SAG-AFTRA

Divided We Stand

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Pay-to-Play, Promotion 36 Comments

free hugsIs the voice-over world one big love fest?

If you go to pretty much any VO-conference, you may get that impression. There’s a lot of hugging and endearing cheering going on. People speak of “my voice-over family,” and will introduce you to their “Sister from another Mister.” It’s all hunky-dory on cloud nine. Why is that?

Is it because voice-overs tend to be part of an inherently “nice” and unpretentious group of people who avoid conflict at all cost, or is it because all the “nasty” people stay away from these social gatherings? Perhaps the bad apples congregate at conventions we know nothing about, sponsored by voices dot double U dee (wd stands for world domination).

But seriously, not all is well in voice-over land, and you know it. As in any community, there is camaraderie and controversy. Not to stir the pot in any way, but there still are a couple of hot-button issues we shouldn’t sweep under the carpet. Let me name a few.

1. Rates: publish them, or keep the client guessing?

Out of all the topics, the greatest shift in thinking happened on this one. In 2012 I made the case for colleagues to publish their rates on their website. Why? Because in the twenty-first century, people want to know how much things cost. That’s the way they are wired. 

The nay-sayers argued that listing prices would hurt negotiations. It would scare away customers, and we’d make it easier for the competition to put in lower bids. Besides, there was no consensus as to what was considered to be a standard rate.

Fast forward five years. The Global Voice Acting Academy’s Rate Guide has taken our community by storm, and is widely used as a point of reference. It’s been sent to some Pay-to-Plays, and the latest version was edited so it could be presented to clients. More recently, UK-based Gravy For The Brain published a guide to voice-over rates typically charged by voice artists in the United Kingdom.

In short: voice-over rates are no longer a big mystery. More and more colleagues are publishing how much they charge. Still, a fair number of colleagues feel we don’t do our industry a favor by being open about our prices, and thus the discussion continues.

2. Rates: how much or how little to charge

Critics of rate guides almost always use the same argument: “Who are you to tell me what I should charge? Mind your own business!” Oddly enough, it’s usually people on the lower end of the scale who seem to be defensive, and I have trouble understanding why they respond that way. If you’re running a for-profit business, isn’t it helpful to know what the going rates might be?

Secondly, these rate guides are called guides for a reason. No one will force you to charge a decent fee for decent work. If you feel your voice-over isn’t worth more than a fistful of dollars, welcome to the Wild West where the deaf lead the blind.

But let’s put all of that aside. Why shouldn’t we have a rate debate? Why can’t we issue guidelines? Almost every professional organization on the planet deals with compensation. That’s just one of the things professionals talk about. Only amateurs don’t have to concern themselves with what they charge. And that’s perhaps the crux of the matter.

The never-ending influx of amateurs has weakened the position of professionals. That’s why pros are taking a stand, and say:

“You may want to work at any rate, but it is immoral and unwise to do so. If you don’t value what you have to offer, you cannot expect others to value it either.”

3. Union membership

This is another hot topic in the voice-over world. Some prominent voice-overs feel the answer to all our troubles is to join SAG-AFTRA (or if you live outside of the U.S., to join another union). We’d all be paid a fair amount, we’d get health insurance, and we’d be in a much better position to negotiate with the big players. United we stand!

The problem is that many voice-overs feel that SAG-AFTRA has been treating them as unwanted stepchildren, once removed. Compared to on-screen actors, we’re the invisible small potatoes. Who cares if we ruin our vocal folds, dying a thousand screaming deaths for some silly video game? We don’t deserve extra compensation for that, do we? (please insert sarcasm)

After the longest strike in SAG-AFTRA history, there’s a tentative deal on the table that includes a promise that companies will work with the union to “examine the issue” for the next three years.

Things like that make me scream, but I have to be careful!

In a recent article, the Washington Post concluded: “In a $24.5 billion U.S. video game market that has turned some voice actors into celebrities, they still aren’t treated with the same respect as actors in television and in movies.”

Did you know that video games don’t pay residuals, and a union-proposed bonus structure for voice-overs didn’t make it into the tentative contract?

On top of that, a lot of union jobs are now turned into non-union, and SAG-AFTRA has done little or nothing to stop that trend. Oh, and did you get the news that a certain Canadian voice casting site has introduced a platform for talent agencies to access SAG-AFTRA jobs? They’re also going after ACTRA and other performance unions around the globe. Did the union(s) speak out about that, yet?

All I heard was crickets, so let’s turn to another topic. 

