Photo: Chris Bradshaw

In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.

The “music fans on a cruise” thing has been happening for a long time, with the Where The Action Is Oldies Cruise (featuring Paul Revere of Paul Revere And The Raiders in 2015!) just marking 20 years at sea. But to casual observers, it’s only really exploded in the past five years, with everyone from Kid Rock to Coachella jumping on the floating venue trend. But while it’s easy enough to figure out how to throw a concert—get some speakers, get a room, and so on—how do you throw a cruise? And how do promoters get 2,000-odd people to shell out mega-bucks for the privilege of being stuck on a cruise ship with their favorite acts for three to seven days? Alan Koenig, head of Ask4 Entertainment, knows. His company produces a number of concerts at sea, including Motörhead’s Motörboat and ShipRocked, a hard rock-centric cruise that has hosted acts like Papa Roach, Korn, and Sevendust. The A.V. Club talked to him about passports, seasick artists, and what cruise lines are good for what types of music.

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The A.V. Club: How did you get involved with putting together cruises?

Alan Koenig: Well, there’s a short version and a long version. The short version is that I was an artist’s manager for almost 14 years and worked with an artist, and we did two cruises with that artist, and I had so much fun doing it that I just decided that that’s what I wanted to do instead of managing artists. I realized you could make a little bit of money and so I said, okay, cool. I’ll do that.

The longer version is that I got into the music industry—probably like a lot of different people—because of how much I love music. And when you’re in the music industry, whether you’re a manager or a label or whatever facet you’re in, sometimes you can get a little jaded. When you work in the industry, some of the mystique goes away. You don’t stop being a fan of music, but you become a fan in a different way. You just can’t really help but be because you’re involved in the industry side of it.

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At the time, my wife and I were big Peter Gabriel fans and, in 2003, won a trip to London to go see a private concert at Real World Studios. So we flew over and it was us and 100 people from around the world, all very carefully selected to be evenly distributed among countries and territories. It was a cool thing. He came out and did about an hour-and-a-half meet and greet, took pictures, talked. He was very personable. And then we go in the studio, and we had the concert, and half of it was requests. It was just an amazing event for Peter Gabriel fans.

Anyway, we’re in the meet and greet, and my wife is crying because she loves this guy so much. And I see all these other people, and they’re so excited to be there. I was totally excited, too, because I was a fan—but it just didn’t feel the same anymore. I didn’t have that energy, that excitement, that mystique, that sort of surge as a fan that you get. But I saw it in everybody else.

Then we went back to the hotel after the concert, and we stayed up all night talking to Peter Gabriel fans, and we’re all different people from all different walks of life who speak different languages. But we all had this amazing common interest and common love of music. And I enjoyed that so much—just being around other people that love music as much as me, that love Peter Gabriel. They were completely different people—ages and where they’re from and what they do for a living. And it was just a cool experience to be around a little tiny community of music lovers.

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Flash forward to when I did the first cruise with that artist I worked with, and I experienced that all over again. I saw this amazing community of people coming together who love him, who love his band, who love music. And the experiences they shared and the conversations that they had and all that kind of stuff was so reminiscent of my experience at that Peter Gabriel event that that really was the thing that pushed me over the top, more than just the fact that it’s fun and I get to go on a cruise. Because I experienced that same sort of thing—I knew that that’s what I wanted to do because it allowed me to feel like a fan again. I get to put together a lineup of artists that I love and that I know other people are going to enjoy, and we get to put together a cruise that has all kinds of concerts and fun events and activities.

AVC: Let’s say Radiohead comes to you and is like, “We want to do a cruise.” How do you start the process? Do you get a whole boat, a half a boat? What’s the story?

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AK: There are a couple different types of cruises. There’s the festival cruise, when there’s no real host artist. And then there’s more of a hosted type of cruise. The Motörhead cruise is a hosted cruise because it’s branded around the band Motörhead, but it’s also a festival in that it has a whole bunch of really other great bands, like Megadeth and Anthrax. I have another cruise called ShipRocked, which is a true festival cruise. That has a different headliner every year. Twenty bands—all different kinds of rock music.

