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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Are Voice Over Fees Getting Lower? Don't Believe Everything You Read

By Gary Terzza.

There has been a lot of talk over the last couple of years about voice over rates and how they are not as attractive as they once were. But in the last week or so, this concern has really come to a head.

The internet chatter has been swirling around a particular incident. It seems a well regarded voice over marketplace has allegedly been promoting professional voice actors as 'cheap talent'. Voiceover artist Marc Scott has wasted no time in making his views known  and taken decisive action. It would seem many other talents agree with him, myself included.

But are we really entering a depressing new world of lower earnings?

Some Background

Back in 1996 I did my first network TV commercial. I was already well established as a live announcer and corporate VO, but this was my first chance to hit the jackpot. The job was for an Australian travel company who, for some unknown reason, wanted a British male voice to sell the attractions of holidays 'down under.'

I got lucky and was chosen as their preferred voice.

All I had to do was voice a 30 second ad along with two cut down versions of 20 seconds and a shorter 10 second commercial. They were to be transmitted across the major TV channels and on a selection of the fledgling satellite and cable stations. No radio broadcasts were included.

It is worth bearing in mind that here in the UK (and in some other territories too) television adverts have two main elements to the pay structure: the basic studio or session fee (sometimes referred to as BSF) and the buyout or usage fee. This latter part means your commercial can be played an infinite number of times over a specified period of time e.g. two years. 

This  replaced the old royalty system where the voice talent was paid on the number of 'eyeballs' viewing the programme. This was dictated by the TVR, an industry metric that measured the number of viewers, multiplied by the times it was shown. 

If your commercial was transmitted a lot in peak time, your fees could by eye-watering. There were stories of voice over artists raking in six figure sums for just one ad!

And my fee? This was £200 for the BSF plus £4,000 for the buyout. This was 18 years ago. Allowing for inflation, it now equates to £6,880 or $11,741 in today's money. (source: This Is Money Historic Inflation Calculator.)

Not bad for an hour's work.

Where did it all go wrong?

I believe we can trace the decline in fees back to the 1980s when Reagonomics in the US and Thatcherism in Britain liberalised the markets, ended union protectionism and helped usher in globalisation. By the 1990s Equity was losing its 'closed shop' status whereby members in the entertainment industry could dictate sky-high fees and a major battle between the ad agencies and the union resulted in the expensive royalty system being replaced by the usage payment method we see today. 

But something more profound was about to have an even greater effect on rates.

The internet.

The advent of the Web revolutionised the voice over industry. Suddenly it did not matter where you lived, you could access VO work anywhere in the world. And the drivers of this incredible change were the marketplaces, now often referred to as 'pay to play' or p2p sites.

Companies like Voice123 and have enabled clients to find the perfect voice at the press of a touchpad. In addition, developments in software mean there are more platforms requiring voice overs from e-learning to audiobooks; from videogames to website audio content - voice actors have never been in such demand. 

As the CEO of Direct Voices Constantino de Miguel says
the number of voice artists is growing ... probably at the same pace as demand. Just go to Twitter and search #voiceover you would be surprised."

However he adds a note of caution
"the bottom line is that despite a market expansion in the VO market there is an increased competition, therefore rates are still under pressure.”

So what is the state of play today?

Reality check 

Broadly speaking fees have been on a downward trajectory for a long time, but is very easy to get the issue of lower rates out of proportion. We need a sense of perspective.

As Constantino says there are certainly more voice over artists around, but there are also more jobs, so perhaps of greater importance is the growth in the sheer number of outlets for your voice. Who would have thought when I was doing that TV commercial back in the 1990's that ads would one day be seen around the world on a channel called YouTube? 

But what about the actual rates?

I am not totally convinced by the argument that pay is falling uniformly. In fact I am going to stick my neck out and suggest that in some cases voice over fees are actually rising. 

Take a look at this graphic. It is from Voice123 and is a list of some (not all) of the voice over jobs posted over the 16th-17th July 2014. For brevity I have omitted the projects paying under $200.

Admittedly the Sports TV Commercial looks a low payer, but the rest of the rates look pretty healthy to me. Of course you might be thinking we can't tell how long it would take to record some of these projects, but I have checked the details on the Theft Of Dragons audiobook and the word count is 77,000.  The fee of $1,600 to $2,300 is at least on a par (if not above) that paid by audio book heavyweights BeeAudio and ACX./Audible. 'Pong VO' does not cause a stink either, it is just 37 seconds long and is for internet use only. Pretty decent remuneration at $500.

All looking good then, but if you are British (like me) you might be starting to think that it is the North American market where prices are holding up, but not the UK.

You would be wrong. Take a look at this. 

This is from the day before. It is a corporate, not a commercial, and lasts 6 minutes. Even if you took your time, I reckon you could complete the work in 2 hours. That is £1,500 per hour! Not exactly minimum wage stuff.

I know this is just a snapshot from one p2p site over a short time-frame, but it does provide us with an insight into the more positive end of the pay scale.

A penny for your thoughts

What are we to make of all of this? The anecdotal evidence strongly suggests some voice over fees are weakening. But that was also the case 20 years ago when talents were recording commercials for a few thousand instead of the tens of thousands earned by the previous generation of voice actors.

I firmly believe the massive increase in the number and type of voice over jobs far outweighs any softening of rates. In addition many genres such as audiobooks and videogames are still finding their feet in terms of market value. Consequently if you choose carefully you could end up with a nice little earner. 

What do you think? In your experience have rates been getting progressively worse or are there golden nuggets still to be found? Please let me know.

Thanks for reading!
Gary Terzza

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