He self-financed, recorded, and released a comedy special, then put it on his website for direct download. In doing so, he bypassed all the major TV/movie studios and record labels.
Immediately, Louis was hailed a champion. A pioneer. He was paving the way for other comedians to take control of their art and sell it directly to their fans. Hell, not just comedians: filmmakers, musicians… creative folk of all kinds.
It was awesome.
Except, it’s also what every unknown comedian has been doing since… well, forever.
At the same Louis was being lauded for his actions, I was putting out my fourth comedy CD. Like my other three, I had recorded, edited, and paid for everything. While promoting the release, the question I got most often was: Why are you doing this yourself? Why aren’t you going through a record label?
It wasn’t asked in an empowering way, as if I was taking up the Louis CK call to arms. No, it was done with suspicious eyes.
What makes you, a nobody, think you can do this on your own? Why are you ignoring the powers that be?
I did it alone because that’s the way I always had. That said, when you are at nobody, you do need someone else to champion you. You can scream from the mountaintop all you want: “Listen to me! Pay attention to me! I have something to offer!” The problem is, since anyone can self-promote and crow their own talents, it doesn’t mean anything. When you are an unknown, outsiders like to hear that you have someone in your corner. To a non-famous comedian, having a record label saying, “Hey, this guy is good…” gives you an edge. Validity.
Then, when you are big enough, you can go back to doing it yourself and become a hero. Like Louis did.
I did not understand that at the time, but I get it now.
When it came time to release my fifth CD, I figured: OK, yeah. I should consider having someone champion me. I searched out three comedy record labels. It was sort of a Goldilocks move on my part: one was big and well respected, one was middle-of-the-road, and one “company” was a one-man operation that signed comedians more unknown than me.
(And truth be told, I’m really unknown myself. I mean, have you heard of me? Exactly.)
I started researching each of them, and I didn’t like what I found.
Two of my friends on the big label said they had never received a royalty check from them. I found that odd, since one is an established comedian and his album had made it to number four on the iTunes Comedy charts.
The second label was no better. I discovered it was almost a… I don’t want to say scam, but comedians had to rent label-owned equipment and hire their producer to record everything. So, comedians were $5,000 in the hole the instant they signed a contract.
Finally, the smallest label just didn’t seem to have anything to offer. The modus operandi was: give me the album, and we’ll split sales 50-50. I asked about promotion—would they get me interviews on (or reviews from) comedy-based websites or radio stations—and never got a direct response.
Given all that, what was the point? All my research put me back at square one: self-releasing. If I were a big-name comedian with powerful management throwing elbows for me, I’m sure a respectable label would take me. But that’s not the case; life is what it is.
So, once again I recorded my own show and put together my own CD. There are a couple flubs on it; I over-modulated a couple times, and one of the tracks has a slightly different tone than those surrounding it.
Fortunately, I know a jazz musician in New York City; he has a recording studio and all the recording software to go with it. I sent him my set, and he ran it through a couple filters. Leveled off the highs and lows; made the overall sound “thicker.” I gave it to a handful of people for a test listen, and it received “thumbs-up” across the board.
Yes, yes, I know: friends will lie. But I gave it to people I could trust to give me their harshest opinions. I gave it to friends, people willing to hurt feelings to speak truth.
According to them, the flaws made it sound real. Organic, and not overly produced. If anything, the “flaws” gave everything a little edge. Made it raw.
Isn’t that what comedy is supposed to be?
Photo Getty Images (additional photo courtesy of author)