Since 1998 my wife and I have been on many cruises, all in the Caribbean. We just completed our 19thwith Princess, have done two with Royal Caribbean and one with Carnival (yuck!). We plan to go again early next March on a new ship in the Princess line, the Sky Princess. Now, we know that cruising is not for everyone although almost without exception those who say they would never do it are speaking from ignorance about the experience or pre-conceived ideas of what it’s like. The truth is that modern era cruising has something for EVERYONE and you can be as active or as chill as you want.
Over those many years I’ve heard an amazing variety of music on the ships ranging from single guitarists and pianists to duos to classical quartets to big deal featured performers to dance bands in the lounges and on deck to a few downright incredible jazz ensembles of various sizes. I’ve made a point to speak with as many of the performers as possible because I am fascinated by what it’s like to play on the ship.
The way it works is this: using an agent or applying online with audition recordings the artist is then asked to come to the cruise company headquarters for an audition. If chosen they will be offered a “contract” that will run anywhere from four to seven months. They must accept whatever ship or destination they are offered, although long-time players can sometimes request specific ships.
After that they can re-apply for a contract although there are no guarantees about which ship they will end up on or where they will be going. But many artists end up doing a few contracts as the overall experience is very good (with some provisos that I’ll get into in a minute) and the pay is in cash (!) with virtually NO expenses, i.e., shared room and food are provided. Their only expenses are cleaning of their clothing and drinks, although they are heavily discounted in the crew bar below decks where no passengers ever go. I read a book written by a musician who did contracts for Royal Caribbean a few years ago and it was normal for him to leave the ship at the end of a contract with $5k - $8k in cash! So you can see the appeal.
So what is the experience like? Well, the pluses are that you will probably play only once or twice a day, starting at mid-day and possibly into the late evening but there will also be a day or two that you don’t play at all over the course of a week or two. So you can play your gig – usually exactly one hour for single performers – and you can sleep in when most of the crew members have to get going very early in the morning and work until quite late. You also have full deck and port privileges. What that means is that you can be on deck whenever you want and can get off the ship at some cool island if time allows. This is definitely NOT the case with many if not most of the close to 2000 crew members on ships such as the Regal Princess that we just sailed. Some can never go up on deck unless the ship is docked or they are needed for some maintenance project. And in any case, crew members such as the waiters and waitresses are usually required to work breakfast, lunch and dinner. 24/7. For seven months. NO days off, only a few hours of down time when they must get their uniforms laundered, email their families or do other things we take for granted on shore. So as you can see, the musicians have it pretty darn good! They can even eat in the buffet, which is off limits to much of the crew except people like the officers, dancers in the production shows and staff from the gym and spa. This is huge because from all reports the food in the crew mess is not very good. That is, no Baked Alaska, tiramisu, steak or gelato down there!
Of the many musicians I’ve spoken with a few conversations stick out. I always seek out single guitarists as that is something I can totally relate to. One told me he was in his third contract – he was a great jazz/bossa nova type player – and he said: “You know, sometimes I feel like they are paying me to practice!” I heard a husband/wife duo (guitar and vocals) a few years ago, young Australians, who were superb and we had many wonderful conversations with them when they took their breaks during their two-set show in one of the lounges. They echoed what I’d heard many times, that this was as steady a gig as one could hope for with happy audiences every night. They had worked many contracts and intended to continue. We also saw them on the beach at Princess Cays in the Bahamas, soaking up the sun. Very nice indeed.
The musicians I have the most respect for on the ships are the show bands, typically 7- or 8-piece ensembles with horns. They must be great readers to handle a huge array of music styles for the production shows but also must be able to improvise at a very high level when they do the occasional dance or jazz show in a larger lounge. On the last cruise I found the young guitarist from the show band doing an afternoon jazz set in one of the lounges. He made good use of a looper and his jazz chops were excellent. We had a nice conversation and when I asked him where he was in his contract he said he had just started a week before. He had done many contracts before and intended to take some time off but Princess contacted him and asked him to take the guitar seat in band right away. “That was because the guy they had hired couldn’t cut it,” he said. “They sent him home after only a week.”
See what I mean? To do this gig you have to be a pro and understand what’s expected of you – and deliver, day after day and night after night. He did not elaborate on why the other guy was let go.
Is all the music great on cruise ships? Certainly not! On this last cruise for some reason Princess had hired a young woman guitarist/singer who took the place of a piano player in one of the more popular venues on board. While she would have been OK at some local bar back on shore she was definitely not of the caliber that you should expect on a cruise ship. I didn’t want to diss her on the survey that the cruise line always send shortly after you return home but I seriously doubt she will be offered another contract.
I’ve also heard the occasional band or single performer who is obviously burned out and is just going through the motions. It’s likely you will hear a band a few times over the course of a cruise and these types of burn-outs always play exactly the same set list. This is curious to me. Considering the amount of down time (for practice) a musician gets during their contract, wouldn’t he or she want to work out some new songs just to keep things fresh?
Another negative we’ve noticed lately is a cutting back of musical offerings. Little things that might not be noticed but we’ve been cruising so long we certainly do notice. Things like musicians playing with backing tracks rather than full ensembles. Princess used to always have a string quartet that played at various times in the atrium, which is the heart of the ship. It was so nice to board the ship and have that quartet playing some lively Mozart, or when returning to the ship after a wonderful day on a beach on some island. Now there is a duo (violin and cello) playing with backing tracks – which are limited. On this cruise they were both great players, especially the gorgeous young violinist (!) but I miss the organic sound of a full quartet. There are fewer guitarists doing solo sets than in the old days, too. And the show bands, which once had 10 – 12 players have been reduced. I totally understand why this is happening: money. Cruising is still the most amazingly affordable vacation you can find when you consider how many things are provided without additional charge but the cruise lines are constantly nickel-and-diming passengers these days. After so many cruises my wife and I have “Elite” status and we get a few perks so I really shouldn’t complain. It’s just that I miss some aspects of the musical experience.
But then there are the truly special ones. On this cruise we were lucky to be on board for the final week of a contract by a Beatles tribute band called Beatlemaniacs. Now, I’ve heard many, many Beatle tribute bands over the years and this one I would put near the top. They did a show in the big main theater but on their final night did a special show in the atrium. It was an hour long with absolutely no stopping between songs and perhaps because it was their last show they put it all out there! My wife and I sang along at the top of our lungs; I had no voice the next morning. They were fantastic. And this is one reason we will keep cruising with Princess!
After reading that book by the musician who worked cruise lines the little man on my shoulder said: If only you were 20 years younger (and single!!), you would go for it. You know you would!
Peace & good music,