Most of my colleagues in the business of voice-over find setting rates to be the most difficult part of their job. I would like to examine this issue in some detail, and I must warn you this is a long post – the longest one I’ve ever written.
Some of the reasons why it is so difficult to set voice-over rates:
The going rate for voice-over varies geographically.
In Escanaba, Michigan it is customary to pay voice talent $40 for a broadcast commercial, whereas in Los Angeles, “low budget” means $200. A client who works out of Dallas and Los Angeles recently asked me what I would quote for a “low low low budget commercial”. Because of my experience with “low budget” jobs from Los Angeles, I didn’t want to play the guessing game and I asked what his budget was. The answer: $150. Yet, $150 is the market rate in my neighborhood. So, if you’re trying to match the rate that production companies and ad agencies pay in different parts of the United States, you need to know what those rates are, and there does not seem to be a list posted anywhere. As you start to compile a list, however, a ranking of the radio markets sorted by size and market can be a helpful guide in setting rates, as well as in deciding what parts of the country to avoid if you have a minimum fee.
We are cowed by the perception that doing voice-overs is easy.
How many of us have been approached by people who say, “How can I get into voice-over? I’ve always wanted to do it.” I always try to be helpful, and take the time to answer questions and point people to the information they want. Sometimes, though, it can be frustrating, when the person asking for help thinks it’s just a matter of signing up somewhere. At a party a few months ago a man took up a lot of my time telling me how great his wife would be at voice-over and trying to get information from me about how she could do it. At the same time, he was telling me that she was just starting a career in psychology. If she had been present, I’m sure it would have been clear that she wasn’t even interested – nobody starting a new career is going to have the passion for voice-over that is needed to be successful.
It’s important to remember that if a potential client questions your rates, they are probably new to the business themselves and don’t understand what is involved. Maybe even you need to be reminded, yourself, about your investment in your career in both money and time to get you where you are today. Let’s think about it.
The Cost of Running a Voice-over Business.
Training. Most of us have paid for workshops and private coaching. Most of us continue to pay for workshops and private coaching in order to stay current and hone our skills. This can run from $100 for a workshop of a few hours duration, to $2000 or more for a several-day workshop, and $50 to $250 an hour for private coaching. Regardless of how much we spend on training, we work independently to keep the voice and our acting skills in top shape. I routinely take college courses in acting as well as in foreign languages since I am starting to offer VO in German and Spanish. I am extremely fortunate to be able to audit these courses so I am not paying for them, but I spend every bit as much time on the work as if I were paying, and take every exam and make every presentation that the other students are doing. This is a significant investment of time and intellectual energy. Many of us read voraciously about voice-over and about marketing. I try to get as many books from the library as possible but whether the books are purchased or borrowed, they are an investment of time if not money. Karen Commins has compiled an Amazon reading list of voice-over reference books that is valuable indeed.
Demo production. Most of us have paid to have at least our first demos professionally produced. Even if we produce our own, there is a tremendous amount of time and work involved, and the royalty-free music libraries from which we are choosing the background for our voice are not cheap. I’ve written a couple of posts about demo production in the last few years if you need further information on this topic (here and here).Demos need to be updated every few years, at least. Many production companies and ad agencies still request CDs, so the cost of CD duplication and design and printing of CD art work must be taken into account.
Recording studio. Having your own studio is absolutely essential to make it in the national and global voice-over market. The investment here is likely to be significant. Microphone, preamp, computer(s), good sound card, recording software, soundproofing and acoustic treatments for the recording space, microphone stand, second monitor and mouse for the recording space, headphones. Eventually we may invest in a Whisper Room or the materials to build a soundproof recording booth from scratch, and possibly in significant renovation of home or commercial space for a studio. We may also decide to install an ISDN line to enable remote recording sessions if we have clients who require this. Very expensive to purchase, install and maintain! For most of us, recording equipment is in flux – as we learn more about our voice and about audio equipment, we upgrade (I’ve lost track of how many microphones I’ve been through before settling on my current two). Basic office equipment may include a second computer, printer, scanner, business phone (and monthly bill), desk. Software for managing your database of contacts and for invoicing clients. Office supplies include paper, printer ink, mailing labels (preferably with your logo on them), postage, CD mailers – and now we’re starting to overlap with the expense of marketing materials.
