3.2 Agent X
PART ONE: YOU ARE A MASSIVE WASTE OF EVERYONE'S TIME. “You are a massive waste of everyone’s time,” the final email said. Curiously, I never enjoyed being insulted more as this was exactly my desired response. I’ve wasted other people’s time. I’ve wasted my own time. However, the use of ‘you’ and ‘are’ brought an entirely new perspective on not only my situation, but my life in general.
I should back up a bit.
About six months ago, I finished writing a novel and prepared a package to send out to prospective literary agents. The package consisted of the required information established by the industry: cover letter, author biography, synopsis and an excerpt from the book. In addition, I added a few of my trademark flourishes in the design department. All in all, I felt confident that the package presented my work in a professional manner.
Others, specifically literary agents, didn’t quite feel the same way. Rejection letters started pouring in. I was operating at about 50%. Half wanted to see more, half immediately said no. Expecting this, I tried to keep my spirits up, but as any writer knows, rejection cannot help but feel somewhat personal.
I received a phone call from, let’s call him Agent X, and he wanted to talk further about the package I sent him. He was a local agent and I sent up a meeting the following week. It was a short phone call, but he sounded excited. Or at least I thought he sounded excited.
The meeting was strange. We met at his office and walked down to a main street. From what I could ascertain, he was some kind of businessman and owned many of the surrounding buildings. On the way, he yelled at and berated a maintenance person for a small leak on the side of the building. I couldn’t help but think it was for my benefit.
At the main intersection, he queried whether I wanted to go for a beer at the local pub. It was 11:00 in the morning. Instead, we went into a small teashop. I instantly recognized the man behind the counter. I had worked for him in the summer ten years previously selling t-shirts and programs at the Hummingbird Centre (now the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts) during intermissions. The show we worked was Riverdance. If I ever see another Irish dancer again, it would be too soon. Agent X went to use the washroom and I turned towards my ex-boss. I reminded him about our shared past but he didn’t recognize me. He spoke in whispers, as though he didn’t want Agent X to hear him.
We grabbed our teas and walked around the block to a park. On the way, a young woman rollerbladed past and I thought Agent X was going to get whiplash with the way his head turned and his eyes followed her. His focus returned to me, but not without a derogatory remark, and it wasn’t concerning her rollerblading skills. We sat down on a park bench and he asked about my screenplay.
“Actually, it’s a novel,” I said.
Agent X barely listened to me. His blackberry was much more interesting. In the ten minutes we were together, it never left his hand and he wrote five emails and answered three phone calls. After the second call, he referred to his girlfriend and the fact she was pregnant.
“She’s all emotional right now,” he said with a roll of the eyes. “You know how women get.”
Agent X told me that he was primarily a businessman who specialized in developing real estate. He had invested in a number of films and made a lot of contacts in the industry. This influence led into the literary world where he established working relationships at two major publishing companies. He wanted to send my manuscript out and represent it to these companies. The only thing he wanted was 15% of the initial contract.
We walked back to his office and before we went inside, an attractive looking woman approached Agent X. They cuddled in what I could say was inappropriate given that this was technically a professional business meeting. Maybe he forgot I was standing a few feet away. He told her to get a table at a restaurant around the corner. He patted her on the behind and sent her on her way.
Okay, so there were a number of red flags in this scenario. I was not having much luck on the agent front and here this guy was interested. I figured that if he could get me in the door with a reputable publishing company, I could take it from there and not have to work with him after the initial deal if I didn’t think it was a healthy relationship. He seemed relatively legitimate because of his connections to actual publishing companies familiar to me.
We drew up no contract and I walked out of there thinking I was never going to hear from this arrogant and inappropriate person again. We left off by him saying he would send the manuscript to his contacts at the publishing companies.
And I didn’t hear from him again. At least, not for a while. I forgot about him until he phoned me one day a few months later. He wanted to inform me that his contact - a senior editor at Publishing Company Z – really liked the manuscript and wanted to push for it. The editors present books to the publishing board, who in turn make the decisions on what to print. Apparently, the board usually takes the recommendations of the editors.
So, I was in.