You mentioned Radiohead. That’s kind of how the Motörhead cruise came together. I have a great relationship with their agent and they wanted to do a cruise. And their agent approached me because they knew I’d done ShipRocked and had success with it. Motörhead was a different case because they’re an amazing band, but they also have an amazing brand within the rock community. It was definitely a very interesting—and sort of exotic—prospect because they are such a multilayered group of artists. Lemmy just in and of himself is a brand. But then, throw in the Motörhead brand and the fact that they’re this amazing, legendary, hard rock metal punk band.

Now, how do you go from there? Well, it depends. There are a lot of different artists that have cruises. Kid Rock has a cruise. Skynyrd has a cruise. It depends on the artist and how loyal a community and how big a community you think that artist has, in terms of their fans. Obviously, Motörhead crosses so many boundaries that we felt like it was a perfect opportunity for a cruise.

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Now, Megadeth is billed over Motörhead on the Motörhead cruise. Well, technically it’s equal billing if you want to get into sort of festival speak. It’s Megadeth, Motörhead at the top of the ticket. Motörhead was interested in doing a cruise because they thought it would be fun, but they also liked the idea of a branded event for their fans that involved them but that they could carry on for years to come. Motörhead doesn’t necessarily want to play on the Motörhead cruise every year. They want a branded cruise that they can be a part of, but they realized they’re getting older, and I think they were like, “Okay, let’s find some way to have fun with the brand after we can’t play.” Motörhead was eager to have us put together a lineup of a lot of different artists, even if it meant another headliner type of artist.

AVC: You want to make the strongest lineup possible, no matter what.

AK: Yeah, and that’s how Megadeth came into play, because Motörhead was interested in doing this as a branded event. So we’re doing the full ship.

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Now as far as the logistics of the whole ship—if you want to get into the nuts and bolts of how you do that, there are a couple of different types of cruises if you want to get into the theme cruise industry. Obviously, there are charters, when you take over the whole ship, or there are large groups. A lot of themed cruises—whether it be knitting or a Twilight cruise or something based around some theme—are mostly just groups. A boat has 700 cabins, and chartering a ship is a whole different thing because you go to the cruise line and you essentially rent the ship. There are a lot of things that go into renting a ship in terms of how that’s financed and what the requirements are and all that sort of thing. It’s a big contract.

We decided that since we were going to be able to do the Motörhead thing with all the amazing brand ability, not to mention that we were going to be able to put together a killer lineup like we have—we felt it was worthy of a full charter presentation. We felt like we had a strong enough brand, a strong enough band, and a strong enough lineup that it would sell and it would be worthy of the full ship.

AVC: The Motörhead cruise is going from Miami to Key West to Cozumel. Do you think, “Motörhead should go to Key West, not the Bahamas”? Or is it just “what four-day cruise can we get?”

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AK: It depends on how you negotiate with the cruise line. For instance, my ShipRocked cruise—which is on a different cruise line—we go to that cruise line and essentially say, “Here’s where we want to go.” In the case of Motörhead , we just selected an itinerary that was already planned out and left it.

The reality is you can really only go to the Bahamas or Mexico or Key West on a four-day cruise. You’re limited in terms of where you can go based on distance, fuel costs. Distance is really the biggest thing. You can only go so fast on a boat. You can only go so far over the course of a day or two days. But we liked the idea of Mexico because Motörhead has a great song called “Going To Mexico.” So we were like, “Cool, we’ll use that.” And we have. We’ve had fun with that online.

The Key West/Cozumel itinerary is a pretty common, four-day itinerary. We didn’t feel like we wanted to put together some really weird, custom thing. So we took an itinerary that the ship normally does—just decided to charter that ship, leave the itinerary the way it is and go from there. But when you charter a ship, if you want to, you can change the itinerary.

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AVC: What’s the incentive for the bands besides getting paid to go on this cruise? Do they like meeting their fans, and for the fans, is the incentive that you’re not only creating a concert, but creating a place where, say, it’s cool to have long hair, tattoos, and wear black T-shirts on a boat?

AK: That’s a very multilayered question. A cruise is an interesting thing. I’d never been on a cruise before I did my first cruise. I went on a preview to kind of check things out, and it was interesting, but I wasn’t really sure how it would work. And I think at the end of the day, the ship really just provides the space for a community to gather. Again, going back to the Peter Gabriel thing, the fun of that event wasn’t even really the trip to London or seeing the studio. It was the chance to get together and hang out with all these people that had all the same common interests, and that was the fun part of it for me as a fan. It was fun to see Peter Gabriel and meet him and all that, but the cool thing to me was to meet this amazing community of people, and I think that’s ultimately what occurs in what the incentive is. At least it is with ShipRocked now, and I think the Motörboaters will find this out too. The event is one thing, the cruise ship is one thing—but what happens on board when this community comes together is really what makes the whole thing special.

