By John Pellegrini
Every so often I meet someone who asks what I do and when I tell them I do voiceover they almost always respond with, “how do you get a job doing that?”
The answer, sadly more than ever, is you probably can’t. At least not a “job” in the traditional sense of the word. However free-lance work continues to beckon and many folks are making a good headway into either supplementing their income or even gaining full time income from the industry.
There is another question that comes up inevitably from both those out of the industry and in the industry. One that is harder to answer yet needs to be answered with a certainty that is currently missing.
“How much do you charge?”
There are so many variables to this answer that pinpointing something definite is very difficult. Are you doing strictly voiceover? One voice only? Two or more voices, and if so are you supposed to find the other voices? Are you doing the copy writing as well? What about production - are you doing it or is someone else?
That, and given the competitive nature of the industry right now, most pros are simply not willing to divulge what they charge for fear of being undercut by someone else. That is the primary problem we seem to have in the audio production world; thanks to digital, anyone with a laptop, microphone (built-in or not) and a rudimentary audio editor can make a commercial or a podcast or even a video.
So what do we charge? And how do justify what we charge?
The second question is actually easier to answer than the first. You charge what you charge by emphasizing your professional experience, the quality of your sound and attention to detail that your client or the beginners he or she wants to hire don’t have. It’s the same with any trade. Sure you could probably fix the mechanical problems in your car’s engine yourself, but you take it to the dealership or the mechanic’s shop and pay them because you know they’re going to do a much better job than you will.
When I offer my voiceover services for my prospective free-lance clients, I mention that I don’t just read the tracks; I do all the editing too and clean up the audio tracks adding EQ and compression as well. So if someone else is going to produce the audio track, like for video or film, then all they have to do is insert the audio that I send them, and it’s ready to go, saving their production people hours of extra work. Apparently not everyone does this, and I’ve had dozens of clients tell me how much they appreciate that effort (it really is all about customer service, isn’t it).
So then, what do we charge? There’s an old line from the ’60s... ‘Whatever the traffic will allow, man...’ The only limits are whatever your market is willing to pay. And please understand this: when I say ‘your market’, I’m not talking about the Arbitron Ranking of the city where you live. In freelance voiceover, your market is whoever your potential customers are, wherever they are. They may not be in your city. Or state.
There are only three major factors that need to be considered when pricing your work. One, what’s the client’s budget? Two, where will it be seen or heard? And three, what is the length of time (days, weeks, years) the client expects to use the voiceover?
Although there are seemingly no limits other than what someone is willing to pay you for your work, I think we can all agree that there should at least be some sort of minimum amount for voice work. So to that end, I’ve put together a quick guideline for voice work, with the caveat that if you’re already getting paid more than these minimums, then that’s fantastic, and if you’re charging less, then perhaps you need to think about charging more. These numbers are based on my own experiences (but not necessarily on what I charge my clients) as well as through some conversations I’ve had with colleagues in the biz.
Before we get to the numbers though, let’s establish the criteria of what kind of work we are talking about. Ideally this should be for voiceover ONLY, single voice (you and you alone), with perhaps some editing and dynamics added (depending on what you want to offer). This is for non-union, direct client work, no talent agents or other outside “head-hunter” types with finder’s fees involved. An MSRP (minimum suggested retail price) for voice work so to speak.
Single voice read for commercial read (broadcast or internet) :60 or less: $300.00.
Narration (any format): $250.00 per minute with a minimum of two minutes.
Note to our international readers: you’ll have to work out the currency exchanges for yourselves... sorry.
QUESTIONS: (I’m reading your mind as you read this)
I’m already charging more than this (not really a question). Great! Keep kicking patootie! As I said, this is just an exercise in minimum amounts that you can ignore if you wish. Actually I’m hoping everyone reading this article is saying that. It would be very encouraging.
I’m charging my clients less than this. What do I do? That’s a tough one. You need to figure out if your current clients will negotiate or not. If they will, great; if not then decide for yourself which is more worthwhile. However, you should certainly think about these minimums for your future clients. There are absolutely no laws anywhere that say you MUST charge each client exactly the same amount.
My clients would never agree to pay that much (not really a question either). Have they actually told you that? Or are you just assuming? Because you know what happens when you assume, don’t you? You make an ass of u and me. Thank you Tony Randall (he did that joke on an episode of TV version of The Odd Couple at least 5 years before Benny Hill got credit for it). Although truthfully in this case you won’t be making an ass of me; I just like the line.
Should I charge more for a sixty than a thirty second read? That depends. Do you bring less of your professional experience to a 30 than a 60? Do you use less expensive recording studio equipment for a 30 than a 60? If so, then yes. But for most of us, what the client is supposed to be paying for is our talent, our ability to create a credible and believable read of their commercials and our ability to make our voice a tool of persuasion. If anything, a 30 or even a 15 should pay MORE than a 60 because your read has to have even more impact in the shorter amount of time. And as long as I’m dreaming, I’d like a pony for my daughter. If you want to charge your clients less for shorter reads then go ahead. Before you decide to do this though, please read the last question.
Should I offer discounts for multiple reads (extra scripts)? Does it cost you less time and effort to read four scripts instead of one? Of course not (at least I hope not). You put the same amount of care and professionalism into each of your reads no matter how many you produce. Therefore you should charge the same amount for each read regardless of how many scripts you get. Having said that, I will add this: I had a client a few years ago who asked me to read nearly 50 two to three minute scripts for an educational project. I did give that client a discount because, what the hell, at that volume I still made out great.
