Stephanie Ciccarelli

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

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Bring in the Natives!

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Internet, Promotion 6 Comments

women in Volendam dressOkay, I had promised myself not to do it.

At least, not for a while.

Yet, I find myself doing it again.

And the thing is: I don’t feel so bad about it.

Today, I’ll talk about voices.com.

Again.

Rest assured. I’m not going to rehash my leaving-voices.com-litany. You’ve seen it. At the LinkedIn Voice Over Professionals group they’re still beating that dead horse. Click here if you’d like to join the fuss and the fun.

Since I left the Canadians, business has never been better, but that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about. I really want to talk about a few of my favorite topics: language, marketing, standards and blogging.

BLOGGING BOOSTS BUSINESS

You see, what the folks at “voices” understood from day one, is that free content is one of the best ways to attract visitors to your website. A good blog has people stay for a while and it makes them come back again and again. Voice123 has a blog as well; the Edge Studio is stepping up its blogging efforts and recently, Bodalgo joined the club.

Can you keep up with all the content? I certainly can’t! Thank goodness Derek Chappell reads them all and he posts the best blogs of the week on his own blog. 

Vox Daily is the official blog of voices.com. Over the years it has grown into a huge database of informative articles about every aspect of the industry. Most of the content is original. Sometimes the stories come from other sources.

I applaud the writers of Vox Daily for keeping this thing going with such creativity and consistency. As you know, I only blog once a week and frankly, that’s all I can handle.

As a native of the Netherlands, I was drawn to a recent Vox Daily article by Stephanie Ciccarelli, called “What is a Native Speaker?” In it, Ciccarelli outlines the advantages of hiring a native speaker. She cites a conversation with Spanish voice talent Simone Fojgiel who told her that

“70% of the projects she receives from her clients that were translated from English into Spanish, required revisions. Some even needed complete overhauls due to poor translation work.”

Stephanie concludes:

“Before we start pointing fingers at translators in general, we need to take a deep breath and consider why some translations may be poor, inaccurate or altogether baffling. My dear friends, it all comes to down to whether or not the translator is a native speaker of the language they’re translating in.”

I’m a native Dutch speaker and I recognize Simone’s observations. However, I don’t believe non-native speakers bare the full blame for poorly translated scripts. In my experience, bad translations are often the direct result of:

  1. carelessness or ignorance on the part of cheap clients;
  2. amateur-translators using translation software;
  3. lack of standards, quality control and overall professionalism.

The question is: what to do about it?

GOING DUTCH

Sometimes I talk myself into believing that one of my missions is to educate the ignorant. Allow me to illustrate.

A few months ago, I received an invitation to voice a Dutch language course for beginners. The budget was low and the sample script was filled with language that might have been in vogue some seventy years ago. Today, no Dutchman would ever use these outdated expressions. My guess is that the producers of the course had adapted an old guide after the copyright had expired. Perhaps they were unaware of the archaic language because they didn’t speak Dutch.

Rather than refusing the job out of hand, I auditioned for it, just to have an opportunity to get in touch with the client. I told them that the language in the guide was old-fashioned and that it would mislead people into believing they were learning Dutch as it is spoken today. I gave them several examples to illustrate my point. I also suggested that I could help them bring this language course into the 21st century.

Did I get a thank you note or even an acknowledgement that my comments were received?

Of course not.

I’m only a native speaker who was trying to offer some added value. Why on earth would they listen to me?

HELPING CLIENTS IMPROVE

According to Ciccarelli, Simone Fojgel has…

“made it her mission to protect, preserve and propel the brand image of her English clients as they step out boldly in effort to communicate to Spanish-speaking audiences.”

Not only does Simone review, prep and (re)write copy for her clients, she directs voice talent “to guarantee their performance is just right for the target audience.”

In that respect, Simone and I are on the same page. Both of us reach out to clients and offer to better their products. But after my experience with that Dutch language course, I asked myself:

Is it the job of a native voice talent to save a client’s reputation and turn a trash translation into a treasure?

I’m not so sure anymore, and I’ll explain why.

SAVING THE DAY?

1. First and foremost: You can provide people with information but you can’t be sure they’ll actually understand. And even if they do, it doesn’t mean that they will act upon it. Why should I waste my time talking to a client who doesn’t even want to listen? Let them produce that old-fashioned language course without my help. Perhaps they need to learn things the hard way. 

2. In order to be open to a solution, the client has to admit that there’s a problem in the first place. Here’s the thing. Clients don’t always see a problem. All they see is an added expense you call a solution.

3. A bad translation is only a symptom of a greater underlying cause. Clients are often more interested in treating symptoms.

I believe in fixing a problem at the root level. If a faucet is leaking, you don’t hire someone to mop up the floor thinking that this will solve everything. You call a pro to replace the washers, the o-ring or the seals. Unfortunately, not all clients think that way. They’d rather pay for cheap labor instead of hiring a more expensive pro. The worst scripts usually come from clients with bargain basement budgets. Not exactly my target market.

4. Is it worth my time?

Before I became a full-time voice-over, I worked as a professional translator and I hated it. I used to spend 14-hour days ruining my back in front of a computer screen translating boring market research, user manuals and legal documents. As a voice-over, I can make in thirty minutes what would take me a week of translation work. You do the math.

5. Leave it to the experts.

Being a native speaker doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a great translator. Just as people underestimate what it takes to be a voice-over, people have no idea how hard it is to become an accredited translator. Even though I’m an academically trained linguist, I am happy to pass translation projects on to the natives who do this for a living.

Now, does all of this mean that I’ll never offer to correct a weak translation or tweak a text no matter what?

If the client is open to suggestions and is willing to spend some extra money on additional services, I’m game. As a voice-over, it is in my best interest to be associated with a stellar production. If it wins me some bonus points with a customer, better still!

So, at times, being a native speaker does translate into more business, but obviously not from the folks who were looking for a voice for that outdated Dutch language course. I believe the program is in the making as we speak. Unchanged.

And where did I find that job, by the way?

On voices.com.

Right before I ended my membership. 

Oops…

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

photo credit: screenpunk via photopin cc


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