Paying The Piper

Chinatown, Philadelphia ©paul strikwerda

“May you live in interesting times.”

It’s a well-known Chinese curse, and for me, the past two weeks have been very interesting to say the least. I must indeed be cursed.

It all started with my outrageous blog post Divided We Stand. In it, I talked about a few topics the voice-over community doesn’t quite agree on: WoVO (World Voices Organization), the Union, our rates, and Voices dot com (VDC).

At the eleventh hour I decided to add The Voice Arts® Awards (VAA’s).

Out of all those topics, what do you think people picked up on? Fair rates? How the Union treats VO as an afterthought? How VDC is trying to monopolize our industry?

Nope!

Let’s put it into context.

The longest strike in SAG-AFTRA history had just ended with a less than ideal deal. VDC took over VoiceBank, and announced it was going after union jobs. VO rates are plummeting. And what were we getting fired up about?

A few shiny statuettes! And it’s all my fault!

If it were not for me and my wicked ways to get hits on my blog, we’d all be happily schmoozing at Lincoln Center (the location for the VAA’s), enjoying an abundance of excellent food AND an open bar at $200-something per person.

But no. This begrudging, predictable party pooper had to rain on everybody’s parade. What a bitter, bad sport he is! This Debbie Downer must hate all things that create community, and he’s probably out on some personal vendetta against the organizers.

Now, hold on one second…

TRUTH OR DARE

It’s obvious that my piece hit some raw nerves, but did I divulge things in my blog that were uncalled for and untrue?

Based on the many responses in the Voice Over Pros Facebook group as well as other comments, people proved my point. As a community we are divided about the VAA’s. Is that a terrible thing? Not at all. There is strength in diversity. It certainly makes life more interesting.

Here’s another fact I mentioned in my piece: you have to pay to participate in the VAA’s. Isn’t that true for many award shows, people asked. Absolutely. That -by the way- doesn’t mean such a show is inherently good, bad, or even relevant. Did I ever suggest that people had to pay to get nominated? Never! Is charging an entry fee the only way to preselect participants? Certainly not.

Are there other costs involved for those who end up being nominated? Of course, and if people believe these expenses are a solid investment in their career, they should go and have a great time (and I don’t mean that in a cynical way).

One of the colleagues I quoted said that the things that had sold him on the 2016 show did not materialize. The other colleague felt it was disingenuous to “honor the dubious distinction of buying temporary adulation and ‘stardom.’ “ Those were real quotes from real people.

What am I getting at? As a former journalist I know the importance of getting my facts straight. If you don’t like ‘em, challenge the facts, but there’s no reason to attack the person, and his/her perceived motives.

FALSE DICHOTOMY

Here’s what really bothers me. The VAA’s are portrayed as something utterly positive. Those who sing their praises are portrayed as the good guys in the industry. The people who don’t, are labeled as being negative. Those who dare to be critical are accused of badmouthing, and are unfriended and blocked from certain groups. Is that how we have dialogue in our community? Are we that insecure, that we can’t handle a bit of feedback?

And here’s another thing that’s not sitting well with me. Criticism of these awards is seen as criticism of those who enter and organize this event. Why the need to make things personal? Can’t we have our reservations about a game, and still like the players? Some have suggested that the people who question the merits of the VAA’s must be jealous or bitter. I can only speak for myself, but I’m neither bitter nor jealous. On the contrary.

CRITIQUE IS NO CRIME

No organization is perfect, and if it wishes to better itself, it can’t just be surrounded by cheerleaders. You need supporters, as much as you need contrarians. You need like-minded people on your team, as well as those who can point out imperfections. Otherwise you end up like those CEO’s on Undercover Boss who are only told what people think they want to hear, until they speak to their employees in disguise.

And speaking of disguise, I have received a number of emails from colleagues who say they agree with my analysis, but refuse to go on the record. The quotes I used in my piece were anonymous on purpose. Some are afraid to speak out, fearing it might have a negative impact on their career. It takes years to build a reputation, and seconds to tarnish it.

Heaven forbid you become known as someone who is opinionated, and who dares to challenge some of the heavy hitters in our industry. It’s better to stay under the radar, smile, and pretend all is well. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

No matter where you stand in this discussion, no one should feel intimidated, and fear for his or her career for speaking one’s mind.

FINDING COMMON GROUND

If you’ve been critical of my assessment, I want to thank you for engaging in a dialogue. I don’t think less of you because we’re not on the same page as far as this topic is concerned. Frankly, we have bigger fish to fry. I respect your choice to support and/or enter this competition, and I hope it was worth it. Perhaps we can agree on the following:

Different people define worth in different ways, based on their experiences, their expectations, and their priorities.

