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In the summer of 2017, My personal life was a mess. I had just graduated from college with a degree in imposter syndrome. My parents were going through a divorce that could have easily been the plot of a melodramatic soap opera. I had just broken off a 7-year relationship with my high school sweetheart giving me the constant feeling of being punched in the gut.
I needed an escape that would allow me to take a step back and gain some much-needed perspective. On top of this, I was searching for a sign that a career in music could somehow pay the bills.
My experience playing drums with a band on a cruise ship
Thankfully, it was around that time that I received an email from Suman Entertainment Group, one of many companies negotiating contracts between musicians and cruise lines.
My go-to bassist had been auditioning with SEG. They had asked him if he knew of any drummers who might be interested in getting their sea legs, so he passed along my contact info. I knew nothing about the cruise ship entertainment industry at the time.
Playing drums on a giant boat in international waters sounded like the perfect opportunity for me to leave my problems behind and make a bit of money doing something I love. So I swallowed my insecurities and set up an audition.
Besides taking place over Skype, the audition process was similar to my previous drum set audition experiences in high school and undergrad. After establishing a video call with the recruiter, I was emailed a play-along track and the corresponding PDF of a drum chart for sight-reading.
After the sight-reading portion was over, the recruiter asked me to demonstrate competency in about twenty different styles of drumming; everything from jazz, to funk, to Latin.
About a week later, I was informed that Suman wanted to represent me, so I signed on with them, and they began sending contract offers my way.
Much to my delight, one of the deals they sent me was a 4-month gig on a ship in Hawaii during the coldest part of winter (I’m from Wisconsin).
I accepted the offer. After jumping through a few unexpected hoops including a thorough medical examination (I nearly passed out from all of the blood samples they took) and STCW Basic Safety training (basically 2 weeks on a military base learning CPR, firefighting, and other emergency procedures), I ended up in Honolulu with a giant suitcase, my spare set of cymbals, and a stick bag loaded with felts, drum keys, and hi-hat clutches.
The party band on the ship wore a lot of different musical hats. In the afternoons, we would play yacht rock and top 40’s Pop songs by the side of the pool. In the evenings, we would either play cocktail jazz in the restaurants and bars or accompany the singer-dancer acts in the main theatre.
The rehearsals were few and far between. We were expected to learn large song lists under a pretty significant time crunch (usually about 1-2 days).
The music was pretty easy, for the most part. Still, the lack of a designated practice room meant that if I wanted to be prepared, I had to stay awake until midnight when the restaurant closed to use one of the ship’s kits without disturbing the guests.
Occasionally, we put on shows exclusively for our fellow crew members. These shows were always my favorite because the vibe felt similar to playing a cover band gig in a rowdy dive bar.
Perhaps now that you’ve heard my story, you’re wondering if doing a cruise ship gig may be the right move. Maybe you like the idea of living in a vacation destination without paying rent for a few months, or perhaps you want to develop your live performance chops.
Either way, here are 5 things to consider before you sign a contract.
1) Being an entertainer is the easiest job on the ship by far
Don’t get me wrong. This is not an easy job. You are sometimes asked to learn two hours’ worth of music the same day as the performance, and if you aren’t a confident sight-reader, you’re pretty much screwed.
That being said, the amount of time you’re actually performing is usually only about 3 – 6 hours per day compared to the nightmarish 12-16 hour days required of the housekeeping and restaurant staff.
It’s not uncommon for the chefs to go days at a time without seeing the sunlight despite living and working in a tropical paradise. Being an entertainer comes with some privileges that are not granted to most other staff members—eating with guests in public areas, or having a beard or unconventional hairstyle.
As a result, on most ships, there is some justifiable resentment towards the entertainment staff from folks in less privileged roles.
2) You are not allowed to drink, but everyone is always drunk
All cruise ship staff are considered emergency personnel long as they are on board the ship. Because of this, you’re never allowed to have a blood alcohol level higher than what amounts to approximately one beer. You can be breathalyzed without warning and immediately fired if you are in violation of this policy.
However, this doesn’t really deter anybody and contributes to a large portion of the cruise ship industry’s high turnover rate. Also, be ready for random drug tests.
The musicians, in particular, are tested at a significantly higher rate than the other staff.
3) You will hate your room, but hopefully not your roommates
Your room has enough space for one person to walk between the tiny and lumpy bunk beds you and your one to two roommate(s) will be enjoying. I had the bad luck of living in a room right beneath the ship’s anchor, so when we would dock in the mornings, I was awakened by the not-so-gentle sound of two tons of galvanized steel slamming against my wall.
However, I was fortunate to have awesome roommates to share the space. It was a blessing because the only privacy you get in your room is some thin curtains that pull around your bed.
4) You will definitely get angry at some point
You might not be expecting it, but the combination of seasickness, a Groundhog’s Day-esque repetitive schedule, playing Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville” for the 100th time, safety drills, claustrophobic rooms, and lack of privacy will eventually get under the skin of even the most mild-mannered individual.
You’ll either find yourself yelling at someone who doesn’t deserve it or sobbing hysterically underneath your covers. It’s pretty embarrassing when it happens, but all of your coworkers are in the same boat (*ba dum crash*), so people are generally understanding and forgiving.
I would definitely recommend cultivating a meditation practice or some kind of self-care routine to help keep a cool head.
5) You are allowed to grow socially as well as musically
I can say that the cruise ship was the most culturally diverse work environment I have ever been in; it was genuinely mind-opening.
You will be working alongside people from all over the world, most of whom don’t speak English as a first language.
In addition to this, cruise ships have a really high turnover rate: you never really know when one of your coworkers will get fired, quit, or reach the end of their contract.
As a result, you learn to connect with people quickly to have any semblance of social life. In addition to this, playing 2-3 shows every day will get your chops in top shape and teach you a lot about working with other musicians efficiently and professionally.
How much do cruise ship drummers get paid?
While it varies from ship to ship, on average, expect to make a salary between $2,000 to $3,300 per month. Experience level may matter, but some of the time, it depends on the position you take on the ship. According to Indeed.com, musicians aboard the Royal Caribbean line earn approximately $36,743 a year, which is below the national average.
I would recommend working as a cruise ship drummer if you don’t have a lot of commitments at home, if your love of travel outweighs your need for physical comfort and privacy, if you’re looking to save up some money for a rainy day, and if you are really good at sight-reading and learning songs quickly.
Despite the challenges and oddities of the job, it provided me with some of the happiest memories. I would definitely consider doing another contract in the future. And if you are currently looking for a gig, check out these cruise ship jobs for musicians.
Written by Matt Allen. Follow him on Instagram: @mattplaydrum