conflict of interest

When The Manure Hits The Fan

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Journalism & Media, Promotion 23 Comments

This is not a Voice Arts™ Award“This all may smell rotten to a European sensibility, but may we just stipulate that the Voice Arts™ Awards are not the Pulitzer Prize.”

“My personal take on it is if it’s important to you, participate. If it isn’t, ignore it. At first the whole thing just irritated me. I saw it as rather self-aggrandizing. Now I just don’t care.”

“I think the idea behind the awards was an excellent one and those involved at the top probably the best people to launch this endeavor. But it’s clear that, while a great deal is to be commended, some parts of the execution were a little creaky and need looking at.”

“I like the anonymity my job offers. I can go to a movie in peace, eat a restaurant in peace and not deal with stalkers. I quit theatrical work a long time ago because the wonderful world of VO and it’s people suited me better. I don’t see a point to a media event for awards in VO, unless it’s at a trade conference, presided over by our peers, and accessible to all VO pros, not just a few. This is the wrong business to get into if you want fame and fortune, and I like it that way.”

“This type of discussion is needed for the awards to have any chance of actually meaning something in the future. If we’re all “rah-rah for VO!!!”, and overlook the flaws in our own backyard, nobody else will respect us, or our craft. I’d rather have no award than one with so many obvious red flags in the process.”

“I’m reminded of naysayers early in mine and everybody else’s career who had nothing but negative things to say about anybody doing anything new or different. They are the people to avoid.”

“I don’t think one who criticizes or questions a promotion or event should be labeled a “naysayer.” Just like politics and everything else in life, people are going to have a variety of opinions and THAT is what keeps things interesting! When you’re as visible as Joan and Rudy are and you market something aggressively, you are always going to get a plethora of different opinions.”

“This so-called “expert” absolutely launched a personal attack upon all those who have taken a positive interest in the Voice Arts™ Awards, including its creators. And any idiot who doesn’t see that has his big fat empty head stuck in the sand. And now this character is pretending to be pleased with the reaction to his public editorial, as if he did it for the good of humanity. He is spewing his personal venom while hiding behind the mask of open debate.”

“It seems like a fairly small segment of the VO community stroking their own egos. If you pay your money, you get to be part of the club and get a little trophy that you can use to sell yourself when you start coaching and writing books.”

“I wonder how it must feel to have been awarded Saturday night only to have respected members of the community laugh in your face. To have people you admire nullify a very exciting night.”

“The Voice Arts™ Awards awards are good for voice-over, regardless, and should be encouraged as goals and standards that are possible.”

“You seem to be unusually fixated on trying to destroy something simply because it’s not your idea — because it outshines your banal rhetoric. Well, guess what? You’re maniacal envy is obvious to all, even the few pathetic cynics who might seem to come to your defense. Truth be told, you’re full of spite and envy. You’re blinded by ego and self-delusion. You are a sad man, full of rage and jealousy, and YOU KNOW IT. Honestly, you are completely irrelevant to the voiceover community and the only card you have left to play is to rail against that which is relevant.”

“This is a plain attack on all business people working hard and creating superior quality of a platform. It’s painful to see such ignorance displayed as opinion. I wouldn’t follow this man if the world was crashing around me.”

“That blog was not aiming to encourage discussion about the Awards, it wasn’t objective enough to even pass remotely close to that being it’s aim. I haven’t responded to the author because quite simply, I have better things to do and am not interested in being involved in a conversation that is negative from the off.”

“Don’t look for fair or perfection when it comes to honoring excellence. In the history of show business, it’s never been either and it never will. And a nomination/win doesn’t have to enhance your career. But it is a hellova lotta fun!!!!”

SPIRITED DEBATE

These are just a few of the hundreds of comments that came in, after last week’s story about the Voice Arts™ Awards (VAA). As I am typing these words, it has been read over 2,500 times. The follow-up entitled Party Pooper Unleashes Sh*tstorm, has so far attracted about 1,500 readers.

