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It appears that Louis C.K. has beaten the system.

In a span of about six months, the stand-up comedian and star of FX’s hit series Louie, has managed to circumvent network comedy specials and ticket selling services to deliver his comedy to his fans at affordable prices. So far, it’s paid off big time.

Louis C.K. is currently selling tickets to his upcoming tour on his own website exclusively (that means no Ticketmaster) and is charging a flat fee of $45. As of today he’s sold 100,000 tickets–yes, your math is right: that’s $4.5 million. This comes about six months after he sold his self-produced comedy album Shameless electronically on his website for $5. (For that experiment, he took in about a million bucks.) I came across a quote from Louis C.K. the other day about his ticket-selling enterprise:

Doing things this way means I’m making less than I would have made if I did a standard tour, using the usual very excellent but expensive ticketing service. In some cities I’ve had to play smaller venues and do more shows. But I like doing more shows and about a year ago I reached a place where I realized I am making enough money doing comedy so the next thing that interested me is bringing your price down. Either way, I still make a whole lot more than my grandfather who taught math and raised chickens in Michigan. (www.shortformblog.com)

 

Enough money? When was the last time you heard anyone say they make enough money, especially an entertainer? Athletes regularly bolt from their old team to a new team for the promise of a big contract. Sometimes they even hold out (meaning they don’t show up for work) a year after signing the contract because they feel they deserve more than what was contractually agreed to. Eddie Murphy has made ungodly sums of money over the last ten years despite rarely doing a movie you legitimately enjoyed.

And yet Louis C.K., who wrote and directed 2001’s Pootie Tang (which grossed just $3.3 million in theaters) and whose 2006 HBO series Lucky Louie lasted just one season, says he’s making enough money doing comedy that he no longer needs network specials or Ticketmaster. Apparently, he actually made too much money so he gave $280,000 of it to charity!

If you’ve heard Louis C.K.’s stand-up or seen his show Louie, on which he also has complete creative control as the star, writer, and director, you know the guy’s hardly a saint. But that said, perhaps it takes the life experience–he’s put in 27 years in the business–of a vulgar, and sometimes sophomoric 44-year-old single father of two daughters to figure out that there’s more than one way to make a living doing comedy, and that it doesn’t always have to come at the cost of the people who are laughing at the jokes.

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Michael Lewis’ baseball-book-that’s-not-really-about-baseball, Moneyball, has gotten plenty of attention in recent weeks since it’s been made into a feature film starring Brad Pitt. The book suggests that it’s statistical data (and hardcore crunching of that data) that allows us to make the best decisions–not our gut instincts, strong as they may be.

Moneyball ruined, or at least changed, the way many baseball fans enjoyed baseball. We could no longer praise our favorite player for being a dynamite fielder or a clutch hitter when the game was on the line, because if we took a closer look at the newfangled stats we’d realize our perception was nowhere near reality. It was like having a favorite restaurant but knowing that if you went into to its kitchen and saw something gross, you’d never be able to eat there again.

But it also taught us not to take things at face value. That before we make a decision based on what the supposed experts say, maybe we should see what the data says, too. Or, as John Cusack says in High Fidelity, “I’ve come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains.”

Oddly enough, my thinking about Moneyball the last few weeks had nothing to do with the hoopla surrounding the movie. It was actually another author, Gary Vaynerchuk, in his book The Thank You Economy. Vaynerchuk, a wine expert and social media guru with a book deal, stresses the importance of  about caring more about your customers than your competitors do as one of the biggest keys to any successful business venture. (And this is done largely through social media channels.)

At conference last year, an audience member asked Vaynerchuk what he says when someone can’t get past the fact that the efficacy of social media isn’t really quantifiable. His response: “If you do not understand what the monetary, financial value of having a relationship with the customer is, you have no fucking idea what business is about.”

Great answer. In his books, Vaynerchuk says lots of stuff like this. You can’t measure how much you care about your customer, same as you can’t measure the emotional impact that caring has on the customer, but you just know it works. Great business practices, he says, produce great business. Makes sense, I guess. But as I read on, I got to thinking. Vaynerchuk is an undoubtedly progressive thinker. However he’s also suggesting we trust our instincts, not the numbers. How un-Moneyball-like!

Steve Jobs was once asked about how much market research went into the iPad.  “None,” he said. “It’s not the customers’ jobs to know what they want.” Arrogantly but correctly, he purported to know more than anyone else what was best. Same as Vaynerchuk, Jobs trusted his gut more than the data.

The other school of thought, as suggested in books like Peter Sims’ Little Bets, is that if you can cheaply and quickly test an idea, it’ll allow you to tweak a good idea until it’s great or rule out a bad idea all together. An example Sims’ uses is comedian Chris Rock, who practices his new stand-up material in small nightclubs rather than assuming it’ll be funny simply because he’s Chris Rock. Some of his new jokes are OK, some are really funny, but many of them stink. But by the time he pieces together an act using the best material from his “market research” and shedding the rest, he’s got the whole room laughing again.

There is, of course, no right answer. It’s hard to argue with the methods of anyone who’s reached the top of their field–they obviously knew enough to have gotten there in the first place, right?

Each of us has to do a little research (or not) to find our own style. What’s yours?

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