you can go back to it to save up some more money. This is a pretty comforting thought, because I’m one of those guys that really can’t stand the typical day job, so having something out there where I can work a regular gig in music is pretty sweet.
Now about the lifestyle. This is where the drawbacks come into play. If you take a ship contract, you will be living very close to the water, if not below decks, in a cabin that’s probably about 7′ by 7′, with much of that space being taken up by bunk beds (you will have a room mate to share this tiny space with) and a couple of closets. My ships had private bathrooms in the cabins, very small. There will be no windows, and the only light is fluorescent.
You’ll be rolling the dice on room mates, and you’re stuck with them for 4-6 months. Neighbors can be an issue as well, if they’re very noisy or inconsiderate. You have to make sure that you bring plenty of distractions. An e-book reader is a very good idea, and a laptop is absolutely necessary, preferably with a lot of video games. Internet on the ship is slow and expensive. You can buy something like 400 minutes for $40. It’s usually better to find a coffee shop in port and use their internet.
So the lifestyle is very cramped, and the interpersonal relationships, good or bad, can be very intense because everyone not only works together, but lives together and drinks together (and drinks in the crew or officers’ bars average about $1).
One of the great things, though, is the fact that you’re getting paid a reasonable wage to play music while traveling the world with no rent or food expenses. I’ve been to a lot of places, some I never dreamed I would ever see. Greenland, for instance. Or Estonia, now one of my favorite places ever. Amazing experiences that people pay thousands for, I got paid for. You’re always allowed off the ship while in port as long as you’re back for your gig, and you MUST take advantage of that, because it’s easy to get stir crazy if you’re on the boat for too long. Every third or fourth port you’re usually on a rotation that’s required to stay on board, a requirement of maritime law. So while your cabin may look like the pictures above, you get to see things like this on a regular basis:
As far as the gig itself is concerned, it’s very straightforward. No matter which group you’re playing in, it’s going to be sight reading. If you’re doing a dedicated ballroom dance/jazz group, then it’s good to be a strong improviser, but no matter what, if you’re trying to get one of these gigs, excellent sight reading is a must. And that’s pretty much it. You show up, you plug in, follow the band leader’s directions, read the charts, and you’re done.
This has been incredibly long winded, so I’ll stop here, but I hope that this blog finds its way to people looking for information on this kind of work. All in all, I think it’s great for recent grads to save money and do something full time in music, with an aim to relocate to a major scene. It’s also an excellent fallback that is a music gig. And if the lifestyle really agrees with you, you can keep doing it and eventually try for a bandleader position. I don’t think I could play on ships for years on end, as the drawbacks tend to outweigh the positives, at least in my experience, and there are too many things I want to accomplish on land. For lots of people it’s a great time from start to finish. But it was a valuable experience both professionally and personally, and it’s definitely nice to know that there is a stable industry out there that employs a lot of musicians if the going gets rough.