The El Cheapo Guide to Culture
An eight-step approach to entertaining yourself economically.
Try being direct: It's easy to convince yourself that you could not possibly gain free access to a movie, play, concert, or performance that others have willingly paid to attend. So most people forgo attempts to acquire cheap entertainment in the most direct way imaginable—by asking for it. Don't discount the possibility that you'll make your plea to someone who is exceedingly nice, sympathetic to your request, or, even better, someone who just doesn't care all that much whether you get in for free or have to pay. If you say the right thing to the right person—that it's your birthday, for instance, or that you are the biggest Yo-Yo Ma fan in the entire universe—you just might score some free tickets. This approach probably won't get you into the Super Bowl, but something like the circus or, say, the upcoming Murray, Ky., performance of A Prairie Home Companion are not unrealistic possibilities. In 2007, I called up Paramount Vantage, spoke with someone in the press office who turned out to be a lovely human being, and got myself on the list for an advance screening of There Will Be Blood. I didn't tell any lies, I just asked. The approach has worked for me on other occasions as well. There are lots of nice people out there with the capacity to hook you up.
Go back to school: If you live anywhere near a relatively large college or university and enjoy musical performances, you're in luck. When I was in college, my school hosted lots and lots of free outdoor concerts. It was a golden era of sorts for hip-hop, so among the groups I saw perform for free were A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, The Pharcyde, and Black Sheep. No one was checking I.D.s or endeavoring to weed out townies from T.A.s. It wasn't just students who were screaming "Yes you can" every time Q-Tip asked if he could kick it. And at many large colleges, this scenario hasn't changed much. Some schools require that you attend bigger shows as a guest of a student, and others moved previously free outdoor concerts inside and began charging. But there's still tons of wonderful free music to be had on campuses across the country. For instance, this past spring Lupe Fiasco and O.A.R. headlined the 37th annual Movin' On music festival at Penn State. The event is described as "FREE TO EVERYONE," and past years' shows have featured Wilco, Talib Kweli, Ben Folds Five, and Run D.M.C. Also, the vast majority of on-campus concerts that don't feature any hand waving or wafting weed smoke—classical performances, choral events, student recitals—tend to be free and open to the public.|
Don't be too picky: Anytime you hear a radio broadcaster urging listeners to call in to win free tickets to a movie premiere, play, comic book convention, symphony performance, or anything of that sort, do it. I don't care if you're not into demolition derbies or don't enjoy the raunchy glam metal stylings of Poison. If some guy on the radio is offering free tickets to a smash up show, call in and try to win those damn tickets. Dial first; think later. You can always sell the tickets down the line and use that money to attend a preferred cultural affair entirely devoid of "Unskinny Bop." Or trade the tickets to a friend for an iTunes gift card. Remember: Even bad culture can bring about some good. Don't bypass any opportunities.
Don't overlook the obvious: Cheap and lazy aren't a good mix. This should go without saying, but be sure not to miss out on the entertainment layups. Tell everyone you know that if they ever have extra tickets to anything, you'll take them. Put a call in to that cousin of yours who works as a stagehand for the touring company of Cirque du Soleil. Type "free tickets" into Google every now and again. I just did, and it turns out that Sept. 24 is Museum Day throughout the country. Go to Smithsonianmag.com, download a ticket, and receive free admission to hundreds of participating museums. Accessing a lion's share of culture and entertainment on the cheap doesn't always require looking for loopholes, collecting trash at Bonnaroo, or scamming Nexflix. Sometimes good old-fashioned, everyday resourcefulness will do the trick.
Do you have a great technique or tip for accessing culture and entertainment on the cheap? If so, let us know about them in the comments. The commenter who provides the best, most useful cheap culture trick will win a free museum ticket redeemable on Sept. 24, 2011.
Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor living in Manhattan. You can follow him on Twitter @matthewjxmalady.
Photograph of outdoor concert by Evan Agostini/Getty Images.