Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Recap of The Midwest Voiceover Conference: More Progress from the Online Casting Sites

The 2016 Midwest Voiceover Conference in Columbus, Ohio was the fourth installment of this staple of the conference calendar, and it was once again a testament to the organizational skill of James Minter and his team who put on a top class event.

Featuring a lineup of industry luminaries led by keynote speaker Joe Cipriano, this conference continued to cement itself as a worthy annual pilgrimage for those eager to learn about the business and expand their VO knowledge. Rodney Saulsberry offered his mastery of technique to the eager attendees, while Cristina Milizia showed why she is one of character VO's fastest rising stars. These were only a few of the highlights of an information-packed weekend renown for an intimate setting that encourages attendees and presenters to mingle and socialize together.

This year, I was pleased to bring my panel series to The Midwest Voiceover Conference, as we continue to address the issues which will define the future of our industry. VO Atlanta 2016 was the beginning of these panels, featuring representatives from the major online casting sites on the first day, and an assemblage of experts on the second day drawn from the conference presenter list.

In Atlanta, we began to get clear answers from Voices.com regarding their policies and some of the controversies that have revolved around their site recently. These included increased transparency for Professional Services clients, a commitment not to attempt to convert public jobs to managed ones without the client initiating the conversation, and a commitment to maintaining talent access to client contact information, (and vice versa,) on public jobs not managed by Professional Services. Representative Jennifer Smith also clearly stated that Voices has no intention of offering transparency to talent regarding the spread between talent's bids and Professional Services' ultimate rate.

Voice123, (voice123.com) then represented by CEO Margarita Rueda, and bodalgo CEO Armin Hierstetter pledged in Atlanta to continue to offer services without a middleman, and each made changes to their platforms at the request of the community, with Voice123 removing the requirement to list experience, (which created an unnecessary bias against talented newcomers,) and bodalgo becoming the first online casting site to build in an optional time-based cyclical usage model for licensing, thereby creating the possibility of earning residuals through the site, and training buyers to be aware of the paradigm.

Armin and Jennifer joined the panel again in Ohio, with Juanita Casas representing Voice123.

In Columbus, with the core controversies already asked and answered two months earlier, the discussion progressed into a wide-ranging examination of rates and ownership. Most pressing was the need for clarification from Voices.com on the sixth point of their Terms of Service, which reads as follows:

"Upon the earlier of the transfer of the audio file to Voices.com or the Client, the Talent assigns to Voices.com all right, title and interest, absolutely, to the copyright and other intellectual property in or relating to the Talent’s work throughout the world, free of all licences, mortgages, charges or other encumbrances, unless agreed otherwise by the parties in writing. The Talent hereby waives their moral rights in the work. Voices.com and its Client assignees or licensees may use the Talent’s work without restriction from the Talent and without any rights of approval by the Talent. Upon payment by the Client, Voices.com assigns the audio file purchased by the Client to the Client. If the Client’s rights to use the work are limited, the limitations will be specified in writing."

This language has caused much anxiety within the voiceover community over the past few months as speculation ran rampant regarding the implications behind Voices seeming to make a claim to all rights in perpetuity for any work done through the site.

Again speaking on behalf of Voices.com, Jennifer Smith stated that the language is necessary to protect Voices.com in the instances where the site pays talent in advance of receiving funds from the client, (which apparently happens with some frequency,) thereby necessitating that the rights transfer to Voices.com and not to the client, who has not yet paid for them.

Jennifer further stated that Voices.com intends to continue publishing intended usage media and duration on managed jobs, and encouraging buyers to do so on public jobs, and that Voices considers this language binding. Though they will not attempt to police or enforce unauthorized usage, Jennifer encouraged any talent who believe their voice is being used in excess of the published scope of the job to contact the site to discuss how they might pursue their claim.

Moreover, Jennifer indicated that Voices would be open to offering talent who were concerned about protecting their rights additional written assurances if approached, and made it very clear that Voices was not interested in obtaining rights to the work of talent except in cases where Voices has yet to receive payment from the buyer.

In another somewhat surprising twist, Jennifer stated that Voices was willing to study the idea of creating a usage cycle structure for clients to have as an option on the site, and that formally opening work on the site to residuals could be a possibility in the future.

All three panelists pledged in no uncertain terms that their sites would never impose an enforced rate card, like certain other sites have chosen to do.

Voice123 strongly defended the principle of an unfettered open market for talent and clients alike. While accepting that the sites had a responsibility to protect the interest of their users on both sides of the glass, Voice123 clearly articulated a vision that revolves around being as hands off as possible when it comes to letting buyers and talent find common pricing ground on their own. Juanita did note, however, that Voice123 also considers $100 to be the minimum price of for-profit work on the site, and encouraged talent to report any buyers trying to circumvent this by using the "To be defined," budget feature.