Colleague and VO business expert Tom Dheere suggested this discussion was perhaps an example of a Voice-Over Class Warfare between “blue-collar” voice talent and “white-collar” voice talent. Tom explains:

“Blue-collar” voice talents are part-time or full-time, primarily non-union, and have neither high-end agents nor regularly book national commercials. These types of voice talent tended to be anti-VAA.

White-collar” voice talents are full-time, in the union, have high-end agents, book nationally recognized VO work, and either coach, produce demos, or sell books & products catering to the voiceover industry, and either coach, produce demos, or sell books & products catering to the voiceover industry. These types of voice talent tended to be pro-VAA.”

Class warfare or not, I want to thank everyone for chiming in. We might not always be on the same page, but a spirited debate is a sign of an engaged community. 

As you know, blogs like mine are filled with opinion pieces. My articles are not an exercise in objective journalism. What surprised me though, is how certain people reacted to certain facts. Some said I hadn’t done my homework; that my research was all wrong. 

Well, it won’t surprise you that I disagree. This blog is widely read and talked about in the VO-community. It’s important to note that the information I presented was never challenged by anyone from the organization of these awards. 

Here’s what I believe to be undisputed:

Fact: I have no personal or professional ties to anyone within the organization of the Voice Arts™ Awards, or with any member of the jury. I am Facebook friends with some of them, but most of them I have never met or corresponded with.

Fact: At the moment, not every voice-over believes winning a Voice Arts™ Award is a credit worth having.

Fact: The number of entries was not disclosed, but it is safe to say that the pickings were slim this inaugural year.

Fact: The entry fees were substantial, and often non-refundable.

Fact: Some of the judges and members of the SOVAS™ board had personal and professional ties with nominees and contestants, posing a risk of a conflict of interest that could damage the integrity of the competition.

Fact: The VAA regulations as they are published, are not clear on how a potential conflict of interest should be handled.

Fact: Winners had to pay for their own statuette, unless the organization that had entered their submission picked up the tab.

Fact: The organization of the awards has yet to respond to anything that may be perceived as less than positive, whether on this blog or on other social media. 

CORRECTION

I just learned that SOVAS™ board member Rudy Gaskins did comment on my story, so I stand corrected. One of my voice-over colleagues whom I shall name X, had shared on Facebook how disappointed he/she was in the way I had blogged about the awards. This is part of Mr. Gaskin’s response:

“X, you are a work of art and indeed a phoenix rising above the morass of resentful sentiments that swarm like angry hornets around the hive of one self-aggrandizing monarch who would proclaim himself the all-knowing purveyor of what is worthy of appreciation to the rest of us. (…) Fortunately, the male hornets are few and they have only one real role—mating with the queen. Males die soon after their sexual task is complete, so one can only imagine the frustration of the impotent male who neither mates nor dies but must suffer under the weight of his own crushing spite. (…) 

The intention of the article to which you refer was to hurt, not inform. Brush it off. With success and recognition comes the unfortunate trail of parasites who, lacking the erudition to create anything truly inspired, seek their sustenance from sucking the life blood of others. Burn them off and keep moving forward, my friend. Blogging is a curious proposition whereby any person, (known or unknown) can declare themselves worthy of attention and begin to gradually pick up unsuspecting followers by skimming the surface of a topic. Obviously, some bloggers are incredibly special, genius in fact, but there are many seeking to prop themselves up to sell bologna as 100% real beef. In fact, one of the cheapest marketing ploys of the past 10 years has been: 1) Start a blog 2) -Self-publish a book. 3) Proclaim to be an expert. 4) Sell merchandise.