Now, what is the incentive for the artists? Obviously, they’re getting paid. So there’s that. But I know for ShipRocked—and for Motörboat too—we usually try to find the artists that are more fan-friendly, that really appreciate their audience and want to give them the opportunity to see them perform in an incredibly unique environment, and to interact with them in an incredibly unique way. Oftentimes, some bands are concerned about being trapped on a boat with a bunch of music fans, but interestingly, the atmosphere is so different than your typical sort of festival atmosphere that there’s not a lot of pressure in the mix. There’s not a lot of pressure for the artist to have to interact with fans, and there’s not a lot of pressure for the fans to have to get in those moments with the artists that they love because they’re all in this same space for four days. It’s very cliché, but they’re all “on the boat.” And everybody’s on vacation. That’s the other thing. It is a music festival, but it’s also a vacation, so everybody is a little bit more relaxed anyway.

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Cruises also tend to be a little bit of an older demographic because the cost is a little higher. The demo is a little older because the cruise is a little bit more expensive, so you’re dealing with an audience that has a little bit more disposable income. And as a result of that, you’re also probably dealing with an audience that also is maybe a little bit more mature than your sort of typical festival, “Hey, I’m going to do a stage dive and have to go to the hospital in an ambulance or something.”

And so, again, I think the atmosphere is not so pressure-filled that the artists have to worry all that much about being on a ship with their fans. In fact, what we found with ShipRocked—and I’m sure we’ll find when we have the Motörboat—is that it turns out to be nothing like they thought it would be, and the artists become fans. Typically on ShipRocked, especially this past year, you could go to any show and there were other artists from other bands watching that band. And a lot of times, these artists, when they’re on the road—they’re doing festivals, they’re doing tours. They don’t have as much of an opportunity to hang out with other friends that are in other bands or even just relax and have dinner with them or see a show and hang out. We had Living Colour on ShipRocked last year, and I think it was nothing but members from other bands watching their show. There were plenty of fans, but you could see every band member from every band right in front of the stage. And I think the same thing will probably occur on Motörboat. Look at the artists we have: Megadeth and Motörhead and Anthrax and Testament and Zakk Wylde and Down and Kill Devil Hill. Those are amazing legendary musicians and artist and bands. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of those bands hanging out with each other, enjoying each other’s company, and going to see each other perform. Like I said, what tends to sometimes be an initial worry or concern or give the bands pause about being on a boat with their fans for four days goes away real quick.

As far as the fans go, I don’t know if we’re providing them a place where they can let it all hang out as much as we are giving them the opportunity to get together to watch a bunch of bands perform that they love. It’s an incredibly unique environment, and it’s an incredibly unique way to see and interact with these bands. And we’re giving them the opportunity to come together as a community of fans and be with each other. They’re going on vacation with a bunch of people who like the same kind of music they do and are generally around the same age bracket. They may come from different parts of the world and have different backgrounds and different jobs and that sort of thing, but they all have this common love of hard rock and metal.

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If you think about it, it’s one thing to go on vacation with your family; you kind of keep to yourselves. But on the cruise, it can become a vacation where all of a sudden you’re meeting all these other people, and real, amazing friendships form. The ShipRocked community has become this incredibly beautiful organism. These people get together all year long now. They gather together in large groups and go to concerts, and they vacation together during the year. When they’re in town, they sleep in each other’s houses. The hard rock and metal community in general, I think, is an amazing community of music fans. They really love the music and are loyal to it, and I think when they have the opportunity to interact and be with other fans who are equally as loyal and love it equally—that it becomes this amazing bonding experience. On ShipRocked, we’ve seen fantastic friendships occur between guests who were either cabin mates or met sitting up on deck one day.

