My Cruise Ship Experiences (as a bassist) - REDUX

Discussion in 'Miscellaneous [BG]' started by Proton90, Aug 16, 2020.

  1. Proton90


    Sep 28, 2016
    A while ago I promised some of you on this forum to share my experiences regarding my recent work on cruise ships as a bass player in a jazz/ballroom quartet. As I’ve come home at the end of February, I have had plenty of time time to think about what I experienced and distill all of it into this post, which is also a memoir of these past months. Mind you, I have only two contracts under my belt, but I think I can serve with some advice on the first steps towards this career path.

    The original post was deleted due the language, and because some of the themes discussed violated TalkBass rules, so now I have a chance to rewrite these passages and expand on the matter as well.


    How it all started?

    I’m a trained musician, but music had never been my livelihood before. Although I had worked as a drum teacher for a year, it did not last, so went for a office job. I lasted 2,5 years before realizing that if I want to make some decent money and not turn into a soulless burnt out zombie I’ll have to change my course of life, so I decided to try looking for a band who aim to work on ships. I also want to buy my own house one day with little or no bank loan, so it seemed to be the fastest way of doing it.

    Besides being a trained drummer I also play bass, I know theory and reading (not sight reading), and I also played for six years in a big band and a party band, so I created an ad looking for a cruise ship band as a bassist or drummer. The former got me into a group of young guys, drums-piano-vocals-bass (me :p ). We started building our repertoire, first aiming to be a 5 piece party band with 300 songs. It took us quite long to get a fifth member, a guitarist vocalist, we also shot a video with him, but we were turned down by companies so many times due to his appearance (he was a good 20 years older than us), that we were advised by our agent to let go of him, and turn into a quartet again, playing jazz and easy listening, so we did that...

    Rule no. 0.: If you have a suspicion that someone won’t work out for the band, get rid of them.

    Then came the aggravating part. For nearly six months our agent couldn’t get us a job, sometimes he would come up with “hey, one of my clients is interested in you, what are your conditions”, we would tell him, 2 weeks would go by, nothing... We also tried finding a job by our own means, contacting major international agencies like Proship, Landau, Lime Entertainment, but we could not get anything out of them. Without work experience and references a band is unlikely to get a job, so make sure to have a very neat portfolio of photos and a demo reel

    In the meantime our agent kept us on the edge by telling us all sorts of stuff... first we were told to learn jazz standards, so we did that, next he told us that ballroom music will be in high demand, then 50s, 60s, 70s music, then it was modern songs covered in this fake jazz-style, a’la Postmodern Jukebox. I travelled from my village to Budapest (300+ km trips) every week, sometimes twice a week, spending a ton of money just on gas. We also shot two other videos with the quartet, both at our expense.

    After this long and nerve-racking period we finally got our first gig: a British company with a brand new ship. It was the beginning of August, when we got the news, embarkation date was 1st September. We had less than 4 weeks to get ready... Also it was quite saddening that the contract was longer than we wanted, four and a half months. We tried to make it 3 tops, but the company insisted. I’d never been away from home for more than 10 days in a row, so I was a bit unsettled by this duration. However, we had no job, the guys wanted to go, so I agreed as well. Also, being a derailed English major and a sucker for the many different dialects of the language I was electrified to finally get some firsthand experience with proper British people's speech.

    We prepared everything, fixed the insurance, flight tickets, pre-boarding accommodation, whatnot. Suits were ready, and all visas required were procured. Apropos visa, if you have to apply for ESTA visa to the US, make sure to use their own website, ‘cause others will rip you off. Google it!

    August 31 came, and we boarded our flight, said our goodbyes ( bidding farewell to my girlfriend just tore my heart out), and off our plane flew to Stansted, London. It was my first time flying, and I was really excited, Budapest London is usually under 2 hours, so it was really like a field trip for me. We hired a driver via a website to transport us from Stansted to Dover, where the ship was docked. As we had a full day before boarding, we went sightseeing, and stayed at the cheapest motel possible for the night. I saw the famous white cliffs, but other than that Dover is pretty much on a downhill ride, the whole town is dirty, and there are quite many dodgy characters walking around. It was in the motel that it dawned on me that from now on I won’t see my girlfriend and my family and friends for a long time, that made me tear up, but I was also very excited about the coming journey...

    1st Contract - Them Brits:

    The first contract with these Brits seemed like anyone’s wet dream. The ship was new, luxurious, the money was great (I’ll tell you about this later), the itinerary was even better (Europe-Scandinavia-Baltic states-Russia, then the USA-Caribbean island), and we were told that we are going to be in passenger status, which comes with passenger catering, accommodation, etc. Basically a luxury vacation for money, right? Ohh, brother, brace yourself!

