The Cost of Having a Conscience: the Ethics of Voice-Over

The author at VO Atlanta

There is no doubt about it:

The fifth edition of VO Atlanta was spec-ta-cu-lar!

Over 550 voice-overs, coaches, service providers, and VO VIPS gathered for three never-ending days, and had a blast.

The quest for actionable knowledge was palpable. The desire to raise our reputation, our standards, and our rates was on everybody’s mind. The energy was electric!

If you ever doubt that ours is a sharing and caring community, come to next year’s conference, and feel the love of an amazingly talented, supportive, and crazy group of people who are short on ego, and big on brother- and sisterhood. You’ll never feel isolated again, and you will leave tired but incredibly inspired.

I had the good fortune of sharing the stage with Bev Standing, Dave Courvoisier, Cliff Zellman, Rob Sciglimpaglia, and moderator J. Michael Collins for a panel discussion on Voice-Overs and Ethics. Because so many of you weren’t able to be there, and the topic is so important, I want to recap some of my thoughts on the issue. Let’s begin with my take on ethics.

MORALS, MONEY, and ME

In short, ethics are moral principles that shape our lives; beliefs about what’s right and what’s wrong. These beliefs guide our decisions, and help us make choices based on what we think is important and good for us, and for society. Every day we make ethical decisions: at the grocery store, when we decide which charity to donate to, and which party and politician to vote for.

Even though the ethics panel largely focused on rates and business practices, ethics goes further than fees and codes of conduct. In my case, personal ethics impact pretty much every business decision I make. My moral compass makes me ask questions such as:

– Do I really want to work with this client?
– Is this a product or service, political party, or philosophy I want to be associated with?
– Is my business all about money, or can and should it be an instrument for social change?

During the panel discussion, moderator J. Michael Collins asked a number of thought-provoking questions, and here’s number one:

Do talent have an obligation to consider the impact of their pricing on the greater industry?

No one lives on an island. Whether we realize it or not, we’re all connected. Perhaps I see it that way because I come from a very small country. In the Netherlands, the Dutch can’t easily escape the consequences of their actions. The behavior of one company or one person even, can affect society as a whole. 

In the labor market, voice-overs belong to a rapidly growing group of independent contractors. I’ve always thought that this label was wrong. I prefer to call us interdependent contractors. We’re all linked by common causes, and individual actions influence those causes. What do I mean?

For one, all of us are training clients how to treat us.

Every time we quote a job, we’re giving out a signal to the industry: “This is what a job is worth. This is what I’m worth.” If we’re telling clients they can get more for less, we’ve just helped set a standard, and made our job a bit cheaper. Of course you may not see it that way, because it’s part of human nature to downplay the impact individuals have on their environment.

Millions of individual shoppers, for instance, neglect the fact that their plastic bags are responsible for the killing of marine life on a scale that’s unimaginable. But -as a wise man once said- if you believe that individuals have no influence on the system as a whole, you’ve never spent the night with a flea in your bed.

Here’s Michael’s next question:

Do talent have a responsibility to avoid doing business with sites or companies who promote poor pay standards?

As far as I’m concerned, there are many reasons to avoid working with certain companies. Perhaps they’re big polluters. Perhaps they use child labor. Perhaps they are run by a corrupt family. You’ve got to do your homework to find out. By working with those companies and sites, we keep them in business, thus enabling their practices.

Here’s the thing. I’m not going to tell you why and where you should draw the line. If you’re okay voicing a promotional video for a company that makes cluster bombs, that’s your choice. If you’re fine voicing a commercial for a fast food giant, go ahead -as long as you take some time to think about the ethical implications of what you’re doing.

In our line of work, a job is rarely “just” a job.

I will not lend my voice to video games that glorify gratuitous violence. As a vegetarian, I refuse to promote animal products, and as a non-smoker, I will never sing the praises of a tobacco product. For that, I am willing to pay a price. Sometimes it is a hefty price, because throughout my career I’ve had to say “No” to quite a few projects that would have paid the bills for many months.

My voice may be for hire, but my morals are not for sale.

So, do I think we have a responsibility to not do business with companies that rip us off? Absolutely! We’re either part of the problem, or we’re part of the solution.

What are some best practices you would like to see coaches and demo producers follow?

Number one: Don’t guarantee your students any work. ROI is not a given. There are very few shortcuts to success. Coaches and producers should stress that this is a subjective, unfair business. Get rich quick does not exist. They should educate their students about going rates, and professional standards.

Coaches and producers should carefully select whom they want to work with. They should not continue to take money from students that have no talent, or show little improvement, just because they’re paying customers. In my opinion, that’s unethical.

