How Louis CK won the Internet

He circumvented the entertainment industry, and made $200,000 in four days


Carlo Allegri/AP Photo

This is the week where everyone wants to be Louis CK.

In case you missed it, here’s the story so far: Louis CK, the vulgar, brilliant, humanist comedian, has just circumvented the entertainment industry completely by independently producing, promoting, distributing, and (here’s the tricky part) monetizing his latest comedy special. Louis CK: Live at the Beacon Theater is available only through the comedian’s personal website, for a fee of $5. After four days online it sold over 110,000 copies. That’s a hit by any standard: Had he moved that many copies through DVD sales and iTunes, he would still have one of the top comedy videos of the year. But he did it on his own, without having to split a dime of the proceeds with anyone (well, anyone but PayPal).

Is there a comedian, filmmaker, author or band out there that isn’t enviously taking notes on how he did it?

It was easy: He just did it. Anyone can sell content this way. His website, though well designed, is technically simple. It sells you a video download for a small fee, handled by Paypal. It’s a business model developed years ago by the porn industry, and you can easily find “turnkey” templates that’ll let you plug your own video and branding into a pre-built site.

That explains distribution. Now, how about promotion? It was similarly easy, and cheap. Actually, it was free. Louis CK used Twitter and Youtube to get the word out, release “outtake” teasers and mobilize his fans to help build a viral hype.

So there you have it, a complete disruption of the content industry, available for anyone to duplicate. There’s just one more thing to consider, however, before you try: You have to be Louis CK for it to work.

It’s true, as CNN has put it, that it took Louis CK just four days to make $200,000 ($550K minus production expenses). On the other hand, it also took him 27 years. That’s how long he’s been a stand-up comedian. He spent decades in crappy comedy clubs and casinos, facing hostile crowds and honing his craft. He’s blown a shot at a network sitcom and at an HBO series. It’s only in the last five or six years–a period of time during which he’s toured rigorously, writing a new act each year, and using social media–that he’s built a critical mass of dedicated fans (over 800,000 of them on Twitter alone).

His relationship with his audience is so tight that it allowed him to do something that Hollywood and the music industry have spent fortunes trying and failing to accomplish: He has beaten piracy. He’s beaten it without threatening his fans with lawsuits and without putting digital locks on his content. He beat it by simply asking his fans, very nicely, to please not steal his stuff.

Almost all of them complied. When Louis CK: Live at the Beacon Theater came out, the pirate who uploaded it as a Bittorrent file actually apologized in the release note:

” honestly louis i know ur here and i know u mite be mad at me but u gotta realize not everyone has paypal, not everyone has credit cards….sorry!”.

As the entertainment industry struggles to comprehend just what has happened here, they will call Louis CK an outlier, a special case, an exception. And they will be right.

But of course, all celebrities are exceptional. Whether it’s on the Internet or on MTV, there will always be many artists struggling for every one of them who makes a living. Up to now, though, we’ve had millions of artists earning close to nothing for every one who made millions. Soon, there will be thousands making hundreds for every one who makes hundreds of thousands.

It’s a better deal for creators, and a better deal for fans. A download of Louis CK’s old special sells on Amazon for $14.99.

Jesse Brown is the host of TVO.org’s Search Engine podcast. He is on Twitter @jessebrown


How Louis CK won the Internet

  1. Louis may not be mad at that guy who’s torrenting this, but I am. Guy tries to undercut this promising new model – promising for both artists and their audience – and tries to position himself as Robin Hood.

    • Everything that has ever existed is somewhere on the internet, so this was bound to happen eventually. I’m all for pirating, but I gladly paid the 5 bucks to download this. That being said, the uploader makes a good point that not everyone has paypal or a credit card, and I figure as long as the majority are paying, who’s it hurting if a couple people download it for free?

      • The artist. Why does some random dick on the internet get to decide who has the video?  That should be left to Louis. If he wants to distribute it to them for free.. or at any price.. that’s his business. He made it, it’s his. It’s not some sort of gift to the world after all.

        If he wants to sell it for a million bucks a copy. That’s his choice. Perhaps nobody would buy it, but that in no way gives anybody the right to take his choice away from him.

      • I figure as long as the majority are paying, who’s it hurting if a couple people download it for free?

        That’s just astonishing reasoning.  As long as most people are buying it legally, what’s the big deal if a few people steal it???  Based on the rationale that some people don’t have a PayPal account and/or a credit card???  Shouldn’t the person in this situation just GET A PAYPAL ACCOUNT OR A CREDIT CARD???

        To me, this rationale is just like walking into an HMV in the States, realizing that you don’t have any American currency on you (nor a credit card) and deciding “Well, I don’t have the proper currency to pay for this DVD, but as long as the majority of the people in the store are paying for this DVD, who’s it hurting if I just stick it in my bag and walk out without paying?”

        This is why so few people end up distributing their content this way.  ‘Cause sooner or later (let’s face it, SOONER) some jerk’s going to throw the thing up on some Torrent site and the game’s over.  The Louis CK example is fascinating, because it shows both that a) people are willing to pay for content online when given a reasonable opportunity to do so, but also b) no matter how internet-friendly your method of distribution is, some jerk is still going to pirate your digital material, perhaps on the rationale that because you didn’t drive to his house yourself and personally deliver a USB key with the file on it you’ve set the barrier for purchase just too high.