    Being a guest entertainer in passenger status means that all the expenses are on you, that is flight tickets, transit shuttle bus rental (from the airport to the ship), land accommodation, insurance, everything. As for our wages, we fell into the trap of being “double dipped”. This means that our agent did not put us through to the company directly, he just sat between us and a second, British agent, whom he was in contact with from the get go. Agents usually ask for a impresario fee of 10% of your salary, but the British guy asked for 15%, our agent went with 10%. We were milked like cows, but took the job, because we thought we have no other chance.

    Rule no. 1: Agents are not your friends, for them you are a means to their end (money)

    Also, we had to have new suits and fancy clothing, as you cannot wander around the ship looking scruffy, you’ve got to keep looking “smart”. I also had to invest in some quality gear, and since I was doing the double role of bassist/guitarist, I had to buy 2 guitar cases ( a very important investment, don’t go stingy on it), and a rack box for my pedals and other stuff. This time our gear was transported by a van, so we could pack more stuff, that made me go a bit overkill with the gear, I must admit, but I was so carried away with the promise of making big money and actually playing in a pro environment that I wanted my stuff to look pro as well.

    Rule No. 2: Don’t buy everything you think you need, but what you buy must be good quality

    I took my bass pedalboard, guitar multi FX unit, separate backup cables, power supplies, everything, and I was proud of the fact that I managed to squeeze everything neatly into this rack box. Looking back, a bass player in such a quartet would need the following:

    - A bass (duh), 4 or 5 string, depending on preference/style. If you transpose a lot, get a Sire V7 fiver, or a Cort GB75, you’ll be set for life. The point is, it has to be sturdy, but not so expensive that you end up bankrupt if it gets damaged and needs to be replaced. Sire, Mexican Fenders, Corts, Ibanez, or lawsuit era Fender copies will do just fine.

    - A small multi FX unit: Zoom B3n, or the likes. It should have an AUX input and Headphone outs for practicing in your cabin. Forget stompboxes, they’re a pain to carry around, and no one’s gonna care about your sound (sadly). You have a fancy wireless unit? Forget it as well...

    - 1 set of cables you always use, and a spare set. You won’t need Mogami or Monster, Planet Waves makes very decent stuff. Don’t try asking for some from sound techs, they are rarely stocked on cables, and often have only short ones.

    - An absolutely-positively-radically crazy good flight case. I chose an SKB molded plastic flight case with lockable latches, ATA certified. It cost around 450 USD, but boy is it durable... still, the asinine brutes at luggage handling managed to scratch and dent it. So don’t even think about gigbags stuffed into cardboard boxes, or anything like that.

    - Clothes: bring as few items as you can: 2-3 t-shirts and 2 pairs of jeans/shorts for trips into ports, a pair of good, durable street shoes. On-stage dress codes are usually come down to two types: smart casual and formal. Usually the last night of a cruise is “formal night”, meaning black suits (or tuxedos, if the company is really uptight) with black bowtie, white shirts, matching black shoes. For ladies it is fancy clothing, jewellery galore, and all that jazz. Every other night is “smart casual”, which consists of long-sleeved coloured shirts (one colour), dark chino pants, matching black shoes. Some companies (e.g. TUI) make party bands wear all white when scheduled for pool deck sets, make sure to read the corresponding documentation prior to embarkation.

    So back to the actual story.

    This ship was truly something. It was designed by Brits for Brits, it oozed with elegance. The colour scheme was really well put together, and the building materials were top tier. Our cabins were marvellous, we had a balcony, a nice bathroom, TV, fridge, a tea set with utensils and an assortment of different flavoured teabags, fruit basket, all the bells and whistles. I could go on about it all day, but it’s not why you are here, so came the first night, the big introduction to these people who will be our audience for the first cruise.

    A bit about ship demographics, though: the average age of a passenger is between 60 and death, it’s an industry based on rich retired people. As they are old, and British, two things can be expected from them: 1. They are extremely grumpy And. 2. They are even grumpier

    I’ve met quite a number of decent old blokes during our tenure there, but the usual bunch is impossible to please, snobbish and downright hateful. They love to complain and try to find something to be dissatisfied with and are not afraid to insult you directly in your face and walk away smiling. Try playing any kind of music for these guys...