As for the dying hornet to whose blog is referred to herein, we are, all of us, witnessing the depths and insidiousness of envy. It is a most vicious, volatile and relentless mindset that knows no bounds. And yet, assuming the blogger actually produces tangible work as a voice actor, producer, director, etc., he is welcome to submit his samples to the Voice Arts Awards and benefit from the extraordinary jurors who lend their highly vetted and respected expertise to determining the best of the best. Of course, to insure the integrity of the judging process, some jurors may be required to abstain from judging entries where a conflict of interest may be discerned.”

COURT JESTER

In Medieval times court jesters held privileges which were not given to many other persons at court. For one, they had freedom of speech. You’ll often see them depicted holding a mirror, to symbolize what many of them did.

While they were cracking jokes, they held up a mirror to the powers that be. Their mockery was a way to ridicule or denigrate a ruler, and to show the world that the emperor was wearing very little clothes. Today we have people like John Stewart, Steven Colbert, Bill Maher, and John Oliver doing the same thing to an audience of millions.

Some of my critics believe it was foolish of me to -as they said- “ridicule and denigrate” the Voice Arts™ Awards, the jurors, the organizers, and even the nominees and winners. What was I after? 

Let’s look at the meaning of these words. To ridicule means to make fun of someone or something in a cruel or harsh way. To denigrate means to attack the reputation of, or to deny the importance or validity of.

So, what about my motivation? Did I really have a dark, sinister urge to belittle this event, and those associated with it? Am I a jealous, ignorant, angry hornet, hoping to increase my readership by spewing lies?

WHY I BLOG

In general, I write about things that interest me personally, and about topics that I feel are relevant to my readers. As I said last week:

“The only reason I’ve published a new blog post every week for the past four years, is not because I want people to agree with me, or to even like me. It is because I believe I have something to say that could be of interest and value to fellow-freelancers and voice-overs.”

These awards are indeed something new, and I wanted to examine the pros and cons of having a paid competition. That’s how I came to write my very first piece. Once the gala was over, I thought these awards deserved a deeper assessment, and that’s how I came to write a follow-up story.

You’ve probably noticed that most of the points I made in these articles had to do with the running of the competition. Many of the questions I asked were also in the minds of other colleagues. I just happened to be the one who wrote down what many others were thinking. 

It’s impossible to be objective about one’s own writing, but I can say that in none of the blog posts I have written about these awards, have I made fun of anyone or anything. Period. Perhaps my writing style is entertaining, but that’s one of the reasons people seem to enjoy my stories. I take it as a compliment. 

Did I attack the reputation of, or denied the importance or validity of, these awards? 

That’s hard to do, because these awards have no reputation. How could they? They’re brand new! I did question the importance of these awards for the same reason. It’s too early to tell whether or not winning a VAA is a credit worth having (and paying for). Not even the organizers could tell us that. As the last commentator said: 

“a nomination/win doesn’t have to enhance your career. But it is a hellova lotta fun!!!!”

CONNECTIONS

I did point out that certain jurors and members of the board had personal and professional connections with other jurors, nominees, and winners. I put these connections under the banner of “Conflict Of Interest” because I believe that these connections -real or apparent- should not exist within a jury that is supposed to be neutral and objective.

This is not a strange requirement. One international piano competition has the following clauses in their 14-page jury manual:

“Should any member of the Applicant Screening Panel or First or Second Juries have or have had previously a professional or personal relationship with a pianist whose application or recorded or live performance he/she is judging, he/she must notify the Jury Facilitator prior to his/her respective stage of adjudication.”

“In a case where the relationship is or has been within the previous five years one of regular or occasional teacher and student, the Jury Facilitator must rule that the member may not vote on that pianist’s performance.”

“There will be no communication of any kind between jury members and Competition pianists until the announcement of the Laureate. (…)  Should a pianist attempt to communicate with a member of any jury, either during or prior to the announcement of the Laureate, said juror must inform the Jury Facilitator. The pianist in question may be subject to disqualification at the discretion of the Jury Facilitator.”

If my concerns rubbed some people the wrong way, they should talk to the organization about making the judging process more transparent, instead of pointing their arrows at the messenger. Perhaps judges from outside the close-knit voice-over community could be added. Perhaps the organization could learn from other competitions that have dealt with this issue for years.