What expectations should talent reasonably have of talent agents and agencies?

An agent or agencies should offer opportunities that play to the strength of a particular talent. They should do the leg work, so the talent can focus on the job. Agents or agencies should also negotiate a decent rate. What else?

A good agent knows you better than you know yourself. A good agent sees potential, and hears things you yourself do not hear. A good agent helps you grow, and goes to bat for you.

A great agent has a unique in, into the market; something other agents may not have. I want an agent to be brutally honest with me, and to shield me from bad clients.

What is a reasonable commission for an agent, or other casting organization to take?

Anywhere between ten and twenty percent.

What are some red flags to watch out for when seeking agency representation?

Agents charging a fee for representation: “I’ll represent you if you pay me 250 bucks!”

Another red flag points at agents that send out jobs every other agent sends out. That’s lazy. Also keep an eye out for agents that are never available, and never give you any feedback.

What level of transparency should we expect from online casting sites, and what does that look like?

A lot has been said about one of the biggest online casting sites operating out of Canada. Last year, Voices dot com (VDC) had a clear and controversial presence at VO Atlanta. This year, the conference organizers determined that VDC was no longer welcome at the table, because it “does not have the best interest of voice talent at heart.” The importance of that decision should not be underestimated, and the announcement was greeted with great applause.

As you may know, I have exposed VDC’s dubious business practices in the past, and part of their problem has to do with a lack of transparency. When asked why VDC would not be entirely open about the way they do business, I quoted psychologist Dr. Phil McGraw, who once said:

“People who have nothing to hide, hide nothing.”

An online casting site must be open about their business practices. Otherwise, it will lose the trust of its members. It has to be clear about the way auditions are offered, and to whom. Is everybody getting a fair chance, or is there a secret system limiting talent, lining the pockets of the people in charge?

A Pay to Play has to be open about how much a client is paying, how much the talent is getting, and how much is taken in by the casting site. That site should listen to feedback from its members, answer questions honestly and without spin, and refrain from double or triple dipping.

Is it reasonable for sites to charge both a membership fee and a commission?

Ideally, I believe a commission should cover all services provided by the online casting site. That way the site has an incentive to deliver, and make sure the talent gets paid a fair fee. Commission rewards positive action. The more a talent makes, the more the casting site makes.

Now, by using the commission model, an online casting site might start acting like an agent, and in the U.S. that’s not allowed. Remember though, that in most countries in the world there are no voice-over agents, so this is not as big of an issue as it may seem to some.

THE UNSPOKEN SIDE OF BUSINESS

During the panel discussion in Atlanta I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before: the ethical aspect of our business is not something we tweet about, or talk about on Facebook. Ethical issues are hard to put into 140 characters, or in a short status update. They often are complex, deeply personal, and seldom black or white.

Some people don’t give ethics much thought. If the money is good, they’ll take the job. Others feel that just because they’re the voice of a campaign, it doesn’t mean they have to agree with that campaign. They see themselves as voice actors, and actors merely play a role. That in and of itself, is a position based on a personal belief. 

One thing I know for sure, and from experience.

Once you decide where you draw the ethical line, you will be tested. Let’s say you don’t like the way animals are treated by the agricultural-industrial complex. The moment you decide not to promote anything having to do with animal abuse, you will get a request to do a commercial for a fast food company.

It’s the irony of life!

WILL YOU JOIN ME?

During VO Atlanta, many colleagues had a breakthrough moment, or even multiple Aha moments. Just look at your social media stream. People can’t stop posting about it. Something in them has changed as a result of this conference. A spark has been ignited, colleagues have become friends, and people no longer feel isolated.

Take my advice, and join that silly gang in 2018 (March 1-4). If you preregister now by clicking on this link, you’ll lock in the very best price. This offer is available until the end of the month.

I hope to see you there, and perhaps we’ll get another chance to talk about ethics!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet: subscribe and retweet!

PPS The inimitable Peter O’Connell has penned a response to this post. Click here to read it. 

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About the author

Paul Strikwerda

is a Dutch-English voice-over pro, coach, and writer. His blog is one of the most widely read and influential blogs in the industry. Paul is also the author of "Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs."

