Hey Louis C.K., Open Your Web Platform For Aspiring Comics

Recently the world of digital entertainment was rocked by a disrupter known for taking the stage wearing almost exclusively black shirts and jeans. This guy is obsessed with details about how his product should look, sound, and feel to consumers, no matter how or where they consume it. He micromanages pricing and insists on making sure every aspect of how people buy his stuff is as frictionless a process as possible. Really, what makes him so good is that he thinks like a consumer, like a user. You might say he thinks different.

He's Louis C.K.

The edgy comedian recently decided to self-produce and -distribute his latest standup special via the web. By building his own online distribution platform and selling the video of his routine for $5 himself, he forwent taking the traditional route of partnering with a major studio. The question now isn't whether the comic has found an innovative new business model for the industry--but whether he might open up his web platform to other aspiring comedians, who could take advantage of the service to create a new source of revenue and promotion.

For C.K., the risk has certainly paid off: His performance at Manhattan's Beacon Theater was a blockbuster, with 50,000 people purchasing access to the video online just hours after it went on sale. Within days, C.K. had sold more than 110,000 copies of the performance, enough to pay off all production costs and earn him a cool $200,000 in profit. 

But there's business beyond the one C.K. has made for himself. "The development of the website, which needed to be a very robust, reliable and carefully constructed website, was around $32,000," C.K. wrote on his website, playing the part of lean startup entrepreneur. "We worked for a number of weeks poring over the site to make sure every detail would give buyers a simple, optimal and humane experience for buying the video." 

In other words, he's created a new product for video distribution, without the need for middlemen-services such as YouTube or Pivotshare. It's an incredibly simple platform, but one that's been streamlined and heavily publicized by the Louis C.K. brand. "What if I make another special like this one and put it up for $5 again, and it goes gangbusters? It makes, say, $8 million--I don't know that that is even possible," C.K. told Reddit. "I'm trying to find out what the potential is with this one."

His product had a successful launch, now how does he grow it into a business?

First, and most altruistically, C.K. could make the platform entirely open source, letting the $32,000 product he's built help other comedians who are struggling to make ends meet on the standup circuit. Otherwise, he could sell the platform as a kit to his fellow comedians, or possibly license the source code in exchange for a cut of the revenues.  

At this point, it's unlikely C.K. will follow any of these routes--he counts his new business venture as research. "I'm learning right this minute a huge amount with this web experiment," he told fans during his "Ask Me Anything" visit to Reddit. "This live at the Beacon thing is like that thing in the movie Twister where they send a bunch of little data collecting balls up into a tornado and just download the lovely results. The whole thing has been like that, from the moment it went online and I saw the results of every decision I made. The last question the web guys asked me before we posted was if I wanted the mail list button defaulted to 'opt in' or 'opt out.' And I said start it at 'opt out.' It's such a tiny thing but I keep hearing about it from people. So so interesting to watch this grow."

According to C.K., early results show the money he's pulled in so far is less than what he would've made from traditional studio distribution. But he believes the good will it's generated among his fans, who will get access to DRM-free content for the low cost of $5 (rather than, say, the $15 or $20 it might cost for a DVD), is worth any losses he's taking. And if he ever decides to open up his platform--or sell it as a packaged kit--it could end up being yet another way the comic is changing the industry for the better.

[Image: Flickr user zokuga]

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5 Comments

  • Daniel M. Clark

    I think you're missing two very important points in trying to make a major story out of something that's really very minor. First, he's a comedian, not a small business web entrepreneur. He hired companies and people to set up the site and produce the show. He had a hand in some of the video tasks, like editing, but ultimately, he did a great job of hiring great people. 

    Second, he doesn't have a "platform". You know what it takes to do what he did? An Amazon S3 account, a PayPal account and a webhost that can handle the traffic. That's it. Anyone, literally, anyone, can do that without having to pay Louis CK. Hire a web design company to set up the site, host somewhere reliable, and you're done. 

    He's selling video downloads on his website... that's all. It's not a big deal.

    That said, Louis CK is a brilliant comedian and very, VERY smart for forgoing the corporate production and handling the distribution himself. I bought the special, it's hysterical (he'd hate that I called it that).

