the first time the work of louis CK really hit our radar was when we heard him ask the former US secretary of defense donald rumsfeld, live on US radio, if he was a lizard. it was a question he’d put forward just moments after suggesting that collectively rumsfeld and dick cheney (former US vice-president) were in fact lizards from outer space that eat human flesh. of course we had been casual fans before of louis’s work before, but it was this delicious moment that really turned our heads – the reason being that it reminded us hugely of the late great bill hicks, whose work has had a massive influence on our work at version industries.
we first met louis backstage at one of his recent shows in new york – the very same shows that became his most recent special, live at the beacon theater, which we have since been put in charge of releasing online. it was the gregory brothers who had recommended us for the job and after some initial phone calls and emails with louis’s management, we soon found ourselves sitting on couches opposite louis backstage at the beacon theater. louis was very clear on how he wanted to go about things and we initially served as a sounding board for his various ideas. we explained what each of his suggested directions would entail and what limitations, if any, he might face. he then told us that he was about to go on national television and not just announce the project, but also give the date it was to go live. there was not a second to lose.
in terms of design, it was a fairly low-profile job. louis made it clear after the first round of site designs we submitted that he wanted a less-flashy, more honest and trustworthy-feeling design. he knew this was mostly about people feeling safe about spending; up to this point his design aesthetic had been quite simple and raw, and he didn’t want to confuse people by straying too far from that. given this, we kept the red, black and white tones of his previous website but aimed for the more moody, atmospheric feeling design we felt best suited for viewing a film. we then proceeded to condense the content of the site right down to only that which people needed to “buy the thing” with. “buy the thing” was just one of the many wonderful colloquialisms louis asked that we use instead of the regular tone of language you tend to expect on an e-commerce site. our favourite of these was perhaps the naming schema he had us develop for when people forgot their passwords: try it yourself and you’ll likely end up with a new password of the likes of numbnuts.bjy5 or moron.abt3.
the coding for the site was a whole separate matter. this site was to be one of our greatest tests in this department due to the size of the video files, the importance of a frictionless purchase flow and the vast quantity of users we expected to hit the site both at launch and on a daily basis. as louis put it,
“i want people in prison to be able to get this.”
the site presented technical challenges in two primary ways: ease and scale. given the size and dedication of louis’s both national and international audience we decided that paypal, for its ubiquity and security, would be a reasonable place to start for payment processing. for the scalability of the app we chose to use amazon web services, tapping thomas chippendale of verran in england to manage and load-test the amazon infrastructure. in general AWS worked out extremely well – although after the opening weekend they gave us a wonderfully delicate call to ask if we were aware of the bandwidth bill the site had chalked up.
for the development of the application itself we chose the open-source fuelPHP framework. the application was simple in essence: manage accounts, stream the show, make the show available for download, and secure the files for paying fans. though we knew from the outset that piracy was inevitable, we wanted the paid, legitimate experience to be as easy as stealing. to lead development we enlisted the exceptional skills of longtime collaborator and friend jules janssen, whose understanding of the complexity of heavy traffic loads made him an obvious choice.
using the site, you’ll notice that we deliberately avoided forcing users to check an email account to complete the purchase – this was something louis insisted upon due to his own frustrations with waiting for validation emails in the past. therefore the purchase flow moves from “enter email address” to “pay with paypal” to “download”. no intermediary stages, no need to wait for an email address: you buy it, it’s yours. the site is intended to offer “one true path” to purchase, with no option to make the wrong decision or lack of clarity about what you’re supposed to be doing.
furthermore, bearing in mind the broad range of technical know-how and preference among louis’ fans, we built in html5 and ogg theora fallbacks for content to better serve the array of devices and platforms they use, and also out of respect to the free software community.
