In this interview, Dave Hahn, the man behind the fascinating Chronicles of a Cruise Ship Musician blog*, offers insight into how he traveled the world while making a living as a musician on a cruise ship, and lets us in on how he promotes a blog to a niche audience. Whether you're here for the cruising, the blogging, or both, Hahn has wise advice to share.
First, even though we're really here to talk about your blog, I must ask you a few questions about life as a cruise ship musician. Tell us a bit about how you wound up sailing the high seas.
After college, I moved back to the Chicago area and became involved with the local live music scene. I joined a reggae band, hustled for jazz gigs, accompanied for a few churches and played for local theater. I also had a day job, but I was much more interested in playing music than that lousy day job. Eventually, I wanted to make a total break and become a full-time musician, but at the time I didn't have enough work to make that possible. Financially, I needed something that would help me make that break and a cruise ship job seemed perfect since they provide lodging and food in addition to a paycheck.
I've now worked on two ships. The first one sailed the North Sea, Mediterranean, and the Caribbean. I was very lucky to see half the world on that ship. It also served as a floating hotel during the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, so I had the extraordinary opportunity to attend the Games as well. I worked as the keyboardist in the show band, and we were the backup band for all the guest performers that came on the ship. We also played several jazz sets per week in the ship's lounges. I made a lot of friends on that cruise and saw many beautiful places I'll never forget.
The second ship sailed around the Hawaiian Islands. I worked as the music director for a resident guest performer act. That's a fancier job and it means that I basically lived as a passenger - passenger room, passenger food, passenger amenities. We performed two nights per week and had the rest of the time free to explore the islands. Nevertheless, while Hawaii is beautiful, with all the empty time on my hands I became bored after a few months.
When you're performing on cruise ship, do you have free reign in deciding what music to play or does the cruise company select a program?
You usually have free reign within your genre. If you're doing a jazz set, you can call whatever tunes you want as long as they fit in the jazz idiom. Same goes for the Top 40 cover bands on board or the classical groups. Each lounge is set up like a different radio station, and passengers can tune into their favorite station, or genre, by visiting the corresponding lounge. For instance, if passengers want cocktails and jazz, they can go to Lounge A; if they want coffee and classical music, they visit Lounge B. With that in mind, musicians can play any songs they like as long as it fits into their "radio station."
For the show band (what you could also call the "house band" or "backup band"), there is a lot of sight-reading. The show band plays back-up for the guest performers, and they have to play whatever music is put in front of them. Show bands also play jazz sets in the jazz lounge where they can call their own tunes, but when they are backing an act, they have to play the music they are given.
Do musicians typically sign a contract to work for one particular cruise company, or do they freelance and take jobs as they come in?
Musicians typically sign up for contracts one at a time. For instance, I might sign on for a 6-month contract with Holland America, and when that ends I'll sign on for a 4-month contract with Carnival Cruise Line.
That said, you often keep working with the same cruise line because it's just easier. Say, for instance, I work for Holland America. After my first 6-month contract is completed, they may offer me another 6-month contract on a different ship in the fleet. And after that another contract on another ship. It's really easy to continue getting work like that. It takes a little more effort to change cruise lines with every contract.
If you sign up with a talent agency like Proship, you usually have to sign some kind of non-compete agreement at the beginning. That means that if Proship gets you a contract with Holland America and you want to take a second contract with Holland America afterwards, you still have to go through Proship. That protects the talent agency from being cut out of the loop and losing their placement fees. Working with a talent agency is really the only long-term kind of agreement that musicians ever get involved with on cruise ship gigs.
Moving on to your blog which answers questions for musicians interested in cruise ship work. Why did you decide to start the blog?
When I landed my first gig I didn't know a single thing about cruise ships. I'd never even seen one! The talent agency called me on a Tuesday and I was on an 8-hour flight to Germany on Thursday. It was that quick! The information that I'd been given by the agency about working on ships was pretty thin and in that short time between Tuesday and Thursday I hadn't had time to ask most of my questions.
I was excited to get on the ship, but I was also a little terrified. Where would I sleep? What would I eat? Could I leave the ship during the day? What happens if I get sick? What should I pack? I wasn't even sure where this ship was even going! The blog started off as a way to connect with family and friends back home, but soon I started to get emails and comments from other musicians who were asking the same questions I'd worried about. At that time it was really difficult to find any genuine information about what it was like to work on ships, and that's when my blog started to take form. It's now a hub of questions and answers about working on a ship, combined with a little travel writing here and there.
Many people are surprised to find out that I'm not a cruise fanatic. In fact, I don't pay much attention to the cruise industry. My interest lies in musicians and maintaining a music career for myself and with others. The blog is primarily focused on musicians and on giving them all the information they need to feel comfortable before they undertake one of these gigs.
Your blog is extremely informative, but the audience is a very niche group. How do you market your blog so that it reaches the right people?
Most visitors come to the blog through search engines. The most popular search terms are "cruise ship musician," but there are also a lot of searches for more specific things like "cruise ship crew cabin" or "cruise ship musician's hours." It's clear from the stats that people have a lot of questions about the nature of a cruise ship musician gig; hopefully, they find answers on my site.
I've also started using Google Adwords recently, but I keep the daily budget at $1 and I'm not yet convinced that it's an effective way to market the blog.
I've listed the blog with several blog directories - Yahoo and BlogCatalog.com along with a few others. This kind of linking is standard for all website marketing, but I'm not sure it's very effective for attracting quality traffic to the site. The blog's material is very practical and specialized and thus might not lend itself very well to casual surfing. There are some fun stories about crazy times on ships, but they are surrounded by a heavy dose of musician-speak.
What blogging platform do you use? What features have been helpful to you?
I've been thinking about this a lot lately. I started this blog years ago with a backend I found for free on a site that no longer even exists. As blogging became mainstream, several blogging platforms (Wordpress, Blogger, Typepad) emerged as the ubiquitous backend choices. In that respect, my site has really been passed by. I still use the ancient platform that I found years ago! The posts are dynamically created, but the side columns and design all still have to be hand coded! I frequently have to get in under the hood with my HTML and CSS and fix and move things. And cross-browser compatibility? Forget about it! Make sure you visit the site in Firefox!
Lately, I've thought a lot about migrating my blog over to Wordpress, but I've been reluctant to pull the trigger. I'm always concerned that a big change like that will liquidate the site's standing in search engine results and then I'll lose traffic. One of these days, though, I'll do it. I like Wordpress a lot and would love to have that kind of technology platform supporting the material.
Last but not least, any upcoming projects that you'd like to tell us about--either for you as a musician or for the blog?
Broadway or bust! I'm moving back to NYC and looking for a spot in a Broadway pit orchestra. Aside from ships and blogging, my music career has been primarily in theater for years now. I've been touring and working regional theaters from one side of the country to another. I've always enjoyed theater gigs and I'm moving to New York to get closer to the source. My goal is to get a second or third keyboard spot on a Broadway show. Bon voyage! Check out my professional site is www.davidjhahn.org.
Keep up with Dave on Chronicles of a Cruise Ship Musician and his personal site.
*Note that offsite blogs and links may contain language and images that some users find offensive.