Friday, December 16, 2011 at 1:27 pm.

Just how successful is Louis C.K.’s indie video experiment?

Louis C.K.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I’ll admit it: When Louis C.K. announced that he had sold 110,000 copies of his comedy special from his website in 3.5 days, I was a little disappointed.

Sure, $500,000 in sales and a $200,000 profit is nothing to be sad about. The experiment itself — $5 for a totally unprotected video file! — was cool just to do. And Louis admitted himself that he could have made more money just handing it over to some giant media company.

But it felt like I’d seen at least a hundred tweets about it, including several from well-followed celebrities. It was a really big conversation topic for a few days there — look at this guy disrupting the giant, evil media industry all by himself! And on Reddit, Louis C.K. fantasized about doing this again and earning $8 million to fund a movie.

So part of me was expecting “a million downloads!” by the point Louis had passed 110,000, because of all the hoopla. (The next day, he tweeted that he’d passed 130,000.) I mean, Angry Birds gets 1 million downloads per day! That’s why 110,000 felt like a let-down.

So, really, how successful is this? I’d say, at this point, “pretty good”, with the potential for much more.

  • If he was selling iPhone apps, that would be enough to propel him into the top 5. Camera+ developer John Casasanta says his app has been hanging around the no. 5 position and is selling around 18,000 copies per day during the week and around 23,000 per day on the weekend. Louis sold an average of about 32,500 copies per day over the first 4 days, by my calculation, and he didn’t even have the distribution or ease-of-purchasing boost of an iTunes or Amazon.
  • He’s converted about 10% of the audience size that watched the “Louie” Season 2 premiere. Cinemablend reported that 1.6 million people tuned in to the first episode of Louis’s most recent season on FX. If you peg that audience as the size of his devoted fan base, about 1 in 10 has now shelled out $5 to stream his newest material. Pretty solid.
  • He’s converted about 20% of the number of people following him on Twitter. (About 822,000 today.) Many of those accounts are probably inactive, and the tweets linking to his experiment probably reached millions of people who don’t follow him. Also, I’d wager that many of his fans don’t use Twitter. But his Twitter feed probably did help drive many of those sales.
  • Still, it’s modest compared to some forms of media. The new “Call of Duty” game sold 6 million copies in 24 hours, generating $400 million in sales.

Of course, the best part of all of this is that Louis’s potential for earning money from this special is still far from over.

For now, he can keep selling independently, and earn the best keep for the buck. But in a few weeks or months, there’s no reason he shouldn’t try to expand the distribution further, via outlets like iTunes, HBO, or Netflix, whose 20+ million subscribers stream more than 200 million videos a month, according to Nielsen.

Peter Kafka calls this the “Louis C.K. window”:

It can run for a week, or a month, or however long he’d like to be the sole outlet for his show. But then, if he wants to get more money for his product and reach a different audience, C.K. can sell the program to HBO or Showtime or Netflix for a “pay-TV window.” And then, eventually, to the likes of Comedy Central or FX. At some point, he can retail discs and downloads via Amazon and iTunes, etc.

The Louis C.K. Window is the most gratifying, because it’s cool, and because he’ll keep almost every penny his fans spend to see him. But it’s also likely to expose him to the smallest number of people.

Still, a very cool experiment. And now one I’d love to see applied to some really, really popular celebrities, and some not-quite-yet celebrities. Then we’ll have a better idea of how much indie distribution will actually shift the balance of power in the media industry. It could be a little, it could be a lot, but it’s too early to tell.

Also: Snapshot of our time: Sirius XM has 85 times more subscribers than Spotify