        • In fairness, Dan here did himself pay the $5, which suggests that he may have mixed feelings about piracy after all. 
          Louis CK set the price low enough that most people probably didn’t consider pirating it, but if that’s a big consideration, it’s an interesting comment on fans online today – the number who wouldn’t consider piracy, no matter what how high the legit price was, might be pretty small. 

        • You have a misconception about the concept of pirating something. Copying something does not remove the original, and makes your argument about walking into HMV and pocketing something invalid. I pirate as a form of protest against greed and corruption in the entertainment industry, but I always try to buy merch when I see my favourite bands play, because I know that money is going into their pockets, just like this money is going into the pocket of Louis.

          The fact that this has been such a huge success just further proves that piracy wouldn’t be an issue if prices were fair, and a fair portion of the profits were going to the artists.

          I did pay my 5 bucks this time, just like I paid 10 bucks for Radiohead’s In Rainbows when it came out, and just like I’ll pay what’s fair the next time an artist decides to do this.

          I’m not pro-theft, I’m anti-greed.

          • The fact that this has been such a huge success just further proves that piracy wouldn’t be an issue if prices were fair.

            Isn’t that argument just slightly undercut by the fact that the video was pirated within days despite the fact that the price was fair?

            The proper response to someone trying to sell you a product at an over-inflated price is to refuse to buy the product, not to find a pirated version somewhere for free. You’re not really “anti-greed” you’re anti- OTHER PEOPLE’s greed. I hate to burst your bubble, but if you think that you’re entitled to get something for free if, in your opinion, the owner has asked too high a price for it, well, that’s actually an example of YOUR greed. The notion that you’re entitled to other people’s property for free if they’re not willing to sell it to you for the price that YOU set is ludicrous and repugnant.

            You’re more than free to decide what’s a fair price and what isn’t. You’re free to not pay for things that you think are a rip-off. However, you can’t have your cake and eat it too, and the notion that you should be thus entitled is childish.

          • So who died and made you god of what’s fair?

            You’re right that it’s not stealing when you copy something without their permission.

            No, when you take advantage of someone elses labour without compensation or consent, it’s not theft.

            It’s fucking slavery.

          • Hahahahahaha! Take advantage of someone elses labour???

            That’s exactly what I’m protesting against, and the exact reason Louis did this to begin with. I’m not going to pay for something when I know that very little of the profits are going to the talent, and most are going into the pockets of millionaires who had very little to do with the final product.

            I don’t think I’m the god of deciding what’s fair, but I do know that it’s unfair to pay 30 dollars for a DVD just because some rich executive wants a gold plated Hummer.

          • No. You’re protesting it if you walk up to the cops and do it in front of them.

            Otherwise you’re just a pathetic little pissant.

            Incidentally, which of those bands had guns put to their heads and said if they don’t sign on to the terms the record industry demands they’ll get shot?

            Could it be they agreed to the arrangement out of their own free will, and whether you approve of it or not only matters if you’re a self-entitled prick who thinks you know what’s better for the band/artist than they do.

  2. Jesse: You mention $550,000.00 minus “production expenses”. Does that include the cost to distribute over 110,000 copies of the movie to purchasers? I don’t think that that would be a negligible cost.

    • They’re digital copies, not physical.

      • Ummm… I was trying to get at the bandwidth costs…

        • Just to ballpark it, if every one of the 110,000 people downloaded the HD file once it would cost around $10,000 to $11,000 in outbound transfer fees from Amazon AWS (if I did my math right).

    • You must’ve missed the part about this being a download only.

      • You must have missed the part where I didn’t specify what form of distribution I was asking about. He must have had bandwidth costs to distribute the media file to purchasers… Also, please see my above comment where I further clarified my initial question (which was posted before your comment that this is in reply to).

        • Compared to the cost of pressing and shipping DVDs, the cost almost certainly was negligible. But I’m guessing whatever he’s paying for bandwidth came out of that $350k.

    • All you have to do is look at the statement he posted on his website:

      “The development of the website, which needed to be a very robust, reliable and carefully constructed website, was around $32,000. 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.”

  3. Kudos to Louis, but I gotta take issue of his use of the term ‘stealing’.  Copyright infringement may be wrong, but it is not stealing.  Contrary to theft, the rightsholder has not lost anything tangible and the original work is unaffected.  Yes it’s wrong, but piracy is a different kind of wrong than stealing.

    • He didn’t. The term is Jesse’s.

  4. Didn’t Radiohead do this like 4 years ago?

    • Not exactly. They did a “pay-what-you-want” deal.

    • Variations have been done by a variety of people, some famous, some not. Radiohead did a pay-what-you-want deal and I believe also always intended to a formal release as well. More interesting is someone like Jonathan Coulton who was not famous before he started releasing and selling his music on the Internet. There are numerous examples of musicians, writers, series and artists of all types making their livings primarily on the Internet.

      The real story is not that Louis CK did something entirely new but that he’s migrating from the old model into the new.

  5. “There’s just one more thing to consider, however, before you try: You have to be Louis CK for it to work.”

    Not exactly true. You need to have a product people want and know about for it to work. But that’s not really any change from the old business model.

  6. I absolutely love this model. I did buy and would buy from artists/comedians/etc. all the time. I love that Louis nailed it. Hope he sells a million more copies.

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