Voice-Overs: Fighting the Race to the Bottom

Dilemma circa 1995

In 1995, I had a dilemma. I was a young, fairly successful voice-over agent specializing in on-air promos and was one of a handful of agents throughout the country specializing in the field. One of the dozens of networks I worked almost exclusively with was ESPN (prior to them being bought by Disney in 1999). They used a 24 year-old talent who ESPN somehow discovered. To my dismay, they paid him one of the worst rates in all of on-air promotion.

I had inherited the ESPN business when I arrived at the agency and I didn’t have a strong influence yet. The talent was making roughly $50K a year. I also knew the talent’s backstory. Only six months prior he had been selling plumbing supplies for minimum wage.

Regardless, I felt the rate was unfair . Over the next year, I established a relationship and carefully negotiated a $50 bump. The new rate was still below the market, but at least I was raising the bar I told myself.

Cut to… a year later

Through my ESPN on-air contacts, I was hooked up to the marketing department which had a job for someone to read dozens of international promos, twice a week. The catch? The rate they proposed was even lower than the original on-air rate.   It would have been really easy for me to say no except I had another young guy.

Let’s call him Tom.

Tom was really talented and I was working really hard on his development. He was also really struggling. The 20K they were offering would actually change Tom’s life (at least for the time being). After thinking about it I offered Tom to ESPN and they accepted.   The good news was Tom went on to work for them over the next four years and developed into one of the most successful under-30 year-old voice talent in the entire business.

I moved on and always had mixed feeling about Tom’s job. I knew I had done a service to the client, yet I wondered if I had done a disservice to the entire industry?

I would find out in 1999

AFTRA had asked promo agents to meet at the union to discuss rates. I was working in commercials at this point, but my colleagues felt that it was important for me to show up given my working history of rates.

At the round table discussion ESPN was mentioned. We didn’t have clients at the time working at ESPN, so I was not up to speed on their current practices. I found out at that moment the rates had actually dropped below my former rates, and the rate I established for Tom was the bottom floor.

Was it a coincidence? My stomach turned as I sat amongst my peers and wondered whether I was responsible for the reduced rate. Intellectually, I knew it was very possible that another agent just undercut my former rates. This was fairly common at the time especially by one particular agency I knew who had a couple of talent working there. Emotionally, I was still incredibly bothered by my potential culpability.

Do we send mixed signals about acceptable rates and wages?

I never did find out the truth, but I realized that day how market rates never exist in a vacuum. No matter how insulated I felt from the rest of the market by accepting the job, there were still potential repercussions. My biggest questions were:

  • “Did I signal to ESPN that paying low wages was acceptable to New York talent and their talent agencies?”
  • “If so, did I also create a race to the bottom starting with ESPN and possibly the rest of the promo marketplace?”

I never discovered any answers regarding my direct involvement, but ever since that time I have been incredibly sensitive on the topic of accepting low wages. Yes, I have a responsibility to my clients, who may want the work, but I do feel a responsibility to the market and voice-over community as well.

Although, I might lose some work temporarily, I am convinced that the benefits are far greater in the long term and I will bet my reputation that I am correct.

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