Customizing Cutlure: Louis CK is the 99%

Published on January 17th, 2012

James on how voting with your dollars can make better media products for everyone, and a non-desperate plea for donations.

After seeing this article saying that sales for tickets to The Dark Knight Rises were already on sale with many shows sold out already, I had two thoughts.

1)      Isn’t it incredibly early to start selling tickets to a movie that comes out in July?
2)      You could have done this 3 years ago and still sold tons of tickets.

Admittedly, these thoughts seem contradictory for one person to have. Upon further consideration, I realized Thought #1 was about how things seem, and Thought #2 was about how they could be, and probably how they should/will be.

Thought #1
I remember getting tickets for Transformers 2 in IMAX weeks in advance and it feeling unusual. The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t come out until July 20th. The movie’s only a few months into its weird, vague, ambiguous marketing campaign. How are showings already sold out?

Thought #2:
If tickets for The Dark Knight Rises were on sale as viewers left their showing of The Dark Knight, they probably could have pulled in a decent amount of money, if only because that movie is kind of fucking mind-blowing on the first viewing. Of course, the fanboy portion of the population will always be the loudest, and this may cause me to overestimate potential early sales, but I feel a substantial number of tickets could be sold to even casual viewers once after the screening of The Dark Knight ended, or shortly after Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale announced their participation in the 3rd film.

My point is not that The Dark Knight was not such an impossibly great, flawless movie that it could never be topped*, or that The Dark Knight Rises will necessarily be better than its predecessor**. What the ticket sales show is that people are spending their money differently than they used to in the current media landscape, and would probably have even more radical spending habits if given the opportunity.

*I’m looking at you, boat scenes… Fuck you, Deebo!

**More CGI and a version of Bane that speaks less clearly than the Baleman? Can I pay twice?

With film, consider that our options less than a decade ago were either to see a movie in theatres or rent it from a video store. Both of these involve the selection of a certain product and viewing it instantly or within a few days. The idea of buying a movie and bringing it home is more recent (or at least recently financially reasonable), and yet is still only a few decades old. People were quick to embrace that change and likely the same will be true for changes to come, as long as they continue to involve more bang for your buck, no matter how immediate the reward.

Today, one of the biggest changes in film distribution has been the growth of Netflix. People don’t choose a certain movie for a certain price and consume it instantly, they now agree to pay immediately for a series of things they think they will enjoy later time. Paying for something ahead of time isn’t exactly revolutionary, but there are definitely some signs that we are in the midst of a change in how we pay for entertainment, and what entertainment gets made as a result. Netflix is now even showing up as a player when it comes to original television programming. It was announced that they outbid many premium channels, such as HBO and AMC, for David Fincher’s new television project and Alex’s newest boner, the political drama House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey. This is interesting because it was HBO and other premium channels that showed many TV viewers that voting with your dollars could let you see some better programming than you can get on free TV, with this high quality causing other television dramas to evolve in order to keep up. Few people will debate that the best dramas are currently on HBO or AMC, or that the late night show with the most consistent level of quality is The Daily Show, which airs on Comedy Central. These channels are a large part of the reason we are living in what many have called a golden age of television, with some of the medium’s most acclaimed shows of all time airing within the past 15 years*. These channels have indirectly improved the content for the whole medium of television by having people more actively finance things they like. This is different from how TV was consumed for a long time, and how a lot of viewers still see it, but it is improving the future.

Where's Wallace? On HBO, obviously.

*Including The Sopranos, Arrested Development, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Daily Show, The Wire, Friday Night Lights, with all but Arrested Development and the first two seasons of Friday Night Lights airing on premium networks.





Even if you pay for some extra channels, while you sit and actually watch television, there is a certain detachment from the value. You usually don’t think about how much it costs, or how you pay for it by watching commercials, and you likely didn’t know what things cost or how to value a minute of programming. This is why it is more difficult to quantify a television show’s cost or value, as compared to buying a movie ticket. Just as becoming more active in our consumption has led to some better programming, the next logical step of becoming more active in funding would yield similar results, continuing what HBO and other premium channels have started.

We have recently seen some interesting examples in other media that give me hope for the future. It was big news when Radiohead released In Rainbows at a pay-what-you-want price and still made a bunch of money, all while giving people some hope for a world without stuffy record executives telling bands how they should sound, or telling Thom Yorke not to dance like that because it’s unsettling. Not every band can afford to gamble like this, and it should be noted that Radiohead was (and likely remains) the band that is the world’s most universally Great Band, but it shows a willingness from the fans to lay their money down to try out a new form of thought.

More recently, Louis C.K. got a lot of notice for releasing his latest special online for $5, opening a PayPal account and seeing how many people would buy it and how many people would steal it. Twelve days after its release, the album had generated more than $1 million. The lack of involvement of any broadcaster or distributor allowed creative freedom as well as fewer people to take a slice of the $5 fee. Depending on how you look at it, this direct transaction either means the artist makes more money or the fan spends less. You can even see where all that money is going to go in this very transparent post from the man himself.  While Louis C.K. is far from my favourite comedian, I admire his work ethic and this ability to experiment. The world of stand-up comedy looked like it may suffer from the popularity of new technology but this is a way for them to work in tandem, by bringing a product to a viewer anywhere with Internet access, and specifically to those who want it.

Louis CK... You make me happy about the future of stand-up…so why are you so sad?

These new trends in spending and new means of distribution aren’t just changing old media, but shaping new media too. We are seeing this in a big way in the medium that is the other half of The MacGuffin Men empire; podcasting. Many podcasters have different business models, but most are either funded by donations or subscriptions, and both may sometimes have some advertising involved as well. Other than Sirius satellite, the radio business has traditionally been funded entirely by advertising. The fact that iTunes alone has thousands of podcasts to choose from, many of professional quality, leads me to believe people are donating and subscribing. The donation business model always requires a product that people feel is truly valuable and will want to volunteer their money to, and the subscription model is interesting because it shows a willingness to pay for something that won’t be available for consumption right away. It should be pointed out that the subscription and donation based models are certainly not new. In fact, they are two kinds of payments that were popular in media that digital technology have contributed to the decline of: live performers and newspapers. It seems that this business model isn’t anything new, and can only be helped by the ease of payment and distribution. The Internet and PayPal have made it easy to support things that you like and want more of.

Of course podcasting, Louis CK’s special and Netflix aren’t just about having a certain product, but that product coming with flexibility about when and where you can consume, and how many times. Wielding our media consumption dollar has allowed us not only to allow us freedom of how to watch our content, but what kind of content is even produced. It’s the Internet that allows people to communicate to make these agreements. If this continues, a child born today may be used to a world where they find it normal to pay to get what they want, whenever and wherever is most convenient, and it’s hard to see how this won’t result in a better consumer experience.

Critics often have a pessimistic view of the world; the word critic itself sounds negative. More often than is deserved, the critical analysis of pop culture seems to be about how much better things used to be, how bad they are now, and how much worse they’re getting. While it’s not easy to be optimistic about things, this increased participation by the general public in the financing of their favourite things makes me hopeful for things to come. Seriously, Louis CK… Things are looking up. Smile a little more. (And maybe donate a little of that money to us, perhaps?)


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