Gobs on Sticks

Thoughts mostly (but not always) about the voice-over business, from London Voiceover Artist, Mike Cooper

  • About the author

    My name is Mike Cooper. I'm a full time Voiceover Artist living and working in London, and this is my blog. Find out more about me on my main website (there's a link further down this column), or if you'd like to hear some of my work, check out the files below.

“Will work for $25” – or, How Low Will You Go?

Posted by MikeCooper on April 2, 2009

There’s been some talk in the Voiceover Blogosphere this week about that which is the root of all evil: money. We Limeys generally think it’s vulgar to discuss it, but fortunately the Yanks are on hand to put paid to such nonsense…

First up, EdgeStudio, the voice-over training and production company, published their advice on the rate card as they see it, listing ballpark figures in US Dollars for various types of voiceover job. It comes with the following caveat:

“Edge Studio put together the following rates as pure suggestions. It is meant to reflect average and realistic dollar amounts being fairly charged within the industry. PLEASE USE THIS ONLY AS A GUIDE – RATES VARY from city to city, client to client, job to job, and voice talent to voice talent.”

Nonetheless, it makes an interesting starting point. The article was then picked up by Voice-Over Extra. Both Voices.com and Voice123.com also make their thoughts clear with their own guides to industry rates.

Then secondly, Stephanie Ciccarelli of Voices.com posted an interesting article on her Facebook page here, which also got me thinking.

Of course, for the benefit of anyone reading this Stateside, we’re talking about “Non-Union” rates: SAG and AFTRA have their own, very firm, ideas on pricing for sessions, usage, residuals (ah, remember those?) and so on, and they aren’t negotiable. The thing is, here in the UK we’re not subject to the same union pressures, and Equity doesn’t have the same grip on the voiceover business as the American unions seem to (possibly a good thing, if Equity’s paltry rates for commercial radio are anything to by – but that’s another story).

All the same, the rise of online voice directories – though they may be your friend, if you’re starting out – means a huge rise in the number of non-union people, both in the US and elsewhere, pitching for work and not necessarily knowing what to charge for it.

It’s very tempting, especially if you’re trying to get a foot in the door of voiceover work, to price the job as low as you think you need to in order to get the producer to say “yes.” But anyone who adopts this approach risks two things: one is that they reduce their rate to the point where they can’t make a living, and the second is that they begin to drive down the perceived acceptable rate for the industry as a whole. After all, if Gary Greatpipes has just voiced your TV documentary for £50, why would I then want to pay Mike Cooper £500 next time around?

Now, if you’re a casual reader and you’re just picking yourself up off the floor at the idea of me making £500 (about $720 at today’s conversion) for voicing an hour-long documentary, you may think I’m the one with the loose grip on reality. After all, I’m only talking, right? But the thing here is that I might only get one of these £500 jobs in several weeks. On a quiet week it might be the only job I do… If I’d charged £50 for it, that means I have to find ten of them to pay the same amount. And that’s a lot of work. Literally. Put it this way: ten one-hour documentaries should each take me about ninety minutes to two hours to voice. Two hours is what producers generally allow, so that means my ten documentaries will take up twenty man-hours, or about half a week in working terms. If I’ve sold that time for £50, that means I’m now working at below minimum wage!

OK, I appreciate that my figures above seem extreme. But there are people in this day and age that are prepared to go low – really low – on rates, and I just don’t think that’s either right, or sustainable.

It’s important that you go into this business with clear ideas about the income you need in order to make a go of it, then stick to them. The idea of pricing yourself low to start with, then working up to the bigger fees is fraught with danger. Why should those hard-won clients who paid you $25 last month suddenly start paying you $250 six months later? They won’t see the logic. Sure, your technique may have improved. But improved tenfold? If they really thought you could improve tenfold then they probably wouldn’t be hiring you in the first place (they’d be hiring the guy who was quoting $250…)

There are two problems here (actually, let’s reframe that and call them “challenges” – it fits my outlook better):

Number one: Prices will inevitably come down as a result of a larger market. “Voice seekers” – as the online directories have termed them – are looking for savings, and rightly expect that a Voiceover Artist working from a home studio should be able to undercut the cost of recording in a “professional” studio with an engineer and the associated overheads. But that Voiceover Artist would probably be being paid at least £200/$300 an hour, and the seeker would be paying studio costs on top of that. Why should they expect to get the talent cheaper than their “show-and-go” rate when the talent is recording and editing in their own studio, for which the seeker probably isn’t paying anything at all?