That’s why in the same thread one award-winning colleague says he can “unequivocally quantify the extra earnings directly attributable to relationships and bookings resultant from the VAA’s at well into the six figures and counting,” while another states:

“I have been a pro VO for 23 years and collected various awards over the years (that production companies entered into, not me) and they never, ever got me any gig. Not one. Never, ever, a client told me they casted me because I had an award. Ever.”

Is one right, and the other wrong, or can both exist at the same time? If you accept that last premise, you also have to accept that the value of a win varies per person. Isn’t that true for any award show? Of course it is. I never contested that. It’s especially true for a show very few people outside the voice-over bubble have heard about. It also means that as a promotional tool, the value of winning an award is uncertain. Is that me being derisive, or is that just the way it is?

Awards are by definition selective and exclusive. It’s never a level playing field.

Again, this is not a specific flaw of the VAA’s, but it’s a problem with most award shows. You don’t excuse or fix a problem by pointing out that others are struggling with the same things.

For instance, for years, the stunt people have lobbied for a special Academy Award. The powers that be, decided that those who often risk their lives (and sometimes lose it), are not Oscar-worthy, but those who compose a silly song may walk away with a statue. Is that fair and reasonable? You tell me!

HOLLOW HYPERBOLE

The voice-over announcing the 2017 VAA’s, said:

“Tonight, we honor the leading international talent in the voice-over industry. We recognize the greatest voice actors who impact our ears, our lives, our world.”

Really? 

If your publishing company, agent, distributor, radio station, or network wants to enter your work, you’re in luck, and you’re a contender to be among “the greatest.” If they’re not interested, or they don’t want to pay the entry fee, you won’t be considered, even though you might be mega-talented.

The VAA’s were created to provide international acknowledgement of the extraordinary skill and artistry that goes into voice-over acting. Apparently, it’s easier for some people to be acknowledged than others. One commentator remarked:

“I work every day on some cracking radio and the odd TV ad, but mostly, like today, I will go and voice 10 explainer videos for one of the UK’s largest supermarket chains. And you don’t get awards for that I’m afraid. You don’t even get a discount voucher for the shop.”

STRANGE CATEGORIES

And why is there a special VAA for podcasts and not for radio dramas? To me, radio dramas are about voice acting. The podcasts are about people talking about voice acting. And on that note, do the Oscars have an award for the best acting demo reel? Would the Country Music Awards ever award a demo tape sent in by an aspiring singer? Then why on earth are we recognizing demo reels at the VAA’s?

Some have argued that the cream will always rise to the top. I don’t agree. Turds tend to be pretty lightweight too. At any award show, only the people who enter and pay have a chance to be measured and rise. And if the competition in a particular category isn’t very strong, it’s easier for mediocrity to take top honors. In the land of the blind, the girl with one eye is queen.

Some have also suggested that the purpose of these VAA’s is not to boost one’s career, but to celebrate it. If that’s the case, why sell these awards as a marketing opportunity? Why not organize one big VO party for equals among equals? Skip the speeches, the celebs, and the shiny objects. Go straight to the dance floor and have fun under the disco ball!

NEW INSPIRATION

To make the VAA’s more beneficial to our community and beyond, we need a different model.

It’s one thing to point out weaknesses, but another to come up with concrete suggestions for improvement.

This might surprise you, but I’m not entirely against competitions. My wife’s piano and flute students take part in them. It gives them something to prepare for, and an opportunity to get valuable feedback from experts. This feedback is used to reinforce good habits, correct bad ones, and help kids grow as a musician. It’s always about the music, and not about the applause.

In Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley where I live, the Freddy© Awards are to high school musical theater what the Tony Awards® are to Broadway. Each show is rated by a number of evaluators, and every high school receives extensive feedback on all aspects of the production. This feedback is then used as a teaching tool in the drama departments.

In other words, even if you’re not nominated or a winner, you will be able to read your evaluation, and benefit from it. Wouldn’t it be great if the Voice Arts® Awards would do the same? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. This is how it’s done:

“In each category, each judge shall rate each entry on three indices. These indices vary by category and are listed below. For each index, judges enter a score from 1.0 to 10.0, where 1.0 is valued as “very poor quality” and 10.0 is valued as “perfection” in the personal standards of the judge.” 

What is there to learn if your performance is summarized in an abstract number?