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Pay-to-Play, Personal, Social Media

24 Responses to The Cost of Having a Conscience: the Ethics of Voice-Over

  1. Theresa "T" Koenke Diaz

    I haven’t even read the entire article yet and am loving it. Will finish it later but I wanted to say thank you for broaching the topic of ethics in performing VO work, which has long been on my mind ever since deciding to explore this career path further, and so much so that I occasionally type some keywords into google to see what pops up, and today it was your article. You’re right, it’s not a topic I hear discussed very often, and I know I will not be auditioning for jobs that I have a moral dilemma with. I’m also glad to hear about the decision not to include Voices.com. I’ve debated going with a production company for training and demo creation that unfortunately is aligned with Voices, so I will most likely be seeking out another company for that training and demo creation, of which there are many. Very glad I researched further before signing up with that company and jumping into it too fast.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thanks for finding my blog, Theresa. I highly recommend you check out the Global Voice Acting Academy.

    [Reply]

  2. Peter K. O'Connell

    Hi Paul,

    Just a quick note of thanks for the link to my blog post.

    Best always,

    –Peter

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    You’re very welcome. Thank you for continuing the discussion about ethics, Peter.

    [Reply]

  3. Jon Noles

    Such a great post! Coming from an extremely black/white industry into the wonderful grayness of an artistic/freelance endeavor, it can be a confusing one. CIP, I did a job for someone that I knew was struggling to get their business going and didn’t have a large advertising budget, and I wanted to help them out. So, I did a job at “less than I was worth” or “less than market value” to help them out, believing that it would come back to me later. I was then told that I devalued the industry by doing so. Sigh…

    But I really appreciate your blog and this post in particular.
    Thanks!

    [Reply]

    Paul Payton Reply:

    There’s a price below which I won’t go. However, I’m grateful to have friends. I’ll do them favors. They’ll do me favors. We don’t keep score. Somehow it all works out in the end. I don’t think it hurts the industry and I don’t do it for everybody, nor does everybody do it for me. If i can sleep well tonight knowing that I can charge a client a fair rate tomorrow, I’m OK with that. As you said, it’s a gray area.

    When I started doing VO 30ish years ago, we all went outside to studios and it was very secretive. Now that many of us unite to share information about technology, “the business of the business,” etc., it’s warmer and more cooperative. I frequently say that if my “competition” is working, it’s good, because there are active clients available and we can go to work. I don’t mean to get hyper-philosophical; that’s just what has worked for me over many years. (Others may vary.)

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Here’s what people should understand: I am not against friends helping friends. That’s what friends are for. Friends are honest with one another about what they can and cannot afford. Friends return favors.

    In other situations, freelancers rarely know the difference between what a client can afford, and what s/he is willing to pay. What does “we only have a small budget” really mean? Small compared to what? It’s all relative. You don’t go to the bank asking for a mortgage, and tell the manager: “I only have a small budget. Can you please adjust the interest rate? And if I have a bad month, it’s okay if I don’t pay, right?”

    Have you ever heard of a plumber or an electrician adjusting his rate because you’ve had a slow month? Try getting a haircut at a reduced rate, or a dinner at a restaurant…

    In our mind we’re coming up with all these excuses to justify why we shouldn’t charge clients a fair fee: it’s a student project, it’s a start-up, it’s a charity, it will only take ten minutes…

    It’s not our job to determine whether or not a client can afford us. It’s our job to determine how much we need to make to earn at least a living wage.

    [Reply]

    Jon Noles Reply:

    Hi. I saw you posted this reply on the GVAA FB page as if it were the response to a question. Sorry you mis-read my statement. I wasn’t asking anything, just complimenting you on your post and expressing frustration in helping someone out and being told that I de-valued the industry. Sorry for the confusion!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    No need to apologize. I used your comment as a spring board to clarify an issue quite a few people are confused about. So: Thank you for giving me that opportunity, Jon. By helping friends the way you seem to do, you’re actually enriching our community, instead of devaluing it.

  4. Jem Matzan

    If you weren’t selling coaching or a book, would you still go to these kinds of conferences? I’ve only been to two, and from a personal standpoint I enjoyed meeting colleagues and people who are in parts of the industry that I rarely get to see. But from a business standpoint, handing out business cards, audiobook giveaway cards, and USB sticks with excerpts and samples — none of that’s gotten me any work. Secondly, I’m fully booked for the next 6 weeks, so the conference would have to be worth losing at least 3 and maybe 4 (travel time) days of productivity, plus the cost of the event, plus travel/hotel/meals. Seems like a high cost for apparently zero return. Is there something I’m not considering here?

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I’ve written about my reluctance to go to huge conferences in “Meet Me in Atlanta.” That just has to do with me being not so comfortable in crowds. Those fears were completely unfounded, by the way. There were so many breakout groups in smaller rooms, and I had many lovely one-on-one encounters with people I had wanted to meet for a long, long time.

    To address your question, as far as I can see there are two motivations for taking part in these events:

    1. What’s in it for me?
    2. What can I contribute?

    The irony is that those who contribute the most, seem to get the most in return!