But then I started thinking about this situation. Something did not seem right. My intuition told me I wasn’t being told the entire story. Agent X never emailed, he only called. I had no record of what he was telling me except through word of mouth. I decided to email him. I started with this:
The information I’ve received seems a bit vague. I was just wondering a few simple things about the process: Who is the point person at the publishing company? If the publishing company is seriously considering this, I would assume they would want to know more about the writer. What is the editorial process? Have their been any marketing discussions? When should there be an answer?
Reasonable, I thought. His response:
You would be dealing with Editor Y [only first name given] during the editing process. They would meet/speak to you prior to contracting, they do it by face or phone, they do it to see how amenable to making editorial changes you are. No answer about the editorial process. Sadly, publishing tends to leave marketing as a [sic] afterthought. When should there be an answer? Soon.
My intuition was correct. I should listen to it more often. Over the next five days, our exchange became increasingly strange. I purposely told him I was not available on the phone, even though he repeatedly said he wanted to call me. Everything was going to be in writing from now on. I was looking for a key piece of information, one where I could be free from this person. Finally, he played the hand I was waiting for.
After going back and forth and not receiving any information, I finally started getting a little aggressive. Unlike me, but these kinds of people bring this out I’m afraid. I want to wrap this up and get to the point, so I’ll skip right to the best part.
Finally, couched in a bunch of more vague answers, he said:
Editor Y is a senior editor at Publishing Company Z. He likes your book. Editor Y works as a freelance editor. Editor Y recommends your book after the edit to the publishing board. We can then set up a meeting with the VP’s to pitch the book.
He initially told me that a senior editor of the publishing company was going to recommend my book to the board. Agent X revealed that Editor Y was a freelance editor and we would present the manuscript to the board AFTER we edited it. The book was sitting on someone’s desk somewhere, unopened and unappreciated.
First, about the information I was requesting: I inquired about understanding who the people are involved with this process. In previous emails, I asked who the point person was at the publishing company. You replied ‘Editor Y’. I asked who Editor Y was and inquired further about his relationship to the publishing company. You offered for me to meet him, which was not what I was asking, I just wanted to know how this works. Okay, so Editor Y is a freelance editor and also the senior editor at Publishing Company Z. In the last email, you said we edit the book and then bring it to the publishing board. So, from my understanding, we were at the moment only dealing with Editor Y? This led to another question about the ‘publishing board’. So we would present a marketing plan to Editor Y or people at Publishing Company Z?
Second, how things have developed: I should have asked for clarification from the start in regards to the above information and what I have asked in previous emails. It’s clear to me now that we are going through a third party. You mentioned that the ‘senior editor’ was going to present this before the publishing board. We’ve determined that Editor Y is the senior editor. Again, Editor Y who? I can’t go by first names. And if Editor Y is the one bringing the manuscript before the publishing board, and if we needed to edit before presenting, shouldn’t we had began this process already, or at least shouldn’t I had been alerted that the editing process would come before presenting to the publishing company? I understand that this process is long, I am no stranger to this as I have years of experience in the film industry and other creative businesses. That’s not the issue to me.
Third, where we stand at the moment: After having some perspective, I feel not ready to move forward. Please inform Editor Y of my decision to re-evaluate and ask him to destroy any copies of my work. In the best interest of you and I, I think we need to amicably part ways and move forward with our respective endeavors.
Please confirm that you have read this and email me back.
This is where the whole ‘you are a waste of everyone’s time’ came in. I sent this to a lawyer who said my oral agreement with Agent X was definitely finished. Instead of feeling down about this situation, I felt empowered.
Agent X made me think about the roles of artists and those that surround the artist. I work hard on the films I’ve made and the stories I’ve written. In the end, you have to present your work to a gatekeeper, someone that holds the keys, a way in to a larger audience. Distribution. I don’t dispute that these positions aren’t necessary and help make the artistic world go round. But they are based in monetary value, and putting a price on artistic creations is as arbitrary as putting a price on love or hate. But we do because there are people behind those pieces of art that are doing a job. Art is a concept, something we give value to. A movie theatre is worthless, it’s the film that breathes life, and it’s also the film that has value. If we have to put a value on art, then we should therefore also value the artist.