    Before we set out I had had the fear that we are not prepared enough to do this, our singer had trouble following song structures, we did not jell with the drummer, but the first soundcheck went surprisingly well. Then it was time to perform, first time on a cruise ship, first time live, first time everything. Man, what a disaster... The singer and piano player kept forgetting which part of the song we were playing, some songs we had trouble finishing, and so on. For a whole two weeks we tried to get our act together, but it was clear we still had a Milky Way length of way to go. Usually we had to play 2x45 minutes a day, sometimes more, sometimes we had a day off, but we always performed in the same lounge, so at least I could leave my stuff there. >This is important! Most companies won’t allow you to store your gear on stage or in the backstage, be prepared to carry around your stuff.

    Besides our inaptitude, there were two other problems that hindered us. The first was the backline: the ship had some crazy good stuff, Markbass and Fender amps, Shure mics, a not-so-bad Mapex drum kit with plexi shields, a DigiCo digital mixer, AVIOM in ear monitoring system for all of us, everything. However, none of that was useable, as the amps had to be turned down beyond being barely audible, and the Avioms were linked to the main output, so whatever the sound guy was doing in his booth affected our headphone mixes. My guitar was louder in the ceiling PA than in the amp next to me, and it was a habit of the sound guy to turn my guitar down in the mix mid solo, ‘cause he got complaints from the cruise director about it being too loud. Imagine that...

    Rule no. 3: Be prepared to play even in the worst circumstances

    The other problem was that the company never communicated to us what they were expecting exactly. We were encouraged by the management to play rock n roll, modern songs, while the people (our much appreciated flock of old Brits) demanded ballroom music almost exclusively. We tried to find a median where all could be merry, but both parties were adamant. It was a drag, really. We had one cruise with people a tad younger, that went very well.

    As we were guest entertainers we had limited connection with the crew. We had a room steward, and we met the other musicians and performers, but they were always jealous of our salary and living conditions, so that was that. There were some fellow guest ent.s, they were really cool people, mostly. This whole industry is like smiley-smiley upfront and stabby-stabby behind your back, just like in movies, only worse. Theater people are the worst, avoid them, they make you cringe with their behaviour, and are usually very shallow people (usually!!!!!!) Also, everyone seems to think that getting higher ranks is the goal, so some people try to go Game of Thrones with the others, spreading gossips, manipulating, sucking up, the usual drama stuff. Pay attention to how they behave around their bosses, if they act way too friendly with you when around managers and officers, it’s a red flag! At first everyone will be welcoming towards you, all smiling and stuff, but after a while all pretence is revealed.

    Rule no.4: Choose your mates onboard carefully.

    Guest entertainers are usually required to mingle with the passengers, chat with them regularly. Some take it too seriously and try sucking up to every old bastard and witch they come across on the ship, I personally talked with passengers who approached me directly. I met this lovely Scottish couple, who always invited me to sit and chat with them, once they even bought me a drink, and they were fun to be around. But when we were almost commanded to attend the captain’s cocktail party, I became really upset, I could not bear spending more than 15 minutes with those people before darting back to the cabin.

    So time went by and by the end of September we had become quite passable, compared to how we played at the beginning. The singer still made mistakes, but apart from some disasters we managed to get away with it. By that time we had already been to France, Belgium, Holland, Norway (ohmygod what a fantastically beautiful country), Sweden, Denmark, Lithuania, Russia. I kinda got along with the distance thing, we had free internet, so I could call my family and GF anytime. The food was extra awesome, we dined at one of the passenger restaurants, Jesus Christ was it tasty! Also, the ship had a library where they had coffee machines, hot chocolate dispensers, biscuits and stuff. I frequented that facility more than the gym...

    Yet, for some reason I felt cheated. I thought that playing music on one of these ships had a high niveau, that not anyone can be part of it. Well, truth is that during my time doing this job I met some of the absolutely worst musicians out there. People who where singers yet they could not sing, guitarists who could not play a solo to save their lives, drummers who had no idea of dynamics, and so on. I once saw a “piano&singer peformer” playing Besame Mucho to a drum machine and voicing only triads in the first position... she made about 5-6000 USD a month, twice our wage, all because she was from Canada. The greatest illusion about this job is that people care: well, they usually don’t. They can’t tell the difference between a spectacular player and a bad player, what matters is that you play the songs they know and make it quiet. If you play Brahms on the piano, no one will notice, but as soon as you smuggle some A-Ha or Spice Girls into the set, they will go all sorts of crazy (no kidding, we saw it).

