"Music Cruises" Navigate the Music Business Waters
When your business is based on CDs, what do you do when the market stagnates?
by Craig Anderton
(Editor’s Note: Time Life reached out to us about advertising a new music-oriented cruise they’re doing called “Rock and Romance” on March 11-16, and they were willing to offer a special price to the HC community. That in itself was interesting, given that I’d never even heard of the Time Life cruises, yet they’d heard of us. But after looking into it further, I realized there was more to this story than meets the eye. They had created a wildly successful music-oriented franchise in a down industry, because they understood the tie-in with musicians, fans, and most importantly, the positive response that underscores the importance of music in peoples’ lives. I think there are some lessons for all of us here…so while this may look like an advertorial, this was not something Time Life asked us to write, and I had to track down someone who could spend the time to give me some background.)
You may be familiar with Time Life not just from the magazine branding, but because of the sets of CDs and DVDs offered on TV infomercials that are a “time capsule” of a particular era—like the multi-CD sets “the British Invasion,” “Golden Age of Country,” and “Motown Collection.” But as overall CD sales started their decline, the company was looking for some way to extend its business yet remain involved with their core strength of music.
Their “Malt Shop Memories” set had been very successful, and Alan Rubens at Time Life wondered if it was possible to create an immersive experience based around the same premise: re-living a particular moment in pop culture history. But, it had to go beyond just listening. That’s when the idea hit him to rent an entire cruise ship, and then create a themed experience based around music…sort of like a “Disneyland for adults” where every aspect of the cruise related to the theme. By renting the entire boat, by default everyone on the cruise had a shared interest in music.
The idea seemed simple enough; book a bunch of musicians from that era, and provide a good time. But people don’t just enjoy music, they have an emotional connection—so the concept grew to add panel discussions with the artists talking about what those days were like, contests, a pseudo-prom night, and of course, plenty of concerts…but there were also impromptu moments, like doo-wop groups walking around singing a capella at any given moment.
That initial foray was very successful, but of particular interest to me was that the musicians loved it. Of course, it was a paying gig so musicians have another outlet to work and make a living. But unlike doing a concert where you get on the bus and go to the next stop, this was a chance to connect with the fans who contributed to their becoming stars. Somewhat to Rubens’ surprise, the stars ended up hanging out with the guests, having dinner with them, and getting into vacation mode because there was genuine appreciation on both sides. Neil Sedaka was afraid to do the cruise, but after a day he was having breakfast with people and wanting to come back the next year. Well, what musician wouldn’t want to be surrounded exclusively by people who love music?
Once it was established that vacationers would book cabins and that artists would say “yeah, sign me up,” additional cruises came next that were equally successful. So, Time Life managed to build an entirely new franchise as insurance against the future uncertainty of the CD/DVD business—and therein lies a lesson for all of us who are trying to have a career based on music.
First of all, it takes work, and you have to do it yourself. Yes, you can still get distribution through a record company, but no one cares about your music as much as you do so it’s up to you to promote it. Similarly, the cruise line takes care of the food, cabins, boat, paperwork, etc., but you can’t have concerts without a really good backline. When you’re at sea, it’s not like you can run to a Radio Shack five minutes before a concert and get an adapter. And if you think living by the ocean is hard on gear, try living on it—and note that you have to use a company that specializes in cruise ship sound. Also, because people are coming not just because it’s a cruise but a music-oriented one, something musical has to be available all the time. You can’t just have a band put on a concert; it has to be an immersive experience, down to the décor, even at the ports. It’s not easy to keep 2,000 paying customers happy.
And then there are the unexpected issues, like when they really wanted to book Frankie Valli, but he felt his show would be better-represented in a larger venue on dry land. Rather than drop the idea, they rented a warehouse at one of the ports of call, installed a sound system, and had him perform there.
Second, you can’t be cynical about “there’s no money to be made in the music business any more, people just listen to MP3s on their iPhones and use it as a soundtrack to their lives.” Music has always had, and still has, power. Granted, tying it in with memories gives it a head start, but people go on these cruises not just to re-live their experiences, but some go to find out what they missed by not being around when that music was being made. People love music enough to want to immerse themselves in it for a week, just like other people want to immerse themselves in something like skiing or a foreign country.
Third, if you want to create new revenue streams for musicians, there’s no one-size-fits-all option. Each cruise had to be done from the ground up. For example with the Malt Shop Memories cruise, there was a panel with Peter Noone, Mickey Dolenz, and Peter Asher talking about what it was like when the “British Invasion” hit. Another panel had Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Chubby Checker, and Philadelphia DJ Jerry Blavat discussing the impact of Dick Clark and American Bandstand. Obviously, these aren’t the same people you’d have for a Soul Train, Country, or Flower Power cruise. This all gets down to “know your audience and give them what they want,” whether it’s your web site, your presence on Facebook, or…a cruise.
Fourth, people are willing to pay for something unique and musical—you just have to come up with something they want. After the first cruise, 70% signed up for a cruise the next year, and 50% for another cruise the year after that. Of course you can’t download a cruise from BitTorrent for free, but there are still people who understand that if you love music, you need to support it on some level. When I put my album on YouTube for free, I received messages from people saying they wanted to buy a CD because they wanted to support what I was doing. There may be more of those kinds of people than we realize.
Looking to the future, it’s clear Time Life has a formula down and has created a franchise. But what other options are out there waiting to be discovered? Can you rent a movie theater for a day and have bands play, followed by a showing of Spinal Tap with a visit from the stars? Could there be a Comic-Con-type event built around music where fans get inspired by musicians, and musicians get recharged by their fans?
It’s time to put some vision into the music business. I realize Time Life is running a business, but they’re having fun doing it and have come up with something that the fans love. I’m very intrigued, and come to think of it, haven’t had a vacation in a long, long time…
Photos courtesy of our StarVista LIVE photographers
Special pricing info for Harmony Central
Rock & Romance Cruise landing page
Info on the Celebrity Summit cruise ship
Peter Frampton introduces a video about bands on the cruise
America talks about why they like the cruise concept
Craig Anderton is Editorial Director of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.