NEW VOICES

Another model is the international opera competition Neue Stimmen (New Voices). I know about it because I voice the semi-final and final videos for this event.

After a lengthy preselection, all competitors take part in a week of open masterclasses where they work under the instruction of renowned artists to improve their vocal performance, musical expression, song interpretation, stage presence, and skills such as self-management, networking, and interview training. In other words: the actual competition is only a part of the program. It’s as much about coaching and career development. Even those who don’t win, walk away with an invaluable experience.

What about expenses and prizes?

For those entering the final round, Neue Stimmen reimburses travel expenses and board and lodging (up to a certain amount). The two winners receive a cash award of €15,000 each, and an opportunity to pursue a career as an opera singer. The second and third prize winners receive €10,000 and €5,000 respectively. To give you an idea, 1,430 contestants from 76 countries registered to take part in this year’s event. 39 talents qualified for the final round, and 16 female and male singers participated in the semifinals. Now, that’s how you get the best of the best!

I’m not suggesting we turn the VAA’s into an opera competition, but there’s a reason why out of many singing competitions, Neue Stimmen has produced most careers. I like the fact that there’s a focus on extensive feedback, artistic growth, performance, and career development. Oh, and no one has to pay for his or her prize.

DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES

I hope we can agree that there are different ways of looking at the Voice Arts® Awards. To me, they were best summarized by two colleagues. One of them said:

“Human beings are very simple creatures. Most of them are impressed with shiny things and pay attention to those that have them. That isn’t just in voiceover, that’s in life in general. You can either decide to work with that principle, ignore it altogether or work against it.”

And another stated: 

“The real reward is the remuneration for your work. The recognition you ultimately need is from your clients who put food on your table and pay your mortgage who’ve never heard of these ceremonies and conferences. I get the impression that some people are too busy enjoying their pop-shield selfies and frantic tagging at events to ask themselves the honest questions.”

What can I say? 

We live in very interesting times.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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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, International, Journalism & Media, Pay-to-Play, Personal, Promotion

17 Responses to Paying The Piper

  1. Liz

    The level of ire and anger just isn’t logical. Don’t discuss money, value, returns, cost benefit analysis, spend, spend, spend, have fun, fun FUN! Even the most mild conversation is shut down.

    Lets be frank, given the new business environment and turmoil there is more money than ever being made in selling people voiceover dreams. This isn’t a new thing, but it’s exploded exponentially over the past ten years. When you attack the efficacy of these events, really any event that promises a marketing benefit and has social pressure, people feel their dreams trampled upon. Personality cults have exploded as well, far beyond this event. They reinforce the “necessity” of these expenditures. Hell a lot of newcomer voice actors are just selling each other classes and events now.

    Big elephant in the room though, a lot of people are flat out trying to protect their careers and bottom line. It’s become normalized and I see more and more people participating in these events that said they wouldn’t before. Those who haven’t had their careers affected want the extra income just in case and they want the recognition to keep their profile elevated for career benefit. The aspirants just enable them with money and praise to keep their own dreams alive in the process.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    For the longest time, I thought the voice-over community was surely able to have rational discussions. Having read so many comments about the VAA’s and about the author (me), made me think back to a 2010 study by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler. It was a study about politics, and they argued that fact-checking can actually make us more entrenched in our political biases. In a recent article, the BBC’s Katy Kay writes:

    “When someone presents us with evidence contrary to our beliefs, we feel under siege and dig in our heels. (…) This is getting more extreme because politics has become not just polarized but tribal. We hunker down in groups of like-minded people and then we fight to protect that group. As the political atmosphere grows more toxic, fueled by social media that has made the debate more personal and vicious, we feel we have to fight even harder to protect our crowd. That means relentlessly attacking the opposing camp and refusing to budge from our opinions in the face of inconvenient truths (…).”

    As far as the VAA’s and other topics are concerned, I feel the voice-over community has become a bit tribal. Vested interests are trying to protect their creations, and those benefiting from these creations are doing the legwork. They’ve now become so loud and intimidating that people like yourself feel the need to use a disposable temporary email address to mask your identity.

    I’ve never been intimidated by big egos, loud mouths, or power of any kind. I do my very best to always see the person behind all the posing and the posting. Behind every facade there is a human being with memories, dreams, needs, wounds, and accomplishments. We all do what we feel we have to do in order to survive. We seek out like-minded souls to validate and reinforce our opinions. We will dance around golden statuettes, if need be. We kiss and we kick.