Are these rates what YOU charge your clients? Who, me? Yes, you! No. I actually charge more most of the time. Truthfully, I do have one or two clients who have been with me for a couple of decades, I give them price breaks and they send a lot of connections for other businesses that pay full price, so there is always leeway. I also do some volunteer work gratis of course. Like I said, these are minimums for you to consider; however, for the most part I would not consider doing a project that paid less than these.
How about barter or trade? The IRS is starting to get more picky about the amount of barter and trade work they will allow, and trust me you don’t want to have them looking at you funny no matter what you think politically. Unless you have an agreement written, preferably by a business lawyer, you will never be able to fully prevent the feeling on either side that someone is getting the low end of the deal. I speak from experience, and believe me, it’s no fun to be either the accused or the accuser. You’re far better off going for cash with the understanding that you’ll definitely spend some of your cash with your client when the need for their services or products arises -- a lot less stress and headaches.
Why should I charge that much? I can charge a lot less and get a lot more work!
You certainly can. But why sell yourself so short? Is your talent worth that little? Are you so determined to undervalue your own work that you deliberately hurt yourself economically? You realize that if you are good at what you do then there’s no reason why you couldn’t get the same amount of work and still charge those minimums or even more? Exactly what is the benefit for your livelihood to be paid a lot less for doing the same amount of work?
Remember that I’ve listed what I think should be the MSRP of the voiceover industry. It’s up to you to decide what you want to charge your clients. What is your time, your experience, and your professional knowledge worth? Are you simply a ‘reader’ or are you a pro who brings a level of talent to the job that most others don’t have?
There are always variables. For example you should expect to be paid a lot more if you have an agent. You should expect a lot more if you are a member of AFTRA or SAG. And you should definitely expect to be paid more if you are writing and producing the project. Don’t forget to make sure any extra talent you hire gets paid by the client as well. Personally, I think the extra talent should be paid directly by the client and not through you, unless you prefer to have loads of extra paperwork at tax time.
Before we go further, should we get into copywriting and production fees? Sure, why not.
First off let me state that the copywriting is more important than the voice work. Ideally it should be an equal partnership, but if the choice must be made over spending more on one or the other, I say spend it on the copywriting. The reason I say this comes from years of listening to, and tracking the results of radio and television commercials. The rule of copy versus voice comes down to this: the greatest voiceover in the world can only make a lousy message sound barely mediocre. But a great message that sells effectively can work well even with below average voice work.
You should understand something else about copywriting. Most business owners are savvy enough to expect you to offer proof of your successful track record. Some may even request testimonials or ask if they can call some of your clients. If you have some clients who will provide good reviews, that’s great, but make sure they understand not to discuss how much money you charge for your services. The last thing you want is for a long-standing client of yours to tell prospects that you’re charging them way less than what you intend to charge the prospective client. Most business people have the good sense not to discuss that, but always ask anyhow.
So bearing in mind that you do have a successful track record and have delivered great results for your clients, your minimum amount to charge for writing a broadcast commercial script 30 or 60 should be $500.00. For other script writing, I would expect at least $250.00 to $350.00 per page. If that sounds high, you need to understand that most trade writers (content and copy writers for print and internet trade) charge at least that, often a lot more. Some charge instead by the hour and get anywhere from $100.00 to $500.00 per hour with 10 hour minimums per project. If you can prove your work can generate sales, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to charge at least as much as the minimums I’m quoting.
Occasionally the question comes up if we should charge extra for production time. My answer is YOU BET! If your client were to hire an agency they would have to to pay all those fees. You can make the argument that you’re saving your client money by not charging, but again why short change yourself? Is your time as valuable as your local advertising agency, recording studio, and voiceover talent? Of course it is. Why shouldn’t you be properly compensated for your time, especially if you’re doing the work of three or more people (talent, copywriter, producer, director, engineer)?
So what should you charge for production fees? At least as much per hour as any local recording studio charges for their commercial production. Those are usually done per hour with some minimums. Some studios have their rate cards on their websites, others you need to call to find out. But definitely do so because you might find out you’re getting a ridiculously lower amount than you should be. As far as whether or not you should charge as much as the super deluxe recording studio with the 98 channel Neve mixing desk and the Steinway concert grand piano in the main room charges, ask yourself, “Is my commercial production quality as good as theirs?” If the answer is yes, then yes you should charge as much. Remember it’s not just the equipment, it’s the quality of the end product.
I still feel the need to remind everyone that these amounts should be considered the minimum amount for your various production offerings. You should definitely earn more than what is listed here, but at least this is a starting point to work from for negotiation. Some clients will definitely try to lowball you... as they do with every vendor they have. That’s why you need to remember that this is business and not personal. There are, however some clients who will surprise you and tell you that you’re actually a bargain compared to some others.
It all comes down to respecting yourself and your abilities and deciding if you want to have a career or a hobby. If it’s a hobby then go ahead and charge the lowest amount because it doesn’t matter. Eventually no one will take you seriously because you’re demonstrating that you don’t take yourself seriously through the rates you charge, and you’ll wind up with nothing but deadbeat accounts. But if you want a career, then have a professional attitude, do a great job, and charge rates that prove you’re a professional. The nice thing is, you’ll find yourself getting clients who are more respectful of your work and appreciate the effort you take. Not a bad way to work.
One last question that I always get, “what’s the highest amount of money I could make on voiceover and how do I get that work?” I am not sure of the actual dollars, but it’s a safe bet that Jeff Bridges is probably getting well into the seven figure range as the voice of Hyundai. Ditto Jamie Lee Curtis for Activa. There may be a couple of actors who get even more than they do. Which leads to the second part of the answer... just become more famous than Jeff Bridges or Jamie Lee Curtis and you’ll find out. Have fun!