Marketing time and materials. A great deal of our time as voice artists is spent marketing. Once we have put in the time to train our voices and learn about copy interpretation, acting, and all the other elements of excellence in the craft of voice-over, and produced the demo and done the art work and got the CDs made, what happens next? Unfortunately, the mere fact of having developed the ability is not enough – we have to tell everybody who might need our services that we’re available. How?
Website. You need a website, a place for clients to hear your demos and learn about you and your work history. A gallery, in effect. Domain registration, web hosting, possibly extra for an ftp server so you can upload large files for clients, web design and maintenance and search engine optimisation all cost money and time. Even if you do the design and maintenance yourself – how did you acquire the skills to do it? In my case – I took several courses in HTML and Dreamweaver. Time and money.
Internet access. Dial-up is dead – there is no chance of survival in this business without broadband internet access. Significant monthly fee for that. With this service you will spend endless hours on the web, searching for companies that might need your services, studying their websites and deciding if they and you are a good fit. Then you call them and/or email them.
Telephone. You need to call people who might need your services, ask if they use voice talent and keep a talent roster and if you can send them a CD or a link to your demos online. This is very time-intensive, especially if you get somebody who is interested in chatting (fun and pleasant, but still time-consuming). It also costs money if you don’t have unlimited long distance calling in your monthly telephone plan – and of course you still have a monthly phone bill to pay; probably two phone bills if you also have a cell phone so you don’t miss important calls when you’re on the road.
Postcards. This is an important part of a voice talent’s marketing plan. Many people prefer to be contacted this way, and it’s an excellent way to make an impression, to remind people that you exist. If you have landed a really important gig, you will want to get postcards printed that showcase that gig. It will cost around $25 to print 100 large postcards and $41 to mail them. But you don’t just have 100 people in your database. You may even have a thousand or more. And you will want to do several mailings per year, at least.
Electronic newsletter. This is not for everyone, but some people use them. I do. It takes me, at a minimum, 4 hours to write one and find the photos and other art work I need. I use Constant Contact to mail them out, which costs $30 per month. I have probably lost some people to whom I used to send individual emails, but I was spending all my time writing emails which became untenable. Regardless of how we stay in touch, database management is a constant investment as we need to keep track of whom we contact and what kind of response or lack thereof we are getting from them. That always entails frequent returns to websites or other means of updating contact information, and frequent additions to the database in the form of notes about communications from our clients and other contacts. Back to newsletters – my own newsletter includes a regular column about Avian Bloopers – mistakes that sound designers make when choosing bird song for their sound tracks. This is not something that every voice artist must include in their marketing materials, obviously, but it is an area of expertise that I have that took me years to acquire.
Podcasting. I haven’t tried this yet, but one of my newsletter subscribers wrote me yesterday suggesting it. He said he would like to be able to download an mp3 version of my newsletter to his computer and listen while he did other things. So I need to give serious thought to this. More time and possibly even money, because I will probably be tempted to hire somebody to compose theme music for it.
Promotional materials. Business cards, company pens, letterhead, thank-you notes, return address labels, all the usual stuff that business people need, printed with your logo that you probably paid somebody to design.
Memberships. Chamber of Commerce, Ad Club, M-CAI, whatever you decide to join both for networking purposes and for giving back to your community, it costs money. Many people also join Voice 123 or Voices.com or other online services that connect talent with talent seekers. Each of these costs money as well.
Promotional events. You may choose to attend and possibly present at a business expo. I did this last year and you can read my post-mortem. The cost of renting a table and preparing promotional materials can be significant (pens, brochures [see Writing, below]), cookies, whatever it is that you decide to present or give away.
Travel to auditions and gigs. If you go outside your own studio to audition or record a job, as I frequently do, this takes time and gasoline (money). If you do film work (e.g., documentary narration), there are always screenings and other promotional events to attend, and it’s important to go. Time and money.
Education. Some of this was covered under Writing, above. Your education was different from everybody else’s. Maybe you grew up in a bilingual household and do voice-over in more than one language. Perhaps you attended a primary or secondary school with a language immersion program. In my case, I have an A.B., M.S. and Ph.D. in biology, which gives me some fluency in medical and other scientific terminology. This adds value to your business (stay tuned for more about this in a future post).
