When the comedian Louis C.K. takes the stage at New York's Beacon Theater on Saturday, he'll conduct an interesting experiment. He's going to broadcast his routine on the Internet to anyone who pays him.
The usual way this works is a hot comedian like Louis C.K. licenses footage of his performance to a cable network as a TV special or a studio for a concert film. But instead he's going to stream it on his own website in exchange for five dollars apiece.
Dismiss it as a one-off stunt if you will, but then you're missing the bigger picture. It's a manifestation of a larger trend already playing out elsewhere that has profound consequences for the media world.
He's testing a simple but revolutionary proposition: Does a famous performer really need the industry that once ensured his or her survival?
Before a critical mass of households had Internet connections robust enough to watch video, an artist had no choice but to put their product through the usual TV networks or film studios, which were the only ones that had the capital to fund production but the marketing crucial to getting the word out about that production.
But that's not the case anymore. The costs of production have dropped precipitously. The Internet is an open distribution platform. As for marketing, artists are able to move their audiences through the direct connection of social media, whether Twitter, Facebook or other ways.
Suddenly, the companies that talent couldn't live without start to seem like unnecessary middlemen.
It's a trend that's been bubbling up for awhile now. Consider Exhibit A: Glenn Beck, the right-wing media personality who walked away from Fox News Channel earlier this year. Beck resurfaced in the form of his own online network GBTV.com, which collects anywhere from 5-10 dollars a month to get a range of content.
While the bad news is his audience isn't as big as it was when he had Fox News in his corner, the good news is that he's able to get a much greater share of the revenue that comes from his smaller but still quite dedicated audience.
Beck had some precedents in other industries. Think back a few years to the music business when Radiohead drew notice for releasing an album online without a record label. Or the publishing industry where Harry Potter author JK Rowling earlier this year set up a website, Pottermore, where she continues to churn out content related to the franchise without the intermediary of a publishing house.
Louis C.K. isn't the only comedian taking his act online. Bill Maher just announced he would do a standup special but that's a free show with the support of Yahoo, a company just as big as any established company in Hollywood.
Is this about independence? Sure, but mostly it's about money. Once you kick the middleman out of the way, there's more money to pocket yourself.
Now all this isn't to say that 2012 is going to bring an avalanche of actors and the like breaking the shackles of the system that keeps them down and going it alone. What the new year will likely bring is the slightest quickening of a trickle into a steady drip. As with all things in entertainment, it's going to take a hit to truly open the floodgates.