Play-To-Stay For Musicians: How to Book the Hostel Gig


I’m a musician and songwriter with a background in booking and a driving wanderlust that hangs on like the glorious after affects of a straight pint of Irish Whiskey.

Currently, I’m backpacking across Europe and staying in hostels, and most of them, I’m lucky enough to be an Artist-In-Residence and I barter my music for a free room for a few days. This helps me financially travel further and longer. This new trend is called “Play-to-Stay” and is basically a cultural and musical exchange program that you can take advantage of, and use to travel the world! IF you meet a few basic requirements.

  1. You play and and sing music, your own, top 40, a mix of both, whatever.
  2. You travel with your own instrument and are self-contained.
  3. You’re flexible and up for anything

If you’re all of these things, then read on!

Lots of people have been asking me how to book the hostel gig, how I went about booking these gigs for myself, and I’m about to spill my secrets. Yes, I have a history in booking and freelance book American indie artists on the side, so yes, I have booked tours before, I know how to write a good promo letter and put together a stunning EPK BUT all of that is basically easy to a social media-savvy millennial, and you can easily fake it til you make it. You’re a better artist if you learn to be self-sufficient on the business side, anyways!

So, without further ado, 7 Ways to Book the Hostel Gig

  1. Research which hostels are more likely to love the idea. As this idea is a bit new, it’s helpful to pitch the idea yourself as well as apply to already-existing artist programs. I stayed at big hostel chains that already offered a #PlaytoStay program (Urban House, Clink78, Eurohostels) and some that had never done anything like it before, but really enjoyed the music and were very friendly and accommodating. Some of the latter were the best, as I am now working with the hostel event staff to help them put together a package deal for artists in the future. I’m working on a comprehensive list of European Hostels that actively search out artists, but you can do your own research and cold-email hostels, that’s how I started. The worst you can get is a no, thank you! A great starting point is I found all of the places I stayed there, and would follow the links to the hostel’s actual website to contact them. You want to look at each  hostel and make sure they have a “Venue” for you. If they don’t have a stage, (or if you’re acoustic, a bar or a coffeeshop) then move along.
  2.  Write a great introduction email. Basically an EPK, but more friendly and personable. Remember this isn’t a staunchy-unimpressed booking agent who is reading your email, it’s an events coordinator or part-time front desk chick. Be professional, but a normal human. Introduce yourself, why you’re traveling through (are you playing other gigs in the city and just looking to save on accomodation? In Brussels, I stayed 4 days free and didn’t even play at the hostel, they just called themselves an “artist safe house” so you never know) let them know what your music style is. “I play calming and soothing jazz standards” is great at upscale hotels in more expensive countries like Switzerland. “I play party music and my performance style creates a fun and light singalong atmosphere” works better at younger, hipper places in party cities like Budapest and Amsterdam.
  3. Make sure your links work. Send links in your email to your website, your music Facebook page, your blog, iTunes Store, hopefully all of the above. It really helps to have a good video of you doing your thing, via youtube or Vimeo. No attachments, no dropbox links, all live and working accessible links online.
  4. Include the exact specific dates you are looking to stay, and be flexible with your offer. I always say “I’m happy to play music and provide live entertainment in the bar in exchange for a bed for a night or two” because it sounds more chill, different hostels have different availabilities and different play-to-stay offers, you don’t want to sound demanding. I stayed free for a week in a hostel, I’ve stayed free for a night. Be absolutely gracious for everything you are offered.  Also, be willing to change your dates. Plan far enough in advance that if the venue is booked one weekend, you can play the next. Don’t completely change your plans for one gig, but do keep yourself open.
  5. Be willing and up to play anywhere. I’ve played regular stages in bars, but I’ve also set up in the lobby of a hostel sitting cross-legged on a cushion on the floor, playing acoustically in a small circle for 12 people who were completely silent for an hour, but very friendly and super supportive. Be ready for anything culturally, and be able to adapt your show to the venue you’re placed at a moment’s notice.
  6. When you book the gig, make sure to be extremely grateful and also to make it worth the hostel’s time. As they will probably be promoting you as a musician on their social media, be sure to respond. Promote your gig on social media, do a write-up on the hostel on your blog, tag them in everything. After all, they’re trying to get more travelers, you’re trying to get more listeners. This is a symbiotic relationship and you can mutually use each other for marketing and promotion.
  7. Have the time of your life! Playing-to-Stay is literally one of my favourite things I’ve ever done, and it helped me make so many friends, foster artistic and personal relationships, grow culturally, and furthered my career as a booking agent, artist and writer. I’ve made connections with booking agents and professional venues in cities I’d love to bring my band back through, so it can only go up from here! Being a musician is all about expanding your community, making your planet smaller and your audience larger.

