David Ciccarelli

The Ciccarelli Circus

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, International, Internet, Journalism & Media, Pay-to-Play 19 Comments

Screen Shot 2015-11-04 at 9.24.24 PMSo, here’s the deal.

We all know that the CEO of Voices.com David Ciccarelli is on a charm offensive. He tried to do damage control by talking to fellow-Canadian Graeme Spicer of the Edge Studio. I don’t think that worked out so well.

The promised recording of the contentious interview was never released because (supposedly) the video version did not survive due to “technical problems.” Then Edge Studio and Mr. Spicer announced:

“We had every intention of releasing the recording of the event as originally stated. Unfortunately we are not in a position to post it at this time. I hope you understand our position, and that you will continue to support Edge Studio as we strive to advocate on behalf of voice actors.”

Some spoke of a falling out between “Edge” and “Voices.” Others suggested that possible legal action prevented Edge Studio from releasing the interview. Meanwhile, a SoundCloud copy of the interview has surfaced, and it is making the rounds on various VO Facebook groups.

Ciccarelli also did a webinar slash infomercial with Bill DeWees, in which DeWees solidified his reputation as Mr. Nice Guy. Some described the webinar as a “snooze fest”. Soon, the CEO of “Voices” will be on the Voice Over Cafe with Terry Daniel and company. I wonder: When will Ciccarelli be hosting Saturday Night Live?

But seriously, here’s the real question:

My blog post Voices.com: Unethical and Greedy? was published on September 3rd. Two months later Ciccarelli finally decides to tell us his side of the story. David, what were you waiting for? A Voice Arts™ Award for best Pay-to-Play?

VOICE TALENT HAS HAD ENOUGH

My guess is that he had hoped the turmoil would simply subside like it has always done. But he was wrong. This time, the voice-over community reacted like a ferocious pit bull. It just wouldn’t let go.

More and more people came forward with Voices dot com horror stories, and asked questions about the Ciccarelli way of doing business. Even voice-seeking clients started complaining, and experienced voice talent began to leave the site in droves.

Newsflash: Those with unpaid Voices-profiles are now asking to be removed from the site. Ouch! Something’s clearly wrong when people don’t even want your free service anymore. One of those talents is Mike Cooper. He told Voices dot com:

 “I see jobs for good money being intercepted by staff, with large percentages being creamed off the top – often without the client’s knowledge – and siphoned into the pockets of a company which I believe has become overly greedy. There is little or no transparency, and I no longer feel I want to be a part of that model.”

Connie Terwilliger was one of the original contributors to the Voiceover Experts podcasts on “Voices” back in 2007. This is what she asked Voices dot com to do:

“Please remove my two Voiceover Experts Podcasts from your library. I do not wish that my name be associated with Voices.com until such time that you recognize that your current business practices are simply not serving the professional voiceover community, nor helping the production community understand the value of the voiceover talent.

Frankly, you are acting as an “agent” and a casting director. Then you should act like one. Go ahead and charge a commission (the escrow fee) and even charge to coordinate large jobs (as long as you don’t undercut the rate to the talent in order to do so). 

However, since you are functioning as an agent, you should NOT be charging the talent a fee to be on the site.”

Connie’s podcasts have yet to be removed.

MONEY TALKS

Ciccarelli finally broke his silence, but don’t think for one minute that his recent interviews and articles were meant for you. The CEO of “Voices” needed to please two types of people: bankers and politicians.

Voices.com borrowed money, and received grants from the Canadian government to grow the business into a multinational. Lenders had to be reassured that everything was A-OK in London, Ontario. Politicians needed to know that their grant money was in the hands of a capable company, especially after the political landscape changed dramatically in October.

Susan Truppe, the conservative Canadian MP for London North Centre who handed “Voices” $900,000 in 2014, was badly beaten by a liberal candidate in the last election. Her successor, political scientist Peter Fragiskatos, might not be so generous. He actually wants small businesses to use crowdfunding to raise money and grow. Unfortunately, the crowd that is willing to fund “Voices” through membership fees seems to be shrinking day by day.

LOST LOVE

In anticipation of Ciccarelli’s appearances, colleagues have asked what I make of his campaign. To tell you the truth: it leaves me cold. My feelings for “Voices” are the same as my feelings for an ex-girlfriend. We had a good time for a while, but it’s over. We split up for a reason, and it’s pointless to try and change the other person when the relationship is dead. It’s hard enough when you’re together. 

