The Louis CK Effect: How Should We Fund and Distribute Art Music?

By  | February 24, 2012 | 7 Comments | Filed under: Features

Don't worry, we'll put you in the Twitter seats... Yes, that's a real thing now...

I adore Louis CK. He is a comedian, has been working his butt off for decades, and is enjoying a successful career. His stand up acts are observational in nature, peppered with obscenity (but not defined by it), and just strange enough to pull you into the rabbit hole of his mind. His stage persona is a sort of “out-of-shape-everyman,” but he is best known within the entertainment industry for being a dedicated worker (like George Carlin, he famously refuses to repeat material), and he is brilliant at writing sketches that function on multiple levels simultaneously. And… he has gone into business for himself, cutting out the middle man, distributing a new DRM-free video comedy special directly through his website for $5. He made his first million dollars in under two weeks.

It is exciting to see someone in the arts take a chance and elegantly use the Internet to distribute their work. That his sales pitch includes digs against the corporations that usually underwrite, manufacture, and distribute these stand-up specials is revelatory, I think. (Read this quote from his blog.)

…they would have charged you about $20 for the video. They would have given you an encrypted and regionally restricted video of limited value, and they would have owned your private information for their own use. They would have withheld international availability indefinitely. This way, you only paid $5, you can use the video any way you want, and you can watch it in Dublin, whatever the city is in Belgium, or Dubai. I got paid nice, and I still own the video (as do you). You never have to join anything, and you never have to hear from us again.

As I look at this model, my mind tries to pull it apart and figure out how it could help performers in the classical music business. What I keep coming back to is that “old media” institutions played a direct role in Louis CK rising to a level of popularity that allowed him to use “new media” so effectively. I heard about his special because Terry Gross interviewed him on Fresh Air (a National Public Radio program). Louis CK has a (super funny and well made) show on FX, has had several Comedy Central specials, and has been a fixture of late night talk shows.

Of course, he also has something else, namely a solid product. In his case the entertainment industry actually propelled a qualified person to the top of their field. As a sidebar, this is a good lesson for young singers (and performers of all stripes). You will never be treated ‘fairly’ in this industry. You will, in fact, only ever advance (to a better paying circle of ensembles, opera companies, &c…) once it is beyond obvious that you are better than your current colleagues. In other words, do not waste time complaining about your current situation. Put that energy toward being the obvious choice for advancement as future situations form.

I see many classical musicians using tools like Kickstarter to raise funds for the sorts of projects that used to be funded by old media companies. Recordings – even live performances – are now being funded directly by backers rather than legacy institutions. In a way, this is how we wish the arts could be funded, by putting more ticket-purchasing butts in (virtual) seats. Perhaps the Internet has simply expanded the audience base by allowing the music lover in San Francisco to participate in performances by a New York-based group. A $10 donation is certainly cheaper than an airplane ticket.

I have a few thoughts, though, that give me pause, albeit insufficient pause to suggest that classical musicians stop doing this! Obviously any tool that gets people interested in supporting the arts is fantastic.

  • Will the entrepreneurial nature of Kickstarter change the sort of person who can be successful in the arts? In other words, do we need to change our conservatory curriculums to include not only “Clever Twitter Posts 101: Turning Your Every Thought Into a Music Career,” but also “How to Write a Grant Proposal Attractive to the Common Man 202: Wear a Nice Shirt in Your Kickstarter Video?” Again, the benefit of raising money clearly outweighs any downside, but I do wonder if the types of personalities that have historically succeeded in the arts (an environment that somewhat shielded stars from public interaction) will continue to rise to the top.
  • Part of having a successful career as a musician is projecting the image that you are successful. Conductors like to know that other conductors are hiring you, basically that you are a valued commodity. If you are simultaneously asking for money online, can this facade be sustained? Is there a conflict at all?
  • Will Kickstarter function as a sort of “farm league” for the old media companies, or will it create a second caste of performers not taken as seriously?
  • Will legacy institutions start to use this sort of new technology (what major opera company isn’t on Twitter at this point?), pushing out the under-staffed, young and talented, not-yet-famous artist?
  • Will Kickstarter only be good for a short time? As more and more people become involved in proposing projects, will it become impossible to sort through them to find the good ones? We have seen other new technologies (YouTube c. 2007) create a brief window of excitement only to become bogged down with mediocre content. For every amazing rendition of your favorite Handel aria, there are now seven videos of people singing it to their cat. Is YouTube a great tool, yes. Is it the answer, no.