Who’s going on cruises that aren’t music cruises? You’ve got honeymooners, families, older folks. And what are they doing? They’re going on these things alone, unless they happen to be with a big group, but they go and they have their little dinner. And so they get an opportunity to interact and meet with other people, but a lot of times, you’re meeting and interacting with other people who maybe you have nothing in common with. Why would you want to go hang out at a bar with that old lady that night, or why would you want to hang out with the newlywed couple? You want to go to the casino. The cruise gives all of these people the opportunity to meet each other and interact with each other and have this amazing camaraderie on vacation and at a music festival. So instead of standing out on a hot, dusty, muddy field in the middle of 10,000 people that you can’t wait to get away from, you get on the cruise and you have the opportunity to bond and have this shared experience with 2,000 other people in this incredible environment.

AVC: Have you always done ShipRocked as a charter? Has it always been a whole boat?

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AK: No. We started ShipRocked as a half ship.

AVC: What are the challenges to that? How do you merge regular cruise passengers and metalheads?

AK: It’s incredibly challenging. There are pros and cons to both half ships and charters, and I think there are probably more pros in charters than there are half ships. They each have their own sets of challenges. The half ship is challenging because you’re dealing with another half of the ship that has nothing to do with what you’re there for.

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The scheduling and logistics are really the biggest challenges. You want to try to give your half of the ship’s passengers a real sense of exclusivity so that they know that what they’re getting is for them and for them only. And at the same time, you’re also having to make sure that you’re not scheduling events or shows or doing activities that might interfere with the other half of the ship’s enjoyment of their vacation. Logistics and scheduling really were the two big, huge challenges.

The pro on a half ship is that the financing is substantially easier. The financing is structured differently and is a little bit easier to deal with. It’s no less risky, but it’s easier.

But you get to a charter, and all of a sudden you have control of the ship and the scheduling and everything. It really frees you up to create an experience that you just can’t have as a half ship. Although, having said that, we had a lot of guests that were with us on the half ships that went into the full ship, and some of them felt like it lost its charm because it got a little bigger. It wasn’t as intimate. They’ve all come around now. The best way is to do a charter because you have the freedom to do what you want in any of the spaces on the ship, and you don’t have to worry about offending other people. And you just make sure that your people are respectful with each other. Then you can put on an amazing event with concerts and events and activities that everybody can enjoy together.

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AVC: You’re working with Carnival on the Motörboat. What’s that like compared to another cruise line? How do you decide what company to work with?

AK: Carnival is a unique cruise line in that they’ve done a lot of music cruises. There were several a year that they were doing. Music cruises have become a lot more frequent over the last seven, eight years. My first two cruises were ’07 and ’08, and ShipRocked started in ’08-’09. There was a company in Atlanta that had a bunch of music cruises. I want to say their second cruise ever was ’08.

There are lot of different kinds of cruises. There’s jazz cruises, there’s blues cruises, there’s rock cruises, and there are country cruises now. The rock community seems to have really embraced the cruise idea. There’s quite a few. KISS. Kid Rock. Skynyrd. 311. I have ShipRocked. There’s some other festival cruise.

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The rock community seems to have really embraced the cruise idea, and I think part of it is just because it is such an amazing community of music fans. As loyal as they are to the music, to each other, to the bands, they’ve really sort of embraced this sort of unique festival concept of a music festival on a cruise ship. And again, being that they’re rock music fans, they’re a little older. The kids don’t listen to rock.

But does Carnival have any issues? No. Certainly we talk about a lot of different stuff in terms of the planning. On ShipRocked and on Motörboat, I personally have a “no moshing, no stage diving, no crowd surfing” rule. It’s sort of built in to the terms and conditions for the cruise. It’s part of our zero tolerance policy, and that’s strictly a safety issue more than anything else. We can’t have lines of ambulances standing by to take you to the hospital if you crowdsurf and fall on the ground and bust your head or your neck or you break your leg or whatever. You get helicoptered off to the nearest port. And it’s not the most conducive environment for a typical sort of festival pit, though we’ve had pits. But it is a party crowd. Everybody likes to drink and have fun.

I think if anything, there aren’t concerns as much as there is just planning. When we meet with the cruise line and we start talking about the fine details of the event and going from day to day, there’s a lot to talk about—especially when it comes to where we’re going to have concerts, where we’re going to have events. There’s a thing on cruise ships called flow, and it’s just a matter of—what’s the flow of the ship. And everything to do with where people are and how they’re moving around from space to space. We very carefully work on that when we put the schedules together. We want to make sure that if we have this band playing here, that we have an alternative there. We keep people spread out. You can’t put everybody in the same space all at one time, other than the Sail Away party. You’ve got to spread people out a bit. But we work with the cruise line to try to find the best way to maintain the fun without any real challenges, I guess.

