On a Thread

Enjoying music in these lean times


For once, I am ahead of the curve. Thanks to my low-rolling, music-journalist lifestyle, I’ve been broke for ages, and this whole “cutting back” business is old hat. So if you’ve made a New Year’s resolution to spend less money but have a weakness for concert tickets and deluxe reissues, prick up your ears, for I have perfected the art of cheapskate music connoisseurship. Granted, I’ve also become more deeply cloistered in monklike seclusion from current cultural happenings, but my credit card statement is less horrendous every month. Follow these easy tips, and you’ll be well on your way to Easier Street.

First off, stop buying new music. Music used to be my number one entertainment expense, but it now ranks below artisan cheese (splurge level: rare). Fill the void with low-cost alternatives, and listen to NPR instead. If you wait long enough, your favorite musician, producer or songwriter will be a guest on Fresh Air. Plus, after a few weeks of Lutheran musical humor on A Prairie Home Companion, pretty much everything else sounds luminous in comparison.

Some songs make it easy not to spend money, which is why I boycott Auto-Tune overdrive. This negates, like, 75 percent of current singles. Though extreme utilization of robotic vocals attained via Auto-Tune is de rigueur these days, it’s also like nutmeg: a great asset when used sparingly, in the right place. I want a teensy sprinkling of nutmeg, not a blizzard.

Raid your own music collection. “You kids have so many toys. How can you possibly be bored?” my mother would appeal to my brother and me, but I now see her point. Man, do I have a lot of CDs, most of which are pretty damn good. I’m finally giving three amazing music collections— The Complete Hank Williams, Tom Waits’ Orphans and Rhino’s Girl Group Sounds— the detailed, repeated listens they deserve.

If you crave some variety, borrow it: visit the local public library. The newest CDs are always checked out; you’ll probably have to place a hold to get them. Opera, jazz and wanky baby-boomer rock are the best genres for walk-ins, which is how I grew addicted to the delightful cocktail of Le Nozze di Figaro washed down with disc two of Rod Stewart’s Storyteller box set. Sweet!

For music you can keep, cultivate friendships with musicians, who are overwhelmingly kind and generous people. They always have their own CDs lying around, and if you act interested enough, they will give them to you for free!

Don’t visit Pitchfork.com. Time is money. By ceasing to peruse all of the music-related websites I used to frequent, I’ve saved lost hours, avoided thousands of tasteless American Apparel ads and remained completely unaware of Vampire Weekend.

Fail to see your favorite performers. Neil Diamond, Holly Golightly and the Joneses, Tom and Sharon, all passed through town without my presence gracing the audience. Probably I was at home instead, listening to rebroadcasts of interviews with these very performers on NPR while I mopped the floor. I get fixes of live music when I can, though, because when you have a musician spouse, thanks to the magic words “plus one,” you’re guaranteed at least a few shows a year. And there’s not always a cover, anyway.

Go see unknown local folk singers and bar bands for free, and tip them a little so they can gas up the van on the way home. If there’s no band, have an impromptu hootenanny. Go to a bar with lots of friends and sing a bunch of songs everyone knows. (I don’t recommend doing this at a bar you would mind getting kicked out of.)


Once you’ve alienated all of your close friends with your skinflint ways, you’ll have to entertain yourself, so buy roller skates. Mine were $49.95 and are of middling quality, but they get the job done. Who needs a gym membership (and the attendant piped-in, douchebag Top 40 hits) when the church parking lot down the street and “Sara’s Bumpin’ Roller Jam” playlist on my iPod await?

After a solid year of miserly behavior, you hopefully will have squirreled away some savings. To allay my guilt over denying hard-working musicians my petty cash, I’m making a donation to a local music-related nonprofit organization. Then I’m having a hootenanny, so see you at the bar—even in hard times, there’s always skill for swill.