MIAMI - The Carnival Destiny cruise ship hasn't even left port, and half the ship's guests are already wasted.
Passengers pack the lobby bar, balancing luggage with buckets of ice-soaked beer bottles, and flashing room keys that double as charge cards to keep the drinks flowing.
When it's time for a mandatory safety drill, the life-saving instructions playing over the vessel's intercom can barely be heard over sounds of drunken guests stumbling over one another, spewing obscenities, cheering, slapping high-fives and chanting "Ain't no party like a ... Kid Rock party."
And it's still two hours before Kid Rock - the rapper turned country-rock star - officially launches his "Chillin' the Most" cruise with a kickoff concert.
For the next four nights, 2,650 of Kid Rock's biggest fans wander the 12 decks of the nearly 900-foot-long ship in various stages of undress, toting giant inflatable penises, downing the musician's own Badass American Lager out of breast-shaped beer bongs and consuming more than three times the amount of alcohol on a typical Carnival voyage. Also onboard the cruise from Miami to the Bahamas' Half Moon Cay are 12 other acts, including Southern rapper-Eminem protege Yelawolf, Uncle Kracker and brazen folk singer-songwriter Roger Alan Wade.
As the ship pulls out of port, guests finally make it to the outdoor deck to watch Kid Rock perform, leaving behind a Dumpster's worth of beer bottles in the lobby. Scantily clad women gyrate to the pre-show music while a guy with a pack of condoms dangling from a lanyard around his neck watches. A few fans juggle buckets of brews as they climb up the pool's slide for a better view. Someone's scribbled "Kid Rock Rules" in blue marker on a window overlooking the deck.
The Detroit rocker, born Robert Ritchie, has just finished posing for photos with fans (part of the cruise package) and takes the stage to raucous cheers. He launches into a set more akin to a monster truck rally than a Caribbean cruise. "(The night before it departed) I couldn't sleep," says Ritchie in the middle of his hit "All Summer Long," the city skyline fading in the distance. "Then I realized this cruise has become my adult Christmas. I get so ... excited this time of year."
Cruises have quietly gone from depositories for has-been entertainers to floating music festivals for current-day platinum-selling artists. For the younger crowd these voyages prove worthy alternatives to multi-day, landlocked festivals such as Coachella, Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, which charge upward of $300 for general admission passes. Dedicated fans such as Ritchie's who shell out between $800 and $4,000 for a ticket (minus airfare, fees and drinks) get a more intimate experience with the artists they love, plus a vacation.
Ritchie's outing, his third, kicks off this year's music cruise season, in which Kelly, Blake Shelton, Backstreet Boys, New Kids on the Block, Rick Springfield and KISS also will sail before the year's end.
Promoters such as Sixthman (which is behind Ritchie's cruise), Entertainment Cruise Productions and Rose Tours have built genre-specific voyages around themes including malt shop pop (Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Ronnie Spector), jazz (George Benson, Boney James), "Soul Train" (Patti LaBelle, Kool & the Gang, the O'Jays) and hard rock (Anthrax, Lamb of God).
"It was difficult to get artists on board. But now it's getting easy, and some are calling us," says Dane Butcher, director of operations/programming for Entertainment Cruise. "First when you hear a cruise ship, (the thought was) your career was on its way out. Now they realize they have a captured audience."
Ritchie's cruise headed for 55 acres of a Carnival-owned private island in Half Moon Cay, Bahamas, that he's christened "Redneck Paradise."
There, crisp blue water and white sand compete for attention with a special-made beachfront stage, a giant inflatable bottle of Badass beer and a shipwrecked boat transformed into a bar. Paradise for "Chillin' the Most" guests means chugging beers while sunbathing, wading in the ocean or watching Ritchie play a two-hour concert. Other activities include a bikini contest that bans actual swimwear but encourages ladies to parade in makeshift bikinis and a men's Speedo competition where participants stuff their swimwear with plastic appendages to compete for a crown and cloak.
Unlike concerts, where star-adoring fans can only cheer and sing along, on the cruise they become drinking buddies with their heroes.
"I get paid to go on vacation and take all my favorite bands. If that's not a sell, I don't know what is," Ritchie says after the cruise. "Usually you try to find the negative in this business, because somebody's always got an angle. But there's no angle on this."
Back on the boat, it's easy to spot an act, including Ritchie, buying booze for fans (and vice versa) or chatting it up with passengers at the casino. One late night he dropped by to play a round of craps before taking the party back to his suite. "I played them my new record," he recalled. "Just those 40 to 50 people were packed into the room. The story spread through the boat like wildfire, so there's a lottery factor for fans, knowing moments like those can happen."
The music cruises aren't cash cows for artists. Acts can make anywhere from a couple of hundred thousand to more than $1 million for an act of Rock's stature. "We're not paying what these bands would make (on the road), but we probably pay them about 1.5 times what they would make in one night," Andy Levine, Sixthman's chief executive and founder, says. "I remember thinking, 'This is it: The bands and the fans on vacation.' This is the essence of the music business - the bands and the fans with no distractions."
Fans who pay for these cruises are getting real value when compared with some traditional VIP packages. For instance, on KISS' current tour there's a deluxe VIP package for $1,250 that includes the ticket, sound check access, an autograph and photo with the band. The base price for its October cruise is $750 and features two KISS shows (one without its signature makeup) and a variety of perks, including a meet-and-greet.
The Atlanta-based promoter Sixthman, also behind cruises featuring Weezer, 311, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Lyle Lovett, Sister Hazel and KISS, has chartered 45 cruises since its 2001 inception and boasts a 60 percent rate of return for trips.
It operates cruises under two models: The host model (such as Kid Rock's) offers no guarantee, with profits being split between Sixthman and the host, the artist taking the lion's share. In addition, Sixthman gives the host funds to spend on supporting bands (Kid Rock was given about $100,000 for his roster). On the festival model, such as the singer-songwriter-driven Cayamo cruise, they spend about $100,000 a day on talent.
"Sixthman has gotten hip to one thing: It's easier to isolate a fan base or target market. It's a manager's or record label's dream," says Kalen Nash, lead vocalist of Ponderosa. "The last year we played 250 to 300 shows and only had Christmas off. For us, at our level, it's like four great days out on the road."
Artists also look at the cruise like a working vacation, or at least Uncle Kracker does as he drunkenly stumbles through his embarrassing final set of the "Chillin' the Most" cruise. The show consists of slurred lyrics and extended solos by band members. The last day of the cruise, Ritchie offers up a Q&A session with fans. With a Coors Light in one hand and cigar in the other, he fields questions from bleary-eyed fans suffering the consequences of debauchery and rock music.
As the ship coasts back toward Miami, one fan nicknamed Double D asks Ritchie if he would return to the high seas. He pretends to ponder, then answers "yes," but with more profanity.
Southern rapper Yelawolf saw an opportunity to build his fan base. After playing to a light crowd on opening night, word spread about the emcee with the biting, rock-tinged flow and attracted capacity crowds for his other sets.
"I built my career on touring and I could have been out on the road, but I'm being introduced to some rock fans that didn't know about the music," he says.