Q It Up: How do you know what to charge for your freelance work?

Q-It-Up-Logo-3Q It Up: If you’re not a union talent and don’t have a talent agent, how do you know what to charge for your freelance work – voiceover, copywriting, and/or production? And if you’re an independent producer/talent doing this fulltime, same question. How did you come up with your rates? Do you think your rates are low, high, or pretty much in line with the average rates? Do you have to negotiate low rates to get new business and hold on to existing clients? Or do you find that clients are willing to pay more for better work and service?

If you are a member of SAG/AFTRA and/or have a talent agency setting your rates, what are your thoughts on the rates you charge? Do you think non-union talents have any impact on union rates?

For me, this has always been a question. I’ve set my VO rates just under union rates with a few exceptions where I charged more, but I’ve often felt my rates were too low. I might have to recheck my math. I’ve set my production fees at just above what someone would pay for a small studio here in Dallas. So I charge by the hour, with a one hour minimum. Again, I’ve often felt these rates were low because I occasionally hear stories of comparable situations here locally where others are getting more for basically the same service. I think a lot of us are undervaluing our talents.

What are your views?

jv…

Mike Laponis <mlaponis[at]laverne.edu>, Voice Talent, www.mikesvo.com: For my voiceover work I charge rates that are in line with what most non-union VO artists would charge according to the type of project and length of recording. I do not undercharge, as I am in agreement with you that there are many who undervalue their talents. As you know, there is a lot to being a good VO talent. The necessary equipment, excellent quality mics, and perhaps most important, the on-going coaching and training are all part of the equation as to providing quality voice work. I do try to keep my rates affordable and I always make sure that my clients are happy with what I provide - client satisfaction is key. When a client is a return client, I do try to offer them a little better rate since we have an ongoing business relationship.

John Melley <jmelley[at]mix1041.com>, WBMX | Mix 104.1, Boston, Massachusetts: Actually, you hit on a question that I’m quite passionate about. I don’t base my rates on “what everyone else is doing” and take it from there. I have what some may call an esoteric position and offer you the attached article I wrote on the subject a couple of years ago. I hope you find it interesting.

How Scarce Are You?

By John Melley

I was recently at a Marketing Conference, and during one of the sessions the presenter asked an interesting question. The question was: “Are you a commodity?” Nobody likes to think about themselves as a commodity, but then to rub it in further he asked 2 more questions that determined whether you/your business is a commodity or not. What were the two questions? What are the Top 5 services you provide to your clients? And… does your competition provide those same services? If the answer is yes, alas you are a commodity. (You should have heard the groans.)

Does that mean we are doomed to be equated with bushels of wheat, or barrels of oil? H-E-ck NO!

Let’s first look at “Commodity”. Simply put, it means something commonly found, or readily available. So, to avoid being a commodity, we have to differentiate ourselves from our competition.

Everyone’s voice is different. Aside from that, how do we make what we DO different from other voice over/production talent? We’ve got to become scarce. We’ve got to do something no other voice talent is doing, or at least make ourselves scarce in our customers’ eyes (and ears). You must be able to answer the client’s question: “Why should I use YOU instead of any of your competitors?”

Being able to answer this question is the key to unlocking the power of your voice over pricing and business. In marketing parlance this is what is called your Unique Selling Proposition, or USP. It’s a tough question to answer, and to be truthful, your USP can, and probably should, evolve over time. Mine is still a work in progress.

Once you define your USP, or you become “Unique” in the eyes of your customer, all kinds of marvelous things start to happen in your business. Your clients see you as the expert in your field—the “go to” person for voice over projects. They start to refer you to others who may need your services.

Since you are Unique, there is less resistance to your pricing. You can charge more.

Let’s talk about positioning. Another one of the speakers at the above mentioned conference was a gentleman by the name of Nido Qubein. Nido was born in Lebanon and came to the United States as a young boy. He is now, among other things, the President of High Point University and Chairman of the Great Harvest Bread Company®.

Nido powerfully demonstrated the concept and importance of increasing “Perceived Value” with a simple 1 lb. bag of Hershey Kisses® and a 1 lb. box of Godiva® Chocolates.