I told this story about Agent X because it was the first time I felt in control of my work and made a clear decision as to what would be best for not only the book, but for me. This is strictly my opinion, but I think that an artist should be able to function within an environment where the priorities are creating the best possible quality and being remunerated for their work.
In this shifting climate of technological change, opportunities exist where independently minded and talented people can take risks like never before. There is a shift occurring in how a person functions as an artist and I believe these opportunities represent a wide spectrum of possibilities. Not only to distribute and connect your work to a wide and specific audience, but also establish innovative ways to make an income from creative endeavors. The potential is unlimited.
Through my experiences with Agent X, I learned that it is not only possible for an artist to be in charge of their careers, but as technology continues to evolve, there are certain elements that are becoming essential.
I went searching for models. But first, how did we get here?
PART TWO: DELIVERY SYSTEMS.
The past offers solutions, but as so often happens, we never learn. When Napster came along, the music industry was headed for collapse. Once music was digitized, and with it, the ease of sharing and pirating became a reality, it instantly established the idea that consumers were not only able to acquire music free, but entitled to it. I’m not going to go through the well-documented rise and demise of Napster. However, I feel this was a starting point, and many dominoes have fallen since. You can read an article about the history of Napster on the resource page found at the end of this essay.
What I believe Napster represents is the concept that the Internet in of itself functions as a source of distribution. The music industry focused on people stealing music, when they should have recognized that it was merely an easier way for customers to get their hands on the product.
Soon the music sharing website MySpace became the rage. Music was traditionally distributed by large corporations with a wide reach. The Internet, together with technological advances in recording equipment, allowed a garage band to post music and potentially have it accessible to a wider audience. In theory, this leveled the playing field. In practice, there was a problem. Quality.
Anyone could do it, so everyone did. Everything is connected, everything has a starting point. Quantity versus quality. Unfortunately, as YouTube has shown us, quantity is winning, at least for now.
I am getting ahead of myself. The record companies called foul over Napster, in my mind, not because they were worried so much about pirating, but because they feared losing their status as the gatekeepers. A few years went by and no real solutions were put in place.
Finally, Apple created the iPod and iTunes. They established a system that we are all familiar with now: the 99¢ rule. Far from perfect, but someone needed to do something. I say not perfect because Apple is becoming the ultimate gatekeeper. Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of Apple products, my house is filled with them, but there is an inherent danger in one company having this much control and influence, especially now with the latest trend of cloud computing. The more power Apple acquires over the industry translates into more sway they have in further streamlining the model and setting long term trends that obviously will work in their favour. This is not any kind of conspiracy thinking or doomsday proclamation, it’s just fact that if one company monopolizes the market, they will do what’s in their best interest. And why wouldn’t they?
Apple did what it does best: took a complex problem and simplified it. They achieved what all the music companies could not: they worked out a sustainable model instead of opting for narrow-minded short-term thinking.
The iPod, similar to itunes, is connected to MySpace and related to Napster. They are all merely delivery systems. They allow the consumer to, well, consume, and more efficiently. It’s important to differentiate between ‘consume’ and ‘change’. The iPod does not change music anymore than when the audiotape was created, or when the CD was put on the market. There are numerous ebooks on the market (delivery system for books), podcasts merely reimagine radio programming and the iPad is basically a smaller version of a computer, essentially, a delivery system (iPad) within a delivery system (a computer).
Yes, a delivery system like iTunes focuses more on individual songs than albums, but bands like Arcade Fire still find audiences that appreciate full-length works. The listeners are just more fractured and specific in their tastes and wants. The way we listen to music is going to evolve with time, so enough with this argument already.
The point is these delivery systems and their inconsistencies have distracted us from what is really going on. Not that creative industries are doomed, but that the fate of a piece of artistic work, now more than ever before, has the ability to link directly from the artist to the audience. A connection is being established in ways so specific and empowering, we are igniting the potential of the Internet as a large network of small delivery systems, to in fact, retain true independence and become a series of individual distribution companies.
The problems of the music industry are the same problems currently found in the film, television and publishing sectors. All technology has offered is the opportunity at more efficient delivery systems. The areas that stand to be most affected are the large corporations who controlled the distribution: the traditional delivery systems of Hollywood studios, television networks and publishing companies. The Internet has created a problem: a lot of money went into establishing these old distribution models. A lot of money is being lost in dismantling them. The potential is for the artist to be in charge, empowered and in control of their work.