Solo travel is lonely sometimes, but every audience I performed for was a big group of new friends, and I always went out to explore in the city with awesome people after gigs. People in hostels are there for the experience, they’re there for adventure, they’re mostly staying in rooms with 10+ other people and they’re mostly extroverted and very friendly. You’ll make friends, you’ll grow artistically and personally, and you’ll have an amazing time. Get started planning your adventure today!!


10 Reasons Solo Travel is the Best Travel

10. You create your itinerary. You get to decide what experiences you want to have, without compromise. If you’re more a wine person but your travel partner HAS to tour Heineken, guess where you’re going to spend the afternoon? That may be fine, but I never want to waste time doing things I’m not totally passionate about and you don’t have to, when you’re traveling on your own! You can decide how to best spend YOUR time.

9. Being solo makes planning easier- it’s always easier to buy 1 plane ticket than 10, very rarely do buses sell out completely. There’s always a spot for one more! And buying one of those last-minute, only-a-handful-left tickets can be cheaper as well, some companies will lower the price closer to time of departure in order to try and sell out. You also have a lot more travel options, you know what you can handle. For instance, I’m taking a bus from Brussels to Glasgow instead of flying, and saving a ton of money. It’s a 16 hour bus ride, but I’m fine on buses, I know I can handle it. When you’re on your own, you only have to consider yourself.

8. You feel like a badass. Traveling alone is super empowering. You feel like an artist, writing your own story and cultivating your experiences. Groups of travelers at hostels I stay at always seem impressed when I’m say I’m travelling on my own, and that gives me a ton of confidence. Be proud of yourself! Traveling solo takes guts and is a huge accomplishment!

7. More time for YOU- are you exhausted, a bit hungover, little worse for the wear one day? Take it easy, sleep in, get coffee and write for a bit. If you’re in a group, you might have to suck up that awful hangover headache and get to that walking tour! Or whatever the group’s plan is for the day, but not when you’re solo. Lots of time for self-care and that’s very important!!

6. You’ll make new friends, but only if you want them, no strings attached. I love meeting new groups of people at my hostels, usually I’ll start talking to a group in the hostel bar and then we will go out on the town to explore together! Creates an awesome community atmosphere in the hostel if you’re familiar with the travelers. But, you’re also still in control, so if you make friends with someone and they invite you to go on a tour or to a museum, it’s totally cool to say “no thanks, Id rather do my own thing today.” After all, you’re alone, you’re not in their group, you answer to you only.

5. “what a lovely surprise to finally discover how unlonely being alone can be.”- Ellen Burstyn. One of my Favourite quotes and it really is true, especially when traveling solo. It’s wonderful to hang out with yourself, and truly appreciate your own company! I also feel that I experience things more fully when I’m not distracted by someone else. It’s great to have friends, but wonderful to be comfortable with just your own consciousness.

4. You may do things you normally wouldn’t do- maybe your idea of a great day is just sitting in a cafe for 14 hours and writing, but if you’re travelling in a group, that’s probably not going to happen. Yesterday, while wandering with no schedule, I found a beautiful old church that was unlocked and I sat and listened to old catholic hymns that were playing in the chapel for maybbbbe 90 minutes, and it was just lovely. I’m not a church person, and I don’t know a whole lot of church people, and don’t think I could have or would have ever done something simple like that if I wasn’t alone but honestly it’s one of the highlights of my week. Alternatively I went to the sex museum in Amsterdam on a Tuesday morning at 9am. Ya know. Balance.

3. You learn the kindness of strangers- sometimes when you’re travelling alone you get lost, and I can tell you firsthand that it’s more stressful getting lost on your own. But it’s awesome to realize that no matter what city you’re lost in, someone around you knows where you ada and how to get to where you want to go. 

2. You become more present. I got this one from a friend of mine, Christiane, who has her own blog (here) and recently went to Bali for the first time. In speaking with her about her first huge travel experience, she said that “usually home in New York I’ll walk by somewhere that looks cool and say ‘oh, I need to check that out sometime.’ And I either do but mostly forget and never end up going. When I was travelling I found myself having the same thought, but realizing that I had to do those things RIGHT THEN because I may never be back.” 

