Comedian Louis C.K. took a big risk when he offered up a new comedy special for download this week. The hour-long recording of his standup set cost about $200,000 to produce and the comic offered it for only $5 a pop, free of digital locks and ripe for illegal file sharing. His only defence against pirates? A personal plea for fans to do the right thing.
Now he's laughing all the way to the bank. The special, Live at the Beacon Theatre, made $500,000 in revenue in less than four days, Louis C.K. reported Tuesday, making the niche comic suddenly the poster boy for selling art directly to fans.
"I'm really glad I put this out here this way and I'll certainly do it again," he said on his website. The $5 buys a fan the ability to stream the special online, or download a high-definition copy from the site, free of digital controls that prevent sharing.
Of course, Louis C.K. (real name Louis Szekely) is hardly an unknown. While he's not Robin Williams or Ben Stiller, the comedian makes a sitcom, Louie, for U.S. cable channel FX and is a popular standup act (he sold out two back-to-back Toronto shows in October). The direct-to-fans online sale also follows in the footsteps of rock band Radiohead and mashup artist Girl Talk.
The comedian says he could have been paid a lot by a big production company to produce the special, but he wanted to take on the risk – and rewards – of investment himself.
"The risks were thus: every new generation of material I create is my income, it's like a farmer's annual crop," the comic wrote. "The time and effort on my part was far more than if I'd done it with a big company. If I'd done it with a big company, I would have a guarantee of a sizable fee, as opposed to this way, where I'm actually investing my own money."
No doubt a large part of his success was the personal appeal, which wasn't much of a stretch for a comic renowned for bringing the most intimate details of his private life into his act. He has been appealing to fans directly on the popular aggregating website Reddit, answering questions as varied as his backstage antics, why he edits his shows himself and his views on religion.
When one fan asked him how much money he had made off the special, Louis C.K. quipped: "5 dollars. Seriously. Only one guy bought it. Pretty surprising, right?"
Talking directly to fans via social media has worked for Louis C.K. before. For his Toronto standup dates, he posted on Twitter the day of the show asking for any folk musicians who would be free that night. Steven Page (formerly of the Barenaked Ladies) and local banjo musician Darren Eedens answered the call and opened for him later that night.
In his appeal for fans to pay and not pirate his latest special, Louis C.K. emphasized his personal situation as an artist.
"Please bear in mind that I am not a company or a corporation. I'm just some guy. I paid for the production and posting of this video with my own money," he wrote.
As of Wednesday afternoon, about 600 users were "seeding" the most popular torrent of the special on The Pirate Bay, one of the biggest networks for downloading media. That's more hosts than most files, but nowhere near the number for big Hollywood films that can boast more than 5,000 seeders.
For Louis C.K, this experiment was a successful money maker. And for other artists that toy with selling their work online, it could be another distribution model to follow.