(Recently, Scott Waz had the opportunity to speak at a symposium as part of a panel hosted by Joanne Joella, of JoellaArts, a voice casting and coaching agency located in Cheltenham, PA, on the world of voice over. While he was hired as a voice talent on several occasions, he attended this symposium to give his perspective as a studio owner.)
The voice-over business has surely changed, especially in Philadelphia. I can remember when I first started in this industry. It was 1989 and the balance of power was 90% union (AFTRA) and 10% non-union. Over time, I watched large ad agencies buy out smaller ones. Merger mania had struck! In the mid 90’s, I watched as budgets got smaller in the squeeze of a bad economy. Many ad people decided to leave ad agencies (read: downsizing) and become independent producers, creatives, writers and small 1-5 “man” shops.
At the same time, AFTRA, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, decided to increase its rates. It decided this several times and drove the cost of a VO higher and higher. Philadelphia is not to blame for this. All of the voting for these decisions is profoundly decided by New York and Los Angeles. Then there was the AFTRA/SAG strike of 2000 and all heck broke loose. Traditionally union-affiliated voice talent gave up their right to vote and declared “core-status.” This gave them the opportunity to work non-union without the threat of losing their union affiliation. But they gave up residuals; pension & welfare and work that helped qualify them for healthcare benefits.
AFTRA Insists on “Signatory” Clause
As everyone splintered into smaller business segments, AFTRA maintained that an ad agency or a producer had to be a signatory in order to use AFTRA talent. In short, you had to commit to hiring only union talent. There were few exceptions to this rule. Since budgets were shrinking and more and more people were becoming independents, you could never make this commitment because you didn’t know what your budget would be from job to job. Only large ad agencies could continue to work under this business model. But as I said, we were losing agencies left and right and there were and still are only a small handful of truly large ad agencies in town. You can thank hospital mergers, bank mergers and retail mergers. Tons of business left town or became controlled by out of town entities that didn’t have any roots here.
Meanwhile, without warning, hesitation or fanfare, the entire non-union talent pool grew. And grew. More importantly, with more work going their way, they got better. Much better. Used to be, if you were in the union, you were part of a better talent pool and the differences were quite noticeable. No longer.
And so the tide changes. In just the past few years, I would say Philadelphia’s voice-over scene is at 80% non-union and 20% union. Others would say it’s tilted even further toward non-union. Frankly, I can’t remember the last time I had an AFTRA voice here filling out a contract. Almost all of my clients who ask for voices assume non-union talent is what they are getting. I don’t even ask anymore.
Talent Now Competing Nationally
Now, what has also changed is very significant to this picture I am painting. As I told the audience of voice-over “wannabes,” they are no longer competing with other Philadelphia talent for the same jobs. They are competing with the rest of the country. With ISDN connections as commonplace as email; voice over talent, especially the good ones, are setting up home studios and choosing to live wherever they want. They are no longer tied to the “big city”. An ISDN line to the home, a first-class microphone, an ISDN codec and hopefully a sound-proof environment, and voila! you have a base station that makes you available to any studio, radio station or video house that’s only interested in your voice. Basically, you are looking at a $7500 investment if it is done mostly right. Mostly is generous. I have recorded way too many home studio ISDN situations that have been disappointing. Dogs barking, air conditioning noise, bad acoustics, and a lack of engineering skills from a voice actor to correct these anomalies are all too frequent. But I have recorded talent that sounded great and have been very impressed! It’s hit or miss, just like some recording studios.
Now, combine this with talent agencies who are trying to tie up voice actors with exclusivity fees and we have ourselves an interesting ballgame. Philadelphia voice actors have never had an association with agents, until recently. This is the last bit of a tide that is turning in Philly. AFTRA contracts didn’t allow for agent fees to be paid by the rate set by the union. It had to be added in on top. Well, that never flew in Philly because the rate was right at the threshold of what this town could afford. But if no one is working union anymore, here come the agents. It’s nothing new; many smaller markets have been operating like this for years and years. Even five years ago I used tell new or transplanted voice actors that you don’t need an agent to work in Philly, yet in Kansas City, you can’t work without one. Go figure.
The problem talent agents and casting agencies battle each day is that since the recording community and voice-over pool hasn’t changed much in 10 years (even I’m more old than new in many respects) we engineers know everyone and can and do recommend talent every day! We’ve known most of these actors for 10 and 20 years. The actors know this. They are also aware of the fact that we generally have more contact with clients and are more heavily relied upon to make these recommendations because of the simple fact; we record and edit their voices. We know who can do the job. At one time, maybe five years ago, I was personally responsible for the creation of or at least the editing of half of the voice-over demos on one of the city’s largest casting agency reels.
Finding good on-camera talent doesn’t mean you have found good on-microphone talent and working to hone this craft is very much a studio thing. Some talent agencies have discovered very good new talent. And they want to be rewarded for this every time a booking occurs. Unfortunately, there are not enough good new talents on the scene here in Philly. And we are dreadfully lacking in African-American and Latino voices. Two of the biggest growing segments in advertising.
Best Talent at Higher Rates?
One thing still remains, the best talent demand and get the highest rates. While you may spend a little more upfront, you are gaining more in the end: quicker sessions, better alternate takes, and a more professional voice. With better actors, you most certainly get what you pay for. Sometimes we hear really bad voices on spots. I can almost guarantee that it is someone related to the producer or someone with only $75. Speaking of $75, it has been my experience that some very good voices living in the South or other less populated areas of the country are giving away their services for as little as $75 a spot. This is a crime in my opinion and it reeks of Wal-Mart-like price gouging. Or is that good old fashion American competition? I once lost a huge recording/editing job to some folks in India because they could do it for $10 an hour!
Today, auditions seem to be the best way to find out if someone new is good. Clients seem to expect auditions for everything. With talent recording at home and sending in MP3’s, this makes perfect sense. The actor gets to act out the actual script and the writer and producer and client get to hear their copy. This is a lot better than listening to a demo and hoping that what is on it is a true representation of the actor’s talents.
So here we are today, and what has changed? Spots are still being made. Picking the right voice is still a challenge but a fun one. Non-union costs have stabilized in line with the economy. AFTRA in Philadelphia is a shadow of its former self. ISDN and the internet have opened up the entire country as a talent pool. And the world is just a little bit smaller. I did tell my audience that the bottom line still remains; we are all waiting for the next great voice to come out of Philadelphia. Could it be you? It’s just a matter of time.
Scott Waz is president of AudioPost Philadelphia. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or at 215-735-5700