Hello. My name is Brett Newski, and I am a professional homeless person. If you're reading this you probably like to travel. Since 2010, I’ve made a living as a nomadic artist, working as a guitar teacher, voiceover artist, music composer, tech writer and touring songwriter. Places I’ve lived include Saigon, Vietnam, Cape Town, South Africa, Nashville, TN as well as Milwaukee, WI and Madison, WI. Below are tricks learned from being on the road incessantly the past eight years, and how to use your skills to circumnavigate the world for little or no money.
STEP 1: Develop your own “currency”?
You’re an artist. You have skills, aka “currency”. I don’t mean monetary amounts in USD, Euros or Vietnam Dong, I mean your own custom currency based on what you bring to the table as an artist. A musician can play live gigs. A visual artist might create paintings or sculptures. A travel writer creates blogs, essays or books. These skills can be compensated. The artist has something to offer beyond the average traveler. Your “currency” will get people to take interest in you and aid in world circumnavigation. Along the journey, you will be trading your currency for lodging, bus fares, train tickets, food and cash money. Here are some examples of “currency” based on type of artist…
• Musician: live gigs, guitar lessons, physical albums • Visual artist: photography, paintings, illustrations • Speaker: panels, presentations, stand up comedy • Writer: guest blogs, essays, books, etc
Once this is identified, there are a few key items to take on your journey…
1) “Business” card or “name card”: If you’re in a social setting. Always ask before handing someone a card. Busting it out in the first two minutes of convo comes off as douchy and opportunistic. Have a chat first, engage, then close with “we should keep in touch, do you have an email?” or “when you come thru Chicago, I’d be happy to point you in the right direction for rad places to see and eat. Shall I give you my email?” It’s always good to offer value & support to your new pal. Don’t refer to it as a “business card”. Use “name card”, “card” or simply say “may I give you my email?”.
2) Sticker: a nice little pocket item that doesn’t weigh you down. Many people will have a card, but a sticker is a sweet bonus item that most artists wont carry. DO NOT SKIMP of graphics, if you suck at Photoshop, hire a rad designer like this dude. The visual is THE critical hook when people decide if you’re a professional or a chump.
3) Rad web site: This is your “mothership”. DO NOT SKIMP ON THIS. Web Sites are cheap and easy these days. The site should be simple and sleek and have a nice high rez photo across the home page. Once my friend Dan remodeled my site in 2014, both traffic and album sales went up. Wordpress is a great platform with foreseeable longevity. Build it on that. Also feel free to email Dan to improve your site: http://www.nucleus.media/dan-o-stoffels/ (I don’t make commissions here). If you’re new to the game and lack content, simply create a single splash page or landing page with a quality photo or yourself or your art.
These three items are your digital base camp or fortress. Don’t leave without them.
STEP 2: Get Out of Town “If you’re all about the destination, take a fu***** flight” -Frank Turner. Book a flight. The United Mileage Plus card has been clutch for scoring me free international flights. I’ve used it for over six years and acquired over eight free flights overseas. When you sign up they give you loads of free miles. Note: I do not work for United nor do I receive commissions for writing this. With more airline competition than ever, there are several airline alliances (Star Alliance, Sky Team) that provide quality frequent flyer programs.
If you lack miles, always book out of the closet big airport. I live in Milwaukee and have saved thousands of dollars flying out of neighboring Chicago. Bus fares are typically cheap and drop you right at the major airports.
STEP 3: Find allies / Build a network Upon landing in a new city, you’ll need allies. Locals know more than you. Ask the hipster barista where the artists hang out. What’s the best music venue, art studio, coffee shop, non-bro bar? Research ahead of time. Do you have Facebook friends who can link you to their buddies in this foreign town? Enjoy the city, get lost, explore, but also have a purpose.
Creative Mornings is a rad site that connects creative people over coffee and lectures in cities all over the world. GO TO THESE if your schedule aligns. Ask people their stories and offer yours in return. Try to think of good ice-breaker questions other than “where you from?” or “where you traveling to next?”. Throw em’ a curve ball….
“Hey man, I love your sideburns. It reminds me of Kurt Russell in ‘3000 miles to Graceland”. Dumb lines like this can be very effective in starting a chat. Asking this question led to coffee with an established songwriter which led to an introduction to his entire music industry circle.
Don’t be afraid to reuse “ice breaker” questions if they work well. Avoiding talk about THE WEATHER will connect you with tons of like-minded creatives and you’ll soon have buddies from New York to London to Bangkok.
