Arts (Almost) no strings attached 

Thanks to the web, freeloading is easier than ever

Now is the winter of our discontent. Holiday credit-card bills are coming due, and tax time is just around the corner. A buck don’t buy what it used to. So how about something for free?

Music and movies, books and booze, electronics, furniture, even a car — all can be yours for nothing (or next to it). You just gotta know where to look, and how to avoid gimmicks and scams. From thousands of legal MP3 downloads to cool public-domain movies to e-books and even free phone service, the internet is a treasure trove of freebies. You’d be surprised by the largesse of big corporations, especially when they’ve got new products to spread the word about.

click to enlarge cult-handout-fin_420jpg

“The internet has totally revolutionized everything,” says Bob Kalian, who has scored “many thousands of dollars” of free stuff over the years and has been authoring the continuously updated The Best Free Things in America with his wife Linda since 1979. “It’s been an encouragement for companies, because they can offer free things on their website and pay nothing in printing or mailing costs. It’s made everything a lot simpler, a lot faster, and a lot more comprehensive.”

Just try Googling “free stuff” and look what pops up. More than 18 million pages, a lot of flashy sites hyping fishy offers that seem too good to be true. And, as the adage holds, they probably are. Lee Seats’ About.com page isn’t one of them, however. He specializes in separating the wheat from the chaff, and his site is comprehensive and regularly updated, offering sound advice and links to the best of what’s around. Seats tirelessly researches the countless freebie offers out there, differentiating “between things you’re most likely to receive and things where you’ll just end up on spam lists.”

For every legit site, such as Totally-freestuff.com, Freethingsusa.com, or Fatwallet.com, there are hundreds of spammers and scammers who just want your personal info for their own nefarious purposes. Discerning between them is usually just a matter of common sense. But, says Seats, “it’s amazing how many people don’t have a lot of common sense.”

You do, though, right? And so to the hunt ...


MUSIC

File-sharing has filled hard drives with billions upon billions of free songs over the past seven or so years. But file-sharing is illegal. And after the Recording Industry Association of America excises its $8,000 settlement, those Nickelback MP3s don’t look so free after all.

The good news is that online stores don’t just sell CDs. Most offer free downloads to whet your appetite. Amazon.com features MP3s by name acts including My Morning Jacket and Aimee Mann. Insound.com is an indie-rock Amazon, and offers dozens of free downloads by artists such as Cat Power and Deerhoof. Even iTunes offers a couple free downloads from up-and-coming artists every week. Who knows? One may be from the best band you never heard in your life.

The limitless galaxy of MP3 blogs is another huge resource to tap, especially if your tastes run toward indie rock (Fluxblog, Stereogum) and underground hip-hop (Cocaine Blunts). Like the big-name online stores, they post songs for sampling purposes: If you like what you hear, buy the damn record or see the band when it comes through town. But downloading what’s new at your favorite sites every day, or using the invaluable blog search engine The Hype Machine to look for new and rare stuff by your favorite artists is a great way to build a collection fast.

Also, be sure to check thephoenix.com’s daily music blog, On the Download, for MP3s galore, including shit-hot hard-to-find tracks (Britney Spears’ DFA mix!) and before-the-curve demos by local artists such as Damone and Frank Smith.


ELECTRONICS

After spending a few hours downloading a few dozen songs from the above-mentioned sources, you’ll need a way to listen to them. And what better way than with a FREE IPOD!?

You’ve seen the sites. You may have even tried some. More than likely, though, you’ve shrugged them off as too good to be true. Yet, they’re not rip-offs or pyramid schemes, but marketing — ahem, “customer acquisition” — gimmicks signed on to by companies like Blockbuster and BMG. As long as you deal with legitimate sites such as Freeipods.com, and as long as you’re willing to sign up for a few promotions and convince several friends to do the same, it’s yours.

There is legwork involved, and sometimes money. You have to sign in and wade through a swamp of offers and surveys (almost all of which you can decline). You have to receive “credit” from affiliate companies, which can only be had via obligations such as signing up for the Columbia House DVD club, or buying $30 worth of printer ink from Inkblvd.com. And you have to make sure your friends keep up their end of the bargain by doing the same.

If you do, mere months later you will indeed find an iPod — or some other electronic gizmo — mailed to your doorstep from some warehouse in the Far East. Gratis Internet, the Washington firm that runs one of the legit offers, says it has shipped more than $10 million in products, including digital cameras and computers from Apple, HP, and Sony. New Gratis offers include the forthcoming PlayStation 3, flat-screen TVs, even free condoms. Just don’t be surprised if unsubscribing from the offers isn’t as easy as you might have hoped.


BOOKS

More and more e-books, downloadable as Adobe Acrobat files, are becoming available. Michael Hart’s Project Gutenberg has compiled a modest list of 17,000 public-domain titles — The Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, Ulysses — that are available directly from the project’s site (Gutenberg.org). Printing out War and Peace will make the $30 worth of ink you bought to get that free iPod a worthwhile investment.


MOVIES

As with music and books, the public domain is a marvelous cinematic treasury if your tastes hew more toward the classics than copyrighted modern works. The so-bad-it’s-good Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) is one of the most recent selections downloadable at Entertainment Magazine’s movie section (emol.org/movies/). And if you’re looking for the Three Stooges and the Little Rascals, Dick Tracy and Flash Gordon, or an original print of Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), this is the place for you. Romance. Westerns. Mysteries. Newsreels. Mighty Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Woody the Woodpecker, and Felix the Cat. They’re all there, the pre-television golden age given new life in the computer age.


CARS

Yes, you can get a free car. And not just some former drug kingpin’s bullet-riddled chassis with cocaine residue still powdering the trunk.

They’re tough to find, however, and sacrifices must be made. Like surrendering all sense of dignity. “There are some programs, if you’re willing to have advertising on your car,” says Seats. “Essentially, you lease the car for free, but it’s covered in advertising.” Very few of these offers are available, and the catch is that you must sign up, often paying up to $30 in fees, at sites like Thefreecar.com to find offers near you. There’s nothing sexier than a pimped-out ride covered in corporate graffiti.


AND THE REST ...

Another way to get free merch is to sign on with a word-of-mouth marketing company like Boston’s BzzAgent. If you’re a gregarious person who likes trying new products and being ahead of the curve, if you’re willing to talk up — or talk down — jeans or beer or perfume or books, and if you fit the right demographic, you might be right for BzzAgent’s campaigns, where companies pay big bucks for thousands-strong armies of jes’ plain folks to get the word out about their stuff. They give you free samples and some talking points — all you’ve got to do is file a few reports back to the “Central Hive” about who you spoke to and what you said about a particular product. Lee Seats did it, and got a free Black & Decker coffeemaker for his troubles.

Sometimes Seats barely has to look; stuff just falls in his lap. One of his better scores was a free pair of Adidas sneaks — getting them was just a matter of being on the right mailing list, a private offer sent out to a select list of people. “If you like a company’s products, it’s probably not a bad idea to get on their list,” he says. “Procter & Gamble runs a list; they send out a newsletter every month with various coupon offers, and sometimes there’s free stuff.”

In the end, while there are a lot of cool finds out there, more often than not you’ll get what you pay for. Caveat emptor — or whatever the phrase would be, since freebie-hunter doesn’t translate into Latin — should be the operative words. Do you your homework, read the fine print, and take offers with a grain of salt. Don’t give out your real birthdate or your phone number if you can avoid it, and never give out your Social Security Number. Bob Kalian offers one more piece of advice when scouting free stuff: “When they ask for your Visa or MasterCard — be wary of that.”

By Mike Miliard


Calendar

Newsletters

Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.