Perhaps you’ve heard the news about comedian Louis C.K. latest standup special. If not, here’s a quick summary from the New York Times:
“Louis C. K. decided last week to go direct with his fans: no cable special, no middleman, just a simple download for $5 on his Web site to see his comedy show “Louis C. K.: Live at the Beacon Theater.” The show could be viewed as the consumer wished, with no rights protection or expensive subscription. A buy-it-and-watch-it proposition, no cable company involved. He was also, of course, enabling people to watch it free — without digital rights management, it was there for the pirating — and some went right to the torrent sites and did so.” (link)
Since Louis himself has called this release “an experiment”, I thought it would be appropriate to treat it as such and see what conclusions can be drawn.
One conclusion you might draw is that Louis C.K. is a really smart, forward thinking guy. You’d be right of course, but since that conclusion isn’t all that enlightening, I’d like to momentarily give Louis his due and then quickly move on.
Another conclusion might be that this is “the future” of media distribution. Certainly if you take the old corporate model and compare it to Louis C.K.’s self distribution strategy, the latter looks a lot more appealing. After all, Louie C.K.’s strategy is working. After twelve days he’s already surpassed one million dollars in sales.
Of course Louis is not the first to figure this out. Radiohead did something very similar with the release of In Rainbows. And there have been plenty of other pioneers, such as science fiction author Cory Doctorow and the game designers who participate in the Humble Indie Gaming Bundle. Louis is just one of the first prominent comedians to try this sort of self distribution. Which is evidence of this business model actively spreading into new art forms.
So let’s dissect this new model:
First of all, it assumes the absence of strong piracy controls. For the last decade we have watched the record industry, Hollywood, and other content owners flailing wildly in a losing battle to defend their intellectual property. Their latest desperate attempt—the SOPA and PIPA bills currently being debated in congress—is generating massive resistance. But although people recognize how bad the specifics of SOPA/PIPA are, I think we should consider a much more general truth: namely that any enforcement of intellectual property involves problematic trade-offs. This is because by definition protecting IP requires inserting onerous surveillance and censorship capabilities into the network. So while it might someday be possible to architect a piracy-free internet, there will almost certainly be collateral damage in the areas of privacy, freedom of speech, and innovation.
In any event, the currently reality is one where piracy thrives. And if you go the self distribution route (which means you don’t have an army of corporate lawyers at your disposal) you are going to have even less recourse when it comes to people illegally downloading your product.
Since self distributors of media products can’t stop piracy, if they are smart they adopt a non-coercive stance. Essentially the creator goes directly to the fans and says, “Hey I know you could just pirate this and get it for free but could you please just do me a favor and pay for it anyway?”
It’s kind of like public radio. Or busking.
While Louis CK’s experiment has been wildly successful, there are a couple key points we should acknowledge:
- Louis CK is a huge star with an already established fan base. This model won’t necessarily work for just anybody.
- Self distribution is still a novelty. So there’s a certain amount of automatic good will engendered by the fact that “Wow, someone famous actually gets it.”
Of these points, number (1) is more obvious but (2) is perhaps more important.
It’s very cool to see Louis C.K. play the role of pioneer, but when the next comedian tries this route will it lose some of its luster? What about when every amateur and professional in the field is doing it? Will fans get burned out? Or at least less impressed? As in: “Oh wow, here’s another comedian graciously asking for my five dollars. What else is new?”
This might sound like a small concern, and perhaps it is. But my bigger point is really this: Such issues of cultural perception are extremely important, because if you break it down, self distributors really only have three forms of leverage at their disposal:
- Good Will
All of the best self distribution campaigns have understood these three forces and exploited them to great effect. Louis C.K.’s special is a great example. The meager five dollar price tag, the friendly web interface and its colloquial suggestion that you “buy this thing”, all these touches are attempts to make buying the special comparably convenient to pirating it. Though of course you can’t please everybody. One commenter on btjunkie writes:
“Let the record show that I’m only torrenting this because there isn’t a credit card option on his website. I love ya Louie, but I fucking HATE PayPal.”
The use of guilt requires a more gentle touch. Originally, Louis C.K.’s website contained a subtle phrase along the lines of “please don’t steal this.” But perhaps fostering guilt is a task best left to your fans. Another commenter writes:
“Go to louisck.com and [buy] the fucking [thing] for a crappy 5. Don’t be dick.”
As for generating good will, what better way to keep the party going then to publicly give more than a quarter of your earnings to charity?
Thus the modern self distribution model doesn’t rely on DRM, IP laws, or physical limitations like scarcity. Instead it relies purely on psychology and cultural norms. As such, the cultural norms that society adopts, about when it’s right or wrong to pay for something—these norms will be incredibly decisive going forward.
And it’s going to be an ongoing struggle. Creators are going to have to fight to keep their distribution platforms as convenient as possible. They are going to have to constantly find new ways to foster good will. And they may need to harness the power of guilt and find ways to shame the “freeloaders” who would pirate their content.
Ultimately this cultural battle will extend well beyond the world of media. Louis C.K.’s new stand up special is an information product. What information products have in common is they are easy to copy, cheap to distribute, and as a consequence easily pirated.
Whereas today information products are limited to things like books, music, and software, in the future more and more goods are going to become information products. For example, developments in 3D printers might make it possible to illegally download a digital file of a Sears wrench or a Marvel action figure, and then print it out using a desktop device and some cheap raw materials. Moreover, developments in virtual reality could transform even experiences into information products. While there will always be some premium to “actually being there”, if you could experience a band’s concert with surround sound and 360 degrees of visuals for far cheaper than the cost of a ticket, you might seriously consider such an alternative, right? These are just a few examples, and not even very imaginitive ones. The actual future is likely to be even more surprising. But I see no theoretical reason why over time all products can’t become information and be subject to these same issues.
In any event, I’m hopeful the future will look more like Louis C.K.’s standup special and less like SOPA/PIPA. To finish, I’ll leave you with this ad copy from Louie C.K.’s website:
“I never viewed money as being my money. I always see it as “The money”. It’s a resource. If it pools up around me then it needs to be flushed back into the system. If I make another million, I’ll give more of it away. I’ll let you know what happens because I like you getting to know what happened to your 5 dollars and bringing awareness to the bla bla bla.”
Talk about engendering good will in the era of Occupy Wall Street! If the future of media sales depends on one’s rhetorical powers, I’d say Louis C.K. is well prepared for that future.