Following in the footsteps of Louis C.K., comedian Jim Gaffigan announced today that he, too, will sell his jokes directly to fans through his website for the low cost of $5, starting in April. To sweeten the pot, Gaffigan says that for every copy of his album Jim Gaffigan: Mr. Universe sold, one dollar will go to The Bob Woodruff Foundation, a charity that aids wounded veterans and their families.
“I am confident that the low price of my new comedy special and the fact that 20-percent of each $5 download will be donated to this very noble cause will prevent people from stealing it,” writes Gaffigan. “Maybe I’m being naïve, but I trust you guys. Besides who would want the karma of stealing money from wounded Veterans? Come on you guys. How dare you even think about it?”
Gaffigan admits that he is “taking a risk” by offering his album directly to fans, with no corporate-paid advertising to help sales, in a way that makes it easy for people to pirate the comedy special.
“If no one buys the special or if lots of people steal it then I suppose I will lose a lot of money and have egg on my face,” he writes. “But then again I have four kids so I am always losing money and usually have egg or some kind of food on my face so it might just feel normal.”
The Louis C.K. precedent
Of course Gaffigan’s gamble isn’t totally a blind bet. Last December, Louis C.K. boldly decided to release his self-produced comedy special, Live at the Beacon Theater, for $5, straight from his website. The video file was DRM-free, meaning you could burn a DVD, or share it with whomever you like. And every customer could download the file twice. In an effort to curb the inevitable torrenting, C.K. simply asked people to not pirate the special. And you know what? It worked.
Just 10 days after Live at the Beacon Theater went on sale, C.K. had raked in more than $1 million in pure profit — more money than the comedian had ever made from a single gig in his long and successful career. To spread the good will, C.K. gave his staff a combined bonus of $250,000. He gave $280,000 to five select charity organizations. And pocketed the rest for a job well done.
Us vs. Them
So Louis C.K. proved the artist-to-fan model can work. Now that another performer has jumped on the direct distribution bandwagon, we — the customers, fans, and Internet users — have an opportunity to send Hollywood and the rest of the entertainment industry a very clear message: If you treat us with respect, we will give you respect back — in the form of cold, hard, glorious cash.
As it stands now, Big Entertainment treats its customers like vile little thieves. It slaps digital locks on its files, making it so the music, movies, and TV show episodes we purchase are not truly ours. It sues minor copyright infringers for hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars, just to scare the hell out of everyone else. And it spends tens of millions of dollars pushing for dangerous legislation, like the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), in an attempt to expand and deepen its control of the ecosystem.
And yet, online piracy continues to flourish — not because Big Entertainment doesn’t yet have enough legal ammunition to keep its customers afraid (it does), or even just because people like to get stuff for free (they do), but because the general public hates the entertainment industry. Big Entertainment is seen as an oppressor, an enemy of the public. The Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) are gangsters in our eyes. And because of this nasty relationship, we have no empathy for their woes.
An imbalance of power
As Gaffigan notes, corporate backing provides something direct distribution by itself does not. Namely, money up front to create a product, like an album or a movie, which are massively expensive to produce; advertising dollars, which let people know that something exists in the first place; plus cash to cover a slew of other expenses, like paying for radio play or touring expenses.
Because of the prohibitive costs of becoming a successful entertainer independently (at least through traditional channels), artists are required to play the corporate game if they want to make it to the Big Leagues. Both C.K. and Gaffigan have already benefited from this system for long enough that people already know who they are. So all they have to do is say, “Hey guys, I’m doing something different,” and it makes the news. They are already popular — thanks in part to Big Entertainment companies like FX and Viacom — so they have the freedom (and the funds) to take risks, and to front the cash to produce their product.
Unknown artists and performers have no such luxury. An up-and-coming band, when faced with the decision to either land a record contract or go it alone, will choose the former every time, for both practical purposes (like getting a quality producer to help them make a good-sounding record) and because being part of the system greatly increases the chance of becoming successful.
Change we can believe in
I, for one, have no problem with artists and entertainers becoming rich. If you create something of quality, then you deserve to reap the rewards. What I do have a problem with is enriching a system that treats me like a criminal, and pushes for laws that only exacerbate the problem. So, how can we both support artists and entertainers, give them the resources to create the entertainment products we all love and desire, without also handing over our hard-earned dollars and cents to an industry that despises us? By creating a whole new entertainment ecosystem that cuts out the cancer. And that starts with buying Jim Gaffigan’s album.
By supporting a new distribution system, like that of C.K. and Gaffigan, we castrate the beast. We show Big Entertainment that things like DRM and SOPA are unnecessary, that we don’t need to be treated like thieves for the system to work. That if you trust us, we’ll reward you for it.
Of course, there is no quick way to tear down and rebuild an entire industry. The problem of funding projects and artists before they are popular is one that has to be solved before this idea can work. Crowdfunding systems — Kickstarter, especially — have begun to make headway on this front. And we would all be wise to support artists who choose this path. Unfortunately, these options remain far from adequate to support the wide variety of musicians, filmmakers, comedians, and other types of artists and entertainers that deserve to be given a chance to succeed. And this is only one of many, many complications inherent in this silly plan.
Still, something needs to change. Gaffigan’s project offers just that. Supporting the likes of Gaffigan, C.K., and any artist that treats fans with respect could, at the very minimum, change the way Big Entertainment does business. And if, just by chance, support for Gaffigan and other entertainers who choose a risky self-made path does lead to the birth of a new, better entertainment industry, well, then we can all have the last laugh.
[Image via WhoSay.com]