Louis C.K.-A Love Letter

Louis C.K.

By: Amy Ahrens

This week we are sending another letter of love to one of the first comedians to independently film and produce his own comedy specials — six-time Emmy award winner Louis C.K. By offering them up for just $5 via PayPal on his own website, he earned $1 million in just four days.

In 2011, Louis’ fans were able to download two copies of “Live at the Beacon Theatre” without any sharing or permission rights assigned to it, or DRM (Digital Rights Management) rules applying to it. Once fans downloaded it, they could share it or even post it to a torrent site for download by thousands of others. C.K.’s theory was the by allowing users to share it, it would discourage rampant piracy, which it actually likely did.

When it did hit popular piracy (torrent) websites, “C.K. says that particular torrenter received thousands of notes from people who shouted him down and told him he shouldn’t have posted the video,” according to an interview CK did with NPR in 2011.

He knows he’s appealing to the anti-establishment audience by producing and distributing it outside of mainstream channels and offering it for nothing. It was a smart marketing move, no doubt. But, when we read the letter he penned to his fans four days into it, we began to think otherwise:

He begins:

hi. So it’s been about 12 days since the thing started and yesterday we hit the crazy number. One million dollars. That’s a lot of money. Really too much money. I’ve never had a million dollars all of a sudden. and since we’re all sharing this experience and since it’s really your money, I wanted to let you know what I’m doing with it. People are paying attention to what’s going on with this thing. So I guess I want to set an example of what you can do if you all of a sudden have a million dollars that people just gave to you directly because you told jokes.

So I’m breaking the million into four pieces:

  • 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. They are listed below in case you’d like to donate to them also. Some of these i learned about through friends, some were recommended through twitter.
  • The Fistula Foundation
  • The Pablove Foundation
  • charity: water
  • Kiva
  • Green Chimneys

That leaves me with $220k for myself. Some of that will pay my rent and will care for my children. The rest I will do terrible, horrible things with and none of that is any of your business. In any case, to me, $220k is enough out of a million.

There’s two charming things about the approach he took. First, he bucked the system and who doesn’t love that? Second, he was 100% transparent with his fans on how it netted out for him. He detailed the costs to produce and film the event, deducted ticket sales at the venue that it was filmed at (which paid for the filming) and the $30K+ costs to build a robust enough website to handle the traffic, downloads and Paypal transactions. In a subsequent post on his website, he barely mentions the fact that he honed the material for months on the road in front of fans, which undoubtedly represents hundreds of hours of work.

His approach indirectly conveyed two messages to his fans. One, that he valued them by releasing new content to them first and for a price that many could afford. Two, by telling his fans what it cost to make it happen and his resulting profit, he was transparent with his fan base before marketers realized it was cool and became a tactic itself. As a result, it humanized him even more and probably earned him new fans for his alternative approach.

While the aforementioned wasn’t his first time self-publishing, it was definitely the most successful until he used an appearance on “Late Night with David Letterman” in January of 2015 to announce that he would be releasing and selling “Live at the Comedy Store” on his website. He also emailed his opt-in fan base that it was available and within days, the sales surpassed the first one he sold on his website.

In previous years, he also dabbled in selling tickets to his own shows, rather than letting the venue he’s performing at or allowing ticketing behemoths to do so, and even debuted his first comedy album, “Live in Houston” on his website. And, while C.K. did recently join the Netflix family, who will film and produce two of his comedy specials this year, he’s proven that a hybrid model might be the typical future for artists. He’s proven that if there’s a passion project an artist or entertainer wants 100% control over, it can be done.

While C.K. had certainly amassed a following and had prior success before his $1 million dollar success with his popular series on FX “Louis”, few artists today are able to tackle content distribution that C.K. seems to do with ease. He continues to play with interactive marketing and launched in December a mobile version of his site that makes it even easier for his fans to find tour dates and download and buy his content and, he’s in control of the message.

We send our love to you Louis. We send our love.