    It did not take long before our band was fired from the ship, we boarded on 1st September, and I was home again 17th October. Supposedly we could not perform ballroom music at a satisfactory level, the tempos were not right (we even agreed with the dance hosts about the tempos, as they could not dance at the speed they themselves demanded). It turned out that someone from the crew was making videos of our (alleged) mistakes as well, and sent them to our agent. It’s funny, we were a piss poor party band but we were fired for something we actually did well. It is our theory that the company wanted a British band in the first place, but none was around, so they hired us only to get rid of us as soon as someone came along. Of course there is much more to it than this, if anyone is interested, I can talk about it much more.

    However, it was all behind us, I thought maybe we could take a rest for a while, until December, or something like that. Well, my bandmates had a different idea, they started writing to every agency in the galaxy, until one of them replied. This agent was working for an American cruise line, who were looking for a band ASAP, as the one they hired originally failed to get some paper done in time.

    Starting date: 1st November End date: 6th March Port of embarkation: Sydney, Australia


    2nd Contract: The Aussies

    I had 10 days to get everything together, but our stuff hadn’t even arrived back from England yet, it was really a tight situation. Actually, I got my guitars back on the very day we got on the plane, talk about a close call...

    This time we were working as crew, meaning that:

    - we had to do all the registration, online courses and stuff in 2 days

    - We had to get medical certification from a verified physician

    - We had to apply for visas with the Australian and New Zealand departments of immigration.

    - We had to collect all of these documents, scan them, send them back signed and dated in a flash.

    - We had to repackage all our stuff to be under the weight limit of the airline’s cargo policy. I got rid of all the spare stuff, and the most important stuff were put into the others’ luggage.

    After all this hassle and 11 days at home we boarded the plane again, this time flying 5 hours to Doha, then 14 hours to Sydney. It was one of the worst experiences of my life, the plane was crammed, the seats were uncomfortable, the food was dismal, and there was no water around. In addition to all this, the toilets on the flight with longest flight time (14 hrs) were occupied all the time. But we did it, so hello Sydney!

    Really a gorgeous and charming city it is, no one can take that away from the Aussies. From the airport we were taken to a hotel where the rest of the crew was accommodated before we boarded the day after, this time everything paid by the company.

    This ship was much bigger, maybe 2 times bigger than the British one, but it was a couple of years older as well, as you could tell from the rusty stuff dripping from its seams, and the overall condition of the interior. From the inside it looked as though the designer wanted to appeal to every part of the demographic, creating a jumble of flashy lights, fake glass ornaments, disgusting brown carpets and painted marble tiles. Also, as it was an Italian construction, it was creaking all over the place, it had leaks, some small ponds in the maintenance areas, it looked like only a few actually cared for the wellbeing of the ship. The funniest (and also unnerving) sight was the Italian engineers walking around all day, scrutinizing leaks and the myriad of tubes meandering around while gesticulating heavily and spitting profanities in Italian, giving us a real sense of security...

    Here we had to do 2 venues, the atrium in the middle of the ship and a bar on the upper deck. The atrium was for dancing, so we could perfect our ballroom skills there (I grew sick and tired of cha cha). It was a huge marble-floored area, where you could visit shops on its upper levels, the ground floor had the stage and some smaller restaurants. The sound was really funny, when no one was around the room sounded hollow and reverberant, and the PA was hidden in the ceiling, many speakers were blown. As I mentioned, we had to perform ballroom music here, meaning:

    - cha cha, rhumba, samba, tango (the former two were the bane of our existence, slow and plodding, the latter two are okay)

    - quickstep, foxtrot, slowfox ( all are different variations on common swing, it’s only a tempo difference)

    - waltzes

    - jive = any kind of shuffle song really, a bit more lively in tempo

    This kind of music is actually the easiest to perform if you can read chord charts and know how to play the above styles (for bass that means the rhythmic ostinato is to be applied). Consequently we often sight read sheets we had acquired from different websites and some fellow musicians. The Great Gigbook, or a Fakebook with trio arrangements is great for this.

    The bar had us play quiet easy listening, quieter than the choked fart of an ant. By easy listening people usually mean that everything goes, if it’s quiet. You can play You Really Got Me, but be quiet... so we played mostly these overplayed jazz standards, american songbook stuff, some 70s and 80s songs without any balls (easy listening style), and Shadows tunes. If you are a drummer, be prepared for a massive amount of playing with hot rods and brushes. That goes for any gig here as a drummer and guitar player, they will turn you down or make you turn down, apparently old people have an aversion to the sound of drums and guitar. If you want to win their hearts, play some Shadows, that always gets them moving, everyone seems to love it. We tried playing rock’n’roll tunes as well, but without some balls they usually fell flat.

