Working on cruise ships as a musician

Working on Cruise Ships as a Musician

The perks of working on a cruise ship as a musician seem pretty obvious. First of all, you get to play music all day and get paid for it. Then there’s the fact that you get to travel the globe and live on a luxurious ocean liner. You’re basically embarking on a floating vacation adventure that everyone else on the ship has to pay for — but they’re paying you. Of course, performing as a Cruise Ship Musician isn’t all fun and games, but it’s a chance to make friends from around the world, save up a bunch of money, and see the world. Sounds like an amazing experience, right?

Lots of other super talented musicians have the same idea. So how do you stand out? How do you know if cruise ship life is right for you? How can you be the type of candidate for the job that will catch the eye of the hiring staff? To learn more about the hiring process and what life at sea is really like, we spoke with Jesse Yoder, Managing Director of Flagship Entertainment, a full-service musician recruitment agency that places artists on cruise lines. Whether you see yourself performing as part of a string ensemble, as a member of a Cover Band at the ship’s nightclub, or as a piano bar performer (or anything in between), read on to get a better sense of what to expect on the ship and what you can do to net a place onboard.

Life at Sea

What’s the work schedule of a cruise ship musician like? What’s a day onboard like?

“If you’re in the theatre orchestra (i.e. hired individually), you’ll be playing different shows every night with quite limited rehearsal time. You’ll typically have about an hour rehearsal in the afternoon followed by two evening shows, perhaps at 8 pm and 10 pm. If you’re working in one of the bands around the ship, you’ll be playing four to five forty-five minute sets for the same group of guests for up to fourteen nights in a row (or even more). Now, obviously we don’t expect you to have four different sets for fourteen nights, but you will need a large repertoire covering a lot of styles.

Depending on your daily schedule, most musicians have lots of free time to explore the port of call or simply hang out onboard. A day may go like this. First, wake up around 9 am, grab a bite to eat and some coffee in the guest buffet. (One of the best perks of being a musician onboard is that you are a featured crew member. Therefore you have the ability to use most of the guest facilities). After breakfast, one might spend a few hours out in port to explore, or in many cases, find a nice place with free wifi to catch up with family and friends. Then head back to the ship for rehearsal, have dinner in the guest or crew buffet (your choice) and perform your designated shows in the evening. After your night of music is done, many musicians like to hang out in the crew recreational areas or simply wind down with a free movie available in the cabin.”

When working, how long are musicians away from home?

“No matter what the position, Cruise Ship Musician contracts are generally three to six months long. These are continuous contracts where you live onboard the ship for the entirety of the contract.”

How many musicians do you generally employ in a year? How many musicians are on each ship?
“In general, we represent 150+ musicians and entertainers with regular rotations year-round. Depending on the cruise line and cruise ship’s size, there can be up to thirty musicians onboard at a time.”

“Some of the perks of being a Cruise Ship Musician include first and foremost traveling around the world. But [there are] also things like the use of the guest facilities: guest buffet, gym, shops, bars, lounges, and even the specialty restaurants onboard. One of the best perks is probably the fact that you literally have the most time amongst all crew members to enjoy the port of call, and see the world!”

The Benefits of Cruise Ship Life

What are the perks of the job? Any downsides?

“Some of the perks of being a Cruise Ship Musician include first and foremost traveling around the world. But [there are] also things like the use of the guest facilities: guest buffet, gym, shops, bars, lounges, and even the specialty restaurants onboard. One of the best perks is probably the fact that you literally have the most time amongst all crew members to enjoy the port of call, and see the world! It may be a few hours here and there — however, you’ll step foot in more places than you can imagine. If there are any downsides to the job, it would be that you are away from family and friends for up to six months at a time and live in a dorm-style cabin. However, you’ll soon find that the ship becomes a second family and in most cases, you’ll make friendships that last a lifetime.”

How much money is common to earn?

“Here are the most common types of Cruise Ship Musician jobs and starting salaries. These are only the starting salaries and can vary greatly depending on the line and the musician’s experience.

