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Gratis expectations
Free booze! Free books! Free movies! Free iPods! A guide to getting something for nothing

Now is the winter of our discontent. That last heating bill nearly caused a coronary, and this monthís will only be worse. Holiday credit-card bills are coming due. And tax time is just around the corner. A buck donít buy what it used to. So how about something for free?

Music and movies, books and booze, electronics, furniture, even a car ó 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. Youíd be surprised by the largesse of big corporations, especially when theyíve got new products to spread the word about.

"The Internet has totally revolutionized everything," says Bob Kalian, whoís scored "many thousands of dollars" of free stuff over the years and has been authoring the continuously updated The Best Free Things in America (Roblin) with his wife Linda since 1979. "Itís been an encouragement for companies, because they can offer free things on their Web site and pay nothing in printing or mailing costs. Itís 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 Seatsís About.com page isnít 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 whatís around. Seats tirelessly researches the countless freebie offers out there, differentiating "between things youíre most likely to receive and things where youíll just end up on spam lists."

For every legit site like Totallyfreestuff.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, "itís amazing how many people donít have a lot of common sense."

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


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 RIAA excises its $8000 settlement, those Nickelback MP3s donít look so free after all.

The good news is that online stores donít 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. Theyíve even got exclusive tracks like "Eyes" by Bostonís own Apollo Sunshine. 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 whatís 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.

Donít forget that Web sites for indie labels ó Matador, Bloodshot, Drag City, Secretly Canadian ó carry voluminous collections of their artistsí songs. Online magazines like Pitchfork offer downloads from big names and no-names both. Also, be sure check thephoenix.comís 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.

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Issue Date: January 13 - 19, 2006
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