MOVING ON

At the end of the day, the Voice Arts™ Awards were devised to provide “international acknowledgement of the extraordinary skill and artistry that goes into voiceover acting and the associated roles, and to hold up a best-in-class standard of achievement to which the voiceover industry can continually aspire.”

That sounds like a noble objective, but as I said before, increased recognition and international acknowledgement can never be an aim in and of itself. What purpose should these awards ultimately serve? How exactly are they going to transform our industry for the better?

If it’s a matter of developing and promoting professional standards, I would turn to the World Voices Organization. If I wanted my performance to be evaluated by experts, I’d go to a few coaches. If I wanted to attract more clients, I would invest in increasing my skills, and in marketing my services.

Those who listen to my auditions are not going to hire me because I have a shiny statuette in my studio. They want to hear whether or not I have the right voice for the job. 

To me, “increased acknowledgment” is meaningless if it doesn’t lead to increased respect. I don’t mean increased respect from my peers, but from those who hire voice-overs.

The way we show respect for services rendered, is by paying the provider a decent amount of money. Unfortunately, every year I have been in this business, rates seem to go down instead of up. That too, is about competition.

For that type of competition I want to be ready, with or without these awards. 

How about you?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: kyle.wood via photopin cc


Party Pooper Unleashes Sh*tstorm

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Journalism & Media 21 Comments

Please Dump Manure HereIt’s a fact.

My second blog post about the Voice Arts™ Awards (VAA) broke all records, and I’m still figuring out why (click here for part 1)

People certainly like controversy, but here’s the thing. I didn’t think my story was that contentious.

I did not reveal any secrets. Every bit of information I shared with you is in the public domain. I never spoke out against these awards, or against the people involved. All I did was share some observations that made a few folks uncomfortable.

If you’ve been following this blog for a few years, and you’ve read my book, you know I like to stir the pot every once in a while. Some people believe that makes me courageous. Others think I’m biting hands that could potentially feed me.

I don’t see it that way. I just presented some facts, and I questioned a few things I thought were worth mentioning. Apparently, that’s remarkable. Why would my opinion even matter? Well, some believe I have a knack for saying things other people are thinking. Perhaps that’s why my blog has close to thirty thousand subscribers.

In a way, a blog post is very much like these Voice Arts™ Awards. It will only be picked up and discussed if enough people feel it is relevant. And that’s exactly what happened with this article. Some people applauded me. Others questioned my concerns and my motives.

Today I’d like to address some of the things that came up as our community was discussing these awards.

Why criticize this initiative? These Voice Arts™ Awards are good for an industry that deserves to be recognized.

This question gets straight to the heart of the controversy. The need for public recognition. This is a deep human desire. You know the narrative. Voice-overs are unseen, anonymous entities in the entertainment industry and beyond. It’s about time we step into the limelight, and receive “international acknowledgement of the extraordinary skill and artistry that goes into voiceover acting and the associated roles.”

It may surprise you, but not everybody feels that way. Countless colleagues have told me they are quite happy doing what they’re doing without ever stepping onto a podium to receive a shiny object. Some don’t like the whole idea of competitions that divide colleagues into winners and losers. Their ideal world is a world where people cooperate, instead of compete; a world in which doing your very best is more important than being the best.

These people feel that their marketing money is better spent on updating a website or writing a newsletter, than on a few minutes of fame. To use one of my catch phrases: They’re in it for the music. Not for the applause.

To me, the bigger question is this. Increased recognition can never be an aim in and of itself. What purpose should it ultimately serve? How exactly is it going to transform our industry for the better?

If you’d like to strengthen professional standards, why not join the World Voices Organization? If you’d like to make more money, you should sign up for a sales training. If you’d like to increase your skills, a scholarship would be more welcome than a statuette you have to pay for yourself.

