How Can I Perform On Cruise Ships?
Welcome to another Cartne 'how to' video. Our topic today is How can I perform on cruise ships? Our guest is Rob Ondras.
Hi there. I'm Rob Ondras. For the last 12 years I have been working on cruise ships. I've been a musician all of my life, which is a long time, so we're not going to go into that. But I'm here to give you a little information on what it's like to work on a cruise ship, how you get to work on a cruise ship, all the things that it entails. So if you're ready, let's get into it.
Rob, What kinds of entertainers do they use on cruise ships?
They use all kinds of entertainers. For me, you know, when I'm on a cruise ship, I'm a solo entertainer for the most part. Now, I do work in the theater with the orchestra and it's usually anywhere from a seven to 12 piece orchestra. But for the most part, I am a lounge entertainer. And so I'll work in a lot of the lounges, which doesn't mean I'm only in the lounges. That could be just a small part of the day. I could start off down at the poolside and then do an afternoon set in one of the coffee shops and then end up the night in one or two lounges.
Do they hire full bands as well?
Yes, they do most of the time, like a trio. Yeah, they'll say, Yeah, we can do that sometimes. A party band which consists of four to seven members, they will do that. Sometimes those party bands are put together by the agency. They'll have a certain amount of musicians that they have in their stock, so to speak. And they say, man, this drummer will work great with this keyboard player and this singer and bass player, they work great together so we'll put them together and we'll call them ‘this’, you know, and you'll go out as a band. So be on top of your game if you're wanting to be in a party band, be sure that you know all the latest hits, you know, the fifties, sixties, you know, whatever, because they'll have they'll have certain theme nights where you have to play disco or you have to play seventies or you have to play country, you know, and you have to know at least 30, 40 songs in those genres. So, you know, just be on the top of your game.
So you really need to be very versatile to cover all those different areas.
Yeah, absolutely. You do have to be versatile. You can go into a cruise ship gig with maybe 250 songs, but I wouldn't recommend that. I would recommend knowing at least 500 - 750 songs off the top of your head. I've got about 1200 songs that are rattling around in my head so I can do any of those at any given time. You know, because you get a lot of requests.
Besides performing, are you required to take on any other jobs as well?
Absolutely you are. You're not, you know, working, doing cleaning jobs, which you very well could. And I'll go into that, but in just a minute. But mainly what you're going to be doing other than performing well, let's start at the very beginning. When you first join a ship you're working, the very minute you step on that ship, because once you get on the ship, you have to start going to all these different meetings. You're going to go to classes. There's a lot of information that you have to remember, like ethics, safety, fire safety, all these different things. And that's because once in a while, the U.S. Coast Guard will pop on the ship for one of the crew drills and they'll start asking you questions about how many lifeboats, how many people can fit on a lifeboat, all these other different questions. And the staff captain and the captain won't be very happy if they have a real low score. So you have to remember all that stuff. But what I was going to get to earlier is, it has happened where a certain norovirus will start going around the ship. So they will start picking crew, even musicians, to go up to one of the buffets and serve people because they don't want everybody, you know, grabbing the same spoons and labels and everything. So, yeah, there are different things that you will have to do besides just be an entertainer.
What's involved in the onboarding process.
When you get on the ship? First of all, they're going to email you or call you and they're going to say, OK, you need to have this medical all lined up. So you have to go… you can't go to your own doctor anymore. They have certain medical facilities that they'll tell you you need to be here at this time.
And so you go through a whole physical and everything. Some of it you wonder, you know, ‘why are they having me do this?’ You know, you might have to go up and down a set of stairs so many times or you might have to be lifting weights or pushing something across a room or whatever. But it's a pretty extensive physical that you have to go through once you get all that done. Once you have your passport, you've got all the other things that are required for travel. Then you meet the ship at the port and then you're going to be standing in a long line of other crew members. Because even though you're a musician and you're not going to be performing a lot of the duties that the other people are going to be doing, you still have to go through the same lines that everybody else goes through.