    Some colleagues have urged me to “Let It Go,” and move on. Wouldn’t that be convenient? The same thing was said when I recommended people put their rates on their websites. Some thought that was utterly ridiculous. Now, many are sharing the Global Voice Acting Alliance’s rate guide with clients, and refer to it online. People said I should shut up about rates going down. There would always be a high end and a low end of the market, and one would not influence the other. How did that work out?

    People making good money from Voices dot com (VDC) told me I was wrong about this company, and I should pick other things to write about. Last year, VDC was no longer welcome at the largest gathering of voice-overs in the world. There’s been an exodus of talent, and VDC had to borrow millions to finance their quest to monopolize the way people book voice talent.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not comparing the VAA’s to VDC. All I’m saying is that it might not be such a bad idea to listen to the contrarians in our midst.

    They might be on to something.

    And if you’re one of those independent thinkers, are you really helping the cause by staying undercover? You may think you’re speaking up, but you’re not.

    Those who are not accountable, won’t be counted.

    For positive change to take place, good people with good intentions will need to stand up and speak out. Not for my sake, but because it’s the right thing to do.

    [Reply]

    Liz Reply:

    Well put and cathartic for myself at least, I’m sure there are others. You can be as generous as possible to the VAAs but that’s not the point, you must be silent, no feedback. Anything slightly to be improved upon is a full on assault. Feedback keeps people honest and in touch with their audience, it’s not the enemy. As it showed with your efforts and I’m glad it did. Fascinating BBC piece as well.

    My anonymity doesn’t matter, I have no power or influence. My friends who feel similarly speak out the same way. I only have the power to alienate myself from actors, casting directors, agents, the new generation of clubs sprouting up, etc. All who benefit from the system. You’ve pointed out that those who run these events are trying to protect their creation, they are. However they’re even better at getting the people who pay for their services to do it for them.

    I can only hope people with more power speak up. Obviously not against education or celebration, but against exploitation. I don’t think that the fact that exploitation has always been rife in these industries as said on another thread is an excuse. At a bare minimum those with power and respect should speak out about it being a healthy practice to have conversations like these, not the enemy. Most however resign this to being the new normal, inevitable and take the adoration and generous side compensation.

    I’m at least grateful you don’t shut up.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Those who underestimate the power one small element can have over the entire system, has never spent a night in bed with a flee.

  2. Joe Van Riper

    I’ve worked exclusively in voiceovers for over half a century, and have lived a comfortable life without seeking awards other than my pay or getting the occasional word of praise. What involvement I’ve had with such competitions has always been as a performer on the show, not a contestant. Judging by the flap you’ve experienced here, I almost feel like I must’ve missed an important element in my career. Almost. Keep ‘em honest, Paul! Somebody’s gotta do it.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I promise, Joe, although honesty isn’t always appreciated. Some of the responses on Facebook were truly shocking. A few people claimed that I stir the pot for no other reason than to get hits on my website. Who would want to be called all sorts of unsavory names for the sake of a couple of clicks?

    [Reply]

    Joe Van Riper Reply:

    Wellllll…. I heard about a “tweeter” in DC….

    [Reply]

  3. heyvoicedude

    I too was berated on FB VO pro for having a slightly cynical take on VAA. . Being recognised would be great, but I felt that paying for the consideration seemed a tad disingenuous to me. I’m sure if you’re making reels and coaching it a genius marketing tool. My income so far is my measure for me to feel proud about my status in VO. Some people I really respect don’t like me anymore as a result of those opinions. In fairness some myths were dispelled about no real monetizable networking to be done. With an agent and a few producers cruising for talent and finding it attending. But generally Paul I feel your pain.

    Having pontificated enough on that, the real irony is that every year Promax in the UK, Africa, and Asia happens. I usually voice one or several gold winners (9 this year) every year, but because there is no Award for VO in Promax (except US), I can only pat myself on the back vicariously through others winning with a best script, use of comedy, action, drama, etc,.It has always made me wonder why they would include every other aspect of Promo production and omit the icing on the cake(slightly biased) or at the very least an integral part the voice that sells it? Promax US do have an award for VO. It’s a huge networking event that really does provide a marked revenue steam for most. So after years of having this bee in my bonnet, I’m am starting a campaign to change it. Initially in the UK then the rest of world! I suppose this ironic duality makes me a hypocrite? But at least these awards only focus on the work you’ve done. “I’d like to thank all the little people…”

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    It’s an old tactic. If you don’t like where the conversation is going, you make it personal and ignore what’s being brought up. It’s so obvious, and yet some people believe they can get away with it. If only I’d care about what other people think of me, it might influence my behavior. Fortunately, the older I get, the less I care!

