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Louis CK Challenges the System

Louis CK, the popular stand-up comedian and star of his own Emmy-nominated FX show Louie, may have just found a way to get around the system of artists selling their work through a publisher. Instead of putting his latest stand-up special, Louis CK: Live at the Beacon, on TV, likely HBO or Comedy Central, he went in another direction with it, deciding not to sell a DVD or Blu-Ray of it, or even to put it on iTunes for digital download. Instead, he sold it on his website with no outside help. As opposed to the usual $10-$20 dollar range for a DVD or download of a comedy special, CK sold his on his site for only $5. ($5, not $4.99. As CK has stated before, $4.99 is dick-ish.)

The gameplan has paid off. The special made over $200,000 in four days, and passed $1 million on Wednesday, its eighth day available. In a statement on his website after the sales passed a million, CK said that he’ll split up the money by paying $250,000 for what it cost to launch his website, pay another $250k to his staff for holiday bonuses, give $280,000 to five different charities, and keep $220,000 for himself, saying that “Some of that will pay my rent and will care for my children. The rest I will do terrible, horrible things with it and none of that is any of your business.”

Why did this strategy work for CK?

1. Avoiding the Red Tape.  This entire operation had a simplicity about it that was refreshing. The only way to download the special was to pay CK directly via PayPal, and CK put no restrictions on the download after paying the $5. If people wanted to burn it onto a DVD, they easily could. CK even provided cover art on his website. If people wanted to download it and play it on another device or send it to a friend, they could do that as well. As CK said, “No DRM, no restrictions, no crap. You can download this file, play it as much as you like, burn it to a DVD, whatever.” CK’s plea to avoid people from illegally downloading it from bit torrent sites was simply, “Don’t be an ass.” And it’s actually worked. CK said on the BS Report with Bill Simmons last week that there were very few uploads of it on bit torrent sites, and even fewer downloads, meaning that even if people were offering the special, few were taking the bait.

2. No Inundation of Marketing. Before a mainstream movie comes out, we’re usually bombarded with commercials for it, making it impossible for us not to know the exact date the movie is being released. For this special, CK answered questions in a chat on Reddit and promoted it on his Twitter page. And that’s about it. People didn’t feel like a giant corporation was forcing this idea on them. It made people more willing to support CK.

3. An Established Name. If CK were some random comedian that nobody had heard of, it would be difficult to get 200,000 people to buy a special. It would feel a bit like those dudes that try to give you their rap CD in Times Square. But CK has built a dedicated audience from years of stand-up shows, TV appearances, and TV shows. He hasn’t let his fans down before, so they trusted that their money was going to a good place. This same strategy worked for an established band, Radiohead, a few years ago when they offered their album, In Rainbows, online for however much money people felt comfortable paying for it. This might not be a model that would work for an up-and-comer.

This has been a massive success for CK, who famously likes avoiding anyone tinkering with his product. He agreed to do Louie on FX only if the network gave him next to no notes about the product he was putting out, and in return he would take far less money to make the show. This strategy isn’t likely to terrify Apple or TV networks, but it’s a good lesson for younger performers: if you work hard and establish yourself, some day you’ll be able to completely control how people take in your product.

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