Once you're in it, it takes several hours. So once you get up there, they process all your paperwork, you're filling out more paperwork. They have somebody who will meet you and they will take you for a quick tour of the ship. They'll take you to your cabin and say, OK, put on your cleanest black shirt because you're going to work down by the pool in one hour.
So get ready. If you're lucky, you might get something to eat, but most of the time you're going to be waiting until dinnertime.
What kinds of music are popular on cruise ships?
When I first started several years ago, it was a lot of the fifties, sixties, seventies, even up into the eighties. But now they're wanting a lot more newer, popular music because the age of the average cruiser is going down. So now you're having to take care of all of the newer cruisers plus all the older cruisers, which generally are in their fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, some even into the nineties.
So you have to know a wide range of music to be on a cruise ship. It's beneficial. You can probably get away with not having such a wide range but it's very beneficial and I would recommend it.
Does the demographic change from cruise line to cruise line or ship to ship.
From ship to ship or cruise to cruise? Yes, it will, depending on the cruise. On a 14-day cruise, you're going to have an older demographic. On a seven day cruise, you're going to have an average fifties, sixties, some in the forties. But on the three day cruises the booze cruises, you're going to have a much younger crowd because the cruises are very inexpensive.
They're out for three days and back and they just want a party, which you know most people do when they get on the ship. They want to have a good time. And absolutely, who wouldn't. But yeah, the younger cruisers are going to go on the short cruises and older cruisers are going to go on the longer cruises overall.
How would you say that you're treated by the cruise lines?
Treated well. I mean, as well as can be expected. You're there to work. You're not there to party. And I've seen that happen before where and especially musicians think they're there to party. They have it. They're going to have a good time because it's about ‘me’. And that's all you know. So that's what they're all thinking. You are going to be treated well.
If I could give one piece of advice, the very first thing, make friends. You want to make friends with as many people as possible because you're on this cruise ship for a long time, and it's a very limited area. The people that I learned early on to make really good friends with are security.
If you walk onto the ship and you've got a real attitude going on, your cruise, your contract, is going to be horrible. But if you walk on and it's Yes, sir, no, sir, yes, sir, I'll do that right away, you're going to make friends and they're going to know who they can trust and who they can't trust.
So, yeah, making friends early on. Make friends with the staff captain. That's very important. A staff captain is just below the captain, and he can make life very hard on you if you make life hard on him. So I would recommend making friends with him, or her as well.
What kind of equipment do you need to bring?
You don't have to bring a P.A. system. Bring your guitar, bring your pedals.
Another piece of advice. Bring your own microphone. My first contract, I didn't bring my own microphone and I was sharing that microphone with a lot of other singers and musicians. And I had a cold or something going on most of the time. But once I took my own microphone, I had a lot, lot less illnesses, a lot less colds, all that kind of stuff.
And, you know, you're going to catch a cold or some kind of small virus occasionally because you're in a very small atmosphere. But another piece of advice… travel light. Take with you like, your toiletries and stuff like that. Take all the travel stuff like travel, shampoo, travel, toothpaste, all that. Because after the first week of all the training and in classes and everything, you're going to be able to get off the ship. One of the first places you should go is a grocery store or a pharmacy and pick up all the things that you're going to need for the next five, six months.
I would think it would be wise to stock up on strings, picks and other accessories before you start.
Oh, yeah, yeah, absolutely. Again, there will be ports where you might be able to get to a music store, most likely not and if there is a music store, you're probably going to take a taxi or an Uber or a lift to get there, and that's going to cost you more. So bring as many guitar strings, bring your clippers and you know your pin pullers if you have an acoustic guitar. All that stuff. Try and take as much as possible in as little space as possible. You're going to have… you're going to be allowed two suitcases. So what I normally do is I put some of my clothes in the bigger suitcase and then I have a smaller suitcase and I'll take a lot of my guitar things, accessories.
