An Illinois farm boy, Dave Courvoisier has the indistinct Midwestern accent prized for voice-over work. And with more than a decade under his belt, he is realistic.
"We don't expect we'll be making millions being voice actors," he said in a rich baritone, speaking from his home studio in Las Vegas, Nev. But professionals invest a lot of money into coaching, high-quality recording equipment and home voice booths to deliver work more quickly. And like all actors, they spend a lot of time auditioning with little job certainty. "We think there should be fair rates."
Experienced voice-over actors such as Mr. Courvoisier have watched those rates erode in recent years. Those who regularly hire voice talent – especially advertisers – want work done faster and cheaper. Just as technology has disrupted a number of other creative industries, it has changed this corner of the ad world as well.
The growth of sites such as London, Ont.-based Voices.com and San Francisco, Calif.-based Voice123.com, has democratized voice work, particularly by opening up opportunities for those who are just starting out. But some actors are raising concerns. Websites listing voice talent, they say, set a problematic precedent by offering jobs for a fraction of what talent used to earn. And they demand subscription fees just to look for jobs, even from inexperienced newbies who may not have the skills or the quality of equipment to land work.
"These sites are selling dreams," said Todd Schick, a Toronto-area voice actor with more than 30 years of experience. He does non-union work, and so is accustomed to working outside the negotiated ACTRA rates. But he has seen prices driven down, he says, partly by sites that encourage actors to undercut each other.
"It's pretty much the Wild West out there," he said.
Much of the concern is focused on paid membership sites. Voices.com, for example, allows people to create profiles for free; but in order to show up higher in search results, and to apply for more of the auditions, they must pay roughly $400 annually.
Voice123.com has a similar structure, with the free-profile option and paid annual subscriptions running nearly $400. Voices.com also has "platinum" offers for $2,500 and $5,000 a year to help members market themselves, in order to provide access to a wider range of auditions. (VoiceBunny.com, which like Voice123 is owned by Bunny Inc., auditions talent to be part of its roster and does not charge those who are accepted.)
On sites such as these, talent decide what prices to quote for work, but to be competitive with the levels of pay on the site, they quote prices much lower than union rates, or even non-union rates for a lot of professional work.
On Voices.com, for example, the client submits a budget range for a job and talent are encouraged to quote in the middle of that range. Voices.com then adds on a 10-per-cent commission to that rate. (For traditional talent agents, around 15 per cent is the norm.) It also has a "professional services" team that will find talent and carry out a job on the client's behalf, and the service fee for that is often higher than 10 per cent. Some sites take higher commissions: the website VoiceJockeys.com says it pays talent 50 per cent of a job fee.
"Clients are getting all of that in a matter of hours, which would have been a week, before," said Voices.com CEO David Ciccarelli. "Not to mention the cost."
Opening up the process of voice actors also makes it more realistic for small businesses, said Jun Loayza, chief growth officer at Bunny Inc.
"It's an order of magnitude cheaper," he said. "… I don't think we're necessarily lowering the bar, because the talent are still able to submit their own rates. We're opening up the industry so that companies that were not previously able to get a voice-over are now able to."
Technology has indeed opened up the industry: many voice actors can now work more efficiently from home. But there are concerns about what that means for wages.
"The pay-to-play websites are not such a threat to union voice work.The vast majority of talent on those sites cannot compete with professional voice talent, and some of the jobs are tiny paycheques. So they are not competition," said Catherine Disher, a Canadian on-screen and voice actress, and co-chair of ACTRA's voice committee. "But they devalue the whole industry."
There has always been and will always be non-union work, industry veterans say. But they are worried that websites beckoning inexperienced actors into the pool of applicants tip the scales with people willing to do the work for less than a fair wage.
"They don't know how much the jobs are worth. The concern for us is if the wages get watered down," said Rob Sciglimpaglia, co-founder of World-Voices Organization, a union-agnostic trade group founded in 2012, which pushes for industry standards and education for both talent and clients. The owners of the sites contend they are a great option for people who may not have even known how to break into the industry before the Internet changed the game.
Still, for marketers whose budgets have been under pressure in recent years, cost-effective work is attractive. Even some larger advertisers with budgets for nationwide campaigns see the value. BCE Inc., for example, has experimented with Voices.com for a small number of lower-profile, local ads.
"It matches you with talent based on an imperfect science, but one that works well enough. You can fluke into some great stuff. But you're not going to find Christopher Plummer…Some ads benefit from the cost advantages of this solution," said Rick Seifeddine, senior vice-president of brand at Bell Canada. "But I'm not going to put a [high-profile brand ad] at risk. For that, I need a perfectly nuanced sound."
The industry is now playing catch-up, hoping to make it easier for clients to search online for more experienced talent. Last year, ACTRA set up CastingVoice.ca, an online database of union performers, to make it easier for clients to search out their profiles and contact them. World-Voices Organization created VoiceOver.biz, which vets the actors so that only professionals with work of a certain quality are listed there.
"Like all industries, tech is disintermediating the ad-making business," Mr. Seifeddine said. "And corporate clients are really under pressure on a cost basis … I think these initiatives are going to get more traction."
What do voice performers make?
Voice casting websites
Payments for work on sites such as Voices.com and Voice123.com vary widely, since actors decide to quote their own prices for work. But some general examples:
$250 to $300: payment for the average job on Voices.com, plus (sometimes) residual payments. The cost of membership to list a profile on the site in the first place, would diminish that payment somewhat depending on how many jobs worked per year. According to the CEO of Voices.com, payments range on the site and can be considerably higher, but $250 to $500 is fairly common.
$242: the average payment per job that one actor earned from jobs secured through Voice123.com, accounting for the cost of his membership to the site.
Voice actors working through the union, ACTRA, in Canada have set rates for advertising work, depending on the geography of where it runs, in what media, and for how long. Some examples:
$1,462.50: payment for a four-hour recording session for a TV voiceover, plus rights to the usual 13-week broadcast run of an ad. Airing it for a longer period or bringing it back later would push this fee up.
$600.75: payment for one or two ad voice-overs, including the usual three-month campaign cycle. (It's relatively unusual for radio ads to run longer than that, but if it did, it would push up the use fees.)
$890.50: payment for a four-hour recording session for a "new media" ad voiceover (running on the Internet) and the rights to use it for one year.
12 per cent: the "engager's contribution" that a client pays on top of the session fees for performers, which goes toward the actor's insurance and retirement funds.