S.S. Coachella looks shipshape as seagoing sound experiences grow

Last week, concert promoter Goldenvoice unveiled the first-ever expansion of its flagship Coachella festival outside of its traditional Indio, Calif. April event. Surprisingly, the expansion isn’t a tour or a satellite festival but rather a Caribbean cruise series, dubbed the S.S. Coachella. Even more surprising is that no one laughed at the announcement.

The traditional cruise ship excursion, stereotypically soundtracked by endless vamps on “The Girl From Ipanema” from bored jazz band castaways, has seen remarkably steady growth as a rock, dance and R&B attraction. And the target market seems to be getting younger and younger, with old-time jazz revues giving way to packages featuring veteran midlevel rock groups like Journey and REO Speedwagon and, more recently, opening up to the likes of Weezer, Blake Shelton and R. Kelly.

With youth-leaning festival bookers diving into the waters, the trend veers even younger. Prior to Coachella, electronic dance music promoter Hard Events (recently acquired by Live Nation) staged a floating rave with its Holy Ship! package, while the metal-oriented Mayhem Festival is plotting an ocean jaunt next December. The hipster-centric garage-rock Bruise Cruise even mounted a second sold-out installment this year with such headliners as Fucked Up and Thee Oh Sees, proving that even acts that have scarcely grazed the national album charts can still entice hundreds of fans to pay significant sums to see them at sea.

Atlanta-based theme-cruise company Sixthman essentially laid the foundations for the model starting with its “Rock Boat” voyage with Sister Hazel a decade ago, and since then the company has staged more than 45 full-ship charters with acts ranging from Kiss to Kid Rock and the Zac Brown Band. (The company held early talks with Goldenvoice about collaborating on the S.S. Coachella, but Goldenvoice decided to go it alone.)

“It’s a great, interesting barometer for the current concert market,” said Sixthman’s Benjamin Ferguson, who joined the company after a decade in artist management, “especially since the cruise industry as a whole is not that healthy right now.”

The rock cruise trend is certainly not without its critics, and Ferguson acknowledges it can be a tough sell to performers. Managers often balk at committing an act to several days in transit, for example, and gigs are typically booked a year in advance. Contracts can differ from act to act, with some bands receiving a flat fee and others essentially hosting the tours and collecting a share of the profits. But a full cruise-long presence onboard the ship is non-negotiable — fans can sniff out a helicopter drop-by from a mile away.

“Any artist who has any sort of notoriety has obviously had an experience of being overwhelmed by fans,” Ferguson said, “So telling them that they’re going to be on a boat for four days with hundreds of fans, the first response is usually, ‘Oh my god.’?”

The solution is what Ferguson calls a “meet in the middle” approach, wherein passengers are given early photo ops and initial exposure to the acts, essentially turning the whole cruise into something like a managed backstage experience. In a sense, concert cruises are philosophically similar to the increasingly common expanded-edition albums and boxed sets in the record business — both are predicated on the theory that even if the casual fan won’t pony up for the baseline product, the devotee will happily pay a premium for a deluxe version.

“In every case we’ve done, the artists really respect that this audience has spent a lot of money and time to be there,” Ferguson said.

Of course, taking the historically freewheeling rock concert experience and transferring it to a roiling vessel deep into international waters may seem like a recipe for disaster — and Ferguson admits that there is a certain level of give and take, with some lines more compatible than others — but incidents have been remarkably scarce. There hasn’t been a single arrest on any of Sixthman’s voyages.

In fact, it’s unlikely that one would hear many complaints from the cruise industry itself, which hopes these rock boats will inculcate a cruise habit in those not yet of shuffleboard age.

The concert cruise is still a nascent business in the larger scheme of things, and Sixthman is still a small enterprise — CEO Andy Levine still personally high-fives every passenger prior to boarding — but the company recently nailed down a strategic partnership with Norwegian Cruise Line, on which it aims to stage a yearly high of 11 to 13 cruises in 2013. And on the horizon, the company looks to eventually acquire its own vessel.

“When you charter a boat, you’re not just walking into a club and booking it for the night,” said Ferguson. “There’s so much more you can do when you own the venue.”

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