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Carnival has its own music series called Carnival Live, which is a little different than what we’re doing. But Carnival is very plugged in to the music cruise world, and they do a great job and are very educated in terms of doing these things. We didn’t have any hesitation about working with Carnival.

AVC: How much gear do you have to bring in? Do they have PAs? Do you have to bring in rental lights?

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AK: Because Carnival has done music cruises, there is a certain facility already in place, but we typically—for these things—bring on our own production. You bring on all your own bands’ backline and equipment. In the case of ShipRocked, it’s a little different because the ship that we charter is with Norwegian, and they’re chartering back-to-back music cruises for a couple months at a time. So there’s some existing apparatuses there more so than with Carnival. But no—generally, we’ll bring all the production on board. We’re taking over a ship that does typical cruises, and we’re converting it into a music festival stage on the deck or in the theater.

The production logistics of that are an interesting thing, just because you’re dealing with Port Authority and dock workers. There are all kinds of elements that are different than a typical festival load-in. Not every band can roll their truck up to the ship. Sometimes you have to work with the bands and work with the cruise line to try to consolidate because you’re also dealing with limited storage space.

AVC: Yeah, where do you put all those drums?

AK: It’s just not as simple a proposition, but yeah, we do what we can to streamline it. And obviously we take care of the bands. As a former manager, I am as concerned about the bands’ enjoyment and comfort level and peace of mind as far as doing a cruise—which they may have never done before—as I am about the guests having as good a time they could possibly have. I usually try to make an extra effort to ensure that all of the music industry apparatuses are in place that they would normally be accustomed to.

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We bring on a lot of extra stuff. All the stages and a basic audio package are already there, but I come in and augment it a lot on Norwegian’s ship because I have video walls and a stage group, and obviously for big hard rock concerts you’ve got to have a lot more sound. We augment stuff there. In the case of Carnival, we will build the deck stage around the existing deck stage. In the case of Motörboat, we’re actually going to build a little bit of an extension off the front of their existing deck stage area just to give our artists a little bit more space.

AVC: But are you going to put Megadeth or Motörhead in the theater or are you going to put them on the deck?

AK: They’ll be in the theater. All the artists on Motörboat are doing two shows, and so we’ll have Megadeth and Motörhead both in the theater, each doing alternating nights.

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AVC: I went on the Coachella cruise, and I will say that it was a little weird to be sitting down in this big theater just watching James Murphy DJ.

AK: And I’ve worked with a cruise line that didn’t allow you to drink in the theater. So that was weird. It was a beautiful theater, and they just didn’t want it ruined with smoking or drinking, and so they didn’t allow any of that. Carnival—they serve drinks in the theater, so it’s a little bit more of a relaxed environment, I suppose. But that ship you guys were on was really nice. So I’m not surprised that people thought they should sit. But nobody will sit in ours. That’s for sure. In fact, on Norwegian, we pull out several rows of seats and put up some bars so that people can hold on to something. A lot of times you’re on the ship and it’s moving when the performance is happening.

AVC: When you were talking about putting ShipRocked and having half a boat, you’ve got to work with the “regular” people on the boat.

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AK: We call them the “others.”

AVC: The others come on the cruise thinking they’re going to go see a magician one night and then figure skaters the next. How do you balance out the entertainment?

AK: We would work with the cruise line and look at what their cruise schedule was for the other guests and just work around it. We would schedule shows so that their people are either in the dining rooms having dinner or watching a show. That was a challenge because we would have to strike a stage for the cruise to do its full show. And then we’d have to come in and put our stage up. But if we did shows on deck, we would always do them when the other half of the ship was in other places. I won’t say that there weren’t other people from the other half that discovered that there was this music cruise happening on their cruise and didn’t try to get in to see the shows. That occurred.

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AVC: Did you have wristbands, though?

AK: Yeah, we did custom laminates, kind of like backstage pass things for our guests. Other cruises do wristbands. There are even some charters that do wristbands. But I usually just do a custom backstage pass thing. And now we don’t have to do that because we have the whole ship, but I still provide them because they’re a fun little memento for the guests.