It’s all the same
At times the gig can be depressing and boring. You’re stuck on the ship for a couple of months. If things work out, you stay with the same band for the duration of the contract. That means you’re playing with the same six people for a couple of months straight. After rehearsals in Miami the band might have a repertoire of 200 songs. You usually don’t add a lot of music while onboard. It can be really tiring to perform the same tunes over and over again and you stop enjoying playing some of those tunes. That’s a really bad feeling. You’re making music, but you actually hate what you’re doing. That’s when you realize that this job can also be compared to a 9-5 office job, where you show up, work and leave. No emotions, not much caring, not much interaction. While at work all you think about is what you’re doing after work. You’re simply working for the money.
Cheeseburger In Paradise (Hawaii, Carnival Miracle 2016)
One of the songs in the cruise ship repertoire that's overplayed.
Sometimes it feels like you’re just background music. There are times where you’re playing for nobody. And even though there’s nobody in the lounge you have to keep playing in case a guest walks in. Nights that are like this happen quite frequently and those are nights that musicians often turn to drinking to survive the night. Don’t get me wrong though, most nights are a lot of fun. And if you’re with a band that’s tight and everybody’s friends within the band, it doesn’t matter how many people are listening. Sharing the stage with good musicians and good friends is always fun, no matter what. Unfortunately, out of the seven bands I was in, only two of those bands were like this.
Work vs Music
Not enjoying or even hating the music you play can be depressing. After all, music is what you love, it’s how you express yourself and it’s all you want to do in life. But now music’s become a job. I think that’s just part of being a professional musician. The biggest difference between amateur musicians and professionals isn’t the level of skill. It’s the level of commitment. An amateur can choose what music to play, what music to learn. And when he or she doesn’t want to do music, they can just leave it for some other time and go watch a movie or go on vacation, no further consequences. A professional though has to accept gigs that don’t fulfill his or her musical ideas. A professional can’t just not do music. Being a professional means that you’re committed to music, no matter what. And there are going to be times when you love it and other times when you hate it.
Stage next to the casino without a real dance floor. On this stage you can quickly feel like background music as people just walk by. Carnival Sensation 2016.
The worst thing you can say to an artist
You’re replaceable. Musicians are highly trained professionals and many ship musicians don’t feel like the company treats us that way. It takes decades of practice and commitment to become a solid musician and the compensation doesn’t really reflect that in many musicians’ opinions. The company has a fair point though: If you don’t like it, you can just leave, we’ll find somebody else. That’s a very cold statement and nobody from a cruise line would ever say that, but that’s the way it is. The company won’t say it, but they’ll definitely make you feel it. In such a big company you’re replaceable. It’s important to note the difference: That you’re replaceable to the company but not to your friends and band mates onboard.
While on a contract it’s hard to keep in touch with the outside world. It’s also hard to stay up to date with all the music that’s coming out. Also, while onboard you don’t get to listen to any live music. There are other performers onboard which is great. They’re friends and you can share experiences with them, work together and party together. But the options are quite limited. There might be six or seven acts onboard and you have no other choices. It’s not like on land where you can go to a show and watch whoever you want, with good PA’s and crowds that dig the music. On the ship you usually go out and listen to your friends perform their set and leave again. It’s not nearly as exciting as on land. You also miss so many artists that you’d have wanted to see at home, but you can’t because you’re working on a boat.
Practice vs Beach
Musicians have an easy schedule. They work around four hours a day, six days per week. You’d think that this gives you a lot of time to practice. Practicing onboard though is a challenge. It’s tough to find a lounge you can go and practice in, the cabin is super tight, and your roommate might be inside and moving the equipment can be a pain. Practicing on sea days is basically impossible and on port days there’s always a hard decision to make: Do you want to go and practice or do you want to go to the beach with a few friends, grab a couple of beers and just enjoy life? After all, you can practice when on vacation and you grew up in a place without beaches and with long winters. I usually chose the beach and on sea days chose the gym over practice time.
Sharing the stage with friends and good musicians is always a pleasure. Carnival Fascination 2014.
Onboard you already play a couple of hours per day, you need to prepare music and you usually warm up. So, on a regular working day you might be doing music for about six hours, which is I think enough. But in terms of actual practice (practice which is structured and you’re working on specific things you want to improve on) you simply don’t. The Nr. 1 rule of practice is consistency. Consistency is simply not possible on ships. You’re still improving your musicality because you’re constantly and actively discussing music, adding to your repertoire and most importantly performing every night with people from all over the world. Especially the first few contracts are the ones you learn the most and grow the most as an artist and performer. But in terms of technical abilities you get stuck and leave a six-month contract on the same level or even lower as when you started the contract.
I know these two posts are quite negative, but it’s important to also talk about why not to do this gig. It’s important to go in with the right expectations. I get so many musicians that are unhappy with the job especially because they feel like they can’t be the artists they want to be. Having the right expectations before a contract is important to having a successful time onboard. I don’t want to scare anyone off, I still think ships are a great opportunity for musicians to grow and I’ll be sharing some of the musical benefits of ships with you in a next post.