If you are like me (or even if you are not), last week you were able to pay a mere 5 dollars to download and watch the new Louis CK: Live at the Beacon comedy special. If you are even more like me, you probably laughed loudly and frequently at his well-crafted stand-up. If you are also, like me, a nerdy media type that spends your time thinking about the future of entertainment, something else caught your attention. You were probably impressed and excited by how an hour of quality filmed comedy, for such a low price, could be delivered directly to its audience in such a convenient way.
It’s this last point that’s getting the most attention in the press since the release: how CK is cutting out the middle man, shirking the studio system and going independent. What does this mean for the industry? Are big media businesses doomed to be left behind if more stars realize they could work under a similar model?
Naturally the comparisons to other artists who’ve tried self-published, pay-what-you-want experiments come up. One particularly interesting from Anil Dash said, “My Internet media lesson, courtesy of Louis CK, Radiohead & Prince: Start by being one of the greatest talents in the history of your craft.”
I don’t disagree with his cynicism, but as with any idea expressed in a tweet, there’s a lot more to it than that.
Radiohead, Louis CK, and other successful artists have gathered huge, loyal fan bases over the course of prolific careers. They’ve worked hard to get where they are. They earned their stature, and it makes sense that at this point they’d want to experiment with ways to control their output and their subsequent rewards. But as many have noted, they came up through their respective systems and have grown to a point where they can be shaken off. This is progress.
Similarly, many up-and-comers are using these same digital channels to find their big break. Tumblrs become book deals, YouTube sketches become development deals or writing positions. It’s easier than ever to start a career with some scrappy little project that serves as concrete practice in a craft, and if the talent is there, gets noticed and propels that talent on to bigger things. This, too, is progress.
Where does that leave big media and the brands who want to advertise to their viewers? Are they doomed as the two poles of digitally savvy beginners and digitally independent veterans move closer and closer together?
I would argue that at least for now, there is still room in the middle, and that it’s actually a good thing. Let the newcomers experiment in low-stakes forms, and set the unqualified visionaries free to pursue their own creativity. Where studios, distributors, labels or brands can have a place is going back to where they should be: discovering, nurturing, and elevating talent when that talent doesn’t have the resources or regard to reach success on its own.
Theoretically, big media companies should function like the stock market operates (also theoretically, which is to say before things went haywire). Smart people with an eye for what’s good pick out fledgling artists and invest in them. That investment helps the talent itself grow, and helps it find a larger audience. Sony Music can do this, Comedy Central can do this, Mountain Dew can do this; they have money and reach. If they invest wisely, everyone benefits, including us the viewers and listeners, who are introduced to new things we may eventually become truly loyal fans of.
Instead of trying to milk established acts for all they’re worth, wouldn’t we be better off it these companies depended on breaking new ground for maintaining their bottom line? They shouldn’t be scared that Louis CK doesn’t need them any more. They should be out finding the next dozen great acts that really need them right now. I’ll keep paying for anything CK puts out, but I have other dollars to spend. Show me something new to fall in love with.