Paying The Piper

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

Chinatown, Philadelphia ©paul strikwerda

“May you live in interesting times.”

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

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

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

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


Let’s put it into context.

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

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

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

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

Now, hold on one second…


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

What about expenses and prizes?

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

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


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

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

And another stated: 

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

What can I say? 

We live in very interesting times.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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