Recently comedian Louis C.K. has made a lot of news by offering his most recent comedy special for $5 via his website. That doesn’t sound amazingly disruptive in itself, but if you dive a little deeper, you’ll see that it's an experiment that shines a light on the future of media.
Let’s look at the normal process. A creative person creates something amazing; it could be a video, a album, artwork, whatever. They often work, under contract, with media companies to sell it. This gives them access to PR, marketing, distribution and management - all helpful for a new artist. The revenue from selling the creative work pays for the people doing the PR, marketing, distribution and management. At the end of the day, the artist often gives up some rights to their work, get a lot of people with needs and (small) fraction of every dollar earned. It’s a heavy, cumbersome model that has been the standard for many years.
Louis C.K. has taken a first step in disrupting this model and is in a unique position for doing so. He is a very talented individual with a lot of fans. He’s known for his standup comedy, but he also has a successful TV show called Louie. But he’s more than the star of the show. He writes, directs, edits, produces and stars in the show. More than any show on TV, “Louie” is a product of one person.
With his new standup special, he’s using these production talents. He paid for the production from his own pocket at a cost of over $170,000. He edited the special himself. He owns the entire process and now he’s selling his production on his website for $5 dollars. He’s making a bet, with his own cash, that he can do it better than media companies.
Here’s a quote from a recent post from him:
The show went on sale at noon on Saturday, December 10th. 12 hours later, we had over 50,000 purchases and had earned $250,000, breaking even on the cost of production and website. As of Today [the 13th], we've sold over 110,000 copies for a total of over $500,000. Minus some money for PayPal charges etc, I have a profit around $200,000 (after taxes $75.58). This is less than I would have been paid by a large company to simply perform the show and let them sell it to you, but they would have charged you about $20 for the video. They would have given you an encrypted and regionally restricted video of limited value, and they would have owned your private information for their own use. They would have withheld international availability indefinitely. This way, you only paid $5, you can use the video any way you want, and you can watch it in Dublin, whatever the city is in Belgium, or Dubai. I got paid nice, and I still own the video (as do you).
Why is this disruptive? Because he completely cut out the typical media companies and their controls. Using his own talents and his website, he can make something awesome, sell it directly to fans and earn a good living. No marketers, no agents, no distribution deals, no censors, No DRM, and many fewer hassles. Just one talented guy and a website.
This is just one more example of what’s possible. If it works for him, couldn’t it work for many, many others?
As I said before, he is uniquely positioned to do it. The biggest barrier to making the direct-to-fans model work, for most of us, is brand. Earning a living from it requires having enough fans who are willing to participate - and that’s the hard part. He's spent years of hard work getting to this point.
We’ve seen the potential at Common Craft in licensing our videos directly to educators. While third party tools help to make it happen, we are a two person company and like Louis C.K., we own the entire process. Every video we make is written, produced, edited and distributed by the two of us via commoncraft.com. We’ve made a conscious effort to stay as independent as possible and it has made all the difference. We can use our time to make videos for our members, stay in control and finance our future work.
In that spirit, a final quote from Louis (emphasis mine):
I really hope people keep buying it a lot, so I can have shitloads of money, but at this point I think we can safely say that the experiment really worked. If anybody stole it, it wasn't many of you. Pretty much everybody bought it. And so now we all get to know that about people and stuff.
And that pretty much sums up the why this is news. He now has evidence that people will buy stuff and if that's true for others, it means people are starting to think differently about how they support the work they love - and that's a good thing.