    [Reply]

    Jem Matzan Reply:

    Unless I’m invited to speak or present a program, I can’t think of any contributions aside from being friendly and social. Can you give some examples?

    If all I can really contribute is my presence and my entry fees, then, as I said, that sounds like a great time from a personal standpoint, but if I’m there as a professional then I have to ask, from a strict business standpoint: what’s the return?

    Maybe I just have a totally warped idea of what a business conference is?

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Having been to a few conferences, I have to agree with your last line, Jem. The thing is: different people have different goals when going to these conferences. The 550+ people who went to VO Atlanta may have been to the same event, but they will walk away with highly personal experiences, making the event worthwhile to them.

    People don’t need to be a speaker or panel member or VO VIP to contribute. My most memorable takeaways came from one-on-one conversations I had with individual participants. You’ll never know in what way you’ll be able to touch a life, simply by listening actively, and by sharing experiences.

    Paul Stefano Reply:

    Hey, The comments where only people named Paul reply!

    Jem, VO Atlanta is different than any other conference I’ve been to. I say that as a 20 year veteran of the corporate world. The takeaways came fast and furious. Small technique tidbits from seasoned pros, and brand new talent alike. Direct business opportunities as well. Plus, as a fairly isolated business, the positive effect of just communing with people cannot be overlooked.

    Case in point, I have been wanting to meet Paul Strikwerda for a long time. I did just that, and though it was the first time ever seeing him in person, we both shared a big hug at the end of the conference. By the way, that scene repeated itself about 20 times with various other talent, I’m proud to now call “friends”.

    Part of this, maybe most of it, is due to the caring and sharing nature of VO. With few exceptions, the cast of characters in our business are just giving of their time and personality. Still, I think Gerald Griffith does a great job of cultivating that mentality and it shows.

    So, if you have preconceptions of what a “trade show” would be like, I would throw them out the window and get thee to Atlanta 3/1/18.

    Paul

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Paul Payton asked me to post the following response:

    “Jem, as a veteran of a few of these things, I can’t quantify what I gain from being there, I just know that I do. Conversely, if you’re doing that well and would miss a major chunk of income, then it might pay you not to be there. There’s no right answer for everyone, just your answer for you. I don’t go to every event, but I have yet to return from one feeling that I wasted my time.”

    Jem Matzan Reply:

    Thanks, Paul, Paul, and Paul (via Paul), for your replies.

    If I am paying someone, then I’m their customer. So if I’m paying to go to a conference, then I absolutely should expect to know upfront what I am purchasing. If we are organizing a potluck dinner party, you can count on me to be a top contributor. If, however, I’m paying to go to dinner at a restaurant, and when I get there the waiter tells me, “If you want to get the most out of your $100 dining experience, you’ll have to go into the kitchen and contribute,” I’d consider that a bad deal.

    However, I’m saying completely seriously and unequivocally that I am certain VO Atlanta is a good time. A great time. Life-enriching, fun, I’d probably learn many interesting things. But if I’m putting this on my business expense sheet, I need to associate it with an expected outcome within a reasonable timeframe. In the non-VO corporate world, if you are a Java developer and you go to your manager and say, “Hey boss, can the company pay to fly me out to the JavaOne conference?” Your boss will ask how much it costs, when it is, where it is, and then he’ll ask you to make a business case to justify the expense. Are you going to learn something new that has a good chance of helping your company grow measurably? Will you get to demo some fancy work-related products that you’d otherwise be unable to play with? Will you meet in person with some partners and clients and help solidify important deals and sales? If you say, “Well, maybe a little of all of that, kinda, but most of all I’ll get to meet other Java hackers and have a good time!” Request denied.

    So I take the same approach, and Paul (Strikwerda), you’ve suggested that VOs make a business case for buying new equipment… so why not make a business case for conferences as well? Tell me how this will improve my VO business’ bottom line; help me convince my “boss.”

    I was looking over my expense sheet last night and saw a whole bunch of things that cost money, and I can’t even optimistically prove any kind of return. Membership to Audiofile Magazine — what’s that get me? Hasn’t gotten me work, hasn’t even gotten me any audiobook reviews in their mag. APA membership. For what, exactly? What does that money do to improve my bottom line? Society of Voice Arts and Sciences — total waste of my money and I’m actively fighting to get some of it back because they lied to me about what I was paying for.