understanding full-well that this was one of the more high-profile jobs we’d taken on and that no matter how refined a system we’d built, we’d be taking not just a heavy server hit but also criticism from a number of online factions, we did not farm out the tech support but rather handled it personally. this meant we could have an open discourse with users who had specific ideas regarding improvements to the site. one particular email from richard stallman, founder of the free software foundation, recommending offering an anonymous payment system, served as an excellent reminder of the impact louis’s approach to this project was having on people. during the weekend the site went live, if you had had any reason to email the tech support team, you will have received a reply from either giles or myself, sitting as we were in his living room sipping cups of tea and drafting replies.
from meeting louis to delivery of the site was a period of approximately one month: designing and specifying the application, provisioning the amazon web services, developing, testing, go-live. we’ve since continued to provide tech support and handle a number of last minute updates to the site on louis’s whim. his ceaseless ambition for the scope of the project combined with a regular flow of ideas back and forth between his team, ours and the users via tech support, has meant the site continues to evolve and streamline itself in subtle ways. a couple of times louis would think of a way he wanted to expand the site’s scope and then demand it to be ready by the end of the next day for an appearance he was making on a talk show. this way he could announce the change on the broadest level possible and ensure the site was moving as fast as his brain was. this is what mr. scott must have felt like as chief engineering officer under captain kirk on the starship enterprise - the greater good being the stakes, the fundamental physical limitations of being human, the only thing in the way.
the question of how we’d approach the setup any differently now that we’ve learnt so much from the experience is an important one. our understanding of large scale file-serving concerns, of open-source fan interests and of just how frank you can and should be with internet users to appease their interests is now well-developed. in short, working on this project was utterly refreshing. louis’s “fuck you” approach to a massive scale sales platform, which we all know can be such a tedious process of trying to be overly accommodating and polite, appealed to our own design ethics massively and therefore continued to make this project a joy to work on. practically speaking, it allowed us to be all the more frank with users through the tech support system and ultimately get to the heart of each of their concerns much faster. when you’re allowed to talk freely about the fact that they can and will steal your product but would be happy to pay if we just set things up right, it helps you put together a better system. so long as everyone is being honest and no one feels like they’re being fucked over, worthwhile compromises are reached much faster. the slew of emails we’ve received from people stating that they’d never heard of louis before, but were buying the special simply because of his approach to selling it and the price he was selling it for, was heartwarming to say the least.
needless to say, if you haven’t yet watched louis CK – live at the beacon theater, you should. it’s very, very funny and largely because it’s honest, true and to the point – an approach that we believe has contributed hugely to every aspect of the success of this project. as of writing this article louis has made over 1 million dollars through the website and there’s an article in the new york times detailing his efforts in this regard. it’s important of course to not get carried away with the hype surrounding a project like this. louis was of course already well established and his success here is reflective of both that and the strong desire of internet users to support an attempt to reinvent the media business model. here’s something reggie watts said on the matter, soon after the site had gone live, that resonated with us in this regard -
“i’m so glad [the louis CK] experiment is working. however it is important to note that it is not a new concept nor that surprising that it is succeeding (thankfully). in fact it wasn’t even that big of a risk! the reason being common sense prevails. fans who love an artist want to see that artist succeed therefore if that artist invests energy, creates an experience and extends a generous hand directly to them, more often than not it will be met by an even greater positive return. this model has been pioneered by DIY, independent and some labeled artists of varying mediums over the last few decades to great success (recalling radiohead). i think what is most important about louis’ project is the nowness; it’s a much needed reminder for the entertainment industry and encouragement to other artists finding ways to navigate their crafts with creativity intact.”
we’ve certainly worked with companies like topspin for a while who’ve been making every effort they can to put the power of such a business model directly into the hands of artists. the main thing is to remember that you do now have the power to make the money you deserve yourself, so long as you have something people actually want, or rather, that is any good. the labels, publishers, film studios and television networks of the world used to be able to help you force-feed a turd into the mouths of fans whilst fanning your ego and quietly adjusting your image as best they could. these days you really have to make something outstanding because as we all know, it’s a “try now, pay later” market out there. so, when that masterpiece is finally ready, be excited that at the least you now have total control.