Number two: there are more voice seekers than ever before. The market for voiceover is growing hugely as everyone wants a voice for their eLearning project, computer program, phone system, Flash video or whatever. These seekers are largely, and through no fault of their own, uneducated about that they should expect to pay. Recently I’ve been signed up to a few “virtual outsourcing” websites (like eFreelancer, GetAFreelancer, EUFreelance, and so on), just to see what’s around. I saw a job yesterday where the client wanted twenty separate reads, in twenty separate files, and – although they’d parked the job in the $50-$250 range – they stated in the text that they wanted to pay $2 per file. That, my friend, is just barking mad. No one can earn a reasonable living at those kind of rates, and these voice seekers need to be educated about what is, and isn’t, realistic.

Fortunately, I have two responses to these “challenges”, and the first is to think a little about how people do business.

Clients, in any sphere of business, don’t automatically want to buy the cheapest option. They want the best deal on the finest product they can get. This is true whether you’re buying a cup of coffee (why do I pay over £2 in Starbucks when the guy in the kebab van will sell me one for 60p?), whether you’re shopping for a new car, or whether you’re buying voiceover services. If the client needs a voiceover, then they need a voiceover. They’ll have budgeted for a voiceover, and that budget stands a good chance of being somewhat higher than the $25 that’s on the table. And if it’s not, then who’s got the problem with reality? The Voice Actor who says “Sorry, that’s not realistic remuneration for my time and services”, or the client who needs to revise their budgetary aspirations? $25 is their opening offer, and of course they’ll be “quids in” (to use the Limey vernacular) if you’re naïve enough to accept the offer. But we’re not living in the “Land of the Stupids”, so wise up.

Business works on the principle that one party has something the other doesn’t, and is prepared to pay to get it. If you’re a professional Voiceover Actor, then you have not one, but two things they need: a great voice and the vocal chops to lift their words off the page in a way that engages their audience – in other words, their own customers. If Joe from Marketing could do that himself, he wouldn’t be hiring a Voice Talent (we’re called “talent” for a reason, y’see…) Ask yourself the question: what is the potential net worth, in sales terms – in taking the message to the audience – of hiring a professional Voiceover Artist to read the script, rather than doing it for nothing in-house? Again, I’m willing to bet that it’s more than $25.

There may be a “challenging economic climate” out there (I’m not doing the recession, remember?) But ultimately, your voice track might be all that’s standing between where your client is now, and where they want to be. Where would they be without it? You’re selling, remember, so maybe you should point that out, in the nicest terms, of course…

And what if they decide to pass, and to go to the next guy who will do it for $25? Simple. Let it go. Clients will learn eventually that a $25 voiceover sounds like a $25 voiceover. But this will only happen if the rest of us maintain that grip on reality I mentioned earlier.

Before this gets too “ranty”, I’ll close – with an impassioned plea to my fellow Voiceover Artists.

Professional Voice Talents need to stick together and not devalue the worth of our product. We need to be realistic about our costs, and be prepared to ride it out. Otherwise there’s no future in this business. We’re not selling “widgets” here, where we can undercut to break even: all we have to sell is our time. When all you’ve got to sell is your time, you need to put a realistic value on it. Lawyers, doctors and other consultants wouldn’t sell an hour of their time for $25. Their skillsets are, of course, very different, but your own unique skills are just as desirable to your own potential clients as are those of the other professionals I’ve mentioned.

So… DON’T sell yourself short. KNOW your talent. BELIEVE in its worth. And be prepared to CHARGE accordingly.

Comments, as always, are very welcome!

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14 Responses to ““Will work for $25” – or, How Low Will You Go?”