    The only time we could actually let the dogs out and blast it a bit was on the pool deck, but no one cared, and the equipment was so subpar (rusted away by the salty water and the sea air), that it just sounded like we were playing parodies of the songs. Pray you can avoid pool deck sets, as it’s downright dangerous at times. It’s not heated, not shielded from wind or rain, wind blowing into your face and blowing away your music stand, open sea winds get really wild. Also, old ladies love to demonstrate the latest swimsuit trends here, be non-vigilant!

    As for the gear, well, these guys sure know how to mess up a stage. The monitoring was so primitive I rather turned my speaker off. They were supposed to be near-field in you face style speakers, but they just sounded like garbage. Here we had to take turns with other bands, so I couldn’t leave my stuff around the stage, or stashed away under the piano, which meant I had to carry my bass and my guitar pedal in a backpack, my stratocaster being carried by our drummer, marching across the ship like the Ghostbusters, going to do a set. The amps were okay, but heavily worn, GK MB212s for bass and Tech 21 Trademark guitar amps. The pool deck had a peculiar 50w Fender Mustang guitar amp with some knobs missing, which was the downright worst amp I’ve ever come across. The lights were good, we always had some real nice lightwork adorning our performances.

    I’ve met two kinds of sound people during my escapades: one is always looking for a solution, the other is looking for excuses. Generally these guys are there to make everyone happy, which is the worst. The guy on the British ship was okay, but it was only so much he would do to help us, at times he was downright ignoring our requests. The second ship had personnel much more willing to help, whether is was going DI, or giving the band extra mics, or whatever. They were cool cats as well, always up for some chit-chat or a drink or two (or six). Being on good terms with these guys is a must, as they can make your life smooth as a moonwalk or troublesome like the same moonwalk, only without a spacesuit.

    The money was really great, 2800 USD a month, minus 10% for our new agent, plus the fee of a simplified tax system we had to apply for in Hungary. It’s actually awesome compared to Hungarian standards, where 1500 net is considered off the hook. The starting salary of (Hungarian) musicians with the company is 2400, but since we reacted so fast to help them out, we got the raised amount. Band leaders can get 300-500 USD extra, which can be later divided or kept, depending on agreement between the members.

    The itinerary was Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Tasmania, then off to Singapore for dry dock at the end of the contract, which was due to end in March. Australia is great, even if a bit hot and dry, but the cities have a really cool vibe to them. Even though they seem huge and unfriendly, even Sydney has this suburban look, and the buildings look very welcoming. New Zealand is just straight out gorgeous, and clean. The grass is mowed perfectly everywhere, the pubs are great, there’s live music all the time, and the people are laid back. Actually, Aussies are laid back as well. Fiji is just a bunch of islands with people on it without any positive outlooks. Most of them have this blank stare, doing their menial daily chores, or just lying by their huts. It’s dirty and reeks of western exploitation, the two weeks spent there was really not that great. There was this one time we went to a small island and swam near the coral reeves, it was like a scene from the Tom Hanks movie Outcast, really picturesque.

    I wrote about my bad experience with those old Brits, so it’s only fair to write some about the passengers on this ship. Whereas the Brits were homogenous, all British, this ship had a mixture of American, European, Australian and Chinese people. Not necessarily the richest, well-off members of society, but here even these guys can afford a cruise. These people were really laid back, only a couple of them were snobbish or stuck-up. Also, they were more younger people, 50+, sometimes even younger. The Chinese are great dancers, they do these ballroom dances real proper, and they rarely give you the attitude. It was this one occasion a dame came up to us and told us we are a bore to look at. It was partially true, but my guess is she was British...

    Being crew is a whole different ballgame than being in passenger status. The cabin is... well... small. It’s like this: two average size guys have a hard time standing in the middle without getting all inadvertantly intimate. The bathroom is the same, just with one average size guy. You have two narrow wardrobes, a desk with a TV on it, a bunk bed with allegedly clean mattresses, two nightstands and a small fridge, whose venting serves as a kind of collateral heating if you turn off the air conditioning, which is really a hole in the ceiling blowing could air into the room. One thing about crew cabins is that they come with no windows, the only sources of light are the lamps and the TV. This can grow on you quite fast, as it is much like living underground in a chasm of some sorts. If you manage to work your way up to Music Director or some other higher-ranking position, you get your own cabin with a window. Guest entertainers also get a window cabin.

