Sunday, February 22, 2015

Why Online Casting Sites Are The Future Of Voiceover, But Low Rates Don't Have To Be

In the past ten years, the online casting marketplaces for voice talent have exploded. Between Voices.com, Voice123.com, bodalgo.com, and others, there are 300-500 jobs being cast daily through online sites, via public and private channels. This number easily equals, (and probably exceeds,) all of the agency jobs being cast through more traditional means on a given day.

With this exponential growth have come the teething pains that accompany any game-changing paradigm shift within an industry. The fear of change has been, and remains, quite palpable. Hyperbole is mixed with legitimate concerns about the business model, including rates, competition, ethics, and the direction in which the people behind the online casting sites wish to see the industry go.

Naturally, this kind of uncertainly leads to personal divisions among talent, and occasional sniping. Many of the loudest voices of antagonism can be found with surprising ease on the front pages of sites trumpeting cheap voice talent, and with hundred dollar a holler rate cards hiding in plain sight. None of us are saints in this regard, however it is quite clear that wherever there is vitriol, hypocrisy will not be far behind.

Alas, I stand guilty. Infrequently, but too often, I have found myself tempted by the easy money of a low budget job that will only take a few minutes of my time. I offer no defense; It is sheer greed. Typically, once the job is completed and I have been paid, I find myself feeling a lot like I feel after eating fast food; Guilty, and a little sick to my stomach.

Every time I accept substandard pay.....every time ANYONE accepts substandard pay....it harms all of us, and it sends the message to the online casting sites, and clients at large, that if they press hard enough, we will buckle.

The allure of quick and easy money is not only damaging to our industry, it is also entirely unnecessary. We have been led, falsely, to believe that the business is inundated with talent,  and that if we don't take whatever is offered, someone else equally qualified will.

Well, maybe someone else will indeed accept the bargain basement rate, but I suspect they won't be as qualified as you think.

It is a pernicious myth that the supply side of the voiceover business is saturated. It is true that tens of thousands of people nationally and globally are positioning themselves as voice talent. It is equally true, however, that the number of these people who are truly talented, well-trained, technically savvy, and possessed of business intelligence is very marginal. I would be shocked if more than five thousand people in the USA are earning a full time living as voice talent. Even that number may be high. A quick listen to the auditions on an average online job will show around 80% of submissions to be non-viable for reasons either technical or ability-based. Even the vast majority of talent with agency representation do not make a living in voicoever.

What this means is that we, my fellow talent, are in control. We just don't know it.

I have said many times, and will say many times again, that there is far more work out there than there is quality talent to do it. In other words, we have pricing power, and it is up to us to exercise it. The time to do so is now.

Here are two thoughts that will terrify a lot of people.

1.) The online casting sites aren't going away. They will only continue to grow and become more profitable, wielding proportionally more influence in our industry, and over how we do business.

2.) The online casting model, by which I mean the concept of an easy-to-use portal for those who need voices to find voices, is the future of this business. That doesn't mean that it necessarily has to follow the same structure as it does today, or that it will even be the same companies at the forefront, (though it  may well be,) but it means that the idea of aggregating jobs through clearinghouse sites is the way this and every other freelance business is going, and we had better get used to it.

That means that it is incumbent upon us, as those who hold the trump card of supply, to shape the future of how we are presented to those with demand. It is also our responsibility to watch our own backs, because no one else is going to do it for us. The people in charge of the online casting sites are not bad people. I know many of them personally, and I can tell you that they are good-hearted, genuine people who love their families and kids just like we do. Nevertheless, they are business owners, and they would be remiss in their duty to their employees and investors if they did not maximize profits to the best of their ability. If you expect companies to place anything above profit, I invite you now to return from the 1950s and rejoin us in the real world.

This means that we must shape the future of the system from within, not by assailing it from the sidelines. Far better to be the man, (or woman,) in the arena.

It means that we must make clear to the powers that be that the brightest future, from which they can generate maximum profit, is not a high volume/low cost model that degrades quality and leads to burnout, but a world with fair rates and motivated talent.

