The Cruise Ship Gig

Wednesday February 24, 2016

Welcome, this post merely scratches the surface a rather complex subject. This article, while mainly aimed at trumpeters, contains information that any musician can use. Please note that what I include below is a culmination of what I learned out there. Things can change over night, so to the best of my knowledge the following is an accurate representation. If you see anything that has changed, shoot me a message and I will update this article.  Now, let’s get to the meat!

The Cruise Ship Gig!

Having returned to land in 2011, I have been asked numerous times about cruise ship work. Over the duration of my time at sea, I have a pretty good understanding of how things work. Many of the things I am including are generally true for any cruise line. There are MANY cruise lines to pick from and many of them share the same rules. When you get out there, you’ll learn the ropes quickly. Because one cannot understand ship life until they have experienced it, I wont be going there.

What skills do I need?

One of the first questions I get most often is, what skills do I need to do the gig? Ship gigs are almost purely commercial in nature. Your job includes playing for fly on acts, big band sets, Dixie sets, small combo work, production shows, and even on some of the mega-ships you may be playing full Broadway shows! In order to do the gig successfully, you must have a strong ability to sight read in any style. Nothing will make you sweat harder than getting your first surprise polka set when your ship changes itinerary to a German port of call!

The fly on gigs I mentioned are a very real thing, generally a guest entertainer will be flown into a port of call and brought on to the ship. Upon their arrival you generally have on rehearsal with them in the day before or morning of and then two live shows that night. This skill of sight reading is valued so highly, that it is one of the main reasons new musicians do not retain the gig. In addition to great sight reading skills, trumpeters are often expected to have  strong lead chops and “passable” improvisational chops. On some of the larger ships, specialists may be hired, but trust me you’ll have to improvise at some point.

If you have great sight reading and commercial chops, ships are a wonderful way to get some “real world” experience in a variety of styles.

So, I have the skills, how the heck do I get a job?

Getting a cruise ship gig can be like going on a snipe-hunt the first time around. Luckily, with the advent of Google/Social Media, jobs are getting easier to find. There are two ways one can obtain a job. You can go through a talent agency, or you can contact the cruise lines directly.

Using a talent agency can be beneficial for new musicians, they often have established and tried relationships with many cruise lines. Through these companies you may be sent to many different cruise lines throughout your employ. Musicians looking for a steady stream of contracts starting out may want to consider this route.

Now, for the reality of it. Despite what they may tell you, all of these agencies take a fee from your paycheck. They negotiate a pay scale with you, and then with the cruise line. Generally, the talent agencies are taking 10-12% of the income the cruise line is paying for your services. So, they may negotiate a salary of $1900/mo, while the cruise line is paying $2000/mo. New musicians should be firm in ensuring that they are being fairly paid for their services, believe me when I tell you there is plenty to go around. Another thing to consider while using these companies is that you will often sign a non-compete agreement. With one company in particular, you are forbidden to work for any cruise line for 2 years after your final contract with them. Make sure you read the fine print, believe it or not they will know you’re out there and you may receive a nice surprise bill in the mail for breaching contract.

Going directly through the cruise line can be tough, but veteran musicians can attest to the benefits of this method. The drawback to this is that you may not receive a steady stream of contracts until you a well-established within the company.  The positive side of this is that you are free to work for any line you wish, and your wages may be higher if you negotiate well.

Now that you have made contact with your employer of choice, you will be set up with an audition. There are two methods of auditioning. There are regional auditions held in person by talent agencies. These are large cattle calls, so it is imperative to make sure you are focused and ready to play.  The other method, which is actually far more common, is the phone audition. Yes, a phone audition. The phone audition consists of being sent materials (either a packet in the mail or a pdf.) The audition over the phone will consist of sight reading selections from the audition packet. Additionally, you will often be asked to play a standard and improvise one chorus. You will have no backing tracks, they are looking to see if you can navigate changes in time without the assistance of a rhythm section. Don’t worry too much, sometimes they are just looking to see if you’re willing to try.

TRUSTED Talent Agency List

Landau Music

Suman Entertainment Group

ProShip Enterntainment

Lime Entertainment

Oceanbound Entertainment

M-One Studios

Flagship Entertainment

Mike Maloney Entertainment Group

Blackburn International Entertainment Agency

Direct Contact

Royal Caribbean/Azamara



Crystal Cruises – You must go through ProShip



Holland America – as far as I know these jobs are extremely limited, there are few trumpet (if any?) spots left.

Norwegian Cruise Lines


Keeping the Job

Now that you have the job, it is not guaranteed that you will keep the job. As with many jobs, your first 90 days on board are a trial period.  I cannot even count the number of musicians I have seen come and go in the first 90 days of their contract. The average musician contract can span from four to ten months. These first 90 days are a serious TCOB period for new musicians. As a musician, you generally have a lot of “Free Time” that is not afforded to many positions on board. Your average work day rarely exceeds two to four hours, compared to the 12 hour days put in down in the engine room. Most cruise itineraries a repeating, so odds are you will have PLENTY of chances to see a port.  As a general rule of thumb, be careful what you do in your first weeks. Make sure you’re absolutely secure with the onboard shows before they see you down in the crew bar. The production shows happen every week, and they are often difficult. It is your job to make sure you’re nailing it, sound men are not shy to mute your mic and play the “track” in the house. Your first couple of performances may even be recorded and sent to the head-office for review. Take the time you have, and use it wisely.

Cruise lines also have rather strict alcohol policies, there is a lot of gray area here – you’ll figure it out. This is another of the leading causes of musicians losing their jobs, and it’s very easy to do. That is all I will say.

Life On Board

Cruise ships are unique, and often can become very dark quickly.  This is not to discourage anyone from doing the gig, but it is a reality you must face.  As an employee your room and board, food, and non-alcoholic drinks are provided to you for free. You will learn about the crew messes through your contract, it may not be the food you expect…fish heads anyone?

With the exception of some of the new larger ships, you will have a cabin mate. These rather small spaces can be mind numbing, and if you can get the bottom bunk, do it. Cleanliness can be the difference between a great contract and one from hell.  Keep your area as clean as you can as you will be subject to cabin inspections. Each set of cruise lines will have policies regarding your cabin, become familiar with these.  It may come as a shock to new musicians, but smoking in cabins is often allowed, so you may need to request to be bunked with a non-smoker if this bothers you.

The social life on cruise ships is fast paced. You are constantly around the same people, and you will find quickly that the crew bars are where socializing happens.  The drinks are cheap, and there is always someone there to meet. Moderation is  key, I have seen so many people drink their entire paycheck and leave the ship as broke as when they came. Be mindful in these situations that you are meeting people from all over the world.  You may be sitting next to someone from the Philippines who may only may $400/mo working twelve hour days.  Never discuss your pay, this is a great way to make enemies. There are some who do not understand how musicians can make the money they do working a few hours as they do.  Take this opportunity to befriend anyone you can. You will learn patience and social skills you didn’t even think you had in you.  It may take some getting used to, but there are some wonderfully beautiful people at sea, you just have to seek them out.

Managing your practice time can be a challenge. Depending on your ship, you may have to seek out unconventional areas to shed in. Ask the musicians on board, they know the struggle and will help you.  Being at sea can be wonderful for practice if you are willing to put the time in, you can make great strides.

On the ship you will also have access to a free gym, I went from 325lbs to 240 in 10 months. It’s easy to find a gym buddy on board, take advantage of it if you can.

It is impossible to truly explain the life on board, it is something you must experience to understand. I hope my jumbled thoughts may be of some help to those who are interested!

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