How to Get Singing Work on Cruise Ships


Rihanna, Tony Bennett and James Taylor have all made great use of this gig –says Gary Williams

I pity the reality show contestant that should prompt Simon Cowell’s now annual criticism of being “too cabaret”, or “too cruise ship”.

Using cruise ships as a term of abuse is a predictable pastime for Cowell, but what’s he basing his opinions on? Has he been on a cruise recently?

Does he know, for example, that Rihanna’s worked on one? How about Tony Bennett? Would he call James Taylor “too cruise ship”?

CruiseShiptext01They’ve all done it.

As well as performing in the West End and concert halls, I’ve worked as a headliner on cruise ships for over 20 years. I’ve visited more than 60 countries, met some incredible people and loved every minute of it.

Should You Go for a Sail?

Cruise ships are one of the few places where we singers can work regularly and make a good living.

Once you have an act with musical arrangements for up to nine musicians (some ships have less) you’ll need to find an agent who specialist in ships (cruise lines rarely book acts direct).

Introduce yourself with the usual photos, bio and most importantly a short YouTube show reel.

They need to see you have a fully rounded professional act.

CruiseBurtIt’s not just about your voice.

They’re looking for entertainers – people who know how to connect with an audience.

Cruise ships are a great place for many singers to work but are they right for you?

Let’s look at some of the challenges and opportunities:

The Varied Musical Menu

Whether you’re on board for six months as a resident lounge singer three days as a visiting Guest Entertainer you’ll find life on board presents some unique challenges.

Audiences can be very mixed: young families on a budget, retired executives and people from all parts of the globe with their own cultural references and languages – each with their own idea of what constitutes good entertainment.

Singing and speaking in different languages is important but appealing to so many tastes is a compromise.

New York singer Jeff Harnar has learned to adapt his show without losing integrity: “I’m mindful that on land my audience has chosen to attend and paid a fee – on the ships, we entertainers are more like another buffet – they can take what they like and leave the rest. It’s helpful to have a varied menu that will appeal to most guests.”

The Happiness Requirement

To do well on ships requires a certain type of personality. You have to be approachable and happy to mix.

CruiseShiptext02As Cruise Director Keith Maynard told me, “You can’t just get in your car and drive home at the end of the night. You’re on a ship. You’ll be eating alongside the same people every day of your contract.”

For me, the actual show is the easiest part of my work – the hard bit is getting there. As Tony Bennett said, “We get paid for the traveling, not the singing.”

Every new ship means dealing with jet lag, making new friends, getting to know the staff, the band and the technicians. You have to be very sociable.

Opportunities for singers to develop a profile on land are few. The social club scene has all but disappeared and if you’re not a “name” with pulling real power the chances of touring your own theatre show are slim.

On ships it doesn’t matter if you’re not famous. What matters is your talent.

With luck you’ll be given a chance to show what you can do. If you’re good the opportunities are tremendous.

When Simon Cowell criticizes his contestants for being “too cruise ship” he’s denigrating a huge industry that’s giving valuable work to literally thousands of performers.

CruiseBioGary Williams is a singer and author of ‘Cabaret Secrets – How to Create Your Own Show, Travel the World and Get Paid to Do What You Love’. For more details and to hear his Podcasts go here.

Featured image adapted from images by :- Christopher Macsurak on Flickr and Gail Frederick on Flickr

  • exUK

    Gary’s advice is well based.However,some of the up market cruise ships are attempting,(in their own misguided words…via the cruise director,) to change to a more modern image.They are ignoring the fact that passengers are mostly “older” rather than pop music lovers.This is because it is older folk who can afford to cruise,having no family and mortgage “millstones” The various bands on Celebrity Millenium were not entertaining for the passengers and they went to their cabins early or were blasted from the pool by the volume.There was no- one covering The American Song Book for instance. There WAS a good guy who had been in Les Mis West End,who had augmented his great voice with a few jokes and easy patter,who did 2 spots in the fortnight cruise who was very well liked.
    Although it was well over 40 years ago,I used to have trio on transatlantic QE2 cruises and in those days,one got the gig because you were “different” (playing everything pop,jazz,latin and standards on 2 guitars with no bass drums or keyboard—we were headhunted!) Whereas it seems today that if there is a cruise line with ,say,six ships,the folk on land standardise it all ,which saves them having to spend time searching..So they will have hi tech keyboard with female vocalist in the same room in each ship.Although I am probably “too old” ,if I were to suggest my doing a solo gig with just vocal and my guitar,(and no tracks) it would throw the deciders completely.They would be unable to see that it would be a novel change in place of the keyboard,even though the material may be the same!
    Finally,I enjoyed a delightful Korean violinist(it was a S E Asia cruise),who had sussed out that she was able to earn much more as a cabaret artist.She was good looking,wore a slit dress,waved her bow in the air like the lone ranger,and had a glittering solid violin as well as the normal one.She did play some nice classical pieces,but ended with Queen’s We are the champions highly amplified.! It “worked” and she sold lots of CDs after the show.One is expected to socialise with the passengers ,so should be outgoing and be able to converse at any level.
    It is great to be paid,and have a free holiday,and see the world,doing what you love,plus it is a way to tighten up the act by regular ongoing gigs without leaving to travel each day. Go for it!