Radiohead blew people away in 2007 when they distributed their album, IN RAINBOWS, digitally on a “pay what you want” basis online. Though official numbers were never released, it was rumored that there were 1.2 million downloads in the first day. If everyone paid the minimum of $.99, that’s a hefty first day of sales. When the physical products were released in early 2008, they still reached the top of the charts in both the US and UK. After that, artists and distributors opened their eyes to the possibilities. Granted, Radiohead brings a unique proposition, but the model had been laid. We’ve seen other musicians self-distribute online, though I can’t recall anyone who was so bold as to offer pay as you go. Now, it seems humor has entered the fray with Louis CK’s online-only self distribution of LIVE AT THE BEACON.
For a comedian who positions himself as a self-deprecating everyman, he seems to initially nail this execution for his fans. He bankrolled the filming of his show and its post-production himself and posted it on his site with “No DRM, no regional restrictions, no crap. You can download this file, play it as much as you like, burn it to a DVD, whatever. ” The site is very simple with “Buy The Thing” buttons only a couple-hundred pixels apart. Only in the finer print do you find that you can only access the link twice – smart. Though he wants as many people to see it as possible at a great price, he doesn’t want someone to pay the $5 for the video and then post the link for everyone to get at it. It can be streamed through the browser or downloaded as an MPEG 4 video file.
He smartly posted an outtake of edited materials that are funny in their own right – I guess to insinuate that the stuff that was left in is even better. The production quality is not the greatest as it seems that they had a few fixed cameras with one or two manned positions and far too many cuts from one angle to the other. But, for such a low price, who can complain? His fans should eat it up – which leads us to perhaps the biggest variable of self-distribution.
Both Radiohead and Louis CK have sizable built-in audiences, so it’s just a matter of getting the word out. In CK’s case, the site launched on Saturday, the 10th and all I have seen is coverage stemming from the PR push. If I were a registered fan of his, I would imagine there would have been an email or 4 in my inbox. In that respect, success stories on a grand scale for digital distribution are limited. Without a large fan-based platform, the ability to move “units” that prove worthwhile and help recoup costs is quite challenging.
There are a number of digital distribution points for the discovery or sampling of new material that somewhat mitigates the reliance on top radio playlists or TV to induce discovery. But I have yet to see what I belive can be a good future model.
Most of the digital distribution points are set up essentially listing services that require search based on what the user already knows about. Some of them, like Pandora (for music) offer suggestions similar to what you like for discovery, but the download is not a simple play. Some sites like Rotten Tomatoes makes it simple to share thoughts and see reviews with simple buttons to add the film to your Netflix list or purchase/rent through iTunes.
I believe the model of the future will remove the lines between chatter/buzz and consumption. It would effectively be a hybrid of the social and retail where viewers, listeners, fans can communicate about their favorite styles and download more seamlessly however they want it. Currently, the distribution is a little disjointed in all of the disparate platforms and the funneling through a couple of the major distribution points.
There is time to work out the kinks. Digital consumption inches upward as access and download speeds proliferate. The studios and labels are far from a distribution model that is more holistic for the consumers (check out UltraViolet for the latest example af a launch fail) which makes it even harder for independents. Upstarts like MoPix – which is planning to launch in January as a “film as App” outlet – are going to be coming out in the near future. (Without seeing it, I’m concerned that the film as App proposition will be too disjointed, but we’ll have to wait and see.) As of yet, there doesn’t seem to be a solution that leverages the benefits of social and buzz to seamlessly lead to simple and powerful distribution of content without the power of studios and labels.
Sadly, it’s no surprise that a release like CK’s would make such a stir four years after Radiohead first turned digital distribution on its ears. The challenges and nuances are just that great and will still take considerable time to work themselves out. Until then, there will be as many stops and starts as CK’s intro to his outtake video…