I don’t know about you, but I’m astonished at the growing number of people responding to no-budget and low-budget voice-over jobs. It had me wonder:
Who are they? What drives them? How do we make them stop?
Some colleagues suggested I shouldn’t take these lowballers seriously. They’re ignorant hobbyists at best, and their actions have no impact on us professionals.
It’s insulting and upsetting when both client and talent find the contribution of a voice-over of so little value that no money changes hands. Meanwhile, the copywriter and sound engineer get paid, the animator receives a check, and the guy who hired them to create an ad campaign has a full-time position with benefits.
What’s wrong with this picture?
If the company is too cheap to pay a pro, why don’t they ask Keith from accounting to do the voice-over? Why do they have to post a job in a Facebook group for voice-overs? It’s simple: because they know that Keith in accounting is a klutz, and there’s always a hopeless hopeful VO with a sliver of talent who’s willing to do it for nothing.
I’m sorry, but I’ve worked too long and too hard to be giving my voice away. Even if I were getting my feet wet, I’d have enough respect for myself and my colleagues to insist on being paid good money for good work.
So, why are some budding voice-overs willing to work for free? Beginning plumbers don’t do that. Newly graduated chefs don’t put a zero dollar menu together. Young teachers make less, but they get paid for doing their job. What makes us voice-overs so special that we deserve not to be paid?
A TYPICAL JOB OFFER
To get some perspective, let’s pick a real gig that was just posted on Facebook. The job is for a “nonprofit small low power Christian radio station” and was described as follows:
“A concept piece mentioning a new name and slogan along with some catchphrases. It’s like a sizzle reel in tv terms. Unpaid but appreciated.”
Someone who wants this job responds (and I’m not going to pick on the grammar):
“I could use the exposure and experience being new to professional.”
Just imagine all the exposure a small nonprofit low power Christian radio station can bring! I think you’ll need the intervention of a higher power to make all that exposure work to your benefit.
Speaking of exposure, try going to a restaurant telling the owner: “I’m not going to pay you today, but I’ll make sure to say nice things about you on Instagram.” Unless you’re Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, or Kylie Jenner, I don’t think you’ll be getting very far.
As someone who has been using his voice professionally since he was seventeen, I can tell you that, unless you’re a flasher, exposure is highly overrated. It doesn’t pay the rent and it can’t feed your family. It’s a transparent trick to make you believe you’re getting something in exchange for volunteering your services.
Some high-profile jobs may give you limited exposure, but these jobs usually go to A-list celebs and come with a nice paycheck. Keep in mind that voice-overs are the Invisibles of the industry. By definition, our role is mainly supportive (the exception being audiobook narration which I think is underpaid). We have to make up our own awards shows in order to get some recognition… from our peers.
So, if you’re looking for exposure, you’ve chosen the wrong profession. Don Lafontaine was arguably the most famous voice-over artist of his time, but very few people knew who he was until he appeared as a sidekick in a Geiko television commercial. Notice that he’s introduced as “that announcer guy from the movies.”
Will working for free give you the experience needed to book more paid jobs? It totally depends on the experience. I vividly remember an angry young conductor kicked out of a competition. He wanted to know why he hadn’t made it to the next round. He told the jury: “Compared to all the other contestants I’ve had much more experience. Why are you letting me go?” The chairman of the jury told him: “Your experience must not have been very good.”
Some experiences simply don’t translate. Just because you’ve worked as an announcer for a radio station or you were a teacher or a minister doesn’t mean you have the chops to be a successful voice-over. Having extensive experience as a voice talent doesn’t necessarily get me hired. Most clients aren’t interested in what I’ve done for other people in the past. They want to know:
What can you do for me today?
Will experience help you finally land an agent? Agents get interested once they know you can make them money. Doing jobs for free tells them you’re desperate instead of marketable. In my opinion, the experience you need as a budding voice-over is the experience of working with a good coach who’s not afraid to say what you don’t want to hear.
BEING A PROFESSIONAL
Let’s get back to the reason one of our colleagues thought he’d be a good fit for that no-budget Christian radio station job. He wrote:
“I could use the exposure and experience being new to professional.”
We’ve covered exposure and experience. Let’s get to the “professional” aspect. According to one dictionary, a professional is “engaged in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation rather than as a pastime.”
So, if you’re doing something professionally, it can’t be a hobby, and you have to get paid. In addition, voice-overs are small business owners. The IRS says:
“A trade or business is generally an activity carried on for a livelihood or in good faith to make a profit.”
In other words:
WORKING FOR FREE IS UNPROFESSIONAL
A GOOD CAUSE
But what about working for charities? Don’t they at least deserve a discount? Before I get into that, let me be clear: the VO jobs I see posted in Facebook groups are sometimes for nonprofits but not for charities. Every charity is a nonprofit, but not every nonprofit is a charity.
As professionals we have to stop making assumptions about how much we believe a potential client can or cannot afford. They’re not going to tell us so we will never know. Just because it’s a nonprofit or a charity, doesn’t mean there’s no budget for PR. I know because organizations like Charity Navigator keep track of how much of a charity’s budget goes to fundraising campaigns.