  1. Couldn’t agree more, Mike. I’ve had a couple of enquiries recently wanting to pay far less than what the job should have been. Didn’t do it though…..Am trying to stick my guns……. 🙂

  2. Very nicely written. I will not “try” to stick to my guns, I will stick to them. 😉 You are 100% correct, that a $25 voiceover sounds like a a $25 voiceover. Thank you.

  3. Gary Hills said

    I’m not a voiceover artist but work as a freelance in the performing arts industry and as a writer. I work to day rates and use the excellent NUJ advice and ready reckoner as a guide http://www.londonfreelance.org/feesguide/gewhatxt.html

    It’s based on the concept that clients save money when hiring freelancers – no NI, no holiday pay, no insurance, no sick pay, no office costs.

    Excellent article Mike, well balanced and the point about lowering the acceptable fee threshold is important!

  4. William said

    Hello,

    I read your article and I agree with most of what you are saying.

    I do have a point or two I would like to say on this.

    I am just getting started in voice-overs and I find that sometimes I have to price low to get the job. In the small market where I am most radio and television stations use their own people to voice the commercial or PSA. Why would they pay me $50 to $200, when they have someone do it for free??

    Also, many advertising agencies in my area use the “audio houses” online and they are horribly cheap. One guy told me he gets spots done for $20 per 30 second commercial!!! How can I compete with that??

    What I have done is go around to the business and talk with the owner and show them what I can do for them. Sometimes it works, but sometimes not. Some of their attitudes are “Well they run the television station, so they know what’s best.” Since I can’t broadcast their commercial for the business they somewhat have a point.

    I enjoy doing this and I treat it as a business, even though I haven’t made a penny yet. I have spent more than I’ve made. I have to get the experience somehow.

    I am in a business where I am heard for a living. How can I do that when no one will listen?

    William

    • Marsha said

      “I am just getting started in voice-overs and I find that sometimes I have to price low to get the job.”

      Why? No one forces you to price low.

      “In the small market where I am most radio and television stations use their own people to voice the commercial or PSA. Why would they pay me $50 to $200, when they have someone do it for free??”

      They most often won’t. V/O jobs are worldwide, not tied to your town. Move (vocally, anyway) from those that pay “a dollar a holler”, to where you want to be.

      “Also, many advertising agencies in my area use the “audio houses” online and they are horribly cheap. One guy told me he gets spots done for $20 per 30 second commercial!!! How can I compete with that??”

      Simple. You don’t!!

      “What I have done is go around to the business and talk with the owner and show them what I can do for them. Sometimes it works, but sometimes not. Some of their attitudes are “Well they run the television station, so they know what’s best.” Since I can’t broadcast their commercial for the business they somewhat have a point.”

      No, they have made their point. Not yours. Move on to other potential clients. The silver lining is what you just said, “Sometimes it works.” Move on with that.

      “I enjoy doing this and I treat it as a business, even though I haven’t made a penny yet. I have spent more than I’ve made. I have to get the experience somehow.”

      Not trying to make fun, but how can you treat something as a business if you have not made a penny at it yet? The business of voice acting is very competitive, and often takes years of training. Have you taken classes? Have you invested energy, time and $$ towards what you want to achieve?

      “I am in a business where I am heard for a living.”

      I’m confused. Are you already in this business?

      “How can I do that when no one will listen?”

      Take classes. Focus on your craft. Be honest, patient, hardworking (yup, just like grandma said 😉 And you WILL be heard.

      All the very best,

      Marsha Crenshaw

      William

    • One more thing as an addendum for my answer to William:

      You mentioned “your area” a few times. Yo have the whole world at your fingertips, use it! Market yourself EVERYWHERE, not just in your geographic area. Let them continue to use “talent” only charging 20 bucks a spot, chances are they’re the local DJ.

  5. Good point well made.

    Low pricing lowers the tone and future opportunities for the rest of us. I’ve had to be firm on more than one occasion and now I take no ***t!