  • Orchestra/Show Band Musicians (bass, drums, guitar, keys, sax, trumpet, trombone) share cabins and start at $2200/month (USD).
  • Bandmasters are often a member of the orchestra, have their own cabin and start at $2700/month (USD).
  • Solo Musicians (solo guitarists & piano bar entertainers) have their own cabin and start at $3200/month (USD).
  • Duos (Classical & Contemporary) share a cabin and start around $2500/month each (USD).
  • Ensembles (Jazz Quartets, Party Bands & Dance Quartets) share cabins and range from $2400 to $2800/month per person (USD).”

Are there certain regular routes or destinations that are most frequently traveled? Where can Cruise Ship Musicians expect to go and are they able to explore the destinations?

“Italy, Spain, Greece, the Caribbean, Hawaii, Asia, Antarctica: you name it. If you plan to perform on cruise ships for some time, chances are you’re going to step foot in more places than you can shake a stick at! It is literally getting paid to travel the world and do what you love. As previously mentioned, a Cruise Ship Musician has ample time to go and explore these destinations. Most cruise lines also offer shore excursions to not only guests but to the crew as well. If you are an early bird (or can become one), you will be amazed at the amount of time you get to enjoy these different destinations. The two things we always mention to our musicians though are 1) guests come first and, 2) do not miss the ship. They will leave you behind.”

How to Get Hired

What type of person would thrive in a Cruise Ship Musician role?

“As well as technical skills and professional experience, you need to be an easygoing person and able to get along well with others in a close environment. You’ll be working and living closely with your colleagues for up to six months at a time so it really helps to be a people person! The Cruise Ship Musicians you work with will be from different parts of the globe so it’s key to be open-minded and have a good head on your shoulders.”

Tell me about the hiring process for Cruise Ship Musicians. What is the audition process like?
“Our auditions are separated into two categories: Orchestra auditions and Entertainer auditions.

Most lines have an Orchestra (also known as the Show Band) onboard and each musician is hired individually. This 5-10 piece band plays production shows, headliner shows, big band and Top 40 sets onboard. Keys, sax, trombone, trumpet, bass, drums, and guitar are the most common instrumentation. The most important requirement to land one of these jobs is strong sight reading skills (both jazz charts & individual notation). Working onboard a ship as an Orchestra Musician, you’ll find yourself playing new shows daily and having little to no preparation time with the charts. In order to assure that you’ll be comfortable in that setting, we test your sight reading with similar charts prior to hiring. We do live auditions around the globe and if you can’t make it to one of those, we do auditions via Skype. In each case, simply apply with us, and we’ll set up a date and time that works best.

For the audition itself, you’ll be handed a series of charts and be asked to read them without much preparation, typically thirty minutes ahead of time. These charts will range from big band to Top 40 to Broadway selections. Depending on the audition, you might also be asked to play a jazz head and solo over it in order for us to get a feel for your improvisational skills as well.

If sight reading isn’t your thing, you can also be hired as an Entertainer onboard. We recruit the following entertainers to perform on cruise lines: Solo Pianist/Vocalist, Solo Guitarist/Vocalist, Classical Guitarist, Cocktail Pianist, Duo, Party Bands and Jazz Groups (3-4 piece). These entertainers perform four to five forty-five minute sets a night in various lounges onboard. In order to be hired as an Entertainer onboard, you must apply with the following: promo video, song list, and performance resume. If your materials are all ready to go, it only takes a few minutes to submit an online application with Flagship. And that’s it: we take care of the rest.”

What can aspiring Cruise Ship Musicians do to make themselves competitive candidates for these roles? What do you specifically look for when screening applicants for these positions?

“For prospective Orchestra candidates, our best advice is to READ, READ, and READ some more! Consistently challenge yourself reading in different settings and read as much music as possible prior to your cruise ship audition. If you believe your reading is up to par, then work on fine-tuning your improvisation as it can also play a crucial role in being hired. These positions are highly competitive (and highly rewarding). Therefore, we are looking for candidates that have the full package: advanced sight reading skills and improvisational skills. It also helps to show enthusiasm and a positive outlook on the job, too!

