Louis C.K.: Comic ditches Ticketmaster, sells $4.5M in tickets

Louis C.K. is selling every seat in every city for his upcoming standup comedy tour for a $45 flat rate, including sales tax. Tickets are only available through his website. It's been three days, and Louis C.K.'s tour is all but sold out. Is he changing the way we buy entertainment?

Gue Ruelas/Reuters
Louis C.K. arrives at the Hollywood FX Summer Comedies Party in Los Angeles, California June 26, 2012. The actor and comedian has taken ticket prices for his upcoming standup tour into his own hands, making all tickets available for a $45 flat rate exclusively through his website. The results have been staggering, and his tour is all but sold out.

One comedian is continuing his quest to provide laughs wholesale, making his performances and other content available only through a single channel at lowered prices. And it’s paying off big time.

Louis Szekely, or Louis C.K., as he’s more commonly known, is one of the most popular standup comics in the US. His TV show “Louie,” which he writes, directs, and stars in, will premiere its third season tonight on FX. He’s won an Emmy for comedy writing and been nominated for several more, including Best Leading Actor in a Comedy Series last year.

But Louis C.K.’s biggest achievement to date might be how he’s taken control of selling his work. Earlier this week, the standup announced that tickets for his upcoming US tour, from October 2012 to February 2013, would only be sold through his website, louisck.com.  That means you can’t get them through Ticketmaster, StubHub, or any of the other big ticket retailers.

What’s more, all seats in all venues would go for a flat rate of $45, including state taxes. Processing fees, which generally drive ticket prices much higher than advertised, have been completely eliminated.

“Making my shows affordable has always been my goal but two things have always worked against that,” C.K. wrote in an open letter to fans announcing the tour.  “High ticket charges and ticket re-sellers marking up the prices. Some ticketing services charge more than 40% over the ticket price and, ironically, the lower I've made my ticket prices, the more scalpers have bought them up, so the more fans have paid for a lot of my tickets. By selling the tickets exclusively on my site, I've cut the ticket charges way down and absorbed them into the ticket price.”

But how to cope with scalpers, who buy up high-demand tickets to resell them at inflated rates? “You'll see that if you try to sell the ticket anywhere for anything above the original price, we have the right to cancel your ticket (and refund your money). This is something I intend to enforce.”

A quick eBay search turns up hundreds of scalpers’ results for tickets, including some for over $1,000. But on a Tuesday appearance on Bill Simmons’ podcast “The BS Report,” C.K. hinted that the bar codes on such tickets might not even work.

He notes that $45 is a lower price than had been available for his shows in over two years.

The gambit has already worked, tremendously. Withing the first 45 hours, 100,000 Louis C.K. tour tickets were sold, generating $4.5 million. Tickets for shows at several major cities were gone in a matter of hours, including three Boston shows in early January. 

The ticketing idea came after the comedian found similar success selling his standup special, “Live at the Beacon Theater.” He paid for the theater rental and production crew for the live show himself, then made the finished product available only on his website. Like the tour tickets the one-hour show was available for download only on louisck.com, for $5. It made $1 million in the first 12 days.

The venture was so successful that other popular comedians followed suit, including Aziz Ansari. But it was far from a sure thing at the time. Before Louis C.K.’s success, the track record for entertainers setting their own prices was a disappointing one. In 2007, British Rock group Radiohead made its new record “In Rainbows” available online; customers were allowed to pick their own price. The album was critically claimed and warmly received by fans, but the price many people picked was $0. But C.K. proved that customers were willing to pay, if the price was right.

Given the comedian’s success, which seems to be benefiting both him and his fans in equal measure, are we headed for a world without ticket vendors and distributors? Louis C.K. is, perhaps, exactly famous enough to make this sort of thing work. He’s enormously popular, but still far from a household name. Word of the deal went out first to his email subscribers and Twitter followers, so most of his biggest supporters had first crack at the cheap tickets. It would be harder for a smaller name to foot the initial costs, or to get venues to agree to such an arrangement – something that C.K. admits was difficult. Were he any bigger of a name, the ticket vendors might be panicked enough to take measures to stop him.

But for now, his experiments in direct sales are working for everyone but Ticketmaster. And those of us who missed out on seats.

Editor's note: An earlier version of  this article mischaracterized Radiohead's "In Rainbows" as a "flop." This has been corrected.

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