He asked why two items with essentially the same ingredients and taste were so markedly different in price. A 1 lb. bag of Hershey Kisses® sells for about $4.00. A 1 lb. box of Godiva® Chocolates sells for 10 times as much at about $40.00.

He went on to say that you buy Hershey Kisses® to eat. You buy Godiva® to give as a gift. You put Hershey Kisses® in a bowl and give them away. Godiva® Chocolates are prized, hidden away in a cabinet and only shared with someone special. Why is this? Perceived value.

Don’t get me wrong. Hershey Kisses® are delicious. If they’re out, you can count on me grabbing about a half dozen and eating them. (That says something right there, doesn’t it? Would you “Grab a handful of Godiva® Chocolates?” You’d probably eat just 2… maybe 3 and think you were really splurging. You want to make them last.)

Look at the packaging. Hershey Kisses® come in a clear plastic bag and are stacked in piles on store shelves, or piled in a large bin in the candy aisle, and you just pick it up and toss it in your basket, or shopping cart.

Godiva® Chocolates are packaged with each piece having their own little section molded in the tray, neatly layered within a gold foil box, a satin ribbon and bow on top with the Godiva® logo embossed on the lid. They are “displayed” in fancy cases with elegant lighting. You are probably waited on by someone who may help you select the chocolates you’re buying. You feel special just going to buy them and giving them.

One chocolate’s “presentation” and buying “experience” is totally different from the other.

You can create your own “Godiva Zone” in which you live and operate. You do it with the words you use, the way you treat your clients, how you look after them, how you dress, speak on the phone, how you write your emails, your letterhead, demo packaging, the experience they have with you in the studio. Your “Presentation.”

Another example Nido gave were the differences between Disney® vs. Six Flags® or Universal Studios®. Disney® beats its competitors hands-down. How? Attention to detail and creating a WOW! Experience for the guests of their park.

Did you know the lamp posts along Main Street USA at Disney® are painted every single day? They are painted at a specific time so they dry just in time for the park to open so they have the highest shine for people to see as they first enter the park. They take into account the humidity level every single day to determine the exact time they should start to paint them so they dry in time. That’s attention to detail.

Most nights of the year Disney® is open to midnight and people stay there all day, cryin’ kids and all. They don’t want to miss a thing and they don’t want to leave.

Nido told us to ask ourselves: “Would someone buy a ticket to ‘my park’”? If they did buy a ticket, “How long would they stay?”

Other questions you need to ask yourself are: “How can I be the kind of person people want to give? How can I be a box of Godiva® Chocolates? How can I get them to say ‘That’s the person I want to do all my voice over work’”?

How can you create a “WOW!” experience for your clients so that you don’t just have clients, but raving fans? How can you “Make yourself scarce?”

John Melley is the Commercial Production Director at WBMX, Mix 104.1 in Boston and also has a thriving freelance voice over and production business. He can be reached at: John[at]JohnMelley.com

Frank Scales <fscales[at]frankscalescreative.com>: Can of worms here! :) I like to get to know my client’s needs and budgets along the way, as well as their comfort zone. I’ve worked a lot of jobs, and I’ve gotten paid a lot of rates – anywhere from $50 - $2500 for a job ($2500 doesn’t happen very often!). A big factor these days are sites like Voice123, voices.com etc., which take some of the negotiation out of the picture.

I like steady work, so I try to steer clients toward ongoing, retainer agreements when appropriate, and those will vary with market size. I work with a lot of other producers where I only deliver dry voice, and I also fully produce and voice a spot depending upon the job. I price accordingly.

Unfortunately I still adhere to the swap shop mentality much of the time.

Bill Jackson <bjackson[at]jrfm.com>, 93.7 JRfm / 100.5 The PEAK: Here at our studios, we do get what we call ‘off station’ work, and once in a while, freelance stuff. I know that what we charge is way less to produce spots for our clients, than what it would cost them to get the same thing at a ‘production house’. For our in house rate, we charge $75.00 for the first spot. And $25.00 per spot after that for spots in the same session.