PART THREE: MODELS.
The American humourist and bestselling author David Sedaris has - most likely unknowingly - developed an interesting model for a writer. He often travels internationally, but his appearances are not the standard book tour. In addition to the usual bookstore type signing gigs, he also does readings in theatres to paying audiences. Similar to a band touring, Sedaris connects with his readers directly. He comes from a background in radio, so his live shows are more like performances. Sedaris was making 'friends' and finding 'followers' before Facebook and Twitter existed and without being a part of the social media infrastructure.
Ricky Gervais started his comedic career later in life. Introduced to the world through his BBC hit show The Office, Gervais has taken up residency across a variety of mediums. He set the bar high with his Karl Pilkington and Stephen Merchant podcasts, a series of ‘guides’ discussing everything from art to science. In 2007, the show appeared in the Guinness World Record for most-downloaded podcast, garnering an average of 261,670 downloads per episode in the first month. Gervais started doing standup, produced more television shows, developed the podcasts into an animated series, wrote children’s books and even infamously hosted the Golden Globes (three times).
In 2007, Radiohead gave away their album In Rainbows for free. The band’s contract with long time label EMI expired and they decided to distribute the album for free over the Internet. Not exactly for free, the customer could set the price at whatever they felt. This decision caused a bit of a stir and had some in the industry criticizing the band. Radiohead is well-established and probably doesn’t necessarily need the money. “I like the people at our record company,” singer Thom Yorke said. “But the time is at hand when you have to ask why anyone needs one. And, yes, it probably would give us some perverse pleasure to say ‘Fuck you’ to this decaying business model.” In another interview, Yorke explained, “Every record for the last four has been leaked. So the idea was like, we’ll leak it then.”
The New York Times commented, “For the beleaguered recording business, Radiohead has put in motion the most audacious experiment in years.” An executive at a major European record label said, “If the best band in the world doesn’t want a part of us, I’m not sure what’s left for this business.”
After the release, a spokesperson for the band reported, “Most people paid a normal retail price with very few trying to buy the download version for free.” The feeling was that this was great for a band with a massive fan base, but what about other musicians without so much reach? Time magazine said, “For established artists, turning what was once their highest-value asset – a much-buzzed-about new album – into a loss leader may be the wave of the future. Even under the most lucrative record deals, the ones reserved for repeat, multi-platinum superstars, the artists can end up with less than 30% of overall sales revenue. Meanwhile, as record sales decline, the concert business is booming.” Radiohead released their last album, King of Limbs, over the Internet as well, with a much-publicized online marketing plan, but also this time with a price tag.
Amanda Hocking self-published online and has since sold over 1.5 million books. Without a literary agent, without a publisher. Hocking wrote unpublished book after unpublished book and developed a mountain of rejection letters. In April 2010, Hocking put a book up for sale online and within a few months, she was selling more than 100,000 copies per month. In the UK, The Guardian comments, “In internet-savvy circles she [Hocking] has been embraced as a figurehead of the digital publishing revolution that is seen as blowing up the traditional book world and replacing it with the ebook, where direct contact between author and reader, free of the mediation of agent and publishing house, is but a few clicks away.”
The Guardian cites a 2011 survey that found of the top 25 bestselling independent authors on Kindle, only six had ever previously enjoyed print deals with major book publishers. The Guardian again comments, “That’s the kind of statistic that made Penguin’s chief executive, John Makinson, say recently that he saw ‘dark clouds’ gathering in 2012.” And again here are the gatekeepers spelling doom for the industry as a whole. They fail to see the potential of partnerships between authors and publishing companies. A partnership that is equal. Maybe these are the ‘dark clouds’ gathering? The potential of a balanced partnership? A voice of reason, “There’s a lot of talk about publishers being left out of the loop,” said Jeremy Trevathan, Macmillan’s fiction editor. “But this whole thing is an opportunity for writers and publishers to find each other.” Hocking has signed with major labels in the United States and England because her empire has simply gotten too large, too fast. There is room for everyone here, but both sides need to recognize each other’s value and how they can collectively create a new business model.