  • Tyler Gray

    ... And you're oversimplifying this process. Let's even take the production, direction, writing, editing, etc. of his live show out of the equation--all of which he did. To make sure his platform runs exactly like he wants it to, he had to micromanage almost every aspect of it. Does he write code? No. But he didn't just throw together a bunch of prefab parts to make this thing. It was built to be pretty unique--from the way it was easy to use, to the tough decisions made about how the video could be shared. Just because you don't mop the floors of the office at night doesn't mean you don't run a small business. 

    Few if any comedians at his level have done this--not the way he's done it. There are plenty of others out there who would like to replicate his success. And this story explores how he might enable them. 

    There is even another angle here, which we want to veer into with this story, and that's the fact that you'd likely not know as much about Louis C.K. if he didn't try and fail at a couple of TV shows, if some of the very people he eschewed in making this didn't spend (overspend) trying to promote or make shows of his the old fashioned, bloated way. They shows ("Lucky Louie") and movies ("Pootie Tang") might not have taken off, but they got his name out there, and, at least in part, they enabled him to have enough name recognition to keep getting standup shows and specials, to help convince John Landgraf to fund (underfund) "Louie" on FX for a lump sum. "Louis," in combination with all he'd done before, helped promote the brand of Louis C.K. so he could have the luxury of ditching the old system and sell his special directly to fans. So there was a lot riding on that. Decades of brand building. That's the kind of pressure he faced with this. One wrong decision about how to build this platform could have toppled so much of that work. 

    That's risk, learning from failure, innovation--all key elements in a startup. 

  • Indie Books List

    Agreed. I thought he was overcharged a bit for $32K...but I guess it was worth the cash to make sure everything went smoothly. My guess is they built the thing on the AWS platform, using multiple memcached instances, node balancers, and a ton of other stuff to make sure the site scaled.

    In addition, I'm sure Louis is extra concerned with data privacy, so he made sure the servers were hardened. Yes, he probably could have had some guys on Reddit build it for cheaper, but he paid the pros, won kudos, and no complaints that I know of. 
    Over time, that $32K is well spent, as it is a sunk cost. The truth is, lesser comics could do the same thing. They just wouldn't have the brand of Louis C.K. behind them. His reputation, planning, and a killer concept made this a success. Not to mention the price.Given the comic's respect for the process of growth, I doubt that he will just offer up his platform. He'll make the other guys do it themselves, so they can mature as businessmen, and really understand the back end of the business.

  • friedcheese

    How about a monthly deal, a new special from some comic, let's let the audience vote from a list of available comics, winner gets to do the headline monthly speacial...$5. 

    Basically establish something, anything monthly and brand the gosh-darn thing!!! 

    I recommend 'The Bald Fat Guy' for the brand. :) 

  • Rick

    That totally his decision to make, and not anyone's place to judge him for it. Maybe he didn't do this with altruistic intentions, and opening this up for others would add liability, cost, and headache while making a hugely rewarding project into a painful labor for money he doesn't necessarily need.

    However complicated this project has been for him personally, I am sure that supporting more people will make it exponentially complex, requiring ever increasing administrative overhead and more and more complicated rules in order for it to work.

    Sure, in 4 days he may make $500,000 with insanely low cost, but getting greedy and making this into the next big thing may become a huge burden that just makes him want to go blow his head off.

    I say to each his own, he made a system he can be proud of, if he has close friends who are comedians that would benefit from the same thing, he can share a blueprint with them and not take on responsibility for doing something that is totally against his original goal. Not to say I have a clue what that is, but it's not anyone's place to suggest what his next steps should be; after all, it was his own idea that got him the results we are seeing now, not some author's unequivocal brilliance from some small article on a shitty blog... No offense.

    Whether he does or doesn't is no biggie to me, more power to him, but reading some pretentious article from someone claiming to know what he should do next just came across like Louis' whiny impression of his, "Nyahhhh, you should like, totally make this into the next Youtube for comics, nyahhhhhhh...." Like it never occurred to him in the first place and he isn't totally capable of making that judgement for himself. Ridiculous.