    Good luck with your PROMAX campaign. It seems unfair and unreasonable that VO has been ignored.

    [Reply]

  4. Helen Lloyd

    One further thing that irritates – that in the audiobook category for example, any entry must be available on Audible.com. There is now Audible.co.uk; Audible Australia; Audible India and Audible of just about everywhere else. Not all audiobooks recorded and produced in other parts of the world are available in the US, so disagreements about the fees involved and personality cults aside, it is a very uneven playing field; so though these awards claim to celebrate ‘international talent’ as far as the Audiobook category is concerned at, only those whose audiobooks are available in the US are eligible (on payment of their fee of course).

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    That’s a really good point, Helen. Then again, the World Series is mostly an all-American affair, yet the name suggests otherwise. BTW I never knew I’d one day compare baseball to audio book production, but there you have it. It’s all in the game.

    [Reply]

  5. Tim Bick

    I firmly believe in the absurdity of all awards, regardless of the field. Nobody who might be swayed by the fact an actor has an award actually has a clue who the people are who decided this person deserved one, or what their qualifications might be. Yet somehow society has built up conditioning that says these imaginary prizes should be taken notice of. The other thing of course is that awards ceremonies are so boring they always require alcohol on tap to enable the audience to survive the entire ghastly affair.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I like your take on the topic, Tim! After reading all the comments, I was ready for a stiff drink!

    [Reply]

  6. Jem Matzan

    I think you’re getting so much blowback about the VAAs because the two people who founded and control SOVAS have made it into something resembling a personality cult. This is *their* show, *their* organization, and they have made themselves the stars of everything they can control.

    The awards show itself, so far, has been unprofessional in every aspect. The wrong names are announced as winners, some of the envelopes aren’t even delivered to the podium to be read, the show VO misprounces nominee names (AT A VO AWARD SHOW!!), there’s a lot of embarrassing silences because a substantial portion of the winners don’t attend the show, and the organization does nothing to promote the nominees or winners.

    There, I said it (and that’s not even half of the dysfunction and broken promises of the VAAs and SOVAS). I’m not worried about Joan and Rudy’s revenge anymore; no one I would ever work with would care what they say.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    You’ve actually attended the 2016 show, and I believe you sent the organization your feedback. I have yet to watch the entire 2017 gala, and I’m curious to see what improvements have been made. I do know that entry fees went down after the inaugural year, and that a scholarship was created. As I said in response to Mike, I also think that there are more safeguards in place to prevent a potential conflict of interest. Those are positive developments. Several people have commented on what you call the “personality cult” around Joan & Rudy. I always thought that the VAA’s were about celebrating voice actors, and not about the people organizing these awards.

    [Reply]

  7. Mike Harrison

    Personally, I’d never cared for ANY of the awards shows televised over the years because, as Paul pointed out, they are selective and exclusive. I never and still don’t have any issues with any of the talent nominated. Only recently have I watched the occasional awards telecast, but *only* because it was hosted by someone I enjoyed.

    When, in the late 1970s, I began doing corporate/industrial narration, it made me feel good that my participation was part of something that served a purpose; it didn’t matter at all to me that those listening would be hearing my voice. Many of the companies who have hired me have not only paid me fairly for my contributions, but they’ve also volunteered some very complimentary feedback. Those factors, plus that many of these clients invite(d) me repeatedly to collaborate with them, is all the spotlight I need. And I’m thankful for that every day.

    I also agree with Paul in that criticizing those who tell the truth or who simply provide factual information is at the very least counterproductive, and potentially dangerous. We’ve heard stories of (typically) men who choose to never see a doctor for fear of what they might learn. The cold, hard truth (aka fact) is that it’s not possible to fix what we don’t even know is broken. Thus, what we don’t know certainly CAN kill us. Whether in voice-over or in everyday life, choosing to ignore reality will eventually bite us on the ass. Shooting the messenger couldn’t be more foolish.

    My opinion is that it’s better to focus on the tangible, not the fluff.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    After my very first critique of these awards, the entry fees went down significantly, and the VAA’s started offering a scholarship. I also believe that clauses were added to prevent conflict of interest. I won’t claim that these changes happened as a direct result of me writing about it, but I am glad these changes were made. Criticism can be constructive, as long as people are open to it, and willing to admit that there’s always room for improvement.

    [Reply]

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