Armin, bearing freshly printed #rockstar tee shirts, once again impressed with his candor and no-nonsense approach. He revealed that bodalgo is more likely than the other sites to intervene in rate-related matters, regularly restricting buyers from posting work with budgets lower than professionally acceptable. Armin also discussed the continuing evolution of bodalgoCall, an ipDTL-like service that is free to premium subscribers, allowing seamless remote recording without any extra equipment.

All three sites were of a single voice that while they do feel obliged to work to maintain and improve rates for talent over time, the single biggest factor in helping them do so is talent education as to what professional rates are, and talent willingness to maintain those rates when quoting for work.

The second panel, on Saturday, featured Edge Studio CEO David Goldberg, GVAA head Cristina Milizia, star talent Joe Zieja, World Voices executive board member Randye Kaye, and respected blogger, talent, and marketing expert Marc Scott.

This panel featured an intense discussion regarding many of the issues that have been percolating in the community over the past year. The panelists all stated a desire for increased transparency from Voices.com on matters involving compensation, and echoed the sites' comment on Friday that it is incumbent upon all in the talent community to educate themselves about what constitute credible and professional rates.

As opposed to the Atlanta experts panel, which dismissed any concerns about ultra-lowball sites, this group was more wary of the dangers posed by bargain basement sites like Fiverr, especially in light of the massive investment being made in industry-specific SEO, (search for anything VO related on Google and see where Fiverr comes up in the rankings.)

There was also a rollicking discussion on the role of unions in voiceover, and how effectively they represent the interests of voice actors, with differing opinions on the matter.

Ultimately, everyone agreed that though the surface of our industry may sometimes seem stormy, the seas beneath are as calm and plentiful with work as they have ever been, and that through continued dialogue and engagement we will emerge stronger and wealthier as a profession.

I couldn't be prouder to count myself among such a loving and generous community, and I am ever grateful for the contributions of everyone who joined my panels in Columbus.

I can't wait to be back next year!

Monday, May 9, 2016

Chasing the Unicorn

I was thrilled this past week to land a pretty high profile national TV spot involving a three-letter network, a major prime time TV series, and a blockbuster movie release from the mouse ear people. Indeed, I dropped a short post on social media telling everyone where and when to tune in. Not surprisingly, there were some congratulatory posts. Hopefully they won't replace me between now and the scheduled airing!

What caught me a little off guard, however, was the level of excitement and enthusiasm among my friends and colleagues over this booking, which while high profile, is a one-off spot that did not involve a life-changing addition to my bank account. It was a humbling and gratifying expression of good will from people I'm proud to call friends, but it seemed a bit much.

A good friend in the business explained it thusly; "That's a unicorn job."

Which got me thinking.

You see, this job was, in my mind, by no means the most important addition to my client portfolio last week. That honor went to a far less glamorous company working on a Siri-like process for adding audio to videos car dealers post on automotive resale sites. Not a sexy gig, by any stretch, especially when considering the first job involved creating over two thousand separate one sentence files. Nevertheless, the first project alone was worth far more than a one-airing national spot, and the likely future work may well lead to a 2016 that exceeds my annual target.

"Why is JMC bragging about all this," you may ask?

Well, the backstory is a necessary part of a larger theme.

Something that stuck with me from my conversations with Gerald Griffith, founder of VO Atlanta, during this year's event, was his comment over breakfast about how the business mentality of talent affected his signup rate for the private X-sessions the conference offers with presenters. "It's amazing how every year, the performance sessions fill up immediately, and anything involving business struggles to get more than eight or nine people."

One casting director at VO Atlanta sold out TWO X-sessions. The character workshops? Full. Automotive? Full. Anything with agents? Get there early! However, if it involved numbers, tech, strategy and systems, fuhgeddaboutit. Like a fancy restaurant with a very public rat problem, you could get a seat anytime you like.

Which makes one wonder if the focus of the industry is perhaps a bit too concentrated on that which is shiny and fun, at the expense of growing our businesses in ways that will sustain a livelihood for the long run.

I often get asked why I'm not in LA, where all the high profile work is. Aside from simple lifestyle tastes and choices, the truth is that I've never been all that excited about, "Being the voice of X." A fair number of those gigs have found me over the years, which is a great blessing, but my business is built on a foundation of steady mid to low-profile clients who come back over and over again with regular work of the sort that would get about three likes on Facebook, (and those from immediate family only.) It's why I get more excited about an order for two thousand one sentence files than I do about a quick high profile national spot. Six months from now, I'll be sending the first of those two another invoice, while Mickey will have moved on to the flavor of the moment.

Unicorn jobs? If one trots by, I'll hop on and ride it for as long as it will let me. Otherwise, I'll take methodically growing my business over the thrill of the chase.