Nothing in the realm of the creative arts gets more hotly debated than what creators should be paid for their services. While the adage ‘you must pay an artist for their talent, not their time’, might be banner-waved by sellers as something to which all buyers are supposed to subscribe, a gold standard doesn’t exist. The voice acting payment riddle and how to solve it is a headache for clients and voice actors alike.
One of the creative industry’s commandments seems to be that the middleman maketh the money — and it has certainly always applied to voice acting and the whole voice over industry.
That said, the balance of power has shifted into the hands of resourceful independents since online casting began in 2003 — Voice123 and similar platforms come to mind. Voice actors, however, claim that online casting favors buyers, not sellers.
Still, search results reveal there’s no shortage of voice over work available today. From commercials, audiobooks, characters in animated movies and videogames, to eLearning, advertising, and product or explainer videos, there’s a lot to be had for voice actors.
Many of the industry’s more prominent influencers are proclaiming that we’ve actually entered the Age of the Voice — if not the Age of Artificial Intelligence and frequently frustrating voice assistants like Siri and Alexa!
The payment riddle
So if you’re the owner of a business who’s decided you need a voice over, how do you solve the voice acting payment riddle?
“It all depends,” laughs creative agency director, Monique du Preez, rolling her eyes. “How long is a piece of string? There are so many variables in the payment equation, it’s impossible to provide you with a simple answer. It comes down to supply and demand, quite apart from the technicalities of things like recording duration, usage, and distribution that all influence the final price.”
“My voice actors want to get paid as much as possible for as long as possible for their voice overs, my clients want to pay as little as possible for as short as possible, and I’m the go-between trying to keep both parties happy.”
Oft-cited sites like the Global Voice Acting Academy and Gravy For The Brain are doing what they can to bring order and substance to the voice over payment vortex by publishing what they believe are industry-acceptable rate guides. Gravy For The Brain, in fact, recently published quite a treatise on the subject of voice acting, because it believes falling rates are the biggest threat to the industry.
Rate guides and calculators
Some casting sites even have calculators that can help you determine a ballpark figure offering a choice between union and non-union rates. Many voice actors make adaptations of these rates available on their own websites to nudge the process of negotiation along a bit quicker.
“Indeed,” nods creative director, Raph Levine, with a sweep of the hand. “I’m forever being referred to those voice over rates by the voice actors I contact — and I find most of them quite beyond the reach of reality — mine, anyway. I’m by no means unreasonable, but my bottom line is budget and I’ll offer an actor what I can. I make that very clear in the brief. I’ll write something like: ‘don’t audition or submit a proposal if you won’t accept what I’m offering.’ It’s a simple take-it-or-leave-it; if you don’t like it, I’ll find someone who will.”
Voice actor Timothy Michaels scowls. “That’s the problem right there; clients will always find someone who’ll do a voice over for less, even for free — and it’s frustrating. You can argue about quality and experience until you’re blue in the face. But you know what’s funny?”
“What the actor gets paid for voicing an advertising gig is frequently the lowest cost of the whole campaign, and yet it’s invariably the voice actor’s performance that convinces the target audience to go buy the product or service that’s being advertised.”
“How much is that voice over worth? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked: ‘Why should I pay you $400 for 60 seconds of work?’ I find that insulting; I’ve been learning, honing, and practicing my craft for 15 years and then some newbie does the job for next to nothing ‘cause he’s trying to expand his showreel, or he’s just plain hungry. Go figure. Clients should be forced to stick to fixed fees, but you can bet your ass it won’t happen.”
Award-winning veteran video producer Justin Michaels rubs his thumbs together pensively. “The trouble with voice acting rate guides is that I think they were originally drawn up years ago. Then an increase got added every year to accommodate inflation. Circumstances have changed substantially since they were inked.”
“20 years ago, I had budgets to work with that were five to ten times bigger than they are now. Everything was aimed at national broadcast television or national broadcast radio. I can’t even remember when I last produced a commercial for a stereotypical radio station, let alone national broadcast television. One has to accept that the Internet has changed absolutely everything.”