Social media networks such as Twitter, Facebook and blogging have become integral for self-marketing artists and their work. At the Humber School for Writers workshop I attended last year, there were presentations on the role of social media in publishing. These tools are useful, but like many other forms of delivery systems I have already discussed, it is all about how they are implemented. In my opinion, standup comedians are using these tools in the best ways possible. Twitter seems to be tailor-made for comedians, the 140-character limit perfect for jokes, one-liners or letting fans know about their latest show. Comedians have pushed the potential of social media and podcasting to new heights.
The comedian Paul F. Tompkins was shooting a television special and trying to make sure the show was sold out. He took to Twitter and while marketing the show, a fan from Toronto said, “Hey, why don’t you come here!” A bit frustrated, Tompkins half-seriously tweeted back that if 300 people could be confirmed to buy tickets, he would come to Toronto. As he said on his blog, “You provide the audience, I’ll provide the show.” A comedy show collective. Tompkins figured out the numbers and 300 people made it worthwhile for him to make an appearance.
The tweeter from Toronto set up a Facebook group asking people to commit to buying a ticket. Within a few days, the required amount of people confirmed and Tompkins set up a show. “I’ve become fed up with the comedy club system for reasons that would cause you to self-murder should I elaborate,” Tompkins said. “I have long thought, There’s got to be a better way than this. But I had no idea what that way could be until my experience in Toronto.”
The Tompkins 300 was born.
This concept was so successful that Tompkins started Facebook groups for other cities. “I was in Toronto,” Tompkins said, “performing two sold out shows on a Sunday night for two smart, respectful, appreciative audiences. These people didn’t come to ‘party’. They came to see a show. It was a magical night for me.” Not only was this financially viable, but as Tompkins says, these shows are usually his best because the audience is there specifically to see him. The Facebook groups remain active and the word is put out when he plans on returning to each city. In a sense, he has created a network of mini-fan clubs that he can plug into and directly communicate with his audience.
Twenty years in the business and comedian Marc Maron hit rock bottom professionally. Newly fired from a radio program he hosted, he snuck into the studio at night and used the equipment to record the WTF? podcast. A simple idea: for the first ten minutes or so, he delivers an almost confessional-like monologue about what is happening in his life. Many times it’s funny, sometimes it’s not. The rest of each episode is dedicated to a long-format interview with a fellow comedian, writer, actor or performer. Maron is not a journalist by nature, but his ability to tease out his interview subjects and continually release fascinating conversations that reveal in his guests a depth and discussion of humanity, hilarity, controversy and sometimes profundity.
WTF? has grown in popularity since its inception three years ago and is consistently in the top 20 downloads on iTunes. In an age of short attention spans, Maron’s ability to capture the focus of listeners for these long interviews is astounding in itself. He has also openly discussed how the podcast is financially successful. Sure, he doesn't make millions, but there are two important elements to the model he is working under.
First, his standup audience has grown because many people have learned about him through the podcast. He also established live versions of the show, which allows fans to be involved with the creative process. Through touring, he has a direct relationship to his fans and can continue to foster and develop this strong and fiercely loyal base.
Second, the podcast is sponsored, but the marketing follows no real plan. The advertising is very specific, targeted and at the discretion of Maron himself. The sponsorship found on the podcast are only products and services that Maron himself uses or supports. It’s more like a partnership. Or perhaps I should again use that word ‘collective’? More importantly, he has made it clear that the sponsors do not interfere with the content of the show. There is no room for a beer commercial, it wouldn't make any sense. In my opinion, the specific nature of the sponsorship weaves into the package of the show and I have even tried some of the products. To me, this is a model that works both ways: the artist can work with companies that respect them, and the company reaches people that are actual potential consumers. Maron has taken away the danger of an advertiser dictating the content of the program and the company is not following outdated modes of advertising that consist of shooting in the dark for customers.
When discussing these various artists and their revolutionary ways of tackling technology and how to use these new delivery systems, people often point out that all these artists, except for Hocking, started their online initiatives with established fan bases. This may be true, but we cannot ignore the fact that the models they have set up greatly enhanced their popularity. Plus, if artists with well-established audiences are not going to experiment and try new models, how will the rest of us?
