It's the tenth anniversary of Jam Cruise, the annual cruise around the Caribbean put on by Cloud 9 Adventures and featuring a lineup of some of the biggest names in the jam/funk/jazz/bluegrass communities. Jam Cruise 11 (the inaugural year featured two cruises) sees the floating festival stronger than ever with a lineup, announced last week, that brings back Jam Cruise veterans moe.; Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood; Galactic; the Funky Meters; Lettuce; and Femi Kuti & the Positive Force for the five-day jaunt.
Music cruises have been growing in popularity during the past decade, with genre-based cruises (like Blues Cruise) and artist-based cruises (the Weezer Cruise) becoming more ubiquitous. Even Cloud 9 has expanded its offerings, partnering with HARD Events and Bowery Presents for the Holy Ship! EDM-based cruise, which featured artists such as Skrillex, Diplo, abd Rusko.
Jam Cruise founder and Cloud 9 Adventures managing partner Mark Brown spoke with Billboard.biz about the eleventh installment of Jam Cruise, the myriad issues involved with bringing a five day festival and 3,000 fans along on a ship, and the growth of the music cruise industry over the past decade.
Billboard.biz: This year marks the first decade of Jam Cruise.
Mark Brown: It's the tenth year, 11th cruise. When we announced Jam Cruise 1, it was on a small ship and only held 800 people. We didn't know how it would go putting ten or twelve bands from the so-called jam band world on a ship, but it sold out in 45 minutes, and the waiting list was so huge that we decided to do a back-to-back. It was quite the undertaking, and I said to myself that we would probably never do it again, it was just too much.
But that was ten years ago. Last year we decided to do a new project. Our company [Cloud 9 Adventures] teamed up with HARD Events and Bowery Presents and did a new cruise called Holy Ship!, which was more [EDM]-based. I didn't know how that would go logistically, but it couldn't have gone better.
The inaugural year the ship fit 800 people - what are you guys working with this year?
Our capacity is 3,000. We were on a 2,000 capacity ship for about 3 years, and then we jumped to 3,000 and we've stayed at that level for the last five years.
How did the idea for Jam Cruise originate?
I'm originally from Richmond, VA, and was doing a lot of outdoor events. I had a venue that held 7,000 people on an island in the middle of the James River in downtown Richmond. I was working with a lot of these bands back then in the mid- to late-90s. I was on Vacation at an island down in the Caribbean and I thought, 'why in the world am I doing events on this island in Richmond, when I could be doing them down here in paradise?' And I started thinking of both the cruise idea and also doing something of a destination festival. I acted on the cruise first knowing that a cruise ship had so much of the infrastructure already there.
We talked ten or twelve bands into trying it out. The first year, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band played our Sail Away show, and I knew it was a hit the minute we were sailing off into the ocean and they started up. And then we brought them back last year on Jam Cruise 10, because they were the first band to ever play for us.
What is the difference between doing land shows versus the cruise ship?
I've done a lot of outdoor festivals, and with those you can take as much time as needed to build that site; so many festivals around the country take probably three, four, maybe even eight weeks for some of the major festivals. We bring on probably just as much equipment and gear as those major festivals, and we have to bring all that on a pool deck, which is 16 decks high. So we have to crane all this equipment on and get it set up on the ship in a matter of hours to be ready for that first night's show.
We don't have access to the cruise until maybe 9 that morning and have to have five, six venues built for that evening; that's the biggest challenge. But we have one of the best production crews out there, and they've been with me since the first year. I think the first year our whole staff, not even production crew, I mean the whole staff, was maybe 20 people, tops. And now we have a crew of over 200 people that make it happen.
What is the difference in cost in putting something like that on a ship?
It's expensive, I mean we basically charter a ship, we buy that ship and it's ours for five days, five nights. It was definitely a big financial risk, especially at the beginning. Fortunately, all the events that Cloud 9 Adventures has done since 2004 have sold out but one. We've been fortunate. We went from two events to four events last year, and we're working on some new events as we speak.
How do you keep people coming back?
It's a lot of word of mouth, it's become a big community. I would say, 70 percent of our audience have been on a cruise or at an event before, and then the other 30 percent are friends or people that they have told trying it out for the first time. A lot of the bands are very excited to be on board and spread the word to their fanbases as well. We also have loyalty programs for Jam Cruise, we call them Repeat Offenders, for when they reach four cruises. Last year we inducted our first group we call Lifers, and those people have been on every cruise since the beginning. We inducted about 40 passengers and one band, Galactic, and [musicians] Karl Denson, Mike Dillon and Skerik. Hopefully we have a bigger class this year.
What percentage of your cabins are pre-booked [sold before the general on-sale]?
About 80 percent are pre-booked. This year we've had a record number of pre-books, even more than Jam Cruise 10. We'll have a general on-sale on May 30th.
It seems music cruises are becoming more common - even you guys have brought on a second cruise. Have you seen a market glut?
I think a lot of the promoters putting on these cruises have been really careful about their genre, their theme, and they've all been reaching different crowds. They may be about one band, and if you're a fan of that band, it's not really competing too much with something else. There's a Blues Cruise every year and they seem to do extremely well. I saw a traditional bluegrass cruise announced a couple weeks ago. I'm seeing a lot of different ones but they don't compete with us, it hasn't affected us at all.
How much does Jam Cruise cost this year?
A lot of people keep costs down by going in on a quad, and those start at $799. A double starts at around $1,050; we have some bigger balcony cabins that are in the $1,700-$1,800 range, and a few suites that are around $2,500 per person.
A lot of people say 'I just want to get on board, have a place to leave my stuff, a place to lay my head and take a shower.' The music is pretty much continuous; most of our shows on the main stages end around three, four am, and two of the rooms go until the sun comes up. A lot of the times it goes past my bed time, but I hear they're great times.
How has the whole experience of putting on the cruise changed in the past 10 years?
At first it was just me in an apartment with my partner, Josh Moore, whose day job is at Bowery Presents as a talent buyer for Music Hall of Williamsburg and Brooklyn Bowl. It was just me running the day to day operations. We had a few independent people who would help us as the cruise got closer. Then we finally got one employee - Annabel Lukins - so I brought her on, and now we've got ten full-time people.
Have you guys partnered with anybody for co-sponsorships?
This year, Magic Hat became the official craft beer of Jam Cruise, and they're doing a national sweepstakes for a cabin giveaway. I think every 6 pack has a hang tag on it for the sweepstakes. We've been really really choosy - we haven't done a lot of sponsorships, just a few things here and there, because it has to be the right fit.
How did you choose Magic Hat?
Well the first ten years we were working with another company called SweetWater out of Atlanta, and they were awesome, but then Magic Hat approached us and wanted to do this big national reach, and we thought it was a great idea. A lot of people on board have always asked for Magic Hat, so we teamed up and we're looking forward to having a beer on board.