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Music Cruises Hit the High Seas, But Who Can Afford Them? 

All aboard a tiny, star-packed boat

Thursday, Nov 8 2012
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When you think "transcendent, all-night dance party" you generally don't think "cruise ship." But on the increasing number of electronic–dance music cruises, the trendy and cash-flush EDM fan can now justifiably imagine Skrillex buying them a cocktail at a ship's bar, before watching Diplo perform an intimate set on the main deck, while sailing into a Caribbean sunset.

Concert cruises aren't new: Dave Matthews Band has had one since 2006, and Weezer's set sail this February. A jam-band cruise has roamed the seas since the mid-aughts, and KISS' "Kruise" embarked from Miami on Halloween.

Recently, however, electronic music has begun to dominate. HARD Events' Holy Ship launched in January from Fort Lauderdale to the Bahamas with A-Trak, Fatboy Slim, Steve Aoki and Skrillex in tow. Goldenvoice will move beyond Indio's grassy fields for two cruises in December, from Fort Lauderdale to the Bahamas and Jamaica. While Coachella is not known primarily for EDM, the S.S. Coachella bill includes Hot Chip, James Murphy, Z-Trip and the Gaslamp Killer.

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L.A. dance music purveyors The Do LaB, meanwhile, are offering a December excursion in Egypt called The Great Convergence, which includes a five-day cruise down the Nile and a show featuring Beats Antique, Eskmo, David Starfire and more at the pyramids in Giza.

But why are companies that can often sell tens of thousands of tickets for landlocked events hosting sea-bound parties that are much smaller? "There's only so much profit you can make from a cruise," admits HARD founder and Holy Ship head honcho Gary Richards. "A businessperson would probably prefer to have a Lollapalooza than a Lollapalooza on a boat, as the economics are a million times better. But it's important that we do [cruises] because it's pushing the level of having a good time."

A worthy cause indeed. A major draw is the intimacy provided by these water-bound vessels. Holy Ship takes place aboard the 2,800-person MSC Poesia, while the S.S. Coachella — a boat called the Celebrity Silhouette — has the same capacity. (Both ships typically host traditional cruises.) Holy Ship has five clubs, each featuring a different EDM style from sunset to early morning. Richards and his partners are exploring the possibility of expanding Holy Ship to the Mediterranean and other foreign waters.

"It's a multimillion-dollar venture," Richards says of these productions. "Renting the boat alone costs seven figures, and you can't cancel. ... Then there's talent costs, power, staging, lights, security, so many things. It's difficult to put on a mini-festival on a cruise ship. There's not a lot of space."

Coachella 2012, of course, made $47 million by hosting nearly 160,0000 people over two weekends. Despite the logistical challenges and the shrunken revenue potential of a cruise, the buzz created helps brands build credibility and visibility in an oversaturated, year-round festival market.

"So much is made of the transformative power of music in a festival setting," says Jason Bentley, music director at KCRW and a performer on both Holy Ship 2012 and the S.S. Coachella. "When you bring people together to experience music in a unique way, it has a special power, significance and resonance. We've seen such an explosion in festival culture nationwide, so cruises are a way to innovate."

The expansion of established brands into cruises also means that companies have a built-in demographic to which they promote. It also seems to draw folks from farther afield; Richards says that Holy Ship 2013 attendees are coming from all over the United States, Southeast Asia, Brazil and the U.K. It's fair to say not many of these people made the trek for HARD's Day of the Dead in downtown Los Angeles.

The money required to attend a cruise (and perhaps even the sheer logistics) tends to skew the demographic toward the late 20s and early 30s, which is a bit older than the concertgoer to these companies' festivals. While Coachella is all-ages and HARD is 18+, their equivalent cruises are 21 and older.

Which makes one wonder: Why — and how — are cash-strapped EDM fans ponying up?

"People get that it's not like being at a festival with 80,000 other fans," Richards says. "Instead it's, like, 'Hey there's Diplo,' and he's, like, 'Hey let's do shots!' " The opportunity to get up-close and nicely buzzed with a favorite artist is an alluring premise — and dedicated fans will to to great lengths to make it happen.

"It's definitely a huge investment," says Las Cruces, N.M.–based Michelle Mason, who is attending Holy Ship 2013 with her twin sister. "I graduated college last May, so part of my graduation gift was getting some money to help fund the trip."

These cruises offer an installment plan, and every attendee interviewed for this story was utilizing it. Expenses include airfare to the launch location (typically more expensive during the holidays) and the cabin price — four-people rooms start at $700 and top off around $1,300. While this price includes the music and the food, booze is extra. All told, those heading to the Fort Lauderdale cruises will shell out $1,400 minimum for the experience, making it more expensive than even a trip to the desert for Coachella, the price of which can be offset by camping and carpooling.

"We're not getting suites with a view," adds Mason, who is 24. "We make these things as affordable as possible. We have a lot of friends who invest in clothes and cars and other material things, but for us, none of that stuff is as important as having the memories."

Whether attendees are saving money all year for the trip, borrowing cash from their parents, or just pulling out the credit card, "people find a way to cobble the money together," Bentley says, "because it's just that important for them to be there."

Music fans coming from smaller markets also recognize the value in seeing a lineup of artists who wouldn't normally play their town. "Justice and Bloody Beetroots rarely come to Dallas," says Dallas-based Holy Ship attendee Hoang Bo. "I'm really looking forward to those shows."'

Cruise organizers also create appeal by promising onboard activities like DJ lessons with A-Trak and wine tastings with James Murphy. Sometimes, there's spontaneous inspiration. "Last year some dude on the boat, an attendee, went into the cafeteria, started playing a set and got a full-on party going," Richards recalls. "People were dancing on counters, throwing food; the chefs got into it. To me, those moments are more important than making an extra $100,000."

Ticket sales for the S.S. Coachella are sluggish, says an insider who didn't want to be quoted due to his connections to the fest. (A Goldenvoice representative declined to be interviewed for this story.) But others aren't having that problem. The EDM-centric Groove Cruise, which has brought fans to the Bahamas since 2005, is at capacity for 2013, as is the next Holy Ship.

"I've got big-name DJs who aren't on the lineup who are coming," Richards adds. "I can't pay them; they just want to be a part of it."

Reach the writer at bain.katie@gmail.com

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