    The crew has separate facilities, like the crew gym, where you can burn fat and check out the girls on board, or the crew bar, where you can have a beer for cheap, play some PS4, table tennis, and party all night, as there are parties as small events organized by crew welfare every night.

    And we have arrived at the topic of getting intimate... well, I’m not a heartthrob to any extent, but had I not been in a relationship, I could have collected all the experience one could think of (and the headache stemming from the aftermath). If I had started doing this single, I am 110% sure I would have a very different opinion about this whole thing. The crew bar is the place for the hunt, you just have to size up people, and sooner or later you will find a partner. BUT - and there’s a big warning for you - sexual harassment is taken very seriously (at least downward, as it is everywhere else), so be careful, as some unwelcome compliments or cat calling - or even a malevolent/jealous person - can lead to you being sent home, consensus is a must!

    Rule no.6: Choose your partners carefully

    Speaking of home, crewmembers of the American ship had a hard time keeping in touch with the family. Aboard you had two options: you either bought a “calling card” for the satellite phone in your cabin (10 USD for 60 minutes), or you could buy internet vouchers. Yes, the ship had internet, but it was super slow and expensive. 1 GB cost about 60 USD, 300 MB cost 20. It’s all about gaining some extra money off the crew as well, and it’s a bit of a dirty scheme. For a cheapish alternative you can buy a SIM card an use cellular, or get on of these 4G-to-Wifi boxes.

    The other thing you can do is whenever the ship is in port, find a place in town with good WiFi, buy a beer - or a coke if you wanna go cheapo - and enjoy your time. Owners are usually decent enough not to heckle you if you stay 3-4 hours with just one drink. Murphy’s Pubs are great with WiFi, but try to stay away from small local places. H&Ms offer WiFi even outside their stores, McDonalds has it if you buy something. If you are returning to the same port, make your device remember the password, we did that in New Zealand.

    The food was just as much a culinary experience as on the previous ship, only at the opposite end of the spectrum. You really had to pick your choices in the crew mess, as the cooks prepared everything to Asian taste, meaning if some dish was not spicy as hell it was sour, sticky or gooey. Besides these exotic meals the mess offered an assortment of vegetables (beans, peas and corn usually), a huge selection of rice variations and potatoes. Every day from 2 o’clock PM you could pop in for a snack, consisting of burgers, hot dogs (ohhjesus, dem dogs were the worst), and some biscuits. For drinks the mess offered orange apple juice from dispensers, tea, milk, and some cheap coffee with a burnt taste. The one sanctuary for a tortured stomach was the pizza corner, where some lower rank Ukranian or Serbian chefs made pizza. Also, the dishwaser’s den and the pulper was next to the mess entrance, facing the smoker’s room. You can imagine the multitude of smells that assaulted you upon entry to this mayhem of cuisine.

    The other place we were allowed to go to and dine was on the top level, restaurant of the "low budget" passengers (the specialty restaurants are where the moneybag passengers ate). It was one better than the crew mess, but it had a school canteen feel to it, they definitely use the same ingredients. There was a confectionery with some bangin’ chocolate cakes, one really had to hold back on them, otherwise pounds jumped on you like ticks in a damp forest.

    Unlike guest entertainers, the crew must leave the passengers alone, even if they let you sit in the restaurants, you must not sit by the windows, and leave if there are many passengers around. Also, dressing smart is a must here as well, if a manager catches you not wearing a shirt or collared t-shirt, and your nametag off, you get a warning. Two warnings and you are sent home, no fumbling around.

    The epitome of being crew was the safety drills. Ever since the Costa disaster cruise ship crew have been trained and exercised regularly to be prepared for such an event. There are muster stations designated all over the ship, usually larger venues like bars, restaurants, theatres. Upon some kind of emergency passengers are herded to these stations, every passenger has their appointed station highlighted on their cruise cards. You can be either a guide standing at stairways or along corridors providing, people with directions, or you can be assigned to one of these stations, taking inventory of passengers, preparing evacuation, etc. The drills usually take 40 - 90 minutes depending on the scenario, during which time you have to be standing in position, clad in life jacket and a baseball cap saying “guide” or “muster”. Of course all of this is a joke, as no one really knows what to do, there is no real explanation of emergency procedures, it’s just for show. If there would be an actual accident, I’m 100% sure everyone would run for their lives. But at least it gives you a reason to get up early and waste a half of our precious port day...