But Paul, this is a new initiative. Don’t you support innovation and creativity in our industry?

Of course I do, but let’s be honest. How new and innovative is the idea of an awards show? Every obscure and not so obscure organization or trade group has one. Every weekend, people are taking part in competitions across the country. If you really want to be creative, don’t be a copycat.

Several commentators also used the newness of the Voice Arts™ Awards to explain why so few voice-overs had entered the competition, and why some of the kinks still needed to be worked out. “Give it a few years,” people told me. “These awards are like a baby in diapers. Allow it to grow up and evolve.”

I’m willing to do that, but let’s remember one thing. Steve Ulrich is the executive director of the VAA. Ulrich is also the executive director of the Sports Emmy Awards. He oversees the entire process, from rules making, to entry collection, to judging and the announcement of nominees. He has produced the Daytime Entertainment Creative Arts Emmy Award Ceremony and the News and Documentary Emmy Award Ceremony since 2010. He also produces the Engineering and Technology Emmy Award Ceremony since 2012.

In other words: Ulrich knows what he is doing. He’s had time to create a format and a process that can stand up to scrutiny. Compared to the Emmy Awards, the VAA must seem like a small, intimate gathering.

You suggested that some of the judges had a conflict of interest. I know for a fact they didn’t.

Conflict of interest issues are very important to the integrity of any competition. Here’s a definition that is often used:

“A conflict of interest is a set of circumstances that creates a risk that professional judgement or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest.”

Let’s say I’m a flute teacher, and I’m asked to judge a competition three of my students are taking part in. My primary interest is to judge in a fair and just way. My secondary interest may be to have one of my students win. After all, that’s good for my reputation as a teacher. It will also increase my standing with my colleagues.

Those two interests can never be reconciled. 

We can all agree on one thing. The voice-over world is relatively small. It doesn’t take long to get to know the main players. Year after year, the same faces rub shoulders at different conferences. That, by the way, is not unique to our industry.

For any competition to have any validity and value, it is imperative that the judging process is transparent, fair and impartial. Any hint of a conflict of interest should be avoided. Even board members of the organizing body should not have personal and professional ties with the contestants. Furthermore, judges should not be allowed to fraternize with contestants and nominees. That’s not something I made up. It is standard practice at many competitions.

As I told you earlier, a number of nominees and winners of the VAA had ties with jurors and board members of the Society Of Voice Arts And Sciences™. Not in a “I have seen you on Facebook”-kind of way. Some contestants had been coached by members of the jury and the board. What do the SOVAS™ regulations say about the jurors?

“The criteria for judging the Voice Arts™ Awards is based first and foremost on enlisting jurors who have exceptional expertise in the categories they are assigned to judge. SOVAS™ observes that many experts are quite capable of judging across multiple categories and that will be permitted. (…)

If a judge feels that he or she has a conflict of interest (personal relationship, sponsor relationship, etc.), that can be indicated on the electronic ballot.”

Notice that it doesn’t say that jurors with personal ties to a contestant cannot vote for that person. If there is a protocol on how to handle a potential conflict of interest, it is not published, and that alone is cause for concern. If you’re interested in this topic, look at the Standards and Guidelines of the College Art Association in New York.

As recently as September, violinist Miriam Fried had been asked not vote in the finals of the 2014 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis because of the six finalists, three of them were current or former students of hers. 

Sometimes that does not solve the problem. At other competitions, judges that could not vote for their students, simply gave lower marks to the other contestants. I am not suggesting that any of the VAA judges would ever do that, but it has happened at major competitions. You can read Julian Lloyd-Webbers claims in the Guardian newspaper if you click on this link

Before you shoot the messenger, please realize that running a fair and transparent competition is the sole responsibility of the organization. May I also note that the organizers of the Voice Arts™ Awards have yet to respond to any comments that may be perceived as less than positive. 

