working for free

Peanuts and Monkeys

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Money Matters, Promotion 5 Comments

Peanut & MonkeyI 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.

I disagree.

BEING WORTHLESS

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.”

WHAT EXPERIENCE?

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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Giving My Work Away

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles 9 Comments
photo credit: Kevin Schlough

The author at the market

Followers of my Facebook page and personal profile were the first to know.

Since July of this year, I have been working for free.

Well, some of the time at least.

I am one of the few voice-overs that has been cultivating his announcer-voice as emcee at my local Farmers’ Market.

The town I live in –Easton, PA– is proud to have the longest continuously running outdoor Farmers’ Market in the entire U.S.A. It started back in 1752. To give you an idea, that’s two years after the death of the composer Johann Sebastian Bach!

In the U.S., Farmers’ Markets have exploded. In 1996 there were only 2,410. Today this number has almost quadrupled (source). These markets increase access to fresh food, they help preserve farmland and stimulate local economies.

Now, I’m pretty sure you didn’t come this blog to be lectured about the benefits of small-scale agriculture. Instead, let me tell you why I decided to surround myself with fruit, vegetables and other local produce, once or twice a week. After all, I could be using that time to grow my own business, instead of promoting someone else’s. Well, here’s one reason: it’s because I enjoy…

STAYING CLOSE TO HOME

In this day and age, it’s very tempting to start building worldwide networks with colleagues and clients on every continent. Technology gives us the illusion that they are just as close as the folks in our own backyard. In most cases, they’re only a few clicks away. But being connected doesn’t mean that there’s a true connection. If anything, our smart phone savvy society seems more disconnected than ever.

By focusing on things from afar, it’s easy to ignore what’s going on right under our nose. It’s like the business person who donates to feed African orphans but who forgets that there’s a local food bank. I’m not saying it’s one or the other. Think globally AND act locally. That’s what I mean.

It’s nice to have customers across the Atlantic, but your best clients might be fellow-members of your local business association. It’s worthwhile to get away from that computer monitor every once in a while and open the door of your studio. Find out what’s going on within a ten-mile radius of where you live. You’ll be surprised!

But there’s another advantage to love all things local.

UPROOTED

Sunny, the Easton Farmers' Market mascot

Farmers’ Market mascot Sunny

If you’ve recently moved to a new town, state or country, you know how traumatic that can be. Gone are the trusted, old connections that took years to build. The neighbors you liked so much are no longer there, and for a while you feel like a stranger among the locals.

Finding your way in unfamiliar territory can be exciting, but it takes up a lot of energy and it can be stressful. It also takes a toll on the family and on your job. As you’re settling into a new environment, you suddenly realize how much you took for granted!

Trees can only branch out when they’re firmly planted. Their roots need to be strong enough to bear the weight. Having a solid base benefits your business. Stability increases your ability to develop and grow as a person and as a solopreneur.

To me, Easton represents stability, and at the heart of Easton, there’s a vibrant market place that’s…

CREATING COMMUNITY

The secret to the continued success of our market does not lie in fresh produce alone. One of the things the Farmers’ Market does, is bring people together. It’s like emceeing a biweekly block party for the whole city where you’ll find people of all ages, different walks of life, sexual orientation, religious and political persuasion et cetera.

There’s live music from local bands, activities for kids, food demos by chefs from restaurants in our town and other special events that can bring thousands of people to our city. And when that happens, almost every downtown business benefits.

Farmers’ Market vendors are fellow-entrepreneurs with an interesting business model. They don’t compete against one another. Instead, they grow together.

Bakers in the region use Farmers’ Market peaches in their pastries. The smoothie seller and corner creamery use fruit from nearby orchards. Cheese and mushrooms from local farms end up on subs and pizzas. Easton restaurants shop at the market for quality meats and vegetables. Everybody wins because everybody is…

MAKING CONNECTIONS

If anything, the market is about connection and interaction. Buying vegetables at some superstore is an anonymous undertaking. You can fill up your cart without ever talking to someone. At the market, I know the people who plow the fields, sow the seeds and milk their cows, and they know me too. We keep each other posted on major and minor events in our lives, and we do it all outside of Facebook. What a concept!

This is not an every-person-for-him-or-herself type of community where only the fittest can survive. When Tomblers Bakery, one of the vendors at our market, burned to the ground in July of 2011, the community came together and raised funds for them to rebuild and restart. Would you ever find that kind of solidarity in a strip mall?

There’s something else I want to tell you about.

STAYING SHARP

Tomblers Bakery

When I’m at the market, I watch how people do business. I try to find out why people buy and why some sellers attract more customers than others. I watch and learn. It’s much more interesting and realistic than a textbook on sales and marketing, I promise you that.

As a voice-over professional who spends most of his time in splendid isolation, I thoroughly enjoy being outdoors, surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd. It’s freeing to have no script and it’s fun to see people respond to what I say. The rest of the week, I’m stuck in a dark box reading someone else’s text and I have no clue how people react to my narration.

VOLUNTEERING

I’ll give you one last reason why I enjoy promoting local produce, music and more: It feels good to be involved in my community.

If you’ve read my article Work for FREE for Charity?, you know that I’m not in favor of giving my work away to random charities, simply because they are dedicated to important causes. That doesn’t mean that I’m against volunteering.

Unlike some major charitable organizations that spend millions of dollars on PR and advertising, the Easton Market is as low-budget as it gets. It relies heavily on volunteers to keep it running. It’s for the people, by the people. That’s its strength and its beauty.

Even though I don’t get a penny for the five hours I spend at the market as announcer, it is a most enriching experience.

Last Saturday, as I was packing up, one of the vegetable vendors asked me: “Paul, is there anything you could use? As you can see, we have plenty of produce left. Most of it will go to the food bank, but if you need anything, help yourself! It’s the least we can do to say thank you.”

How awesome is that?

That’s yet another reason why I love being vocal and local!

What’s yours?

Paul Strikwerda @nethervoice

photo credit top photo: Kevin Schlough; other pictures: nethervoice

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