    William, in my humble opinion and as someone who is still relatively new to the business, my advice is to possess an excellent portfolio of work. You need a variety of high quality demo’s that portray your diversity and chosen area of work. Listen around on the internet, see what the guys at the top have and set out to achieve the same. Whether you use actual or ‘home-made’ material, the quality of your work will reflect your talent. It is then that you can establish your pricing. You need the demo’s before anything…

    The clients/agencies that I speak to alert me to the fact that good demo’s are ‘everything’.

    Best of luck!

    Best of luck!

  6. Excellent article, Mike – I agree with your general thrust.

    It’s the LOVE of money that is said to be the root of all evil. The client wishing to get their voice-over on the cheap – to hoard as much of their money as possible at the expense of another’s labours – is a good demonstration of this adage in action. Similarly, the artist seeking to boost their own coffers – by charging a client more than a job is actually worth – is another. It works both ways.

    To avoid the snare, both parties must be willing to find middle ground.

    Which is, of course, much easier said than done!

  7. Great post Mike!

    There are more and more discussions about this topic lately. Unfortunately our profession is not the only one suffering from this undermining of rates, it happens in all areas of freelancing where people are desperate for work and experience. But I always make the Wal-Mart vs. Tiffany analogy. You get what you pay for. When a potential client gives me the time to explain the theory they eventually understand it, but it usually needs pointing out. But with this analogy I’ve gotten quite a bit of work lately, in fact I’m busier than ever before.

    I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate for a moment here though. There are so many newbies in the biz these days trying to get there foot in the door, those of us that do this for a living have seen things change a lot over even the past few years. Do we really want the newcomers to charge the same rate as the pros? I think there needs to be a separation, the more experience you have the more money you can charge. I started in this biz 10 years ago and did spots for 20 bucks back then. I’ll admit that. It helped me get some experience and some new stuff for my next demo, which eventually I made more money from and got more training and did more marketing. My business grew, I got more experience and I started charging more. That’s a normal business progression I think.

    The problem lies NOT with the newbies that are truly taking the steps they need to become marketable like we once did, but in the people that buy a $50 microphone after they hear from a few people “you’ve got a great voice, you should do voiceovers”, record a badly self-produced demo on said microphone, and attempt to market themselves as a “voice talent”. We have no need to worry about these people being any competition, and their clients and our clients are NOT the same people.

    Damn I always get on a soapbox! But I guess that’s what blog comments are all about anyway.

    And by the way, William……

    Your demo should say it ALL. They will listen if they need a voice. Don’t bother trying to “sell” yourself to people! Get your demo in front of as many people as possible, use the internet and social networking sites to the MAX and the work will come to you. Network with other voice talent too! It’s not about just getting that gig, but it’s developing a rapport with potential clients and co-workers. These things take time.

    Good luck!

    –Trish “The Dish” Basanyi

    • William said

      Hey Trish,

      Trish “The Dish”, that is great! People sometimes call me “Mr Dub” since I have lots of “W’s” in my name. Your’s is cooler though.

      You are right. It is hard work, and sometimes frustrating too. It does take time, and I am patient. I get jazzed at my successes and I shake off the rejections.

      Nothing is going to stop me from doing this, not even a million rejections. I know this is something I can do and I am good at it. I am a good, hard working guy and people see that. One of my first voice classes was with Mike Elmore and he listened to my demo and told me that I should be on the television and radio right then! That was a great boost!

      Take care and thanks!

      William

  8. William said

    Hello all,

    Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!

    “I am just getting started in voice-overs and I find that sometimes I have to price low to get the job.”

    Why? No one forces you to price low.

    Sure they do! The market does, the business does and the agencies do too. If I go to an ad agency being good isn’t always good enough. It is a business and they have to make money. Whoever I contact will want to know what can I do for them and how much will it cost. There is always a bottom line.

    “In the small market where I am most radio and television stations use their own people to voice the commercial or PSA. Why would they pay me $50 to $200, when they have someone do it for free??”

    They most often won’t. V/O jobs are worldwide, not tied to your town. Move (vocally, anyway) from those that pay “a dollar a holler”, to where you want to be.