    Besides these drills there are two other things that are in the morning: trainings and room inspection. Trainings include basic security awareness, common health measures, sexual harassment training, etc. The beauty of these trainings is that they usually start around 9 am, but musicians usually finish around midnight, or later. We went to bed around 3 am, so you can imagine how fresh and energetic we were on these sessions. The first two weeks were very tiring because of the trainings and the lack of sleep due to their early starts. Room inspection is alright if you were not raised in a barn. Bed should be made, emergency equipment should be visible, trash taken out, the usual stuff.

    As I mentioned, we usually went to bed around 2-3 am, and got up roughly around 11 or later. This kind of contorted schedule messes up your biorhythm quite a lot, so have plenty of supplements in stock, especially Vitamin C and D. Also, if possible, stick to a diet rich of vegetables and lean meat, it is extremely easy to gain weight with any other kind of nourishment due to the poor quality of ingredients.

    It’s been quite a while since I last flamed the band, so let’s get back to it. As we had way too few songs when we started back in September, we decided to learn songs while on board, 2 songs a day. The goal was to have at least 300 songs of all different styles we can play anytime. Having this many, or even much more songs helps you get through a 2 weeks long cruise without repetition. Also, it keeps you on the edge, fresh, while you can handle requests more easily as well. There was no facility for us to rehearse, so each of us learned our respective parts in the cabin during daytime, or we came together in a smaller cabin and played even quieter than a choked fart of an ant 6 feet under. It is my understanding that rehearsing is not quite as common thing on cruise ships as one might think, you can do it like once every two weeks, and only for an hour. Also, there is no dedicated practice space for bands (this always left me puzzled), so whatever you plan to rehearse , make sure to come prepared and knowing what to play.

    Rule no. 7: Do your homework, you owe it to the band

    The problem stemmed again from the singer, who could not learn her parts alone, she always needed the pianist. Also, she was a slow learner, holding us back from progression. Unfortunately she developed this diva ego after a while, first she froze on stage, when people were looking at her, then she gradually turned into this control freak. As she had no knowledge of jazz, she frequently came back singing in the middle of a solo, and then brushed it off, saying “you are here to correct my mistakes”. She demanded the intros and solos to be the same all the time (for a jazz band that is revolting), because she could not follow improvisation, and she had a hard time following songs in 3/4. The pianist was a different kind of a mess, he was too lazy to learn anything properly, rhythms were off, his solos were all over the place, and although he was a self-appointed band leader, he failed to inform us about important events or relay information coming from our boss. What he was good at was playing ballroom songs, as he had a good classical touch that complemented this style of music. After a while they became unmotivated to learn new songs or to take up tunes we used to play. Our list of songs had shrunk from 260 songs to about 150-180, which is a measly amount.

    A bit on band politics: as a band leader, you have some things that you can let the others have a say on, like wages, contract details, and such affairs. However, good bands are never democracies, and that’s true for cruise ship bands multiplied by a hundred. You have to learn a lot of songs in a short time, and there is no time for dicking around with the one member who refuses to learn something. You can vote out songs unanimously, but there’s no place for aversion to certain genres. Also, don’t try and build your whole repertoire before the first contract, it’s gonna eat up your time and money. What you should do is learn a starting amount, like 150-200 tunes corresponding with the band’s profile, but be prepared to be asked to learn anything. We were supposed to be a jazz-lounge quartet and they made us play Elvis...

    After a while we started to develope our own sound, and sometimes we even managed to sound good. The MD (music director) aboard the American ship was satisfied with us, and we could get on with everyone easily. It’s really important to be easy going, no one wants divas in these enclosed places. The same goes for roommates, you’ve got to be tolerant and patient, otherwise you will kill each other after 2 months. Luckily I was holed up with our drummer and we got on well.

    Our contract was 4 months long, and I can say with great confidence that 3 months is the limit of my endurance. Towards the end of January we were all gutted, both from exhaustion and from playing the same stuff over and over again. Of course if you are not susceptible to emotional problems you will do better, but this monotonous grind brings many things to surface. After a while your brain just wanders away while your hands go autopilot, sometimes we got through sets without even noticing. The worst were the Elite Member’s Parties, where we had to wear black suits and bowties, play 20 minutes of the most boring stuff imaginable, then the captain greeted passengers who had already spent 1000+ nights on different ships of the company. These events featured the same speeches and the same lame jokes over and over again, with us sitting on stage trying not to look bored as hell, waiting for it to end by us playing one song. Well, that’s entertainment for you lot...