Please do not misunderstand, I think that these sorts of new media tools have great value whether they actually permanently change anything. Here are my questions for you:

  • If you are a producer of art music, what sort of experiences (positive & negative) have you had with raising funds through new media? Do you think this is a viable way to reshape the funding climate in the arts, or just another tool to put in your belt? Please feel free to post a link to classical music Kickstarter projects that have worked well. Alternatively, post classical music projects that you are surprised to find on Kickstarter; projects that you would have thought a legacy institution would have funded.
  • If you are a supporter of the arts, whether you are wealthy or not, do you give equal weight to funding pitches from new media outlets as you do to legacy arts institutions? Does giving to the former mean that you are losing faith in the latter?

P.s. If you are looking for a quality art music project to fund, look no further than here. I can personally vouch for this group of brilliant musical colleagues (and genuinely nice people).

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Ian Howell is a countertenor based in Boston, Massachusetts. He regularly performs as a concert and operatic soloist all across North America and writes from time to time. He was educated at Yale and Capital Universities, sang with Chanticleer from 2000-04, and is currently a Doctor of Musical Arts student at the New England Conservatory of Music. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

  • Anne

    Yeah, we ran about 15% fans (either personal or group) and the rest friends and family.  Which was about what I expected, honestly.  I will say I think Kickstarter was more successful than a mass email would have been: it offered a nice graph, a handy donation button- all stuff that eases the “friction” of pledging support.  I think you can’t underestimate that stuff – we humans are profoundly lazy when it comes to being parted with our money.   That said, if there were a free service that offered the same frictionlessness, it would be a definite improvement from the artists’ point of view.

    • Anonymous

      I suppose that the real question is whether your backers (especially those who started as strangers) will become long-term donors?  Have you all started to plan your next kickstarter project?  I would be curious whether you’ll be able to tap the same people.  

      I have been thinking about the question of the eventual glutting the kickstarter system with bad content (a la youtube).  I wonder if the effort required to assemble a project, make a video, &c. is actually sufficient to forestall it?   

      What do you think?

  • Anne

    Interesting article, Ian.  I think you’re absolutely right that old media raised Louis CK’s profile to the point where he was then able to cut them out; this is what prevents his story from being entirely inspiring. 

    I also think Kickstarter will have decreasing utility as an increasing number of appeals exhausts the financial and mental resources of artistic and personal communities (e.g., the early music community).  And make no mistake: for all but a few folks, Kickstarter involves “going to the mattresses,” or tapping your personal and artistic contacts.  The “stranger” donation is alluring, but largely chimerical.  In other words, I do not believe that Kickstarter (& its ilk)  is a game changer.  It’s just another first down.

    I’d argue, though, that the need to sell/package yourself is anything but new; the new thing is that old media used to do this for you.  But declining demand for classical music has fractured many old media institutions.  Couple that with a rising supply of would-be classical musicians, and you guarantee that 90% of artists will have to be scrappers.  Which is not necessarily a bad thing- keeps the whole milieu more interesting.  

    • Ian Howell

      Hi Anne! I think your assessment is spot on.  What was your experience like when you used kickstarter? ( 
      Did you end up paying 8% to amazon/kickstarter for the pleasure of taking payments from friends, or were you able to tap into a larger community?  Did kickstarter give your project a sense of legitimacy that was helpful? 

    • Anonymous

      I wonder if there is a declining demand for classical music, or just a declining desire to pay money for recordings?  

  • Garrett Shatzer

    Great post, Ian. I know that I was more than shocked when I saw that the Kronos Quartet uses Kickstarter to fund commissioning projects. Baffling!

    • Ian Howell

      Hey Garrett, 
      It is fascinating to see groups like Kronos, and established singers like Brian Asawa using Kickstarter :-) I’m curious where it is all going!