From Train to Motorhead, Inside the Big Business of Music Cruises

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Joshua Timmermans

Jam Cruise which is held Jan. 4-9 and features artists like Anders Osbourne.

Cruise organizers are rockin’ the boat -- literally -- as they cater to a rising tide of fans eager to set sail with their favorite artists.

When Lynyrd Skynyrd helmed its inaugural Simple Man Cruise in 2007, the ship ran out of Jack Daniel’s on the first night. “We drank the boat dry,” band manager Ross Schilling says. “Our fans, they have a good time.”

These days, there seems to be a personalized voyage for every hard-partying fan willing to throw big bucks overboard to see their favorite band. Cruise companies are seeing success with nearly every genre, including Motorhead’s Motorboat, EDM bonanza Holy Ship!, Jam Cruise, the Kiss Kruise and Simple Man, which sets sail for the last time in February.

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But for every music cruise that is scuttled, a new one surfaces. Mad Decent, a Los Angeles-based record label captained by Diplo, is hosting its first Boat Party this month, a wet version of its wildly successful Block Party tour, which sold 180,000 tickets nationwide this year. The four-day Caribbean adventure, which launches from Miami on Nov. 12, is among the first to take a music-festival approach to the popular artist-hosted concert at sea, giving equal billing to nearly three dozen acts, from Big Gigantic to Zeds Dead.

Despite tickets that can cost thousands of dollars (not including taxes or airfare), music cruises have exploded in popularity. “Everyone’s coming for the best vacation of their lives,” says Andy Levine, founder of Sixthman, which has launched 80-plus cruises since 2001.

It’s not a cheap trip. A chartered ocean liner costs up to $250,000 a day, says Levine, plus daily production costs of $50,000. To economize, cruises are often scheduled back-to-back. Mark Brown, founder of Cloud 9 Adventures, booked Holy Ship! from Jan. 3 to Jan. 6 and Jam Cruise Jan. 6-11, both departing from Miami. “You get to amortize a lot of the expenses, like crew and cranes,” he says.

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Production outlays are also recouped by pricey packages. Passage on the Mad Decent Boat Party, for example, ranges from $600 per person for a cabin that sleeps four to $5,000 for an “owner’s suite.”

Getting a ship in shape for each cruise requires, ahem, a boatload of work. Sixthman turns over a 2,000-capacity vessel in eight hours. After returning to port at 8 a.m., guests are loaded off and employees shuttled onboard for 90 minutes to clean the cabins and unload band equipment. (The stages and speakers stay in place.) At noon, the next cruise’s passengers start boarding. By 4 p.m., it’s bon voyage.

Artists usually reserve a block of rooms with zero access to anyone else. “I was sort of trapped, but you get used to it,” says Motorhead frontman Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister. “You go to the stateroom, go to bed, get up, hang around, do the show and come back. You have to adapt, you know?”

Even after performing every night, many musicians prefer to mingle and party with fans. “You have to make it fun,” says Pat Monahan of Train, which hosted its first Sail Around the Sun cruise in 2013. “We don’t hide in our rooms. We get out there.”

“As much as it’s a vacation for fans, it’s a lot of work for the band,” adds Schilling. “In addition to three performances, they’ll autograph posters; there are Q&As, guitar clinics, belly-flop contests.”

Surprisingly, artists tend to make less money on water than on land. Most are paid a flat fee, though exact figures aren’t disclosed. Some headliners receive up to 50 percent of ancillary revenue -- primarily alcohol -- an estimated $200 per passenger per day. That can add up to several hundred thousand dollars for a top artist.

 

The bands and cruise lines likely benefit most from alcohol sales. Schilling notes that Norwegian Cruise Lines quickly learned about the No. 1 priority of hardcore cruisers.

“They want to buy a bucket of beer, they want doubles,” he says. “They order a round of shots with drinks -- and they want them quickly.”

Whatever floats your boat.

This article first appeared in the Nov. 15 issue of Billboard.

A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Weezer would no longer host its own cruise. Billboard regrets the error.

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