That’s paraphrased from a conversation over wine and I hope it’s close to right, but I love the idea behind this, of living completely in the moment. Definitely something I experienced when I first started travelling as well!

1. You do you. This is the BEST part of solo Travel.  You’re in complete control of your adventure. If you get to a city and love it, you can stay a few extra days. This week I planned to spend 5 days in Brussels, but I wasn’t a big fan of my hostel and felt I’d done the city in 2, so I checked out early and hopped a bus to London. You. Can. Do. Whatever. You. Want. And you should! Follow your whims! you don’t answer to anyone. So get out there, and write your very own adventure story!

My Time in Brussels!!!

This 3 days I’ve spent in Brussels has kind of been a bit of one challenge after another. The weather has been cold and crazy windy (think Oklahoma wind-comes-sweeping-down-the-just-plain-awful wind) and I had some reservation issues at the place I’m staying which gave me a fright and a half.  My hostel is pretty far from the city center, but I still managed to have a good time and see a lot of the city! Leaving tomorrow afternoon on an AWFULLY long bus trip from Brussels to Glasgow, Scotland. Actually its two bus trips, I stacked em like I stack cash. (not) I’m transferring in LondonTown to a Megabus and will continue on through the night on Saturday and arrive in Glasgow at 7am Sunday morning. It’s gonna suck. But it was hellllla cheap. I don’t play in Glasgow until Monday night, so I’ve got recovery time.  I’ve got podcasts. I’ve got writing to do. I’ve got bus beers and dramamine. This too shall pass.

Here’s some pictures from Brussels!!


Travel Anxiety

I’ve always suffered from pretty bad anxiety and although I love traveling, it’s definitely a trigger for me sometimes! This whole first week and a half on the road was amazing, but I thought I’d post a little bit of The behind-the-scenes not-so-great things I had to conquer!  Yesterday was the hardest day yet! I took a bus from Amsterdam to Brussels and it was pretty late, which didn’t matter, but nonetheless made me anxious. 

Upon arriving, I promptly got lost, the directions to my hostel weren’t correct and I ended up wandering, with my guitar, in the cold rain for a few hours. When I got to the hostel, they had lost my reservation and didn’t understand English well so it was an interesting conversation. (To make sure this didn’t happen again I quickly emailed all my other venues to re-confirm, haha and all of them did so this is a one-off, I suppose) 

Overall it was a stressful day, But I got a room in the end, I don’t know what he situation is musically, but I’m housed and will only be here til the 25th, now, one less day, so it’s all okay. It was positive in a way because it made me get organized really quickly and figure out where else I could go, should this place not have a room for me. It made me reconfirm plans and get some extraneous planning done as well, so I suppose it’s all good. Hard to see the positive in the moment but I think it’s important to definitely look back after calming down, after a good nights sleep, and look at how the event that caused all the anxiety actually helped instead of hindered. Overtime that can help ease the threat of anxiety altogether! 
Onto explore Brussels!

StayOkay Hostel: AmsterJammin’!

So I’ve just arrived in Brussels, and have a few hours before I play to write up a little review   on the hostel I stayed and played in when I visited Amsterdam! Already sad to have left such an amazing city, but happy to reminisce on my lovely experience and play my next stay! I stayed for a total of 4 nights and stayed in 2 hostels. the first 2 nights I stayed in StayOkay Vondelpark location, the the second 2 I played further downtown in their bar in Stadsdoelen. The pictures I have are from the downtown location. 16837871_10212223751131345_419235962_n.jpg

I arrived and immediately was greeted by my host, Leona, who booked my shows and who I had been in contact with. She offered me tea and sat with me, circling places on the map that I just HAD to explore while I was in town. I love maps and having friends in the know, so this was awesome for me!! She was so sweet and accommodating and helped me set up my show that night and stayed to hang out.

This location is larger than the downtown one, but feels smaller I think in the common areas. The bar has awesome happy hour deals and very cheap food options. There are lots of events always happening to build community within travelers (yoga, pub crawls, trivia, and live music, obviously!) and I had no problem making a big group of friends my very first night to go out with!! They also offer lots of deals on tours and attractions around the city, and if you purchase with the hostel discount you skip all lines, which is great!!

The rooms were great, I stayed in a 10-person mixed dorm and wasn’t bothered at all. My guitar fit in the lockers (provided for everyone, just bring your own lock) and the beds were very comfortable. Hairdryers were available for rent (v.important to me) amongst other important things you may need!