You know, some people bring pedals and all that. That's fine. I don't take much. I've got a harmony pedal that I use and I can have different sounds for my guitar in that pedal. So take as little as possible. And you can always have things shipped to you. If you're going to be in the same port several days or several cruises in a row, you can always have something shipped to you if you need it.
But I would take the things that you absolutely need. Not so much anymore, but it used to be that you had to have a tuxedo and they don't do that as much anymore. There are some cruises. Yes. That you have to have a tuxedo but most of the time you can get away with smart casual, which is kind of like business casual clothing, stage attire, ties. I got away without wearing one because I really hate to wear a tie and sing. And on the first couple of contracts, that I did and I had to wear a tuxedo, I was doing a Jimmy Buffett tribute in a tuxedo, which was kind of odd, not ‘cause… Wo! Can you imagine?
That's a long time. How long is a typical contract?
Yeah, five or six months. You're going to see the average contract is four to six months for a musician. On my first contract, my first contract was six months. And I thought, OK, I can handle that. And I got on the ship and I was having a really good time. I was making friends from all over the world… literally all over the world, and meeting guests and passengers that were really, you know, great to be around.
And so I thought, you know, this is really good. And my agent emailed me and he said, hey, you know, it looks like things are going really good for you out there. Would you like to extend two months? And I thought, yeah, I'm having a pretty good time. I can extend it now. That's eight months. OK? And then my original sign off date came around. II thought, what in the world have I done? I mean, it's fun. You can make it fun. You can make it however you want it to be. But I would recommend taking it as it comes. And if there's an issue with another crew member or whatever, resolve it immediately. Immediately because you have nowhere to go.
What does it take to be successful on a cruise ship?
Being successful. I would say getting through your first contract would be successful. That's a lot of success right there, just getting through the contract. But to actually be successful and having your agent or the cruise line wanting you to come back for another contract be open to suggestions, be open to what your music director wants you to do. Don't say no, that's beneath me. I'm not going to do that. You're one either. Not going to make it through the contract or two. If you do make it through the contract. They're not going to want you back again. So be open to a lot of things, know your stuff, know you're your material, have a lot of it with you you know.
I learned one thing that I learned from my very first cruise director, and I carry it with me even out in gigs on land… if you're on time, you're late. Always be there at least 20 minutes, at least 20 minutes before you start because you never know what might happen. I know that once you get into a cruise people enjoy listening to you. They want to talk to you before the gig. So you want to be sure that you're there in plenty of time to talk with everybody that wants to talk and then get to your gig on time. Like I said, if you're on time, you're late.
It sounds like a real blast. Are there any downsides to being on a ship?
Yes, absolutely. There are downsides. When you get on the ship and you sign that contract, you're there for how many months that contract is. I've had different things happen at home that I could not get home to take care of. Some very personal things. I was in Argentina one time. I go out to get my emails in port one morning, and I get an email from my wife and she says, “I have breast cancer. I'm going to be having surgery now.”
I was in Argentina and I live in Tennessee. So I didn't know how I was going to get home. So luckily, by the grace of God, I got home. We went back up through the Panama Canal and back to Florida. And by the time I got home, she was having surgery the next day.
So that was a blessing. But there's a lot of times where you might have family members pass away. And friends. You're going to miss birthdays, anniversaries, children's graduations. There's a lot of things that you will miss because you have signed a contract. You can't just get off the ship and say, you know, I'll be back next week. Because it's not going to happen.
You know, the other thing that you're not going to be able to do is visit a lot of the guest areas where you might be able to get a little bit better food. You will be eating in the crew mess. And there's generally three different messes. There will be the officers mess, the staff mess and the crew mess. Now, as a musician, you'll be able to eat in the staff mess, which is a little bit better.
Because the crew messes - because the population of the ship is mostly Filipino or Indian or you know, things like that. They're going to cater more toward those cultures because that's what they're used to. And, you know, as an American or, you know, Canadian, you're going to be a minority. And so you're not going to get the things that you're used to at home. So that could be a downside.