“I don’t know if you’re familiar with the terms ‘above the line’ and ‘below the line’, but those concepts have pretty much gone the way of the dinosaur. Everything’s online — and with the quality of smartphones today, everyone’s a moviemaker, too.”
“The cost of equipment has dropped to bargain-level; creatives can set up a functional workspace so affordably, it’s ridiculous. That’s the power of digital: there’s no need for film stock, tapes, physical mixing desks, or stuff like that anymore. Recording gear costs a fraction of what it used to, and it can all fit in the palm of your hand. A voice actor I know works out of his car and carries his recording gear in a briefcase.”
“All I can say is: welcome to the New Normal; if the cost of everything else has dropped, so should the rates you charge for your voice over. As a producer, director, and videographer, I certainly can’t charge what I used to despite the mileage I’ve done.”
“There’s a definite upside to the current state of affairs,” adds voice actor Nancy Cameron. “I mean — I now have clients all over the world; that never used to be the case. For the first time in my life, I’m actually making a living voice acting and I’m loving it. I used to have an agent, but I let her go when my contract was up for renewal. I work exclusively online now and do all my own marketing. That’s the key to success, I think.”
“I love the term ‘VOpreneur’ — that’s what I’ve become and it’s what every voice actor needs to be today.”
“Sure, I have a basic rate sheet, but I’m open to negotiation and I always go the extra mile. I can honestly say that most of my voice over work comes from repeat clients who’ve become like friends. You establish relationships and nurture them; it’s the nature of the way I do business. I don’t have the time to sit around bitchin’; I’m too busy workin’. You know?”
Finding a balance
Online business owner, Douglas McGowan, smiles. “My approach is to try and find a balance between what’s fair and what’s feasible. The way we do business has changed dramatically — and it’s changed for all of us. I might be a little guy in the bigger scheme of things, but as much as it’s important to recognize and appreciate the talent and skills of the actors I work with, it’s important to recognize my situation.”
“I’m not a Fortune 500 company. There’s not a snowball’s hope in hell I can pay actors what they figure their voice overs are worth, but I’m not a hardliner and I’m respectful of their craft. If we can’t come to an agreement, well — I move on to the next actor and no harm done. If I liked your voice, maybe I’ll contact you again. That’s the best thing about casting sites: I have so many choices.”
“Maybe it’s time all the industry players sat down, revisited the current mess, and came up with tidy, sensible, standardized rates specifically geared to the way work gets done today.”
“I can’t be bothered with unions, for example; I think their heyday has passed. It must be possible to determine what’s fair and affordable at the same time; there shouldn’t be exploitation either way — you know what I mean?” He waves a hand. “Unless you think I’m being idiotically utopian!”
“Nothing ever happens if you go with the flow,” opines voice actor Jeremy Dawes. “We’re always so scared of being dumped or getting fired. D’you know what I’ve started doing? Saying ‘no’; I’ve started ‘firing’ clients when they won’t pay me what I think is a fair rate — and I’m not saying that’s my initial fee; most times, it isn’t. I’m perfectly happy to accommodate a reasonable client.”
“I negotiate but start high; it’s impossible to start low and then want to up your fee. I do believe voice actors need to determine their worth and stick their necks out for their voice over work; if you don’t want to be cheap, don’t act cheap. There’s no doubt in my mind that the golden era of Don LaFontaine died when he did, but clients and voice actors need one another, and today more than ever.”
“If the one side keeps giving, the other side keeps taking; it’s the nature of business. I don’t compromise on fairness anymore, and neither should any of us — and I’m referring to both voice actors and clients.”
Negotiate and compromise
“Go outside now and ask one-hundred people what they would do if they needed a voice over,” shrugs Voice123’s CEO, Rolf Veldman. “They’d Google the term. We find our latest generation of clients isn’t coming to the platform via middlemen; new clients come via browsers. I’ve had more than one ask me: “I just need a voice, what’s ‘usage’?” In my opinion, rate sheets are likely to confuse more than they guide.”
“The best educators are the actors themselves. My reply is always: “Give the voice actor as much information as possible about what the voice over is for and you’ll be given the going rate. After all — the voice actor is the expert!”