Rock ‘n’ roll and luxury cruises aren’t the most likely bandmates, but music festivals at sea are becoming big business.
It's January 2012 in the Gulf of Mexico and Rivers Cuomo, frontman of US angst-rockers Weezer, is in the library of Carnival Destiny in deep conversation with a smattering of fans. His band has just played its first set as part of the onboard music event Weezer Cruise.
Meanwhile, up on deck, passengers are carousing with the other 16 support acts, many of whom are sporting ill-fitting US navy uniforms and life jackets. Communal, intimate and surreal, it is far removed from the conventional image of the sprawling megaship.
While cruise operators have long provided entertainment for guests through onboard amenities such as theatres and cinemas, the growing trend of music-themed voyages is a different beast. Given their success hitherto - the Weezer Cruise attracted 2,200 fans from over ten nations for its four-day Miami-Mexico hootenanny - cruise industry players such as Carnival are becoming increasingly aware of their benefits, particularly in attracting first-time passengers.
"They are a great way of tapping into a new guest demographic," says Tom Dougher, director of strategic partnerships at Carnival. "Some of these guests may never have thought about going on a cruise before, but because they have an allegiance to the artist they are paying to see, we hope that they will come to trust us as a cruise operator as well."
Dougher is a self-professed music lover - he attended the Weezer Cruise and informs me that he has also signed up for the next Elvis Cruise; however, he admits that he wouldn't know where to start in approaching an artist or band to appear onboard a ship; it is not within his or Carnival's remit, and this has seen the rise of music and theme cruise organisers, which act as a conduit between the music and cruise industries in arranging full-ship charters.
Sixthman - responsible for the Weezer Cruise as well as 2011's Kiss Kruise and Kid Rock Cruise - is the industry's most prominent organiser and promoter of music-themed cruises. Commonly cited as the progenitor of the concept, CEO Andy Levine launched the company in 2001, having previously worked as a manager in the music industry.
"Ten years ago, I was managing a band based in Florida when I was asked by a set of fans to hold a kind of convention where they could meet the group," he explains. "So I came up with the idea of going on a small cruise, as opposed to staying in a hotel, which ended up being so much more fun. I can actually remember being on the boat thinking, 'There is definitely a gap in the market for something like this'."
While organisers such as Sixthman play a crucial role in getting bands onboard - Levine admits that some artists are more wary than others about being trapped on the high seas with over-zealous fans - it warrants close collaboration with cruise operators, which effectively provide the venue.
"We always try and consider the programme, the artist and the community in order to get the best fit," says Levine. "We work every day with the operators to make sure we deliver and have subsequently developed close partnerships with them."
"There's a lot more to it than simply getting a band and putting them on a ship," adds Dougher. "We send a technical team onboard with each charter to assist with sound and light equipment. Also, we provide an operations team from the charter side to interact with the agency and the ship so everything runs smoothly."
Celebrity Cruises is the latest operator to join forces with Sixthman, holding a Turner Classic Movies-themed cruise in December 2011. It is also set to host the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise in October 2012. Andrea Sieger, charter sales manager, North America, agrees that it is very much a bilateral effort between organisers and operators.
"We play a large part in the preparation of all of our music-themed charter programmes," she says. "We have an account executive solely dedicated to these operations, including sales activities. There is a liaison between the ship and the client, communicating what the event will look like and how everything is going to play out."
Contrary to the industry's stereotypical retiree image of old, the median age of cruise passengers continues to drop - the Cruise Lines International Association reported it as 48 in 2011 compared with 60 in 2001 - and, with press reports ranging from onboard pyrotechnics to Gene Simmons' proclivity for cabin service, music-themed cruises seem set to help further break the mould.
"I think it has provided a new image," says Levine. "Many of the musicians and artists are quite young, which has made people think about going on cruises a little sooner."
Dougher agrees. "It's been an eye-opener for younger people who may not have thought of going on a cruise," he says. "Some of the bands' fans have young families, so the hope is that when they come to choose a family vacation, they might think, 'That cruise was an enjoyable time - let's try it with the kids'."
Festivals - not holidays
While the main attraction for guests is the band as opposed to the ship, onboard creature comforts and amenities such as en-suite cabins and flat-screen televisions are an integral part of the package. According to Levine, herein lies an important differentiation - the cruises are billed as a kind of short luxury holiday break rather than a concert.
"There is a graveyard of organisers that have been trying to do this over the past five years," he says. "The main reason that many have failed is that they are still approaching it like a concert instead of a vacation."
"The primary interest is to bring like-minded people together and put them on a cruise ship to see their favourite band," adds Sieger. "It's the experience that counts."
Most cruise operators are approached by festival organisers proposing the act and the itinerary. Given the rising popularity of themed cruises, the natural progression would be for operators to designate music-themed ships on a year-round basis, sourcing acts in-house; however, the general consensus appears to be that, while not impractical, for now it may be a step too far for a movement still in its incipience.
"There are no plans to do that right now," says Dougher. "There are still intricacies concerning the music industry that we are not familiar with - that's why we have such a great partnership with the likes of Sixthman. They stick to music festivals; we concentrate on what we are familiar with - cruises."
"It is important to remember that it is still quite a novel and foreign concept, especially to the artists, who know very little about the cruise industry," adds Levine. "Both the operators and the bands still rely on us to break down that barrier."
While it's unlikely that we will be seeing the Radiohead Cruise any time soon, the music-themed cruise charter schedule is set to burgeon. It would appear that operators such as Carnival and Celebrity have finally found a means of appealing to a type of guest that ten years ago was completely beyond their reach.