How do we do this? First and foremost, we draw a line in the sand on pricing. We collectively and publicly agree to never charge a per project price below a certain level. I have my number in mind, and we should begin a conversation on a figure that represents the minimum value of our talent and skill.

I believe that only through collective refusal to work for less will we be able to effectively establish a permanent fair pricing model. If clients have no choice, they will pay.

Let there be no doubt that any business with the budget to secure airtime or produce an internet video or casual app game is fully capable of compensating the talent who will add final value to the product in a manner that reflects the profit they will derive. Companies pleading poverty are pleading falsely.

Whatever has happened in the past, let us declare a new day in our industry, and refuse to work for anything less than a minimum number that reflects our training, our investment, and the quality of our work. I believe we can achieve a consensus on a figure, and I will be the first to publicly pledge to abide by it. I encourage and challenge my fellow talent to do the same.

In addition to the professional minimum, we should work together with organizations like WorldVoices to develop standard non-union minimums for different types of work, and we should educate our peers when they are not adhered to. The message of talent pricing power should be shouted from every rooftop.

We should also utilize the online casting sites thoughtfully, and be aware that there are ways to maximize our profitability through them, and protect the value of our work.

There are many myths being propagated about the terms and policies of the online sites. Allow me to address some of the more harmful ones.

Rights and Usage:

There is a common belief that it is the policy of the major sites that every project must be surrendered in perpetuity in all media to the client. This is not necessarily true.

Voice123 states clearly that you are agreeing to a final price for the work based on the terms posted by the client. This means that if they list that the project is for national  TV broadcast, you are surrendering lifetime rights in that medium. However, the language is clear in that you are only surrendering the work for the indicated usage. If it were optioned for radio, internet, or other usage, you would be well within your rights to bill for additional compensation. Obviously, it is up to you to monitor this, which is tricky, but the language is not as broad as people think. Furthermore, you are perfectly able to add clauses in your proposal limiting rights, and can add language indicating that accepting your proposal binds the client to those terms.

This last point is even more relevant to Voices.com. The sixth point in their terms of service states that all projects are full buyout unless otherwise agreed in writing. I recently had a student of mine encounter an issue with a client who used those terms to hold him to a very low fee for national broadcast rights. I contacted Voices.com about the matter, and they agreed that while the boilerplate TOS language is the default rights agreement, we are welcome to add language in our proposals that supersedes the standard terms.

Therefore, despite common belief, on both of the major sites we retain ultimate control of our product.

There also exists the often repeated canard that Voices.com does not allow you to contact the client directly, and that SurePay is an evil mechanism to keep you from ever getting at the golden goose of repeat direct business. This is wrong in two ways.

First, while Voices.com does not allow you to include your contact information in your proposal, based on talent feedback to that policy they explicitly agreed to allow us to post our contact information on our profile pages. I have been hired directly from my page outside of the system hundreds of times, as have many of the other leading talent on the site.

Furthermore, once you book a job on Voices.com, you are given the client's contact information under the "Payments" tab, and they are given yours. I have been personally told from people at the highest level of the company that their policy is strictly that any job posted to Voices.com should be completed through SurePay, but that we are more than welcome to contact the client directly after the job has been booked and work with them outside the site on other projects. Contrast this with the policy of some of the secondary and freelance sites, and it looks downright benevolent. Heck, even agents don't let you take full fare from your client after giving them ten percent of the fist job.

So long as this policy doesn't change, Voices.com is showing a very balanced approach to preserving their financial interest, (which is their job,) and being reasonable with those who generate their profits. Moreover, Voices.com has taken the lead in at least setting some sort of minimum, with no work running through the site for under $100 gross. While we need to move this number upwards for the sake of our collective prosperity, Voices should be credited for at least holding this line.

Let me be clear; The online casting sites are not on your side. They are not against you either. They are not good or evil, wrong or right. They are simply marketplaces where we trade our wares, and like any vendor at any marketplace, we pay the rent so that we can make a profit.
In this industry, there will always be hands in our pockets.

Our duty is to make sure our hands are deeper in theirs.