4. WoVO

The World Voices Organization (WoVO) was incorporated on April 25th 2012, and it was launched a day later. WoVO is a non-profit international industry trade organization. Its mission is:

“to inform and educate members of the voice-over community and other business professionals about best practices, standards for ethical conduct, and professional expertise as it relates to the voiceover industry.”

WoVO is run by voice-over talent for voiceover talent, and I am one of its members.

Why do I list WoVO as one of the hot-button topics in voice-over land? Because there must be thousands and thousands of voice-overs in the world, and only about eight hundred or so are WoVO members. If WoVO-membership would be a no-brainer, this number would be much higher. Apparently, it’s up for debate.

If you are reading this blog, and you are not a member, what are you waiting for? 

5. Voices dot wd

In one way I’ve got to give it to the leadership of this greedy, unethical company: David C. has always been clear about his ambitions. He wants to be THE middleman in voiceoverland, taking a big fat cut from every party involved in every transaction on his site. This year, Morgan Stanley Expansion Capital gave him eighteen million reasons to demonstrate he can deliver.

The pressure is on!

David’s strategy is straightforward: gain the biggest share in the voice-over market by creating a streamlined system that’s simple enough for stupid people to use. The next step is turning his VO-services into a commodity by encouraging the lowest bidders to sell to the cheapest clients. 

How do you get voice-overs to buy into this scheme? 

1. Appeal to the laziest hopefuls by promising to deliver lots of leads via email. 

2. Have them pay an annual membership fee for the privilege of bidding on jobs they’re likely to never land; a privilege shared with over 200,000 other voice actors in 139 countries.

3.  Make it easy to sign on the dotted line. No talent needed. Just a credit card.

Why is this still dividing the voice-over community, you wonder? There are two hundred thousand reasons why. Without them, there would be no voices dot wd. 

BONUS: The Voice Arts® Awards

On Sunday, November 5th, people were flocking to New York to attend The Voice Arts® Awards Gala, known to some as the “Joan & Rudy show.”

There are voice actors who believe our profession needs these awards to provide international acknowledgement of the extraordinary skill and artistry that goes into voice-over acting. Others like me, question the value of these awards.

In case you didn’t know: the Voice Arts® Awards do not give a prize to the best performance in a specific category. They only nominate and award those who paid a significant amount of money to be evaluated. In other words: you pay to play. So, a phenomenal voice talent might never win an award because he doesn’t want to spend his money on some competition.

By the way, the costs don’t end there. As a nominee, you’d have to travel to the awards, pay for a hotel and meals, pay for a ticket for your partner, and if you win, you also have to fork over $350 for your trophy. Is that worth it? And get this. Even though all VO’s pay to enter the competition, only VIP’s get to walk the red carpet, and last year there wasn’t enough time in the show for everyone to accept their award on stage. One of last year’s nominees told me:

“I was sold on going to this show and spending about $2000 because I’d have my name and work announced (marketing!), and I would have my moment like all the other nominees (fun!). And I was robbed of both. Those were the two reasons for going to the VAA.”

Another colleague wrote:

“There are no stars in VO. We both know it’s not glamorous. A big party is fun when we’re all together. But to get together to honor the dubious distinction of buying temporary adulation and ‘stardom,’ seems to me to be so disingenuous.”

So, is the voice-over world one big love fest? Of course not!

You may not agree with half of what I just wrote, and that’s fine with me. As long as we keep on talking. Every time I make a contribution to this blog, I want it to be the beginning of a conversation. Never the end.

What you are reading here is just my opinion,

and my opinion is always up for debate!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

Be Sweet. Subscribe & Retweet!

Send to Kindle

A Historic Year

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Internet, Journalism & Media, Money Matters, Pay-to-Play 3 Comments

For many reasons, 2016 was a year for the history books.

Where shall I begin? 

Let’s start with the economy, stupid! The on-demand gig economy, to be exact.

If as a self-employed person you ever feel isolated, remember this: You are not alone!

A GROWING NUMBER

The freelance workforce in the U.S.grew from 53.7 to 55 million people this year, now representing 35% of workers. In 2020, this number is expected to go up to a whopping 50%. In other words: you are part of the new normal. That’s a good thing, and a bad thing. 

Right now, freelancers contribute an estimated $1 trillion annually in freelance earnings to the U.S. economy. Unfortunately, flex workers don’t enjoy the same benefits and protections as non-freelancers. Employers have turned regular, full-time jobs, into part-time, freelance jobs. That way they don’t have to contribute to health care, pension plans, and other benefits.