Relationships that work have this in common: they are based on trust, and they meet the needs of both partners. Right now, it’s your turn to decide the following:

  1. Do I (still) trust Voices dot com, and
  2. Could a business relationship be mutually beneficial? 

I cannot answer those questions for you. What I can do, is give you information and opinion. In the past five years I have often blogged about Voices dot com, and I have written about them in my book. I think I’ve given “Voices” enough of my time, and part of me believes I could have spent that time in a more productive way. However, I must admit that it is thoroughly gratifying to see that more and more people are getting sick and tired of being milked by a greedy company that made double and triple dipping the new norm in online casting.

AMPLE AMBITION

A while ago, the website Success Harbor asked David Ciccarelli: “Where do you see “Voices” in the next 5 years, what is your ultimate goal?” This is part of his reply: 

“It comes down to this: we really do want to dominate the industry. Meaning, be that kind of dominant player for good but the one that everyone thinks voice-overs is synonymous with, like oh yeah, I go to voices.com for that. So that means speaking to every potential customer that’s out there, having every single voice talent that practices the art and craft of voice acting, they should be on the platform as well. It’s having that omnipresence is really what we’re aiming for.”

Right now, Ciccarelli is finding out that not everyone in the industry wants to help him achieve world domination.

In a time of increased global competition, the strength of a service is determined by the quality of what’s being offered. Voices dot com has to remember that the company is only as strong and valuable as the talent it has on tap. Without acrobats, contortionists, lion tamers, and clowns, a circus is just a tent. 

Ciccarelli will need to do a lot of juggling to convince people to pay in order to play under his roof. 

He’s certainly not going to charm his way back into my business. 

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

PPS Thanks to the inimitable Terry Daniel for the title suggestion.


Voices.com: Unethical and Greedy?

by Paul Strikwerda in Journalism & Media, Money Matters, Pay-to-Play 130 Comments

Mad as hellOn October 15, 2014, Susan Truppe, the Canadian Member of Parliament for London North Centre, visited the offices of Voices.com for a second time. She did not come empty-handed.

That day she announced that “Voices” would be receiving $900,000 from the government “to go global by expanding its project management division and translating its products into additional languages.” (source)

She had some nice things to say to the owners of Voices:

“Taking a business idea and turning it into something that does well in commercial markets is something we need to see happen more and more in Canada. The founders of Voices.com have done this extremely well and I congratulate you, David and Stephanie Ciccarelli. (…) You have grown your business into a marketplace valued by radio and television stations, advertising agencies and Fortune 500 companies.”

Notice which category was missing?

Voice actors!

EXPANSION

$900,000 may seem a lot of money, but it’s not nearly enough if you have big plans.

In April 2015 it became clear that Voices had secured $2 million from BDC Capital, and according to Voices CEO David Ciccarelli, his company has raised $5 million so far, all of it debt financing. Talking to the Financial Post, Ciccarelli added that he estimates his company to make $15 million in gross revenue over the next 12 months, and that Voices will exceed $100 million in annual revenue within three years.

In June, Voices announced that it would open up shop in New York City. According to the website TechVibes, 85% of Voices.com’s customers are located in the US, and a majority of the company’s 125,000 voice talent are located there.

Did you know that voices.com had a database of 125.000 members?

Again according to TechVibes, the Canadian company is experiencing 400% year-over-year growth, and it expects its workforce to reach up to 200 employees by the end of 2016.

SUCCESS STORY

From a business perspective, Voices is a success story Canada can be proud of. By all accounts, the two owners are intelligent, hard-working people, who want their company to be the leading voice casting service on the planet.

There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious, but what an increasing number of members are concerned about, is how those ambitions are being realized. They know that without voice talent, the company would have nothing to offer. One might as well remove the word “voices” from Voices.com.

However, the very people who are at the center of the company’s growth, feel they’re being treated like second and third-rate citizens. The massive response to last week’s blog post, attests to that. The story has been viewed more than ten thousand eight hundred times, and if you haven’t seen it, stop what you’re doing, and read Voices.com Is Slapping Regular Members In The Face.