Now, once in a while, they will let you go up to the buffet at a certain time. You know, after the rush, you know, when you're not going to be taking anybody else's spot, you might be able to go up to the buffet or any of the specialty restaurants. Once in a while they'll let you do that. So it's not all bad.
It's not… you just have to have an open mind and a good attitude and go in and say, “I'm going to make the best of this and I'm going to do the very best I can and I'm going to come away and I'm going to feel good about this.”
So what would you consider the upsides of working on cruise ships?
The upsides? I have literally been around this great big, beautiful earth three or four times. I have stepped foot on every continent there is in this world. I have seen things that I never dreamed I would see. You know, when you go into Dubrovnik, Croatia, and you see the city that was created in the seventh century, or you go to Alaska or you're in Norway or you're in the farthest city south in Argentina or Antarctica, I've been to Antarctica.
I've been up inside the Arctic Circle. I've seen a lot of this world, and not many can say that they've done that and get paid for it.
That sounds great. How do I apply?
There are many ways that you can apply. When I started, a friend of mine had asked me to fill in for him, and I wasn't even out on, you know, I wasn't even thinking about going on on the ship. So in fact, I really didn't want to. And he kept after me and kept after me. And he said, and finally I said, OK, what do you want me to do?
And so he said, “Well, just put a video together. That's all I want.” And so I went downstairs to my little studio and I… (this is a long time ago. We didn't have cell phones to make videos). And I had this little camcorder. I set it on a stool in front of me, and I sat on a stool on the other side, and I played maybe six songs back to back just the verse in the chorus and just went from one right to the other.
And it was just me and the guitar. No lighting, no effects, no reverb, no nothing. It was just me, frankly, because I really didn't care whether I got the gig or not, you know? So I sent it over to my friend, and about a week later, I got a call from the agent and he said, Hey, how soon can you go out?
And I said, “Well, you didn't watch the video, did you hear me?” And he said, Yes. He said, “I did watch the video, and I saw exactly what I wanted to see.” He goes, “You didn't have all the effects, you didn't have all the lighting. You weren't singing to tracks you. It was just you. It was just exactly what I want!”
So I would suggest - and you don't have to make a video like that - you can make it nice quality video. But make a video that shows what you can do as a solo artist or as a duo or whatever you're signing up for. Then get on the Internet and you Google cruise ship, entertain payment agencies, and you're going to get a bunch of them. They're all over the world. And somebody is going to see what you do and they're going to say, Hey, this is pretty good. I think this could work over here. And you'll go to work for a certain cruise line. And like me, I worked for I don't know how many different cruise lines, and I was very, very blessed to do what I did.
But yeah, that's basically how you sign up and apply. It’s not so much anymore that you can go to work directly for a cruise line. Generally, you're going to have to have an agent.
Is it very competitive?
No, not really. For the main part being that you're going to be gone for a long time. And most musicians, or anybody for that matter, don’t want to be gone for six months. Most people don't. So you're going to find that there are a lot of younger crew members that are out there. And because they're just out of college or they're just, you know, ready to go see the world.
And so you're going to find younger people that you're competing with. But don't let that hold you back. If you're, you know, in your forties, fifties, even into your sixties, there is a place if you can entertain the audience. And never forget that. It's not about you. It's not about me. It's about the people that are paying a lot of money to be out there. Never forget that.
You have any final words of wisdom.
Oh, gosh. You know, I could go on forever about this. I've learned so much. But yeah, if you do get the gig and you want to go out and you say, hey, I think I could do this for one, or maybe two contracts or more… I did, like I said, 12 years out on cruise ships, and I don't know how many contracts. That was a lot of different ships. But just be willing to go with it because a lot of things will happen out there that you don't have any control over and you just have to make the best of it. That's really all it comes down to.
This concludes our video on “How can I perform on cruise ships”. We'd like to thank our guest, Rob Andrews, for sharing his incredible expertise and experience.
- Release DateJune 2, 2022