20 Years Musical Director on Cruise Ships Worldwide

As there are questions that pop up all the time, I thought I’d give everyone a concise and honest appraisal of the day-to-day life and expectations on a major line. Please keep in mind that this only applies to the big 4, meaning Princess, Carnival, N.C.L. and Royal Caribbean. There are other lesser lines, which I would strongly caution you to avoid.


Dann Tann

Let me start off with a simple Q&A of the most frequently asked questions.

Q: What jobs exst for drummers on a cruise ship?
A: There are 3 categories. There is an Orchestra drummer, a Top-40 Rock drummer and a back lounge/jazz drummer. All 3 positions are effectively the same, save for some differences in pay. Lounge bands come on self-contained; this is mostly house band info.

Q: Do I have to know how to read music to work on a ship?
A: If you want to do the Orchestra (also known as Show band or House Band) Chair, then you MUST be able to sight-read at a very high level. The other positions do not require a high standard of reading, but as I always do, I strongly suggest that you need to read.

Q: How much money will I earn?
A: While there are some differences, first contract drummers can expect to start at $600.00 to $650.00 per week. Sideman (Non-M.D) Pay tops out at around $3000.00 a month. M.D’s start at $3,300 a month and there is no top out.

Q: What is included as part of the package?
A: You will be given a free room (cabin) as well as all the free food you can eat. Soft drinks are often free and beer and alcohol are greatly reduced in the crew areas.

Q: How much will I play?
A: You can count on 3 hours of actual playing time daily, plus rehearsal times. Most good M.D.s will try and schedule 1 day off, or at very least 1 light day every 7 days.

Q: What is there to do on board when I’m not working?
A: There is an active social life amongst the crew, as well as complete freedom when it comes to going ashore. Some vessels, depending on their size, will allow you access to passenger recreation areas such as pools and the gym.

Q: Can I hang out with the passengers?
A: While social interaction is strongly encouraged, any romance, if you get caught, is going to get you into trouble.

Q: Is health care offered?
A: 24-hour health care is available and is free for crew.

Q: What documentation will I need?
A: An up to date passport, a C.1-D visa if you are not American or Canadian and a complete physical. The physical must be obtained through a sanctioned company doctor and is extensive and expensive. Most companies will reimburse part or all of the medical costs

Q: What’s the gear like?
A: Good to Outstanding, depending on the age of the ship. I have top of the line DW drumkit with a Gibraltar rack on the ship I’m currently on. The company assumes all expenses for equipment and replacement parts.

Q: Do I have to move gear or set up or tear down?
A: No. Most large ships have a production staff of up to 20 people.

Q: How do I get to the ship?
A: Usually you’ll fly in to the joining city the night before you join. You’ll fly in at the company’s expense and will be put up in a hotel at the company’s expense. The hotels are normally excellent 5-star hotels, although the standard drops off for exotic locations. You will receive extensive joining documentation that will help you get through, customs, immigration and on the ship. A company representative (port agent) will meet you at the airport, unless the hotel is a shuttle ride away, in which case you’ll have to make your own way to the hotel.

Q: What gear do I need to bring?
A: With the airlines cracking down, the major lines are not being very helpful with excess baggage. Be prepared to cover excess baggage fees if you choose to bring cymbals/pedals as most lines will not cover these expenses anymore. There are pro quality cymbals on all the ships, but they’re generic Zildjians/Sabians.

Q: Is there a dress code?
A On some lines, very much so. Don’t count on wearing blue jeans, ever and be prepared to dress nicely. Also, some lines are funny about tattoos and earrings.

Q: Is there a Casino?
A: Yes, and it’s universally off limits. There are slot machines in the crew bar.

Q: Do I need an agent?
A: While there are many, many agents who book ship musicians, all the major lines also hire directly and it’s always wise to by-pass an agent when you can. If you can’t get a hold of the guys in the office, check the end of the article for the agents’ contacts. You should try to go direct first.

Q: How do I audition?
A: All lines have auditions several times a year. You can also submit a DVD or C.D. with headshot. Keep all media short and include a good bio; don’t lie or embellish.

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