In the days after this article was published, we learned a lot more about the business practices of Voices.com, thanks to many colleagues who decided they’ve had enough. Here are some themes that emerged from hundreds of comments:

1. Voices.com is driving VO-rates down.

While the price of membership goes up and up, voice-over rates are going down and down. That should come as no surprise. Voices tells clients on their “About-page” that by using their services they can expect a “50% savings on voice talent and audio production and administrative costs.”

Big corporations and institutions that used to pay talent a decent rate, can now book a voice at a bargain. Good for them. Bad for us. Once clients are used to lower prices, why would they ever want to pay a penny more?

2. Voices.com may take more money than you make.

Let’s assume a client pays Voices $650 for their services. That doesn’t mean the talent will see or get $650 for a voice-over narration. Colleagues tell me that Voices will often show the job as paying much less, from which a 10% escrow fee will be deducted as part of their SurePay™ system that every member is forced to use.

This is not some random example. This actually happened to voice-over Andrew Randall. The client was already a contact of his, and told him how much they had paid Voices to get the job done. Andrew writes:

“The rate Voices.com originally posted on this job was $440. Deducting their 10% escrow fee, that would have left me $396. That means Voices.com was intending to keep $254 of the client’s voice-over talent budget of $650, or a staggering 39%.”

This particular job was handled by Voices’ Professional Services team. This division will cast the job on the client’s behalf, and more and more projects are handled this way. It seems fair that a client pays a bit extra for this service, but close to 40%? That’s a huge cut of which the voice talent will never see a dime.

A ticked off Andrew responds:

“Union agents are only legally allowed to take 10% of a talent’s fee, and even non-union agents never take more than 20%, and usually 10 to 15%. I wonder how much money I have lost over the years from previous jobs for which I was unaware that Voices.com was taking such a huge cut of my fee. I may seek legal advice to see if I have a case to request those exorbitant fees back.”

But there’s more.

One disgruntled Platinum member told me she booked a job through Voices for $400, not knowing who the client was because Voices didn’t list it. And since Voices explicitly forbids talent to contact clients directly, she couldn’t ask.

Once she got the script, she found out that it was for a MAJOR global brand. The video she ended up narrating has over 3 million hits and counting. She said she has a feeling that Voices charged the client a much higher fee, and pocketed the difference.

A fellow-voice-over agreed, and said:

“They do take $ and hide what the client is actually paying. Another talent mentioned earlier today that they had a friend who booked a job at $1500 (outside of the pay-to-plays) and Voices posted that same job as paying $250. I’ve heard several different accounts of this happening from different sources now.”

This practice doesn’t only insult talent. It also angers those who use Voices to hire talent. A producer just commented:

“I had a recent job where my offer was $250/voice, and the talent told me that they were told by Voices that the job was only $120. This pisses me off because it makes me look like a cheap bastard and some good talent probably passed on auditioning since they saw the job as too low budget for them but in reality, it wasn’t.”

3. Voices controls how much you can “play,” based on what you pay.

As a regular Premium member, you will never see all the jobs that are in the Voices.com system. That’s how it is set up.

As I reported last week, a select group of 100 Platinum and Platinum Unlimited members who pay $2500 or $5000 respectively, are invited to more public job postings, and will get more private invitations than any of the other 124,900 members. Not because they’re more talented or more experienced, but because they paid Voices to give them preferential treatment. They’ll also receive VIP customer service.

One voice talent responded:

“What about everyone else who cannot afford $2500 for a membership, let alone $5000? They are basically making those talents audition into the void and completely waste their time. It’s not about TALENT anymore with this system- it favors those who will put in the money. As someone who grew up very poor, this makes me incredibly sad- and truly outraged.”

Someone else added:

“If I could afford the $2500, I wouldn’t need Voices.com”

Of course Voices.com cannot guarantee any member at any level that they’ll ever get selected for any posted project. They may control the flow of auditions, but they can’t tell the client whom to hire. 

Since my story broke, I have heard from a number of Platinum members, all of whom have been in the business for many, many years. One of them was voice talent and coach Deb Munro. She commented:

“I received more private auditions and made my initial investment back, but not much more than that either. I am floored that they are offering another tier [The Platinum Unlimited membership, PS]. This will be the demise of the site in my opinion, once more exposed.”