For prospective Entertainer candidates, the importance of your promotional package (video, song list, repertoire list) cannot be overstated. Entertainers are hired based on 7-10 minutes of video and your supplemental materials. As you only have a limited amount of time to prove yourself, we suggest following these five tips to stand out as a qualified candidate:

  1. Video Song Selection – Generally speaking, keep selections upbeat and enthusiastic. All song selections should be covers, as entertainers will not be playing original music onboard. An audition video should reflect that.
  2. Video Song Length – An effective submission should be short (about fifteen to thirty seconds) clips demonstrating a variety in style and era. Perspective entertainers should avoid submitting full songs versus excerpts.
  3. Members In Video – For band submissions, the members in the video MUST be the members who can commit to performing on the ship. Far too often, a video is approved and the group cannot be hired because only one or two of the members in the audition are actually available for a contract.
  4. Song List – You should submit, preferably in PDF form, at least 150 songs on your list. The selections in your song list will depend on position, however, the list should be well-organized by name, artist, and genre. This repertoire list should show that you can perform an impressive range of styles and eras.
  5. Performance Resume – This document should include all previous relevant experience. Do include any past cruise ship employment, a list of venues/dates in which you’ve performed and [info regarding your] music education. Do not include irrelevant information such as non-music related day jobs, education or non-music employment. We get this a lot and have to think twice when we see a non-performance based resume.

We like to see that you’ve been studying your craft for many years. As cruise ship jobs are very competitive, you need to be technically sound on your instrument. Cruise ship jobs can be demanding so if you’ve only been playing for a couple years, then this gig is not for you.”

What is the advantage of applying through a recruitment service like Flagship vs. applying directly to the cruise lines?

“Applying through a cruise ship agency like Flagship Entertainment offers what we like to say are 3 Major Pros:

  • PRO #1 – Multiple Job Opportunities
    An agency can provide several job opportunities to musicians and entertainers by working with several major cruise lines. Deciding to apply directly may be a good option if you are certain you want to pursue your career with a specific cruise line. However, you will find that working with multiple cruise lines can give you more options. An agent can open up several more opportunities and establish a gig (and future gigs) that is best suited for both you and the cruise line of hire.
  • PRO #2 – Personal Attention
    An agency can (and should) provide the personal attention needed for musicians and entertainers to be successful in the cruise entertainment industry, from the start of a candidate’s audition to developing one’s talent for future contracts on various lines. In many cases, musicians will choose to approach a cruise line directly. After time, they often feel as if they become a number in the system or simply just lose any sense of contact. Applying direct will save you a small percentage of your salary, but in the end, an agency will give you the kind of personal attention and time that you will need to be successful.
  • PRO #3 – Easy To Apply
    Most agencies have websites where you can complete an online application in a relatively short amount of time. Flagship Entertainment’s online application can be completed in less than five minutes and our team gets back to you within forty-eight hours. Also, on-site auditions are often held in major cities around the world which can be very convenient for those who are less tech savvy and want to apply. In contrast, when you apply through a cruise line directly, it often takes months to hear back, if at all.”

Do you look for any certain training or education when hiring musicians?

“Most definitely. We like to see that you’ve been studying your craft for many years. As cruise ship jobs are very competitive, you need to be technically sound on your instrument. Cruise ship jobs can be demanding so if you’ve only been playing for a couple years, then this gig is not for you.”

Final Thoughts

Is there anything people really need to consider before doing this work?

“Cruise lines have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drugs, alcohol, or any sort of harassment. They take this very seriously! Also, we always mention that if any musician has a preexisting health condition to always notify us ahead of time to avoid any potential processing issues. Employment is conditional upon passing a mandatory pre-employment medical exam (PEME). Processing can take some time (one to two months) so be prepared to get some paperwork done. However, here at Flagship, we make the process as seamless as possible by assisting our musicians step-by-step. We make it easy for both parties: our musicians and the cruise lines.”

Is there anything I didn’t ask that I should have?

“One common question we get asked is if there is a commission fee for going through an agency like Flagship. Some agencies will claim that they don’t charge a commission, however, that’s not entirely accurate. All agencies charge a commission. However, all cruise lines operate differently. If the cruise line pays the agency directly, musicians don’t pay anyone. If the cruise line doesn’t pay the agency directly, they’ll often increase the salary offered in order to compensate for the agency fee, paid by the musician. Flagship Entertainment is not paid by the cruise line companies directly, therefore we charge an industry-low commission of 10%.”

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