A slew of entertainers are finding success and funds by bringing their work directly to fans

By EW Staff
October 05, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

When comedian Tig Notaro mined her recent breast-cancer diagnosis for a stand-up set on Aug. 3, an enthusiastic audience member tweeted her praises. That fan was comic trailblazer Louis C.K., and the set is now legendary, even though only a handful of people saw it. The Louie star — something of a pioneer in the realm of self-distribution — then did Notaro another solid: He persuaded her to sell the recording of the sought-after set, called Live, through his website, with Notaro retaining all the rights.

Selling directly to fans certainly isn’t a new concept — recall Radiohead‘s headline-grabbing pay-what-you-will plan through their site for the 2007 album In Rainbows. But lately the do-it-yourself opportunities seem to be hitting a critical mass. Louis C.K. is just one of the many comics, musicians, and filmmakers who are demonstrating that there’s a real model for selling your work to fans without the umbrella of a traditional film studio or recording deal. And now some artists are finding crowd-sourced funding via online platform Kickstarter and smaller sites like Indiegogo. ”I’m at the place where I’m just heading to the hardware store to buy a hammer,” says Notaro, whose download goes on sale this week at louisck.net. ”Louis C.K. got his hammer and just keeps on building and building and building.”

It makes sense that comedians were among the first people to score big with this new wave of autonomy: Their work is simple, self-contained, and well suited to platforms like podcasting (hello, Marc Maron!). Louis C.K., who has been producing and directing his own specials for years, extended that control into distribution when he made his 2011 show Live at the Beacon Theater available for $5 via his site — an offer that netted him a million dollars in sales within days. Fellow comics Aziz Ansari, Jim Gaffigan, and Rob Delaney have had success with similar structures. More recently, Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly opted to live-stream their Oct. 6 debate at therumble2012.com for a $4.95 fee rather than via a TV broadcast. (Stewart and O’Reilly, like Louis C.K. with Beacon and Notaro with her set, are donating some of the proceeds to charity.) ”I just thought it would be the most efficient way to do it, rather than tie up production companies and all of that,” says O’Reilly. ”If it’s profitable and does as well as we hope it does, then I think you’ll see a lot more of this.” Jokes Stewart: ”I think Bill follows Louis pretty closely, and has in many ways always been just one step behind.”

While some entertainers sell their wares directly, others are taking it a step further, eschewing old funding routes and using Kickstarter and the like to lobby for seed money. More and more filmmakers see an opportunity, such as Being John Malkovich scribe Charlie Kaufman and ex-Community showrunner Dan Harmon, who are soliciting funds for their stop-motion animated film Anomalisa. The project is currently backed by 5,770 users who have contributed $406,237, making it the most funded film project in Kickstarter’s three-year history. They aren’t the only ones: True Blood‘s Kristin Bauer van Straten raised $64,446 for an anti-elephant-poaching doc by auctioning off her costar’s skivvies. And actor Matthew Lillard raised $158,000 in distribution fees for his first directorial effort, the teen drama Fat Kid Rules the World.

Kickstarter is even becoming an unexpected boon for gamers. Of the top 10 earning projects, six have been gaming-related. One of them, a sleek Android-based videogame system called OUYA that’s due out next spring, has collected $8.5 million. OUYA CEO Julie Uhrman says Kickstarter is uniquely suited to getting novel gadgetry to market, especially as the inherent risks with tech tend to scare away venture capitalists. ”We listened to the community, and so, for instance, changed the controller,” Uhrman says. ”Kickstarter gave us this opportunity to have a dialogue with our would-be customers in a way I don’t think existed before.”

Musicians have also gotten into the crowd-funding act. This past summer the cabaret-punk artist and Dresden Dolls singer Amanda Palmer raised nearly $1.2 million (the most for a Kickstarter music project) to distribute, promote, and tour with her latest solo album, Theatre Is Evil. Bruce Springsteen guitarist Steven Van Zandt recently set up a Kickstarter campaign to mount a Van Zandt-penned theatrical project that would reunite ’60s group the Rascals. And former major-label artists like the Disney pop group Allstar Weekend and singer-songwriter Paula Cole are raising money for new albums. Palmer believes that crowd-funding isn’t just a more altruistic model for the arts — it’s also a more practical one, and an example that should ring true for entertainers who choose to make their own way. ”We’re now able to directly put our money where our inspiration is,” says Palmer. ”Instead of relying on giant corporations to have meetings about what they ‘think’ everybody wants, people are speaking with their wallets about what kind of art they want to support.”

Kyle Anderson, Jon Chase, Jeff Labrecque, Melissa Maerz, and Grady Smith