    I wish I’d had the money to go to VO Atlanta — really. But if I’m going to put that expense on a business credit account, then I damn well need to expect that I will get more sales, more clients, or learn something that will dramatically improve my velocity. People keep telling me what a great time they had there, and I believe them — really! I would have had a great time, too. I’d like to meet The Three Pauls someday. I had a great time at APAC last year too, but I’m not going this year because I can’t make a business case for it.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    As I’ve written in one of my last blogs, there are no guarantees in this business. If you go out and buy the best recording equipment in the world, it’s not a sure thing that clients will hire you. Being an entrepreneur is all about putting yourself out there, and taking a risk. Having said that, let’s look at the cost of the conference.

    Until the end of March, the preregistration fee is $437. This will give you access to a plethora of sessions run by the best in our business on topics like marketing, sales, promotion, acting, ethics, rates, video games, audio books, promos, eLearning programs, online casting et cetera. These sessions alone could cost you hundreds of dollars, if you were to book them individually with the presenter. Having attended attorney Rob Sciglimpaglia’s session on copyright and trademarks, could easily save me thousands of dollars. I’m not kidding!

    I’m a big proponent of continued education, by the way. It’s common in many professions, and I think that part of our job is to stay current, and to stay sharp. Because we spend so much of the day in voluntary solitary confinement, it is important to get feedback, and to expand professional horizons. Every voice-over should have a range, and the training provided at these conferences can help expand that range. But that’s not all.

    At VO Atlanta you also get the opportunity to audition in person for top-notch agents. That’s a chance most voice-overs can only dream of! But it gets better. All these experts stay for the entire duration of the conference, and are happy to share their expertise with you during breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a nightcap. Is that a big deal? Well, I’ve been to tons of conferences, and most of the time a presenter does his thing, collects his pay, and leaves. At VO Atlanta, these top talents let their hair down, because they’re among peers.

    What you cannot put a number on, is on the importance of all the connections you make during a conference like VO Atlanta. So many jobs I book are the result of referrals from colleagues. Again, that is not something that can be guaranteed, but from experience I’m sure it works that way. People don’t refer people they don’t know. It’s that simple.

    Last but not least, life isn’t all about work and the bottom line. Work is just a means to an end. It’s fun to get together with like-minded people with a similar desire to learn and grow. It’s fun to meet colleagues from 15+ countries, and work on a team challenge together. It’s fun to cheer each other on, and make new friends, whether it’s during karaoke, on the dance floor, or in the restaurant.

    All this you get for $437. That’s not a price you pay, but an investment.

    PS Did I mention that conference costs are tax-deductible?

  5. Paul Payton

    So much on which to comment, so little time. Overall: A+.

    We leave for 10 days in Cuba in an hour. Most likely there will be no phone or e-mail service. In the light of current politics, that may be a good tthing.Nonetheless, even with that relatively non-commital line, I guess I have expressed a certain ethical stance. These days it seems that everything – possibly excepting cute puppy or kitty videos – is political. (And those don’t usually require a VO!)

    Happy springtime anyway….

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Safe travels, Paul! Be careful with photos of kittens. I’ve seen people get into a cat fight over which kitty is cuter!

    [Reply]

  6. Sheila Wood

    “My voice may be for hire, but my morals are not for sale.” Wonderful take away! I love it! There are certain ads that make me cringe, and I would not want my voice to be the one promoting their message.

    [Reply]

    Paul Payton Reply:

    AMEN!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thank you for reading my blog, Sheila. What some people don’t get is that we will be associated with the work we do. Because we’re invisible, that association may not be as strong, but it’s still there. Those associations may help or hinder us from getting work from other clients. When Greenpeace asked me to voice one of their videos, they wanted to know if I had ever promoted big oil. And that;s just one example. That’s why I say: in voice-overs, a job is rarely “just” a job.

    [Reply]

  7. DAVID ROSENTHAL

    Well, Paul, you basically talked about EVERYTHING that is important to me about business and ethics, and did it, as always, with great heart and panache! This is why we created GVAA; to offer an ethical alternative, where newcomers could get straight talk and honest info from people who care about the integrity of our industry. We were looking to create community, to create joy in learning, to pay our coaches really well, and to make sure our students got the truth; no pie-in-the-sky promises, no hype, and no ridiculously expensive training packages. I don’t expect you to post this, as it may sound like an ad for GVAA. But I wanted you to know that you have kindred spirits fighting alongside you all the way! Paul Strikwerda, you rock!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    The Global Voice Acting Academy is such an amazing community, and I wholeheartedly support and endorse this organization. More seasoned voice-overs should definitely check out the World Voices Organization or WoVo. Both WoVO and GVAA offer terrific resources and peer support, aimed at raising the bar in our profession. And, as was the case in Atlanta, sometimes we end up at the bar as well!

    [Reply]

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