Paul and Georgia Cantrell couldn't imagine a better place to hear Kenny Chesney sing his island-flavored country hits than a secluded beach in the Caribbean.
So last winter the San Francisco-area couple took a four-night cruise to the Bahamas that included a private, beach-side performance by Chesney, Dierks Bentley and "Big Kenny" Alphin of Big & Rich.
Aboard the ship, artists such as Little Big Town and Chris Cagle sat for Q&A sessions and chatted with passengers.
"To interact with them at the pool or run into them at a midnight buffet after they had performed was just a great experience," said Cantrell, a 40-year-old marketing researcher.
So great that the Cantrells did it again on a cruise that sailed Jan. 28 with superstar Tim McGraw.
They are among many die-hard — and well-heeled — music fans combining sun and sea with an intimate concert experience.
Ray Waddell, who covers the concert industry for Billboard magazine, says the cruises are another way for promoters to tap the discretionary income of hardcore fans at an unsteady time for the concert business. Attendance at concerts was up 14 percent last year, but that followed years of decline, including a 3.8 percent decrease in 2005.
"Fan club entry, special merchandise and ticket deals, all these things they do to capture the really hardcore, super-dedicated fan has increased a lot and these cruises are an extension of that," Waddell said.
For the Chesney cruise, tickets ranged from $900 and to $2,400 depending on accommodations, and did not include costs to and from the Florida port.
For the Country Cruise Getaway with McGraw, Live Nation, one of the country's largest promoters, chartered the 2,974-passenger Carnival Liberty. The three-night cruise departed Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and also featured Little Big Town, Cagle, Jamie O' Neil, the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, Jypsi and the Nashville Hitmakers. Tickets started about $1,100 per person and top out at $2,100.
"It's the ultimate VIP ticket," said Waddell. "Anyone with a dedicated, loyal fan base is fair game for this."
Themed cruises like this one have long been popular, and not just for music fans. You can also take cruises with a baseball theme, or a poker tournament, or celebrity guests from authors to actors. For music cruises, the trips tend to focus on a genre, such as big band, classical, jazz, jam bands or rockers. The Dave Matthews Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Sammy Hagar and the Barenaked Ladies all have set sail recently.
One of the better-known music events in the cruise industry is the annual "Rock Boat," a chartered trip that takes place aboard a Carnival ship hosted by Sister Hazel, featuring acts like Cowboy Mouth and the Pat McGee Band. The promoter pays a set sum to Carnival to charter the ship for the event; the promoter also hires the entertainment and sells the tickets.
"The charters that feature alternative groups, up-and-coming artists and past hitmakers, tend to do extremely well because they have very dedicated fans who will book the charter to be able to spend time interacting with the musicians," said Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz. But bigger name stars and "A-list performers" don't usually sail the cruise; instead, they tend to fly into a port of call and do a show or two.
McGraw, who has sold 34 million albums with hits like "Live Like You Were Dying," is one of the bigger stars to perform on a cruise. Last year, he and wife Faith Hill headlined the top country tour of 2006, grossing $88.8 million — all of it on land. The cruise, he said, was "a low-pressure gig," with two performances and a Q&A. "I'm used to doing a big production. To do some small intimate shows is appealing."
McGraw declined to divulge how much he will make from the cruise, but said it's comparable to what he'd make for an arena concert.
While these floating festivals are becoming more common, they're still far from the norm.
"It's still on a small scale because chartering a ship takes a lot of moxie and money," explained Jay Shapiro, owner of Five Star Travel in Fort Lauderdale and a member of the Cruise Lines International Association. "You have to have a big name to get top dollar for tickets and draw people."
Cantrell, an Indiana native who got hooked on country music in college, attends about 10 concerts a year with his wife, and they often take their three children.
The concert cruise, though, is something special.
"How often can you literally have your toes in the sand listening to Kenny Chesney perform?" he said.