The Louis C.K. Experiment

The Louis C.K. Experiment

“If I put out a brand new standup special at a drastically low price ($5) and make it as easy as possible to buy, download and enjoy, free of any restrictions, will everyone just go and steal it? Will they pay for it? And how much money can be made by an individual in this manner?”

Written in a statement on his website, these were the thoughts which comedian Louis C.K. considered prior to producing and distributing his own comedy special. Seen as an experiment, C.K. chose to forgo the traditional method of comedy show production by hiring his own team to tape his performances at the Beacon Theater. He then sold his video to the public through a custom-built website at the low, low price of $5, a feat which was possible thanks to C.K.’s efforts to keep costs down by handling the distribution and publicity himself.

The Numbers

At first, such an experiment seems destined to fail, especially since DRM-free content is piracy and torrent bait. Looking at finances, Production costs weighed in at around $170,000, and the website which hosted C.K.’s video cost around $32,000 to create. But at the end of the day, C.K. had 50,000 people purchasing the video within 12 hours of opening for sale on its first day. In four days, he had sold $110,000 copies, and to this date, C.K. has profited over a cool million due to his low-cost production experiment.

The money isn’t going to C.K.’s head, either. He writes:

“The first 250k is going to pay back what the special cost to produce and the website to build. The second 250k is going back to my staff and the people who work for me on the special and on my show. I’m giving them a big fat bonus. The third 280k is going to a few different charities….That leaves me with 220k for myself.”

How It Was Possible

So, it looks like the majority of users are actually purchasing C.K.’s video, not pirating it. What made the experiment such a huge victory? Of course, part of this success story can be attributed to C.K.’s humor. He’s hilarious. But being funny isn’t always enough to pay the bills, and C.K. ensured his success by taking on a radically different approach to entertainment: he was upfront, honest, and humble.

He worked closely with his team to build a website that was as simple and easy-to-navigate as possible. He kept the price low enough that the majority of his audience was more inclined to purchase. He clearly outlined his intents and how he has benefitted from the experience on his website, all of which is written in a tone that is clearly appreciative of his fans, relieved everything worked out, and excited for future possibilities. The experiment became a team effort, and his audience became the MVPs.

For C.K.’s experiment, it wasn’t about the money – it was about the content, and the numbers prove that people are willing to purchase material if it’s distributed in an open and honest manner.

The Effect

C.K.’s experiment probably won’t change the media industry overnight, but it’s still pretty cool to consider the ramifications from a professional perspective. After all, C.K. created a humble and truthful image while maintaining his sense of humor online. He promoted his video via social media outlets and answered questions on Reddit, making users feel less like they’re buying their entertainment from “The Man” and instead helping out a hilarious, foul-mouthed friend.

Professionally, this was a huge plus for C.K. because it shows his fans what kind of character he has. As an audience, we like seeing good people win, and C.K.’s actions have increased the likelihood that his fanbase will remain large and loyal. Other artists will hopefully take notice of C.K.’s successes because, after all, people are more likely to buy something if they like the person they’re purchasing from.

There’s another effect on C.K.’s experiment has created. As overtly poetic as it sounds, the essence of art has been maintained. The public wants to be entertained, and C.K. provided in a way that was entirely unlike what so many individuals have grown accustomed to. No ads, no restrictions, no insanely high prices – just content designed to make an audience laugh and share an experience. While not every artist would achieve Louis C.K.’s success without a large fanbase, it’s nice to see that it’s possible to create something original and benefit from it as an entity separate from entertainment big-wigs.

What about media? Will more artists and entertainment companies take a hint from Louis C.K. and make more of an effort to provide low-cost, low-restriction content?

Share your thoughts in the comments.

Scott Kaufmann
[email protected]

Scott is Partner at Lucid Agency and a lover of all things technology, marketing, investing and entrepreneurship. Scott volunteers on the board of the Denver-based Nonprofit Celebrate EDU and as a mentor for SeedSpot (a Phoenix-based social startup incubator).

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