Voice-Over Rates Part II: Maintaining the Floor

I wrote a piece last week about the unforeseen consequences of accepting lower rates. The response has mostly been positive and since then I have received a bunch of really nice comments and emails lauding me for being so open about my mistake.

While I appreciate the sentiments, I realize I may have stated my problem, but did never offered a solution. More importantly, although I learned a lesson, I’ve still made plenty of crappy deals subsequent to my ESPN experience for dozens of reasons mostly beyond my control.

Planting the flag in the ground

If you were curious where I stand when I negotiate any deal, the first thing anyone should know about me is I’m a strong advocate of SAG-AFTRA. Why stand by this union, given these turbulent times and especially when SAG-AFTRA has been so slow to act on so many issues? The answer is because they at least create a floor (scale) for most of the various voice-over markets.

Why is scale so important?

Two factors make scale important:

  1. Misinformed, unscrupulous or ignorant talent
  2. Agents/managers undercutting market rates

I’ll start with talent first

Do sleazy talents exist? Of course they do just like in any profession. There are some sleazy performers who will willingly undercut other performers for their own gain. While I take issue with those individuals, as much as anyone, I am not concerned with them in the long term.

Why? A percentage of these talents will always exist and trying to convert them to act otherwise is usually fruitless. Instead, I look to the misinformed and the ignorant. The majority of misinformed, naive or ignorant performers will aspire to “fair wages," but don’t realize that offering voice services at $5, $10, or even $50, is not creating a “floor." It is one of multiple sub-basements below a market that few bother to participate in.

Groom yourself as a logical thinker

The only answer for the misinformed is education and one place to start is to burst this bubble of flawed logic:

  • “Well hey…It pays $10 dollars, but it only takes 10 minutes. So, it’s like making $60 an hour. Right?”

If that’s the only job in that hour than you are still making $10 dollars an hour. In the meantime, talent has to learn the going rates and SAG-AFTRA needs to make their rates searchable with a few clicks instead of needing to rely on third parties to figure out what to charge for a given job.

Now on to agents

I’m including managers here, but keeping things simple by just using the one term.

Here’s a secret for voice talent: If someone calls for a talent with a below market, but not insulting rate, it is NOT the agent’s jobs to turn down the voice-over work. It is the client’s (voice talent’s) job to say “no." Here’s another secret: If the talent does say “no," it is the job of the agent to offer the buyer a talent who will say “yes.”

How often does a voice talent actually say “no?” The odds are maybe 1 in 100. How often does an agent turn that low quote into a job for another talent? Close to half the time.

Is this business behavior unscrupulous? Absolutely not, but if you are concerned it is rigged against the performer, let’s just say it is definitely not in his/her favor.

The balance of power

So, what has maintained the balance of power all these years between talent, agents, and production? Now is the time to circle back to the performing arts unions.

Unfortunately, I think the union membership and its hierarchy have over-inflated their value and forgotten their function in the business. If they simply do their jobs and negotiate fair contracts, then the unions are successful. Personally, I believe a core issue is the fact that the unions are more focused on protecting talent “rights,” as if the unions’ members were working in 19th century coalmines, instead.

What is the solution? SAG-AFTRA, as well as their brethren in AEA, DGA, WGA etc., all need to negotiate as many contracts as quickly as possible and stop making excuses. The active daily market does not care about union committees and protocols. They only care about making deals, fast. If SAG/AFTRA does not reshape itself, then the market will evolve into greater and greater consolidations and talent will almost always lose.

In conclusion

Let me end by saying, when I started in the business focusing on on-air promos, I was considered to be working in the “Wild West” of the industry. The promo industry never had union support, and although agents may have been initially responsible for negotiating relatively fair rates, this is rarely true today.

The multi-nationals took over and set the floor. Today, rates are significantly lower than they were 20 years ago. I knew back in the 1990’s that eventually the networks would force our hand and make us commit to taking less.

Today, I see what’s happening in all facets of the industry and I know the same thing will happen again and again unless SAG/AFTRA cleans up the streets before the producers do.

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