Coachella at Sea: From the Desert to the Ocean, and Part of a Larger Trend

in The Biz

It may be worth noting that Coachella, the wildly successful music and arts festival, has been staged at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, CA since its inception in 1999. One of the next iterations of the event might also include water polo.

S.S. Coachella

In December, Coachella, the festival, also becomes S.S. Coachella, climbing aboard the Celebrity Silhouette, a 1,000-foot, 122,000-ton ship with room for 2,800 fans who will sway to the beats of Pulp, Hot Chip, Girl Talk, Yeasayer, Sleigh Bells, James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem and about 15 other acts on two cruises leaving from Fort Lauderdale, FL.

The cruise-music-show production connection has been building for years, growing beyond the off-Strip Las Vegas-type lounge acts that created audio backdrops for oceangoing bars to rock shows with high-level lighting, projection and staging featuring artists like Kid Rock, Weezer and John Mayer.

More recently the business has turned to themed cruises; these range from conglomerations of oldies acts to more current aggregations, like the Rock Boat, an alt-themed cruise with Sister Hazel, A Rocket to the Moon, Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, Junior Doctor, Ponderosa and Saints of Valor, or the all-Weezer-all-the-time Weezer Cruise.

Coachella is a logical extension of this trend, as are the EDM events that are also migrating to cruise ships. They’re also priced in line with the upper-end land-based festivals, with four-to-a-cabin for Coachella at sea costing $500 per person for the backpack set and Sky suites available for high-rollers starting at $9,000 per person.

Floating Metal

The S.S. Coachella, which is produced by the AEG Live subsidiary Goldenvoice, which also produces the terrestrial version, may not hit its land-based cousin’s numbers — an expanded two-weekend event this year sold a combined 158,000 tickets worth $47.3 million, according to Billboard — but the number and scale of shipboard shows continues to grow even as the themes themselves become more highly focused — for instance, 70,000 Tons of Metal gives death-metal fans Cannibal Corpse and 31 other doom merchants while sailing from Miami to the Grand Caymans. And other live-event producers have taken note of the success of at-sea music events. They include Broadway shows — Hairspray now has a berth on the Royal Caribbean line as well as Times Square, and Disney uses New York theater talent on some of its cruises, according to The New York Times.

This is music to the ears of staging, lighting and projection providers, a way to extend the gains that have come as the music industry has transformed its revenue model from recorded to live music sales. The cruise ship industry likes it, too: Sixthman, the Atlanta-based production company that pioneered this sector starting in 2001, reports that its average passenger is 35 years old, over a decade younger than 48, the average age of cruisers reported by the Cruise Lines International Association. And they’re paying an average of $262 per day to be on these cruises, higher than the $214 that the cruise line association reports the typical cruiser pays.

Sixthman, which partners with Norwegian and Carnival Cruise Lines to put together floating festivals like Lynyrd Skynyrd's Simple Man Cruise and John Mayer’s Mayercraft Carrier, knows this business like no one else. Rodney Stammel, the company’s talent buyer and production manager, suggests landlubbers beware — putting a rock show on a cruise ship requires specialized knowledge. For instance, all gear has to fit into 5-by-5-foot cages to conform to ship loading and elevator requirements. “Digital consoles have really helped us in this regard,” Stammel says, happy for the size and weight reductions. Transformers from shipboard 440 to 208 volts are necessities. Video walls are becoming more common, again thanks to lighter, thinner components like LEDs, but lighting, says Stammel, remains a challenge for outdoor shows in the bright sun of the open ocean. Music shows are increasingly moving outdoors, away from the built-in staging and lighting of ship’s theaters and are thus requiring more temporary staging elements to be built on ships’ pool decks. But most of the technology would be familiar to non-sailors; Stammel says the 30-plus crews he runs are made up largely of touring veterans.

Land and Sea

The latest wrinkle is themed cruises that have their performances both on the ship and on land, often on private Caribbean islands the ship operator contracts with. That’s changing the logistics of the business: for the Kid Rock cruise, for instance, Stammel had to have an entire stage, sound system, lights, video and backline flown in from Miami and waiting for the ship when it docked in the Bahamas.

Then there’s the one danger that land-based shows don’t have to worry about: seasickness. “We’ve had artists stop the show to run off stage, and that’s the end of the show, or they walk off and come back in a few minutes after they feel better,” he says. Indoor stages near the ship’s bow are the worst for this malady; pool deck shows have had the best experiences. Only one show has ever been completely cancelled due to mal de mer, he recalls.

Don’t expect Waterworld-meets-Woodstock to take over the live event sector. Attendance costs are relatively high — in addition to tickets, passengers also have to get themselves to the ports. But the margins have consistently been good for the producers and the artists, and everyone seems happy that there’s no noise curfew once you’re outside the three-mile limit.