Charities like the Cancer Survivors’ Fund, the Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation, and the Kids Wish Network spend more than 50% of their budget on fundraising activities (source: click here). That isn’t necessarily a good thing, but don’t tell me all charities have no money and deserve a break.
Many CEO’s of charities make six-figure incomes. In 2015, the CEO of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center made $3.6 million, and Wayne LaPierre who heads the nonprofit National Rifle Association was reported to make $4.6 million. These are extremes, but Charity Navigator says that among the charities they’ve evaluated, the average CEO salary is $150,000 (source: click here).
THERE’S A DIFFERENCE
What’s my point? Not every charity is created equal. Many are huge, professional organizations with big budgets for promotion. If there’s money to pay a CEO a decent salary, there is money to pay a voice-over a decent fee. Now, if you wish to support that charity because you connect with the cause, don’t discount your services. Make a tax-deductible donation after you get paid.
What baffles me most about those willing to work for (next to) nothing is the fact that they seem to be beginners. Perhaps I’m weird, but when I started out, I needed all the money I could get so I could invest in my career. I had to buy decent equipment, a good website, and I saved up to create a quiet recording space. Plus, I had to have a roof over my head and some food on the table.
I couldn’t afford to work for free, and I still can’t.
Here’s the thing most lowballers won’t admit: it takes real talent to book a top-dollar job, but it’s pretty easy to book a gig when you’re charging very little or nothing.
Once clients are used to your low rates they won’t be willing to pay you full price, and your colleagues will have a harder time negotiating a better deal. Why should clients pay more if they can get it for less (especially those for whom “good enough” is good enough).
Charging peanuts means you’ll never have the life you’re hoping for, and you’ll have less money to give to that charity you say you wish to support.
The moment you start charging a reasonable rate, you create expectations. You have something to prove. You tell the world:
“This is what this job is worth!
This is what I am worth, professionally speaking.”
If what you bring to the table has no added value, you’ve nothing left but to compete on price. But…
if you’re any good at what you do, people are willing to pay for it, and the benefit of hiring you outweighs the cost every single time.
Even monkeys can figure that out.
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
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Bob Bergen says
I have a prediction. And this is something I’ve been predicting for close to 20 years, when I first saw the appeal of non union vo growing, and the need and desire for guaranteed minimums, health benefits, and a pension become unimportant. It used to be these benefits were what separated the professional and the non professional. Pursuing professional acting professionally.
But when the internet took vo away from the major markets, and the bubble of the union, people were literally handed vo on a silver modem. People in middle America, many of whom were accustomed to earning minimum wage in their day job, can now do a vo gig, talk into a mic and get paid $100 for less than an hour’s work. As far as they are concerned they hit the lottery. And after 20 years, they own the vo industry, and cannot relate to the benefits they aren’t getting.
My prediction is, we aren’t too far away from actors actually paying for the privilege to do a vo gig. What is the value for them? Fun, experience, and just the chance to hear their voice aired.
This is what became of the music industry in LA. There was a time a band could make great money playing in a club on the Sunset Strip, gaining followers and eventually a record deal. Today, bands pay the venue just to get seen and heard. A few desperate fools started accepting this offer. Eventually, as more and more chose this route, it ruined it for everyone.
I truly believe this will happen in vo as well. It’s inevitable. Don’t let arrogance cloud this possibility. No union actor believed the majority of vo would ever go non union, because union actors couldn’t fathom anyone would do a vo gig that didn’t come with protections and benefits. Nor did they think their fellow actors would so damage the industry as well as their fellow actors by accepting to work non union. For decades just that alone kept the majority of the work union. But the internet, as well as time, has made that solidarity obsolete, and a faded memory.
Paul Strikwerda says
You describe a self-inflicted wound, Dr. Bergen, and I agree that solidarity seems to be fading. Then I go to conferences like VO Atlanta, and I come home energized and optimistic. I think we can turn the tide.
According to Dr. Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, once around 3.5% of the whole population has begun to participate actively in a movement to bring about change, success appears to be inevitable.
All we need is a vocal minority.
In my homeland, the Netherlands, classical musicians just started a movement to tell the public that they’re no longer willing to perform for free or for little money in exchange for exposure. They know that applause doesn’t pay the bills. Within a week the movement had 1300 members and counting.
As one of the influencers in my vo-community I will continue to work towards creating a core of 3.5% to bring about positive change. We’re not victims of circumstance. People made the situation for VO’s worse. People can make it better.
Paul Garner says
Thanks for being a leader of the vocal minority, Paul. We can change.
David Bateson says
Great article. I just wish every lowballer could be forced to read it. I’m with you – cheering and negotiating for the 3.5%!
Paul Strikwerda says
Those who need the advice the most will probably never read it because they think they know it all.
Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt, PhD says
Writers have the same problem: people who expect professionals to ‘just dash something off’ for free.
YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR.
You don’t get professional content from amateurs, and the pros can’t afford to dash something off for exposure (N.B.: it taints their reputation).
The askers would never dream of working for free.