Louis C.K. and the DIY DVD experiment

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An old-fashioned video camera


The answer to stabilizing content and price is letting artists retain greater control of their work.

Louis C.K. likes to do things himself. He likes having control over his work and being able to share the process and proceeds however he likes. It seems to be successful. In December, he made more than a million dollars--in 12 days--from a DRM-free and modestly priced video he created and posted to his website.

Louis C.K. is a comedian. His TV show on FX, Louie, is a comparatively low-budget, largely biographical affair. FX paid about $200,000 for the pilot and $250,000 per episode ($300,000 per episode for season two). He had to produce the show out of that money, leaving far less than most TV stars make (and far less than other networks might have offered). But there was one alluring catch: full editorial control.

Editing and production work for the show isn’t done in the studio, by executives and professional editors. It’s done by Louis C.K., at home on his laptop, using a combination of software tools that video enthusiasts might be familiar with.

The development process is insular--Louis doesn’t have to submit a script for approval or show the rough cut to producers. He and his crew film and put together each show, and then he gives the final product to FX. They air it.

It’s one stunningly simple way to streamline the production process.

How do we know these kinds of things? Because Louis C.K. talks about it. Sometimes in his stand-up, sometimes just because someone asked. (It was refreshing to see his QnA on Reddit recently. Refreshing and hilarious.) His comedy is very transparent, but so are his goals and process.

Given that it’s worked thus far for Louie--and that Louis C.K. was annoyed with the arduous and largely low-profit process of producing comedy specials, not to mention the edited and garbled results--he decided to take a shot at making one himself.

He took the profits from a stand-up show (again, roughly $250,000) and used it to pay for the cost of filming, production, and building a website with the tools he’d need to handle streaming and downloaded video. On December 9, 2011, he released a live recorded comedy show for $5 (payable through PayPal) on his own website, DRM-free. He wrote a nice note, explaining what he’d done and why. By December 13, he knew he’d succeeded. By December 21, he’d made quite a profit. From his blog:

“One million dollars. That's a lot of money. Really too much money. I've never had a million dollars all of a sudden, and since we're all sharing this experience and since it's really your money, I wanted to let you know what I'm doing with it.”

He was specific--real figures, later verified by any number of news outlets that jumped on the story. A quarter of the profits paid back his investment (to create the video and website). He kept a second quarter of it to pay for his personal expenses, and “do terrible, horrible things with” that aren’t “any of your business.” Brutal honestly, perhaps, but that makes sense--after all, artists should profit from their art.

But what did he do with the other half-million?

Half a million dollars that would have been wasted on executives and network flunkies instead went to charity, and--in a stunningly sweet move--to the people who work for Louis C.K. directly, and helped make the film possible. He said, pretty plainly, “I'm giving them a big fat bonus.”

There are lots of counter-arguments to be made--only the wealthiest artists can afford to do it this way (sort of true, at this level of production anyway), that the people who work for him are no different from the record company people who would have been paid in the traditional corporate approach (maybe), or that lots of other artists have tried the same experiment and it only works sometimes (debatable).

But what is true here (and what was, I think, the point of Louis C.K.’s experiment) is that that if you make it as easy as possible to obtain content that is as usable as possible and priced as reasonably as possible, then as many people as possible will make an effort to pay for it, rather than download it illegally for free. And that’s why freedom works.

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"...if you make it as easy as possible to obtain content that is as usable as possible and priced as reasonably as possible, then as many people as possible will make an effort to pay for it, rather than download it illegally for free."

Sure -- if you're Louis CK.

Here's the thing: if you have a singular talent, as Louis CK does, then you have all kinds of opportunities to monetize that talent, once you've built a killer brand around it. But remember: five years ago, no one had any idea who Louis CK was. Would he have made a million dollars doing this five years ago? Would he have even made a thousand dollars?

I guess I'm agreeing with your counterargument, with a twist. It's not that only the wealthiest artists can do this; maybe it's that only the most famous artists can do this.

Ask Brad Sucks whether he's making a living with his free music. I'd be curious to know these days (and I'm too lazy to look myself).

You're totally right--which is why I brought up the counter-argument (as you also noted). But there's a counter to the counter as well: cost and profit are both dependent on what level you're at. And the goal of the DIY effort isn't just profit for the artist--but reasonable prices for the audience of the work and reasonable amounts of control for the artist of the work. I think those are noble goals, and an improvement on the big machine that controls many kinds of artistry today.

For Louis C.K., the cost was greatly increased by the required production values. Could he have been performing at a less expensive venue, and recording the video on a hand-held with a friend doing the camera work? Yes--and that would defray a large amount of cost. Another area where cost shifts is the download mechanism--he hosted his own site, and had to provide enough bandwidth to support an expected large audience. And he chose to produce in multiple formats--download, streaming, etc. All those things had extensive overhead that could at least be shrunk for a less-wealthy/less-famous artist.

The question of whether it's profitable is also sliding-scale. Will Joe Musician or Jane Comedian make a million dollars? Probably not. Odds are they won't even make a few thousand dollars, much less that they'll make enough for it to become their full-time job. But for all the Joes and Janes toiling in obscurity, there will occasionally be someone like Amanda Hocking (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amanda_Hocking), who isn't expecting their self-publishing to become anything and then all of a sudden, they've found the success they could only dream of.

And on the consumer side of the equation--I'm not seeing as many downsides. (It's possible I'm missing some of them, which you're welcome to point out! ;P) People get a larger variety of artistic work, at a more reasonable price. Most of the folks that self-publish are people who might never see a large-scale recording or entertainment industry contract. This material wouldn't be available were it not for self-publishing. They may not have huge mega-success, but this does provide the opportunity for exposure, and perhaps a small cadre of dedicated fans.

As for Brad Sucks, here's what he says about his own efforts (from his official web site's 'About' section, http://www.bradsucks.net/about/ ):

<em>"I put my music online because I want people to hear it. I'd obviously love to make a living making music, but if the worst-case scenario is becoming a well-heard artist that never gets paid, I can live with that."</em>

Brad Sucks doesn't seem to be making a living through his website. But then again, most comedians (and musicians, and writers, etc.) who have recording, publishing, or tour contracts... aren't making a million dollars either. A lot of them aren't making a living--writing in particular is a low-margin game. Publishing a book, even 'professionally', doesn't make you a writer who can quit your day job (just ask my dad). And most signed bands toil in obscurity, put out one record, and then quietly go back to whatever job they were doing before, and gigging on the weekends.

And if they publish independently, at least they still own their stuff when they're done.

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