As to true freelance, it’s mostly based on time involved. $50.00/ hour just for my time is pretty standard. Studio time is also $50.00 per hour, but charges may, or may not, apply.

Haven’t done any voice over work, so don’t know what I’d charge for that. It would depend on the number of spots, whether they’re local, national, or international play, etc.

I think our rates are good... but we will always boost the rates when we feel the situation is warranted.

As an aside, we had one client that we produced some audio for, that was only supposed to run our radio stations. We heard the audio being used (music & v/o) for a TV ad that this client produced. They used it without our permission. So we went to the agency responsible, and charged them double the amount that they would have paid, if they’d just asked permission in the first place. Even then, they got off easy. We should have charged way more... but that part was handled by our sales department.

The bottom line is this: charge as much as can be justified, based on your ability and talent.

Ric Gonzalez <Ric.Gonzalez[at]coxinc.com>, CMG, San Antonio, Texas: If you’re not a union talent and don’t have a talent agent, how do you know what to charge for your freelance work – voiceover, copywriting, and/or production?

Pretty much have to go with what the market allows. Unless that is ZERO. When I arrived in San Antonio in ‘91, the radio stations were not charging a talent fee if the spot ran with your voice on a competitors station. Having come from Austin, where if the client liked your spot enough to run it with the competitors, a talent fee was charged and paid to the talent. Result: jocks tried better to do the best VO they could instead of just giving you one take and saying, “That’s it.” Although… you still had a few who had attitude about production.

I initiated the process at our station to start charging talent fees for spots going to other stations. That was 1991. Sales said, no client will pay it because the other stations will do it for free. My response was, then let them send us their dubs. Let’s try that and see how it goes. Result. Some clients heard our production and our talents, liked the ads, but didn’t want to pay to run them on the competitor. So they asked if they could send our script there. Uh… that required paying the “writer” (me) a talent fee. Pretty cheap. $25 dollars. Some did. Then heard what the others produced. Result… they came back and said, “OK… I’ll buy the ad. It just didn’t sound the same over there.” Ya think?

And if you’re an independent producer/talent doing this fulltime, same question. How did you come up with your rates? Do you think your rates are low, high, or pretty much in line with the average rates? Do you have to negotiate low rates to get new business and hold on to existing clients? Or do you find that clients are willing to pay more for better work and service?

I’m not sag/aftra and do some occasional outside VO and writing. But I put in over 50 hours a week at my job. It’s a good company that takes good care of me. So extra has to be worth the little time I have left. Unless it is for a friend, special client, etc… it has to be monetarily worth my time. I turn down VO that doesn’t pay the worth of my time and effort.

What is your time worth? What is the value of your talent? What is the market rate? Find a happy medium… and you have your price.

David Tyler <david[at]davidtyler.com>, www.DavidTyler.com: I’ve been doing voiceover here in Montreal for about 25 years, and in the beginning it was the producer/director who set the price based on their budget. Taking into account what I was getting paid, I set my rates for other producer/directors accordingly. Mind you, at this stage today my prices are much higher than 25 years ago (!), and that’s based on demand and expertise.

In the mid-‘90s, when I started doing business over the internet, I quickly learned that my local prices were excruciatingly high and adjusted what I call my ‘long distance price’ accordingly.

At one point 7 or 8 years ago, as other “so-called” voice talent came on-line, I ran into a lot of “price-shopper” producers who weren’t interested in hiring talent... just a voice, at the lowest possible price. The online voice game at that point turned into a race to bankruptcy. Thankfully, the voices that chose that route inevitably went out of business, the same goes for the producers who were creating a grossly inferior product.

Nevertheless, I have 2 different rates for commercial and narration work: one for local producers and one for long distance producers. Radio imaging by its character is long distant work and it’s the market that sets the price.

I am blessed to have a constant flow of work and now charge what I feel the market (local or international) can sustain.

The bottom line for hiring a voice is: you pay for what you get!

Rob Schuller <rob_schuller[at]wgbh.org>, Boston, Massachusetts: When it comes to discussing the talent fee, my first question to the client is, “What do you have budgeted for the voice over?” That usually starts the discussion off in a manner that is not shocking to either of us.