Each of these models has uncovered a different part to unlocking the potential of what these delivery systems have to offer. Sedaris is a writer touring like he’s a band, Gervais almost single-handedly establishing the podcast as a viable medium, Radiohead making their work technologically and financially accessible, Tompkins creating mini-online fan clubs and Maron developing a unique and integrity-filled way of dealing with sponsorship. Yes, most of these artists had an established fan base, either across the mainstream or in smaller groups, but they all have one very essential connection: quality.
Looking back at our MySpace discussion and the more current issue of YouTube, there is a tendency of quantity over quality. It is my belief we are seeing a change. Quality is rising to the top and art is very much alive. Through the ways discussed so far: the concept of technology as merely new forms of delivery systems and the type of models above, we are seeing that quality is surfacing. There is a lot of clutter, but it is my opinion that artists will be able to follow independently minded models in order to support themselves directly while retaining creative control over their work.
Many of these ideas were floating around in my head for a long time. But it wasn’t until December 2011 when I decided to write about it. I was inspired by an event that I think pulls together all the elements, showcases an artist not only at a high point of his artistic career (thus far at least), but also displays an ability to experiment with these new delivery systems and attempt to do something innovative with them.
To me, this is one of those important moments that we will look back at. Yes, it’s another comedian, one that I’ve talked about before, but someone clearly ahead of his time.
PART FOUR: THE CURIOUS CASE OF LOUIS CK.
When watching George Carlin or Richard Pryor perform, I wondered if someone new would come along who could be as great. There have been only a handful of times when I discovered an artist creating new work so different that I got the feeling it was truly an original way of doing it. Something that will live on and become a part of the evolution of whatever medium they are working in. I felt this way with Radiohead and their albums OK Computer, Kid A, Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows. The same feeling occurred watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s films and the incredible progression from Boogie Nights to Magnolia to Punchdrunk Love to There Will Be Blood.
I was lucky enough to see Louis CK live in Toronto in October. I had the feeling that I was watching someone who is in the process of realizing the fullest potential of his talents. As a standup comedian, he has a brand of insight with his humour that matches his hero Carlin, but more than this, he has an incredible ability to take risks and push himself to new heights of artistic boundaries across a variety of mediums.
Louis CK started doing standup about twenty years ago. For a long time, he used the same act that consisted of absurdist material and silly jokes. Inspired by Carlin, who developed an hour of standup every year, filmed it as a television special, then threw it away to develop new material, Louis CK decided to start over. He retired the act he honed over many years and talked about his own life.
Using Carlin as a model, Louis CK developed an hour of standup and threw it out at the end of the year. He has been incredibly prolific since this crucial decision. Besides his standup, he helped develop the original Conan O’Brien show, made films and created his own television programs.
Louis CK’s latest show, Louie, is fascinating television that mixes standup with short-film-like scenes that don’t follow a traditional narrative. The show represents all of his talents coming together. He writes, directs, produces, edits and stars in the show. He has complete creative control and it represents his singular vision. To me, it is an accumulation of the skills he has developed along the way, not only as a comedian, but as a technically proficient filmmaker.
Okay, so he’s a talented guy. Usually when a comedian tapes a live show, it is produced by a network such as HBO or The Comedy Network. They put up the money, own the show and distribute it on their network. This is the traditional gatekeeper discussed earlier in this essay. The artist largely does not have a tremendous amount of control and does not own the finished product. Louis CK wanted to try something different.
Louis CK was touring in the summer and fall and planned to shoot his show for a special. Instead of making a deal with a network, he decided to try it on his own. His logic was that the Internet could provide the means necessary to distribute the show. He set about creating a website that would be as simple as possible for the end user. There would be no mailing lists, no clubs to join, no memberships. He set the very reasonable price of five dollars per download, payable through Paypal.
The price was set so low to curb pirating of the show (echoing Thom Yorke’s comments about leaking In Rainbows). Again, no restrictions were placed on the user, when you purchased the show, Louis CK politely asked you not to pirate it. I will be referencing his statements at length because he describes his experiment and experiences better than I. From his website:
To those who might wish to ‘torrent’ this video: look, I don’t really get the whole ‘torrent’ thing. I don’t know enough about it to judge either way. But I’d just like you to consider this: I made this video extremely easy to use against well-informed advice. I was told that it would be easier to torrent the way I made it, but I chose to do it this way anyway, because I want it to be easy for people to watch and enjoy this video in any way they want without ‘corporate’ restrictions.