Here’s another point most commentators seem to agree on:

4. Auditioning on Voices.com is pretty much a waste of time and money.

Just listen to what three experienced voice-overs had to say:

“I auditioned like crazy, got one gig. 95% of my auditions were never even listened to. I finally would only audition if it was a 90% or better match, and less than 25 people had already auditioned, still nothing. I don’t know what the secret code is, but I couldn’t crack it, and I get plenty of other work.”

“The count of my auditions at Voices.com is in the high hundreds, and I’ve landed a total of two jobs – both from the same employer. I’ve received quite a few “likes” on my work, but a large number of my auditions go unheard and many more projects get closed without any further action. Spend more for better treatment and more visibility? Can Voices.com guarantee I’ll earn my investment back? On both counts, I think not.”

“Wow! I swore off P2P years ago. I thought it was not for me. This new Platinum Unlimited membership level brings it to a whole new level of wasted effort! I know there are some talents who have landed spectacular clients and/ or ongoing gigs. But that seems to be a rarity.”

Can it get any worse? Well, here’s another conclusion many colleagues seem to share:

5. The business practices of Voices.com are unethical. The company exploits naïve beginners, and doesn’t care about voice talent.

Here’s a small selection of comments on that topic:

“Monetize all the things” seems to be the new business model. Even inventing things to monetize. Yeah, one year was enough.”

“I would come back with open arms if they stopped the bidding wars, stopped undercutting their talent, and started representing their talent honorably. They have essentially taken over the job of a talent agent, and are NOT treating their talent according to the principles true talent agencies do. In the process, they are putting real talent agencies at risk – the real workers who fight for the talent. It has to stop.”

“I hate the way they run the company now. They used to pretend to care about members. Now they don’t even pretend to care. They just show utter contempt. David and Stephanie can run their company how they like. I will no longer support it or recommend it to other actors.”

“The arrogance and abusiveness of this company is astounding.”

Voice talent Todd Schick does’t mince words on his website:

“Some people are devoid of ethics and morals; they simply can’t see the benefit – monetarily or otherwise – to treat others in a fair, ethical manner.
Indeed, I’ve heard personally from former employees at Voices.com who have been threatened….now in fear of coming forward. Those that work there are rumoured to have been told to toe the line or be fired. Further still, talent who make noise about this issue are blacklisted (…).”

WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?

You have read the critique. The question is: will it make a difference? Many colleagues are cynical:

“Paul rightly calls them on their tactics, but Voices.com knows VO-land is disorganized and that there will always be newbies willing to under-bid on a job to get a foothold in this job field. For every one subscriber who quits the P2P in disgust, three more step up with dollars in hand.”

“They’re making money hand over fist. That’s all they care about. They’ll ignore this until it dies down, and then continue to think of new ways to fill their coffers.”

I have blogged about Voices.com before, and whenever I do, it always seems to hit a raw nerve. People share these stories on social media, and comment like crazy. But this time, one thing was definitely different, and I’ll tell you what it is.

Normally, I would always get a few commentators who would come to Voices.com’s defense. They’d tell me how much they love the site, how much money they had made, and that business was booming thanks to this Canadian company. Some said I should stop being so mean to Stephanie and David.

This time around…. nothing.

What I heard instead was this:

“I’m done.”

“I called customer service, and cancelled my membership. I should have done it a long time ago.”

Time after time after time.

And you know what else? In the midst of all this bad publicity, the company isn’t even attempting to do any form of damage control. They’re not denying anything that has been said or written.

At their headquarters in London, Ontario, it has been quiet.

Disturbingly quiet.

Voices.com seems to have lost its voice.

Oh well…

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!


Is voices.com playing a numbers game?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Internet, Money Matters, Pay-to-Play 15 Comments

On February 11, 2011, VOICES.COM released new numbers testifying to the success of the company.

There’s every reason to congratulate the owners, David and Stephanie Ciccarelli. They proudly announced “$39,290,580 in Total Earnings by Voice Talent at Voices.com.”

Some commentators concluded that the data in the report are a summary of this company’s past year in business, but Stephanie Ciccarelli states:

“These numbers are based upon the last several years of data we’ve collected at the site.”

What does she mean by that?

Voices.com has been in business since 2003, starting as “Interactive Voices”. In September 2006, Interactive Voices became voices.com.

The new report speaks of:

155,915 All-time number of jobs awarded to voice talent.”

In 2011, voices.com stated on their About-page that they are “creating 6911 job opportunities on average, each and every month.” My calculator tells me that this adds up to an average of 82,932 jobs per year.