Phew! That’s a lot of pieces that go into running a voice-over business! And notice that I haven’t said anything at all about the actual voice part of the business! So let’s examine that part now.
The actual voice-over of Voice-over.
You are contacted by a potential client, who says you sound like a great voice for their project but they would like to hear what you do with their script before they commit to hiring you. Many clients skip the audition, they’re convinced you’re right for the job based on your demos, air checks on your website, or the word of other clients who have hired you in the past. If they do want an audition, then you have all the work of an actual gig, with no promise of getting anything for it. Making the time for the audition, formatting and printing the script (unless you have a monitor in your recording booth and the client has already taken the trouble of formatting the script for you rather than just sending it in the body of an email), studying the script, interpreting the copy, in many cases creating a character for the script, recording the piece, editing it, possibly watermarking it if you do that (if you don’t know the person requesting the audition, you don’t know for sure that this person will not just take your audition, tell you it won’t work and they will look for somebody else, and then use your work without compensating you. That’s why adding an auditory watermark may be a good idea).
Once you’ve sent off the audition, you may then be asked for another interpretation of the copy. This is not unusual if the audition is taking place in the agency or production company or casting director’s studio and there is an audio engineer taking care of the recording. I have learned the hard way that if a client starts asking for additional takes of an audition copy, one needs to proceed with caution. Much better to do that sort of audition in person or over the phone, so you are not wasting time editing and uploading auditions when the client may not end up hiring you. In my case, I have one computer for recording and editing, and one with internet access for doing everything else. I move audio files back and forth between them with a jump drive. It is time consuming although I consider it important to keep my recording functions protected from the internet. So, additional takes add more time. At any rate, if a client wants additional recorded takes after I’ve sent an audition, they need to either commit to hiring me, or find someone else, since it is usually the case that multiple auditions of the same copy do not lead to a paying gig.
If you are hired, then you do all that work and more. Often the copy is simply too long for the required time – a 30 second commercial with 40 seconds or more of copy for example. So there is back and forth communication with the client and the client’s client. Sometimes the voice talent is called upon to contribute editing skills. Sometimes the script writer’s English is imperfect and you end up helping them rewrite it. Maybe you are even asked your opinion about the script itself. So now you are voice talent, recording engineer, sound editor, copy editor and “creative”. Then you must prepare invoices and send them out, and follow up if you don’t get paid within 30 days. So you are also the accounts manager and bookkeeper.
Now that we have reviewed the skills, equipment, materials and other resources required to make a voice-over business a success, let’s consider several other crucial points.
A 30 second commercial takes much, much longer than 30 seconds to complete. The job may include: email correspondence, telephone consultation, copy rewrites, actual recording, editing, file upload, more email or telephone exchanges to approve the style of delivery, then final recording, editing, file upload, email or telephone communications, possible script changes and more recording, editing, file upload and communications. And finally, invoicing (and writing a thank-you note after you get paid). And of course, remember all the marketing you had to do to get that 30 second commercial gig in the first place? You need to charge enough to cover all of that, marketing included, and a reasonable amount of profit. You need to charge enough so that you can make a decent living at voice-over, so that you are available the next time somebody needs you to do a voice-over for them. Don’t ever let somebody tell you that charging X amount of money for a 30 second commercial means you are making a preposterous hourly rate. It just doesn’t work that way. Nobody does 120 30-second commercials per hour, 8 hours a day anyway. It simply isn’t possible. If it were, and I charged the market rate for my area, I’d be making $144,000 per day. Obviously we have to charge a rate that takes into consideration the investment we have made in our skills, talents and business, the volume of work that we get on a daily basis, and our cost of living plus a reasonable profit. Whatever the appropriate rate is for you, you need to have some degree of flexibility, but only up to a point. If you’re working for a fee that is below what you consider fair, you will not perform to your best abilities, you will not value your own work sufficiently, and chances are your client won’t either.
Despite having written a near-novella on the subject, I’m still not finished. I will save my thoughts on perceived value for another post [N.B. this is now published]. In the meantime, feel free to leave a comment, because I’m sure I’ve left out plenty of important points about setting rates for voice-overs and would welcome your thoughts. Also, if you know of other information on this topic that you would like to link to this post or that could be included in my upcoming monolith on perceived value, please get in touch.