Please bear in mind that I am not a company or a corporation. I’m just some guy. I paid for the production and posting of this video with my own money. I would like to be able to post more material to the fans in this way, which makes it cheaper for the buyer and more pleasant for me. So, please help me keep this being a good idea. I can’t stop you from torrenting; all I can do is politely ask you to pay your five little dollars, enjoy the video, and let other people find it in the same way.
He’s asking to work together with the audience (the Tompkings 300 comedy collective). It was important to him that accessing the content be easy and he worked hard on the website to ensure of its functionality as a delivery system. The numbers started coming in and were astonishing. Within 10 days, he made over one million dollars. Louis CK was as surprised as anyone else:
People of Earth (minus the ones who don’t give a shit about this): it’s been amazing to conduct this experiment with you. The experiment was: 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?
It’s been 4 days. A lot of people are asking me how it’s going. I've been hesitant to share the actual figures, because there’s power in exclusive ownership of information. What I didn’t expect when I started this was that people would not only take part in this experiment, they would be invested in it and it would be important to them. It’s been amazing to see people in large numbers advocating this idea. So I think it’s only fair that you get to know the results. Also, it’s just really cool and fun and I’m dying to tell everybody. I told my Mom, I told three friends, and that wasn’t nearly enough. So here it is.
The show was shot using his own money at a cost of $170,000, plus $32,000 for the website. There has been little pirating of the show and Louis CK has been transparent in regards to where the money is going. Except for the technical costs, this is all profit. He removed the gatekeepers entirely by distributing himself. He was able to keep the price down because there was not a lot of overhead and infrastructure of a large company to support. The profits go to the artist. As he said:
First of all, this was a premium video production, shot with six cameras over two performances at the Beacon Theater, which is a high-priced elite Manhattan venue. I directed this video myself and the production of the video cost around $170,000. (This was largely paid for by the tickets bought by the audiences at both shows). The material in the video was developed over months on the road and has never been seen on my show Louie or on any other special. The risks were thus: every new generation of material I create is my income, it’s like a farmer’s annual crop. The time and effort on my part was far more than if I’d done it with a big company. If I’d done it with a big company, I would have a guarantee of a sizable fee, as opposed to this way, where I’m actually investing my own money.
The development of the website, which needed to be a very robust, reliable and carefully constructed website, was around $32,000. We worked for a number of weeks poring over the site to make sure every detail would give buyers a simple, optimal and humane experience for buying the video. I edited the video around the clock for the weeks between the show and the launch.
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.
The argument here will be that he had the money and fan base to try this experiment. To me, this hugely successful endeavor combines everything discussed in this essay: Louis CK building his fan base through a variety of mediums such as films, standup and television shows, he used the internet as a delivery system and offered his audiences a quality product. So, yes, he had the resources and the fan base. The point is that if delivery system technologies have the potential to create new models that are artist-centric, there have to be people to lead the way.
Louis CK continues:
I really hope people keep buying it a lot, so I can have shitloads of money, but at this point I think we can safely say that the experiment really worked. If anybody stole it, it wasn’t many of you. Pretty much everybody bought it. And so now we all get to know that about people and stuff. I’m really glad I put this out here this way and I’ll certainly do it again. If the trend continues with sales on this video, my goal is that I can reach the point where when I sell anything, be it videos, CDs or tickets to my tours, I’ll do it here and I’ll continue to follow the model of keeping my price as far down as possible, not overmarketing to you, keeping as few people between you and me as possible in the transaction.
I probably sound kind of crazy right now. It’s been a really fun and intense few days. This video was paid for by people who bought tickets, and then bought by people who wanted to see that same show. I got to do exactly the show I wanted, and exactly the show you wanted.
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.