How did voices.com arrive at 155,915? The verbiage “All-time number of jobs” suggests that they started counting from the very first day of business. Was that in 2003 or as of September 2006? Let’s do the numbers:

155,915 : 7 years = an average of 22,273 jobs per year (2003-2010)

155,915 : 3 years = an average of 51,971 jobs per year (2007-2010)

And what about $39,290,580 in total earnings? Is that also “based upon the last several years of data”?

PERSPECTIVE

It’s impossible to put these numbers into proper perspective if we don’t know what time period we’re talking about. That’s exactly the problem I have with most of the numbers coming from voices.com. I’m not saying that they are pulled out of a hat, but they lack clarity and context and they don’t always stand up to simple scrutiny.

The same can be said about their “Annual Report on the Voice Over Industry.” It is not compiled by an established, independent market research firm, but by the CEO of voices.com, David Ciccarelli.

As long as we cannot independently verify the numbers, or get a clear sense of the time period during which these data were collected, I choose to look at these reports as marketing tools, more than anything else.

AVERAGE FEE

Stephanie Ciccarell broke down the $39,290,580 in Total Earnings by Voice Talent at voices.com.

On average” -she writes- “a voice talent made $252.97 per job” using their service.

I haven’t been keeping track of the voices.com numbers over time, but it would be interesting to see whether or not the average payment per job went up or down since 2003, and if so, by how much.

Stephanie Ciccarelli concludes:

“10,000+ people have earned a respectable income from doing voice overs with Voices.com serving as a key part of their marketing strategy.”

Once again, the numbers are vague and note that the term “respectable income” is not defined.

Here’s one scenario:

Let’s assume a talent lands one job per week on voices.com at $252.97. That would bring in $13,154.44 per year.

The talent decides to use the voices.com SurePay escrow system, at a 10% fee per job, costing him $1315.44. This brings the gross income down to $11.839.00. Subtract 10% for expenses and we’re left with: $10,649.10. Subtract from that amount $1504 in self-employment taxes and we arrive at a grand total of $9,149.10.

Would you call that a “respectable” income?

The 2011 Federal Poverty Guidelines of The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services puts the income level at $10,890 for a one person household.

Of course this is a theoretical example. Some voices.com jobs pay a lot more and some pay a lot less. No professional voice-over talent should entirely depend on one source to generate leads and make a living. At the same time, not everyone will land one gig a week using voices.com. Stephanie did write:

“10,000+ people have earned a respectable income from doing voice overs with Voices.com.”

In his analysis of the report, colleague Peter O’Connel comments:

Taking the Voices.com figure ($252.97), as a P2P industry average – that figure, I believe, doesn’t reflect what the voice over customer market “dictates”.

I believe it reflects what the voice over customer market “can get away with” with the help of the pay to play (P2P) business model.

ADDING IT ALL UP

There’s no doubt about it: voices.com has become one of the market leaders in online voice casting. That role comes with responsibilities. Market leaders have the clout to be trend setters and “power pricers”.

Voices.com has become more than a neutral playing field where supply meets demand. It has developed into a game changer that can write the rules of engagement by dictating the terms and conditions.

One of those conditions is “a minimum project posting requirement for any job posted publicly and this amount is $100.” By the way, this doesn’t mean that a voice seeker can’t go any lower than that. Voices.com states:

“If your budget is lower than $100 then you may post a job privately using the Request Quote function within our search engine or you may email talent directly with your project details and budget.”

Critics feel that the Pay to Play business model is in part to blame for the steady decline in voice-over rates and professional standards. Peter O’Connell:

I don’t believe or financially support any service in which voice talent “pays to play” i.e. pays a subscription to receive auditions. I believe such services lower the rate expectations of potential clients because so many voice talents who swim in the pay to play pool low ball their rates out of what I feel is a kind of sad desperation for revenue of any kind.

The pay to play model negatively impacts the voice over business and its practitioners, in my opinion.

It has been suggested that if voices.com is really interested in their members making a “respectable income,” they should start by raising that $100 minimum rate immediately.

Secondly, as of 2015, voices.com claims it has a global network of over 125,000 members. I used to be one of them. I think the members should expect and demand a lot more transparency and accountability when it comes to numbers.

As voices.com so aptly pointed out: they did not make $39,290,580 in total earnings.

Their members did.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice