On Louis CK, the Future of Media, and How We Feel About Money and Corporations

by Reihan Salam

It turns out that Arpit Gupta and I are fans of the comedian Louis CK, best known for his short-lived HBO series Lucky Louie and his critically-acclaimed FX series Louie. We’ve both been following his latest experiment, which will hopefully be embraced by many other performers in the years to come. CK decided to sell a video of his latest performance as a digital download directly to fans for $5. It turns out that the experiment has been a great success:

The show went on sale at noon on Saturday, December 10th. 12 hours later, we had over 50,000 purchases and had earned $250,000, breaking even on the cost of production and website. As of Today, we’ve sold over 110,000 copies for a total of over $500,000. Minus some money for PayPal charges etc, I have a profit around $200,000 (after taxes $75.58). This is less than I would have been paid by a large company to simply perform the show and let them sell it to you, but they would have charged you about $20 for the video. They would have given you an encrypted and regionally restricted video of limited value, and they would have owned your private information for their own use. They would have withheld international availability indefinitely. This way, you only paid $5, you can use the video any way you want, and you can watch it in Dublin, whatever the city is in Belgium, or Dubai. I got paid nice, and I still own the video (as do you). You never have to join anything, and you never have to hear from us again.

Though I think it’s a safe bet that CK isn’t a pro-market right-winger like yours truly (though I have to say, his riff on airplanes really resonates), I was struck by the following from his statement:

I learned that money can be a lot of things. It can be something that is hoarded, fought over, protected, stolen and withheld. Or it can be like an energy, fueled by the desire, will, creative interest, need to laugh, of large groups of people. And it can be shuffled and pushed around and pooled together to fuel a common interest, jokes about garbage, penises and parenthood.

Money can be like an energy, fueled by the desire to make a mark in the world, to create products and experiences that are loved and shared. In a discussion of his experiment in an online forum, CK describes what he’d do with outsized profits: (a) buy a home and (b) reinvest in future creative projects. This is a more common sentiment among the Wilt Chamberlains of the world than is widely understood. If CK’s Beacon Theater performance continues to sell, he might enter the ranks of the top 1% by AGI on the strength of digital downloads alone. He wouldn’t necessarily be there permanently — a notion he alludes to in his set when he jokes about living differently from his audience members for the next 18 months or so — but of course that is true of many top earners, who enter the top 1% when they experience a particularly flush year and then drop out (though I suspect they generally don’t fall very far).  

When asking potential viewers not to download his performance without paying for it, Louis CK stresses that he is a regular guy and not a corporation. Most corporations, of course, are collections of regular guys (and gals) who work together over long periods of time in some organized or semi-organized fashion to achieve goals that they couldn’t achieve as quickly or as well if they worked separately. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.