Today the New York Times took notice as well (front page, no less):http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/19/busin ... nted=print
A Comic Distributes Himself
By DAVID CARR
Louis C. K. is something of a pirate in the entertainment world, a man who has ignored propriety on his way to building a huge comic franchise. So it’s odd to see him put one of his shows for sale on the Web and politely ask fans not to rip him off.
The weirder thing? It seems to be working.
A scabrous and successful champion of the everyman, Louis C. K. decided last week to go direct with his fans: no cable special, no middleman, just a simple download for $5 on his Web site to see his comedy show “Louis C. K.: Live at the Beacon Theater.”
The show could be viewed as the consumer wished, with no rights protection or expensive subscription. A buy-it-and-watch-it proposition, no cable company involved. He was also, of course, enabling people to watch it free — without digital rights management, it was there for the pirating — and some went right to the torrent sites and did so.
But many, many other people paid the fiver and got a package of two streams and three downloads, which could be burned to a DVD or streamed on a smartphone and wherever else they felt like watching it.
Louis C. K. is a freak about doing it himself. He writes, directs, produces and acts in his own series, “Louie,” then edits it himself with Final Cut Pro on his Mac. And now the king of D.I.Y. has one more credential: distributor.
“I went at this like a consumer, just looking at human impulses,” he told me.
“I buy lots of things online and I had a focus group of one. I thought about it, and five bucks seemed almost free and I figured if I took out the hassle, most of the speed bumps, it would almost be like hitting a link and streaming it. It’s been pretty damn great so far.”
While I was talking with him on the phone Thursday night, he checked his Web site and about 175,000 people had bought his special through PayPal. He expected 200,000 total downloads by the weekend, which meant he would have grossed $1 million. After covering costs of about $250,000 for the live production and the Web site, that’s a $750,000 profit. And he owns the rights, and the long tail of buyers, in perpetuity. The transparency of the enterprise, including its cost in relation to how many people bought in, was the subject of media coverage all last week.
“It feels weird having numbers out there, because that’s my personal income,” he said. “But I talked to my mom, who is a pretty judicious, careful person, and she said, ‘Tell them everything. Just let it all get out there.’ So that’s what I have been doing, at least so far.”
Louis C. K. has been doing comedy since 1984, when he took a break from working on cars to try stand-up. He didn’t go to college, is not deep into technology, and doesn’t think of himself as any sort of pioneer. But he has a fundamental understanding of the Web and what it could mean for content providers and consumers.
“O.K., so NBC is this huge company and they have all these studios and these satellites to beam stuff out,” he said, “but on the Web, both NBC.com and LouisCK.com have the same amount of bandwidth. We are equals and there are things you can do with that. This has been a fun little experiment.”
It may be little, but it has significant implications, pointing a way forward for performers and the consumers who want to pay for their work.
Television faces threats from many sides, including from people who are cutting their cable cord and watching programming over the Web, as well as any number of Web-based programmers like YouTube, Netflix and Amazon. But network and cable television’s big hedge against insurgent technologies has always been its stranglehold on programming and talent. If I wanted to see how “Homeland” ended and was not willing to steal it, I’m would have had to pay Verizon Fios for my cable feed, which in turn pays Showtime.
In fact, I wouldn’t know anything about Louis C. K. if it weren’t for cable. I DVR’d his freakishly hilarious series “Louie” on FX, which is owned by News Corporation, and I saw his last two comedy specials on cable. The people who helped build the brand of Louis C. K. might wonder about his decision to go native (digitally), but hey, it’s the Internet: it’s every man, woman, producer, consumer, company and cable outfit for itself!
“I am not sticking it to the Man,” he said. “There is no the Man in this story and if there were, he would be like a kindly old father. HBO gave me a half-hour comedy show, a series that I had complete control over, and then a full-hour comedy special. They have been nothing but great to me.”
“But they don’t really want what I have any more,” he said. “Comedy specials are just like grist to the mill to them, so I thought it was time to try something else.” (He added that “Louie” would be on FX as long as the channel wanted it. “I am completely loyal to them,” he said.)
Going through a middleman to put out a televised version of his latest stage show clearly rankled Louis C. K., who is used to getting in front of an audience and daring them not to laugh. Besides, some of the economics of dealing with cable bugged him. He was paid a fee upfront and the cable outfits shouldered the costs, but he had no participation in the backend — DVDs, on-demand and reruns.
“I’ve never seen a check from a comedy special,” he told Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”
Louis C. K. portrays himself as a working stiff, a 44-year-old divorced father who is capable of telling sort of mean jokes about his own children. But he’s displayed a great deal of digital savvy, carefully building a simple user-friendly site to facilitate the transaction. His default setting for whether a customer wanted additional product information from Louis C. K. was “No. Leave me alone forever, you fat idiot.”
The download of the Mp4 to my laptop took under four minutes and I still had two streams and two downloads left. (I watched one of the streams on my iPad at bedtime.) When he began the experiment, he did a Q. and A. on the Web site Reddit, a great place to address those inclined toward piracy.
“I think it is really interesting that I brought the price so close to stealing and made the movie so easy to get and made it so clear that it’s a human offering that it sparked a debate about pirating,” he wrote. “To steal from someone and not feel bad, you either have to be a sociopath or view the act differently.”
By putting a face on the content, Louis C. K. changed the subject from whether it is O.K. to game a big corporation to whether it’s morally appropriate to simply take the work of an artist that other people have paid for.
On Wednesday on his site, he declared the experiment a success.
“I’m really glad I put this out here this way and I’ll certainly do it again,” he wrote. “If the trend continues with sales on this video, my goal is that I can reach the point where when I sell anything, be it videos, CDs or tickets to my tours, I’ll do it here and I’ll continue to follow the model of keeping my price as far down as possible, not over marketing to you, keeping as few people between you and me as possible in the transaction.”
Louis C. K.’s ability to hack his own route to his public brings joy to the Web-inclined — “Louis C. K. wins everything ever,” said the wags at Vulture, New York magazine’s Web site — but will seem less charming to the cable outlets who teamed up with him and helped build him into a juggernaut. But his exalted status as someone worth paying for on the Web not only derives from his exposure on cable, but also from the fact that he is one of the funniest humans on earth.
“This is not about cable, it’s about concerts,” he told me. “I have been out on the road for a long time selling tickets, and me and the people I work with aren’t that surprised, to be honest. We knew people would buy it. People have been paying for what I do for a long time now.”