For the past several years I have dedicated ever increasing mental resources to figuring out how best to connect with an audience for Popular Uprising’s independent series in a way that allows us to keep producing these series in a reasonable amount of time, with high production values, working with (and paying!) good people and do it all without ending up living on the street. Throughout this process, Mr. Louis CK has been blazing a new trail. And I love him for it!
To anyone living under a rock, Louis CK is a comedian who writes, directs, and stars in his own comedy series on HBO, Louie. So right there, the guy is already living the dream. But he also pushed the envelope on digital distribution by releasing his most recent concert video via his web site for a flat 5 bucks with no DRM. The man gave people what they wanted, got some piracy that he could never have avoided anyway, and quickly made over a million bucks on the concert film.
Here’s another thing to love about this guy: he took the million he made and split it (roughly) four ways between paying off the production expenses, giving his team a bonus, stuffing a well deserved share in his pocket, and sending $280K to a variety of charities he liked a lot. In other words, he took the 30%-ish that would have gone to a distributor and gave it to charities instead! Now more comedians like Aziz Ansari are following his lead and releasing their concert films through a similar model. (Of course it would be f-ing awesome if they also imitated Louie’s largesse, but they’re under no obligation to do so.)
But that is all so six months ago. How is Louis CK pushing the distribution envelope lately? Glad you asked. Louis just announced that for his current tour, he will be handling all ticket sales directly from his web site. All tickets will be $45 regardless of venue or seat location, and taxes etc. come out of that 45 bucks.
Talk about empowering your fans. For years I’ve been following the monopolistic exploits of what Fast Company Magazine calls “The Most Hate Brand in America” a.k.a. Ticketmaster. Rock-dwellers: Ticketmaster locks up exclusive ticketing rights to a vast majority of the major venues in the US and then charges exorbitant ticketing fees—sometimes up to 50% of the ticket price to fulfill those ticket orders. In other words, just about any time any rock fan buys a ticket to a major music show in this country, they might as well sit back and enjoy it while Ticketmaster takes their hefty cut for a service that the Internet has made essentially irrelevant if not for those exclusive venue contracts.
Then came Louis CK. The man decided to take a risk, play some smaller venues that have remained independent and bypass Ticketmaster completely. That means he can charge a ticket fee that lets him support his show and lets his fans see it at a price they can better live with. Hell, maybe they can afford dinner and some drinks afterwards without going into hock to Mastercard. Who loses? Well, Ticketmaster and the scalpers who will be locked out by the simple protections Mr. CK’s IT peeps have put into place. (Scalpers, of course, are just Ticketmaster without lobbyists and the patina of corporate identity.) Try not to cry too hard for these guys.
Louis explains best in his open letter, so I’ll just point you there and not try to put words into the man’s mouth.
Employing the LCK model
So clearly, I’m in awe. I hope like hell that artists everywhere will follow the Louis CK model for future tours and use the disruptive force of technology put Ticketmaster the hell out of business—or at least force them to reduce their exploitive fees to something reasonable for the actual service they provide. (Anyone remember the unsuccessful Pearl Jam v Ticketmaster lawsuit? Eddie Vedder, you owe Louis CK a beer when he swings through Seattle—though I’d be happy to buy the first round if I could ride to the bar in your awesome Batmobile.)
But how does this help someone like me? This model is clearly reproducible for any comedian or band with a national following—just book similar venues and follow the playbook. But for an act that is not yet well known with a built in audience, how do you replicate this? And how does a completely different medium—like independent series—employ the lessons of this breakthrough?
I think the answer is to look at the basic principles of what Louis CK is really doing with his various marketing exploits. To me, these are the key takeaways:
Stay connected with your audience
Your audience is always the source of all your power. Improved contact through technology is a better opportunity to stay connected with the people who enable you to do everything you do. Value them and listen to them and you can’t grow stale or out of touch.
Improve the experience for your audience
Figure out what is getting in the way of your audience enjoying your content. Is it the unnecessary wait they must endure because they happen to live outside the US? Or some usurious ticketing system? Or perhaps the prices they must pay are out of whack because too many third parties who add little to no value are between the artist and fans. Give people what they want when they want it if you can.
Cut out the middleman if they don’t add anything of value
The film distribution business is rife with people trying to get between artists and audiences. One of the things that was so attractive to me about creating independent series for Internet distribution was the idea of limiting the people between the creators and the fans.
Trust the quality of your own product
You can’t do any of this without truly believing in the quality of what you’re putting out there as an artist.
Don’t worry about piracy, naysayers, or detractors
So many distribution models are built from the ground up to try to stop piracy, theft, whatever. Look at the Apple iTunes Store—they are obviously more concerned with enforcing DRM than with enhancing the customer experience. They had to be in order to initially launch their service in a time when piracy concerns were at a fever pitch. But of course, it is ludicrous to think that it’s ever possible to eliminate all piracy. Today, the approach by Louis CK or Tom Lowe with his amazing video (and DRM-free breakout hit) Timescapes is to just not worry about piracy at all and decide that—at a reasonable price—the paying market for your product will more than displace the pirates. As for naysayers and detractors—well screw ‘em. There will always be haters. Artists are under no obligation to give a shit about them.
Be bold and courageous
It does take a lot of courage to put yourself out there without any of the typical accouterments of a big release. I imagine that in the dark of night, Mr. CK occasionally asks himself what the hell he was thinking. Sleep well, Louis. You were thinking that there has to be a better way. Innovation is the paramount American virtue. I’m right behind you, Buddy! I just got to figure out how to apply your success principles to my world of independent series from lesser-known content creators. But you’re giving me a lot of motivation!
Douglas Horn is a feature film writer-director and a creator of independent series. Douglas and Dan Southworth founded the web media company Popular Uprising. The company’s action/sci-fi series DIVERGENCE will release its first season in 2012. More information at: DouglasHorn.comandWhatIsDivergence.com