Because the freelance workforce is mostly unorganized and unprotected, it’s easy for employers to do whatever they want. According to the Freelancers Union, over 70% of their members have been cheated out of payments that they’ve earned, and are stiffed an average of $6,390 every year.

On that topic there is some good news that made 2016 a historic year. It’s something that has been mostly overlooked in voice-over circles, perhaps because it’s relevant to the 1.3 million freelancers in New York City. However, this news could eventually be the beginning of change in the rest of the country. 

FREELANCE ISN’T FREE

In October, the NYC Council unanimously passed a bill helping freelancers get paid on time and in full. On November 16th, Mayor de Blasio signed it into law, and it’s called the “Freelance Isn’t Free Act.” NYC is the first city in the nation to provide protections against non-payment for freelancers and independent contractors. 

Here’s how it works:

  • The law, which will apply to contracts of $800 and up, requires any company that hires a freelance worker to execute a simple written contract (it could be as simple as an e-mail), describing the work to be completed, the rate and method of payment, the date when payment is due, and basic contact information for both parties.  

  • Payment in full is required within 30 days of the completion of services or of the payment due date under the contract, whichever is later. Companies who fail to pay would face penalties, including double damages, attorney’s fees, and civil penalties.

  • Under the law, companies would be prohibited from retaliation against freelancers who seek to exercise their rights under this bill.

According to council member Brad Lander who worked closely with the Freelancers Union to write this bill…

“The NYC Department of Consumer Affairs will act as a navigator for freelancers facing nonpayment. DCA will provide model written contracts in multiple languages, accept complaints from freelancers, issue a “Notice of Complaint” to hiring parties that don’t pay, and make it easier for an aggrieved freelancer to bring charges to court”

He continues:

“Just 5% of freelancers take delinquent clients to court, in large part due to the very high cost of hiring an attorney, and the unlikelihood for that lawyer to take the case “on spec.” Those freelancers that do bring deadbeat clients to court are often subject to retaliation – an especially big problem for freelancers that work through agencies, or on an ongoing retainer.”

“By passing this law, NYC is helping to address a big gap in state and federal laws for protecting workers. The Freelance Isn’t Free Act can serve as a model for cities across the country to take action to protect the growing number of “gig economy” workers.”

And that’s precisely what I hope will happen. This law needs to become the norm in our nation so freelancers like you and me are protected from non-paying clients.

THE STRIKE GOES ON

The last thing that made 2016 a historic year is this: unionized voice actors appearing in video games went on strike against 11 employers. The sticking points are twofold: working conditions and the compensation method. I could easily devote an entire blog post to dig deeper into the issues, but instead I encourage you to click on this link to get a better idea of what’s going on.

This is the first time I feel SAG-AFTRA is taking voice actors seriously. For years, the unions have treated us as second and third-rate citizens. Now that certain video games make even more money than some Hollywood blockbusters, we finally matter. However, video game voice actors make up a small percentage of all unionized voice talent, and I want SAG-AFTRA to care just as much about the compensation and working conditions of other members.

Whatever the outcome of the strike may be, the agreement reached will send a signal to the entire industry, and will impact both union and non-union talent. Why is that? Well, technology is changing rapidly. More people watch content online, and the internet knows no borders. Traditional media markets that were used to determine rates are rapidly disappearing, and our pay needs to be up to par with this changing landscape.

CROSSING THE LINE

The strike is also testing our solidarity as a professional group. Will newcomers take advantage of the situation, and cross the (virtual) picket line? You may find it shocking that some colleagues will act as scabs, but to me this is an indicator of another trend: the deliberate weakening of the position of voice-overs from within. Every day a symbolic picket line is crossed by voice-overs that are taking jobs for less because…

“Some money is better than no money”

“I’m just getting my feet wet”

“It’s only a hobby.”

“The client said she couldn’t afford to pay more.”

“I’m an idiot and I only care about myself.”

I hope 2017 will be the year in which union and non-union voice actors will take a stand, just like their video game voicing colleagues. I’m not suggesting we go on strike, but we can refuse to work for clients that don’t take our craft seriously. In fact, we don’t take our craft seriously every time we allow a client to take advantage of us, financially or otherwise.

There are 55 million independent workers in the U.S., and our numbers are rapidly growing.

But if we don’t act now to protect our livelihood, voice-overs won’t be part of the increase.

And we only have ourselves to blame. 

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

photo credit: Shrieking Tree Anti-Torture Vigil – Week 18 via photopin (license)

Send to Kindle