    I am, and that is a great idea! But you have to start somewhere! If you are going to go on the internet, that can get expensive. Also, how do people find you on the internet? If you type in voice-overs you will be flooded with links to a multitude of talent. Great for the business, not so much for the beginner.

    “What I have done is go around to the business and talk with the owner and show them what I can do for them. Sometimes it works, but sometimes not. Some of their attitudes are “Well they run the television station, so they know what’s best.” Since I can’t broadcast their commercial for the business they somewhat have a point.”

    No, they have made their point. Not yours. Move on to other potential clients. The silver lining is what you just said, “Sometimes it works.” Move on with that.

    I do and that is why I have been getting more work. I sound good, give the client what they want(even when they don’t really know themselves sometimes) and I have a great work ethic. It still comes down to $$$$.

    “I enjoy doing this and I treat it as a business, even though I haven’t made a penny yet. I have spent more than I’ve made. I have to get the experience somehow.”

    Not trying to make fun, but how can you treat something as a business if you have not made a penny at it yet? The business of voice acting is very competitive, and often takes years of training. Have you taken classes? Have you invested energy, time and $$ towards what you want to achieve?

    When you start a business, any kind of business, you have to put a lot of money towards it with the plan and hope that you will see a return in you investment. This is no different. When actors first start out, they do college plays, community theater, short films, student films, independent films, none of which pays a dime. Again, you got to learn the craft and you have to start somewhere. I have taken classes and workshops, but they can get expensive! Hundreds to thousands of dollars, not to mention travel and hotel stays. Its common sense. Lots of money going out for classes, travel, equipment etc, little money coming in from jobs, any job to get heard, impress the client and get your product out there. Am I investing to get what I want, you bet ya! Make fun of me or don’t. It doesn’t matter to me. I working as hard as I can at two jobs!

    “How can I do that when no one will listen?”

    Take classes. Focus on your craft. Be honest, patient, hardworking (yup, just like grandma said And you WILL be heard.

    All the very best,

    Marsha Crenshaw

    I appreciate what you said, and I do all of that stuff you mentioned. My Dad told me the same thing your Grandma said to you. I guy I know works at a radio station and he does commercials in my town. He has a big booming voice. A “money voice” as one book I read calls it. That’s all he can do, but he is good at it. He told me it doesn’t matter how good you are if you can’t get heard and he is right! He told me to break into this you have to know people and ask them to use me to sell their product. That’s how I got started. But it is still hard when most of the people I contact would rather use an “audio house” type place very cheaply. It still boils down to the bottom dollar, like it or not.

    Best wishes to you too, Marsh.

    Sincerely,
    William

  9. Michael Wright said

    It’s not “money is the root of all evil. It’s the love of money that’s the root.

  10. Andrew Stanson said

    Excellent article Mike. I’m in agreement with you and Bob on this.
    We should never under sell ourselves.
    A while back I was approached by a potential client to do a V.O. They asked me to quote for quite a big job. Unsure of the rates, I rang my voiceover agent who gave me a ball park figure to go with. They would have handled the job for me if I’d wished but said as I’d been approached directly they were happy to advise and let me take the money.
    I went back to the potential client with my figures and they said they’d had a quote from another voice who was prepared to do the job for less than ten per cent of my quote. “You’d better book them then” was my reply.
    Short term it may seem a good idea to go in low but long term you’re on a downward spiral and in danger of bringing rates down to way less than Equity and other relevant organisations have strived over the years to fight for.
    I’ve been in the business for over twenty years and I’m not going to pretend it’s easy but you must believe in yourself and charge the going rate. In all the time I’ve worked in the industry I have NEVER undersold my skills.
    As Bob rightly says, sometimes we do need to find a middle ground. If one cuts a deal with a producer though, make sure they are aware you’re doing that and what your usual rates are for when they book you the next time otherwise they’ll come back to you and try and extract the urine.
    Persevere.

    Andy

  11. […] by mikecooper on June 12, 2009 A little while ago I blogged about whether the $25 rates that keep cropping up online for jobs were acceptable remuneration for […]

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