“Comics Are Now Selling Laughs by the Download.” That was the headline in The New York Times five years ago this month, marking a new trend in the world of stand-up comedy.
Whereas the sign of success for stand-up comedians had once been an appearance on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show followed by an HBO comedy special, now Louis C.K. had reinvented the game, pioneering a new distribution method by selling his specials on his own website directly to fans for as low as five dollars each.
The first time C.K. conducted this “experiment,” he transparently informed his fans that after just 12 hours he had broken even, selling 50,000 downloads for a total of $250,000. After four days, that total had more than doubled, leaving him with a profit of $200,000.
“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,” he wrote on his website. “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.”
Other comedians were soon following suit, including Aziz Ansari, who welcomed the ability to “answer to no one at all” and Jim Gaffigan, who heralded C.K. for upending “the perception of selling something” online as being “kind of icky.”
How times have changed.
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