You’ve made a big deal about all the money the contestants had to pay to participate. This is an expensive undertaking, and the money has to come from somewhere. Winners at other awards shows have to pay for their trophies.

Let me be blunt.

The VAA do not give a prize to the best performance in a specific category. They only nominate and award those who paid to be evaluated.

Of course that is the case in any competition. “Best In Show” means “Best In Show.” Not “Best In The Entire World.”

More importantly, I believe that money should not be an arbiter of talent, or a barrier of entry. You may not agree with me on this one, but that’s how I feel, and I’ll tell you why.

It is not a secret that only a select group of voice actors make a six-figure income. Many in that group got into voice acting to supplement their on-camera work. A majority of my colleagues go from gig to gig, and often struggle to turn a profit.

Many of these people are just as gifted as their more financially secure colleagues, and they are just as deserving of a prize. In fact, they are the ones who would really benefit from the increased exposure winning an award could give them. However, they’ll never take part, because it’s too risky and too expensive.

As I mentioned in my previous article, between 210 and 280 categories could have been awarded at the gala. Only 33 awards were actually given out. My sources tell me that this was in part due to a disappointing lack of entries. Why is this important? 

Any competition is as strong as its field of competitors. The better the contestants, the more prestigious the prize. This is true in the world of sports, music, and in voice-overs. It really means something if out of a group of hundreds of strong runners, you win the marathon. If you have to beat three mediocre runners to get onto the podium, that doesn’t really say much, does it?

Mind you, I’m just pointing out the principle. I am not saying or implying anything about anyone in particular. The points I’m making have to do with the competition itself, and are no critique of or reflection on individual participants. 

If the VAA wants to attract and represent a large cross-section of the voice-over community, they need to lower the entry fees and skip the statue. Offer cash prizes and/or coaching/promotion packages to the winners instead. Give those who entered extensive feedback, allowing them to learn from the experience.

If you go to the SOVAS™ website, you’ll see a banner with an impressive list of participating companies. I’m pretty sure they have some extra money floating around to foot the bill. That way, talent does not have to receive a cigar from their own box.

You’re just an unsupportive jealous naysayer with some big chips on your shoulder. Joan and Rudy put together something no one had the foresight, guts, or fortitude to create. Much of the criticism is undeserved and much of it is very petty.

A few things really saddened me in the discussion about the awards. Some proponents seemed to have this “If you’re not with us, then you’re against us” attitude:

“If you don’t like these awards, you’re not supporting new initiatives.”
“If you make some critical remarks, you must not like Joan and Rudy.”
“If you question the value of this event, you’re stabbing your award-winning colleagues in the back.”

Having something to say about parts of the process was seen as burning the whole thing to the ground. That’s unfair and unjustified. No matter how well you run a show, it is impossible to please everyone, and there’s always room for improvement. Well-founded feedback can help the organization turn these awards into something really amazing.

The fact that so many people felt inclined to respond to my story, must mean that they care about this business we’re in, and that they care about the community they’re part of. It is a very diverse community, and we don’t have to agree on every single topic. It would be very boring if we did.

The worst thing we could do, is to make this professional issue personal.

Some people have made all kinds of assumptions about my mindset and my intentions while writing about these awards.

I have no personal scores to settle. I seek no compensation for personal frustration, nor do I feel the need to enter any competitions. As you’ve seen, I manage to attract quite a bit of attention without winning a prize.

The only reason I’ve published a new blog post every week for the past four years, is not because I want people to agree with me, or to even like me. It is because I believe I have something to say that could be of interest and value to fellow-freelancers and voice-overs.

I do believe in setting high standards for myself and for my professional community. If that happens to rub some people the wrong way, so be it.

A wise man once told me that the world we see is only a mirror of who we are.

This, of course, applies as much to you, as it does to me.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Click here to read a round up of all the comments, including the response of Rudy Gaskins, one of the board members of the Voice Arts™ Awards. 

PPS Be Sweet. Please retweet

photo credit: mnassal via photopin cc