Apps like Meetup and Couchsurfing will serve you well, as they post geo-targeted events for almost every type of person. If you’re an artist traveling thru Berlin, attend “songwriter night at the Ramones Museum” or “photography showcase at Tido coffee”. And of course, always keep an eye on Facebook events. Have your name card and sticker on your person. BS with the curator of the event, buy em’ a beer or coffee and ask them about the city and “the scene”. They’re almost always happy to help.
While traveling in Berlin for the first time I stumbled upon the “Music Pool Berlin” Facebook group, a site dedicated to helping indie musicians. I messaged the organizer saying it was my first time in town and was looking for cool stuff to do. He sent me a list and invited me to a weird underground indie rock show, where I met two European bookings agents and numerous other Berliners who’ve provided lodging nearly every time I’m thru town. Legends.
STEP 4: Get a gig While staying at a hostel in Medellin, Columbia in 2010, I heard the owner was from Seattle. I told him I was a songwriter and “Ten” by Pearl Jam was the third album I ever owned. We got to chatting and he offered me a gig in exchange for two nights stay, a meal and three beers. Now it’s not retirement money, but pretty sweet for one hour of work. The gig also allowed me to meet everyone at the hostel, including a sketchy “tour guide” who took me to meet Pablo Escobar’s brother, Roberto, the next day. Roberto was arguably the second most famous cocaine-dealing criminal in the Escobar scheme. He showed us bullet holes in his walls from when thugs broke in and tried to kill him just months prior. (This led to a song called “Columbia is the Wrong Place to Lose Your Mind” which made over $1000 in sales in year one of its release, enough for a flight to Bangkok). These hostel gigs sometimes turn into residency offers, so you might find yourself living in Vietnam gigging for a bit. I’ve made anywhere from $20-$2500 for one gig.
If you’re just starting out, don’t be afraid to ask for bus fares or train money on top of a room and board deal. These folks will often kick in another $20-50 bucks on top. Playing a good live show will earn you a follow up gig with a better payday.
If you’re a visual artist or photographer, trade work for a dinner and a few nights stay. If you can develop a relationship with the hostel/shop/restaurant, they may allow you to hang your work and sell it in the shop. Some shops will buy it outright and others will take it on consignment. Certain venues/art houses offer residencies. Rozz Tox, is a vintage Midwestern music venue/cafe that offers lodging just for the artist to write and create everyday during the residency. Again, always offer to help out the shop owner next time they travel your region. They’ll be stoked if you can intro them to your friends/network. Odds are they love to travel.
Sites like Etsy and BigCartel allow you to keep an online shop. Updating your travel blog with road adventures will drive people to your online shop. If you have a stash of work back at home, have a friend ship your online sales and give them a small %.
Every city has a weekend market or art fair. Research if you can set up a booth and sell merchandise. Keep your site updated with your bizarre travels. People you meet will find their way to your site (if you’re friendly and your name card is rad). This can generate online sales while on the road. Face to face interactions are 100x more valuable than a Facebook chat or email interaction.
While traveling SE Asia, I wrote really stupid articles for a tech web site for $10 a pop. (I’m not even a tech writer) I was working one hour a day and pocketing $20, enough to live like a king in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. Best part was: NO BOSS.
Guest blogs are also a great way for writers to get paid on the road. You don’t need to be making $350/article if you’re spending $5/day in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Think about strategic travel based on cost-of-living and exchange rate. Odds are you’re connected to someone in your hometown who knows the editor at the local blog/paper. The editor will love good travel content from their hometown lad/gal traveling overseas. South Africa, Poland, Thailand and Vietnam are mind-blowing countries with unreal value and cool people.
Once your portfolio grows and network increases, you’ll have more options for gigs. You can turn down crappy ones and charge more for good ones. The beginning can be tough and lonely sometimes, but these relationships will build over time. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND staying in a place more than 1-2 days. “Turbo travel” is emotionally draining and inefficient. 4-7 days is a proper short stay to get a lay of the land and make legitimate connections with people. If you can stay longer, do it. Stay calm, seeing 7 cities in ten days will only lead to anxiety and decreased productivity.
The first time I circumnavigated the world was an investment. The second time I broke even. The third time was a money-maker and every trip since the net income has increased. Remember it’s challenging at first, but stay in the game. It’s a long slow burn that yields a lifetime group of friends that will help you across the globe time and time again (return the favor for them). Whether your goals are to make money or simply cover travel costs, perseverance is key. As you plant more seeds and keep in touch with foreign friends/allies, there will be even more resources upon your return visit. Now book a flight ☺
photos: Keziah Suskin, Sweet Chucky B, Newski