The Vondelpark location is literally situated RIGHT on the side of the park, and is so gorgeous, I can’t believe how amazing the location is. The birds sound amazing. I know that’s not a selling point but like, seriously, if you go here, take your headphones off and LISTEN TO THE BIRDS. I was told that the Vondelpark location usually hosts more groups of travelers, while the Stadsdoelen branch sees a lot of individual backpackers, so if that helps you pick your location, then there you go!

16900243_10212223750611332_1360534421_n.jpgThe bar in Stadsdoelen is fantastic, superb drink specials and lots of  food options. For Musicians who are playing here, there’s no sound system, but do not 16901544_10212223749291299_211072084_n.jpgdespair. The acoustics here are AMAZING. I played unplugged with no mic, and the sound filled the big room with warmth and depth. Really, it was an experience, playing an intimate live set on the Canals with my voice just radiating off of the walls. It’s a good room.

I played all four nights, about 90 minutes-2 hours each night in exchange for my stay. I was also provided some meals while I was playing and generously served beer and whiskey while playing, (even after I said “I know I drink a lot and fast, please start charging me,  I work ships” #haha) Each night, I had captive audiences who I really felt that I connected with, and was always able to stay afterwards, sell music and talk about my hostel-busking- blog project, which went over really well. I made lots of good friends! My contact, Leona, was amazing to work with and hang out with, even walking me personally to the downtown location the morning I moved! She and I had spoken about her desire to  grow this Artist-In-Residence program a little bit over the next few months, as they love hosting artists! If Amsterdam is a city that you think you’d like to explore and would like to barter your music for a free stay, please message me directly!







Well I’ll be Amsterdamned


I’m all packed to leave Amsterdam tomorrow en-route to Brussels, but Ive got one more show tonight! I’ve had a lovely long weekend here, made some awesome friends, played more music than I’m used to, my fingers are ripped up but my heart is happy. I’m delighted to have been one of the first Artists-In-Residence at StayOkay Hostels in Amsterdam, and I played music in the hostel bar every night for a few hours in exchange for my room. Hoping to help them grow this program as much as they’d like over time, as it was an amazing opportunity to share art as well as explore the artistic free-thinking Mecca of sorts that Amsterdam has become.
16901603_10212223752851388_392920327_nThe first few nights I stayed in Vondelpark, which I loved immensely. Having a picnic with my guitar as the sun set, warming up to play music and writing there will be a wonderful memory!!!

Had wonderful audiences for the gig my first few nights and made friends with an awesome group of techies from Winnipeg, and we went out on the town, swung through some dance clubs (literally, walked in, said “eh, cool. we’ve seen it now, and left) and barhopped a bit. Ended up chilling for a long time at a comfortably-warm and friendly Irish Pub on the canal and talking about life for a bit. When you’re traveling, everyone is a fast friend. 16901512_10212223751611357_2032871505_n.jpg

I’ve been taking advantage of all the free walking tours in the cities I visit, and Amsterdam was no exception! Usually the tours will leave from your hostel and if you miss it, you can catch the next one from a center-point of town.

I woke up late (read:hungover) walked to Dam Square to try to catch the next one. Joined what I thought was the tour, but actually turned out to be an “alternative” tour, led by a quick-witted art major with a feather in his hat and a “fashionable” walking cane, and we wandered through the city talking about famous graffiti, the culture of squatting in Amsterdam, how to steal a bike, where to get the best green, the LGBT community, the Dutch views on Trump’s America, (we talked about this in front of the Anne frank house, the Dutch know history and they’re paying close attention) science, religion, and philosophy. We ended paying our respects at the second most famous house in Amsterdam, Rene Descartes’s place.

“I think, therefore I am”

The last few days I spent waking up late, having breakfast at this lovely cafe and writing a bit while planning out a walking route for the day. I never buy guidebooks when I travel, I don’t do a whole lot of r16930357_10212223749131295_1357073994_o.jpgesearch before-hand, I’m normally just a wanderer. I like to roam aimlessly and find things that are off the beaten path a bit, and I always feel that I get a better lay of the city this way, instead of rushing to touristy-museums all day or guided tours though I see the benefit in both. I never even do research on the geography of cities before I go, somehow I just always make it back where I’m supposed to be without major issue. I wonder when this luck will run out.

Now I’m going to write a bit, warm up, and get ready to sing later on, downbeat at 7pm, going to try and Facebook live the whole thing so we will see. Here’s some more Amsterdam pics! More later. SJ