Sometimes the answer is a bit lower than what I had in mind, and I share that with the client. Other times when it’s in the ballpark, I let them know that I’m willing to work within their budget. That bodes well and often leads to future VO work.

Other times, not as many as I’d like, the client comes in way over what I planned on charging… and being the good sport that I am, I go with the flow and take the $$!

Steve Cook <steve[at]audiooven.com>, Audio Oven, www.audiooven.com: You gotta have some integrity when it comes to rates, otherwise you might as well give it away and call it a hobby, cuz you ain’t stayin’ in this business long. Having said that, you’ve got plenty of decent-enough-for-pizza-joint-copy “talent” out there online willing to do a read for beer money and gas to put in mommy and daddy’s car. If you’re gonna compete, you gotta be willing to go down far enough to at least be in the same ballpark. Having said THAT, I think one of the big keys is seeking out the right clients. Don’t go after the local Express Oil Change franchisee who doesn’t have any budget. Take ‘em if they come to you and make sure they sign a contract for whatever rate you settle on, but as far as biz dev, concentrate your phone calls and emails on the local AGENCIES and PR firms who not only have budget, but have a network of repeating clients and contacts. You gotta think bigger if you wanna get bigger pay. Of course, that means you gotta have the goods when you get their attention, and yes that includes a nice space to look at and even to come to if they want. If you’re a relatively unknown, you can’t make a living anymore in the indy prod and VO biz if all you’re doing is soliciting low-budget clients from your closet.

Anthony Mendez <anthony[at]anthonyvo.com>: Before I joined the union and had representation, I used to use SAG/AFTRA rates as a guide. Sometimes, mine were higher and sometimes they were slightly lower, but overall union rates were my starting point in negotiation. When it came to production, I used to add a flat rate for :10, :30 or :60. In short, whatever got me the gig where I didn’t sit there hours on end kicking myself in the ass for underselling or under-valuating my services, I billed. You have to be flexible to grow. I used to draw a hard line - that lost me plenty of work one year, that would have added up to a nice chunk of change... to the tune of $20K+ by the end of that year. Ouch.

Andrew Frame <andrew[at]bafsoundworks.com> BAFSoundWorks, Lehigh Acres, Florida: How do you know what to charge for your freelance work – voiceover, copywriting, and/or production? And if you’re an independent producer/talent doing this fulltime, same question. How did you come up with your rates?

There’s no rate sheet here. If we have to quote, we have a “base rate” that we work up and down from, depending on customer history and what the market will bear.

Many customers have a fixed budget, so we take it. Others have some room to negotiate, so we quote higher. We do occasional no-charge work for established customers, like copywriting, public-service announcements and station promos. And if someone has something interesting to offer, we’ll barter.

The bottom line is to be flexible and listen to what your prospect has to say.

Do you think your rates are low,  high, or pretty much in line with the average rates?

Our rates are on the low side. We feel that everyone should have good audio and good talent on that audio. Just because you may be in an unrated market, or only have a single location for your cucumber-and-tomato retail doesn’t mean you can’t have a nice sales message.

And, on the right-brain side of the coin, rates these days are very much a function of competition. There are so many unemployed jocks doing voiceover for a dollar-a-hollar that when a group like ours comes in, we won’t compete.

Do you have to negotiate low rates to get new business and hold on to existing clients? Or do you find that clients are willing to pay more for better work and service?

That goes back to the customer’s budget and what the market will bear. Rates for Miami are going to be different for Key West. They are 125 miles apart, but vastly different fiscal profiles. So, we ask the customer to tell us what they have in mind, and usually we can work with it.

Although our clientele pays a low rate, they are appreciative of the additional value and time we put into the work, whether it be something like sweetening a voiceover, or massaging copy problems.

That shows with timely payment on invoices and returning to us each month for another couple of reads or pieces of post- work. We don’t have failure-to-pay problems. All quarters close with 100% remittance, year after year. Most of our customers have been with us for five years.