    So again this routine developed and the days started going by. In December the forest fires started decimating Australia. We saw it on TV, and saw it in Melbourne, the whole city was filled with smoke, yet no one panicked. The ship also did its tours, even though you could smell this burnt wood and grass even miles away from the coast, it came through the AC into our rooms, and permeated all decks. Luckily we sailed down to New Zealand just then, so we escaped the thick of it. Then came this Corona stuff, all the sudden all passengers left the ship and we were sent home on 26th February, once more prematurely...

    That’s the story so far, now I am trying to figure out what to do next...

    To sum up my experiences, I would say this job requires someone with a one track mind, or a bit of nihilism. It’s much less about music itself than the looks and selling the show, even if it’s subpar. If you are about to get a band together, look for people who are easy going, and good musicians. It’s alright if they are not technical giant, but they must have the willingness to progress and expand their horizons. Also, you have to decide what your goals are: if you want to collect some money to start your life, be very stingy with the booze, excursions, entry fees to zoos and stuff. If you just want to have a good time a live a life of abundance, do it, but don’t expect to have any money left once you decide to quit.

    There is another effect of playing for such a long time with no day off that I’ve discovered after I had arrived home. Even though I played very gently and focused on my technique, the little finger on my picking hand started to bend and clamp on its own. Now I have to really focus to keep it straight. If I decide to go back I will definitely have to take better care of my hands, but if I stay, I think it will pass. Playing so much of what I don’t really like has also affected my drive, I have much less inspiration to play or practice than I used to. Don’t get me wrong, I never really liked to practice in the traditional sense, but now when I look at my bass I feel an overwhelming sense of exhaustion. Once I pick it up though it goes away soon, but I hear it’s common among cruise ship musicians.

    Also, if you have a GF, BF or spouse, think twice before embarking on this journey, ‘cause it can get pretty lonely even on the beaches of New Zealand and Fiji. If you decide to lead this life anyway, try to make up for the lost time with your loved ones as much as you can between contracts.

    Well, this about sums up my experiences and feelings about this job, I hope you will take something from it and make the best of your decisions!
    sasajonas, Eli_Kyiv, Outbush and 13 others like this.
  2. charlie monroe

    charlie monroe Gold Supporting Member

    Feb 14, 2011
    Buffalo, NY
    I thought that the original post was fantastic, politically correct or not. Your flair for writing really shined.

    I will now read Version 2.
  3. jdthebassman

    jdthebassman play to live live to play

    Wonderful article, made me realize why I would never do a cruise ship gig.
    TerribleTim68 and Oddly like this.
  4. Oddly


    Jan 17, 2014
    Dublin, Ireland.
    A great look at the not-so-glamourous life of a cruise musician.
    You clearly learnt some valuable lessons that can only be of help in your future career.
    It's certainly reinforced my belief that I'd hate it!
    Thanks so much for sharing the experience.
  5. mankybass


    Oct 26, 2020
    Wow, that's dreadful lmfao. I've considered being a cruise bassist at one point (still don't know what career path to take atm once I finish school). It could work as a last ditch effort-type of thing, especially since I hail from a financially floundering family. Idk I might end up as one if things get really tough.
  6. Ed Fuqua

    Ed Fuqua

    Dec 13, 1999
    Columbia SC
    Chuck Sher publishes my book, WALKING BASSICS:The Fundamentals of Jazz Bass Playing.
    Lightweight My first boat gig was 8 months. My last one was 2 weeks and that was Just Fine!
    Proton90 likes this.
  7. Proton90


    Sep 28, 2016
    I certainly won't advise against going this direction, it's only the pitfalls and (my perceived) realities I tried to reveal. If you try to heed my words and avoid even just some of them, your experience might turn out much better than mine!
  8. mankybass


    Oct 26, 2020
    The wall of text was pretty enlightening lmao. I kind of expect the worst to happen with most things, helps with the coping lol.
  9. Tom Read

    Tom Read

    Nov 15, 2017
    Very interesting story. I'm on my first ever cruise gig right now. Sounds strikingly similar in some respects - luxury brand new boutique ship, guest band, passenger cabins and status etc. I wonder what ship/company you were on for that first one?
  10. Proton90


    Sep 28, 2016
    As I really do not wish to shed any bad light on any company I can only tell you that it was a British one.
    If you happen to be with the same company I worked for, make sure to enjoy all the food and passenger amenities and watch out for the ballroom dance hosts! ;) I hope you will accumulate lots and lots of good experiences along the way!
  11. Outbush


    Nov 6, 2016
    Just found this - well written, great story. If there is ever another chance I’d love to read about that one too!