Louis CK seems to understand that money is a concept that we give value to, which is an interesting idea similar to how I described art earlier. Maybe they do have more in common than I thought. Louis CK immediately explained where the money was going: one quarter paid for the shoot (which was initially paid for by his own money), one quarter was bonuses to the people who worked on the show, he kept one quarter for himself and the last quarter went to charities. It does take people to create something like a television show or a movie, and he is making sure those surrounding and supporting the artist – technicians, designers, producers – are remunerated for their work. There is balance brought to where the money is going.
All this talk about money is important because I think in order for an artist to evolve, they need to generate an income. Louis CK regards money as a means to create his art – perhaps this is the true meaning of the combination of words ‘show’ and ‘business’, where they can work together harmoniously and fuel creativity instead of being ruled by it. Maybe he should run for President and fix our economy? He’d have my vote.
PART FIVE: NOW WHAT?
What does all this mean? I’ve been publishing my own work on the Internet for two years and frankly, not much has happened. I put a lot of time into this website and work very hard at creating something of quality. But I don’t have the reach and although I am constantly thinking of these new models, I am still somewhat stuck in the traditional mindset. If someone would just publish my novel, I think.
A few years ago, I worked as a consultant, my job to re-brand an organization through the Internet. A separate marketing company was hired and they pushed a number of initiatives that, in my opinion, were the wrong direction. They wanted memberships in order to have numbers to entice advertisers. In the end, we had three different sections where users had to enter their email addresses or join something. The content of the website was pushed aside in favour of presenting the illusion of a site that would hopefully appeal to sponsors. There was no quality and it did not attract sponsorship. The detailed plan I laid out was ignored and I decided to use this plan with myself as the product. I am still in the first phase of the plan.
What I have learned through all this is that creating your writing career independently is a process. And not a short-term process. A standup comedian builds an audience over many years, and I believe that this is the same for a writer in this new landscape. That is, a writer that, like Louis CK, is interested in continually evolving his or her work with an independent mindset, with better quality and deliver this to an audience. Allowing for experimentation. Allowing for patience.
The old models are decaying and when that first digital music file was created, it set in motion a fantastic opportunity. There is a fight to keep these old models alive and a danger of falling into the trap with all artistic endeavors similar to what happened to music. I am not calling for a complete deconstruction of these old models, but they need to evolve. By embracing these new delivery systems, by making a devotion to quality, by establishing more positive partnerships between distributors and artists, by working together collectively, there is the potential of a renaissance. Maybe it’s already happening.
One problem with these delivery systems is that you’re out in the wilderness, sometimes feeling very isolated and working within a vacuum. Barely anyone’s listening, or in my case, barely anyone’s reading. But then I remind myself that I need to be patient.
My plan consists of using the skills I have built over the past ten years and listen to my own thoughts and ideas when it comes to using these new delivery systems. I’m training myself to function and work across a variety of mediums, develop new films to distribute on YouTube, create a podcast, evolve my website and even attempt some live performances. In short, to learn from these models and experiment myself. In the end, what do I have to lose?
I have used the words, “in my opinion”, many times because I am not used to writing about this kind of thing. But I think being a creative person at this moment is so incredible because we are in the midst of so much change. Usually, change is difficult to see at a particular moment. Things are moving so fast that we can see the results quickly. Models can be tried and discarded or adopted and aborted. Technology is changing the creative environment, but I am firm in my belief it is not changing the art, just how we distribute and consume. Music is still music, a book is still a book.
I look at the current creative climate as an opportunity that enables me to embrace the potential of these new delivery systems. I am not allowing technology to tell my stories, but using it as a more efficient way to reach my specific audience. Besides technology operating as a distribution network, it allows me to freely focus on empowering myself as an artist who controls his career. The ball is in the artist’s court. It is for this reason that we have a big responsibility to sift through the clutter and quantity.
“You are a massive waste of everyone’s time.”
I started off this essay with a story about my experiences with Agent X. I don’t see that I was a waste of everyone’s time, at least not massively. I was simply a writer who has a vested interest in the direction of his career, interested in a potential partnership. But Agent X obviously is holding on to the old model and chooses to shut the artist out of negotiations. I asked questions in the attempt to not only protect my work, but also have the appropriate information in order to make sound business decisions. So, am I waste of everyone's time? No. In fact, in my opinion, I believe the opposite is true.