We’ve been able to hold rates for the last few years, and with our larger customers, raise them. Retainers are a huge benefit, along with a solid pool of good talent that you can use both cash and barter - just like your customer base.

It’s all about being flexible, and finding good people to network with that have the same quality mentality whether they be your talent or your customers.

And be nice. Always.

If you are a member of SAG/AFTRA and/or have a talent agency setting your rates, what are your thoughts on the rates you charge? Do you think non-union talents have any impact on union rates?

We’re not union, but I know from personal experience that non-union rates do have an impact. When a talent agency sets the rates, we work with them. They’re a customer just the same as if we cold-called them ourselves.

Erik Cudd <erik[at]erikcuddvoiceovers.com>, Fort Irwin, California: Being new to doing VO on a full time basis with no Union affiliation or representative yet, I try to look at how my audio will be used. For example, if it is a client who might return time and time again to use me in the future for other projects like an Agency or Network, then I will agree to lower rates to be competitive with the hope for future work, but notice I did not say I would take a LOW rate, to me there is a difference. If my audio is going to be used on a large scale, meaning two or three major metropolitan markets with an audience that exceeds one million, then negotiation needs to happen since they will essentially make money each time the ad runs. In that instance a buyout would not be likely, but rather a pay per play scenario. I also have a company that does simple VO production and we split the fee, which in itself is fairly low and I am one of a few of the stable of voices for the company. They are fantastic to work with, very flexible and good people who are nice, professional, and know how to conduct business in a fair and adult manner. For them I do reads at a set price for a certain length, and for anything larger, the fee increases on pre-agreed increments. To me, they provide a website, marketing, and advertising that I don’t have to pay for, and the work is fairly steady. Clients go to the site, hear my demo, and choose me. So since I know the amount the company will earn and what percentage I get for each job, I am fine with working for them at a much lower rate because they provide services to my benefit I don’t have to purchase or maintain, especially since I have been associated with them for almost 5 years now, and the stable of voices is pretty small, so the likelihood of being selected is greater as opposed to a site that sends me audition notices and I audition for the jobs I desire. That scenario is pretty much a crap shoot and gamble, and if you’ve been to Vegas, you know that you might win big now and again, but the house will win in the end, so that gamble really has no long term benefit or payoff. It’s tough to be picked when your audition is #85 out of over 100 auditions submitted.

As for someone approaching me through my own website or a referral, I just take it on a case by case basis. I’ve done retainers with unlimited reads, and retainers with a set number per month, and I have also agreed to a buyout. Either way, I do think you have to be open and flexible with the rates if you work outside the Unions. For me, I like to do commercial reads mainly. However, I feel I have a valuable service to offer clients and that my services require fair compensation. I just want, like any artist, to be compensated fairly for my craft, nothing more, nothing less. We’re all just trying to survive, and trust me, when I had my position eliminated this last time, any ego I had left was left at my desk, no one is so valuable anymore outside of economics, and anyone who thinks they are not replaceable is delusional. I price my rates to be competitive, but at the end of the day I need to buy groceries, and an Addy award, or an air check won’t suffice to pay for food at my local grocer, only a paycheck from a client that will clear my bank. If the client wants what I can give them, and they are willing to pay me fairly to do my job and compensate me for my voice to be used for their profit margin, then we all win, otherwise anything less and you are selling yourself short. Doing so will decrease your value and show future clients that if you are only worth $10 a spot, then that will be all you ever get hired for, is $10 a spot. And those are the ones who usually want James Earl Jones for $10. Good luck paying the bills with clients like that, because you will never measure up and they will never be willing to pay more than $10.

As VO artists, we have to not reduce ourselves to such low rates that we are considered a dime a dozen Each of us has a unique voice and unique background. We all have a passion for what we do, so let’s not devalue ourselves so low that making a living becomes impossible because we felt we were so desperate to take any low paying jobs, but let’s also remember that not every job will pay thousands of dollars either. It’s a delicate balancing act, but we can do it if we are smart, believe in what we have to offer, and treat our profession with the professionalism, respect, and attention it deserves.

Alan Peterson <rollingvalleyradio[at]yahoo.com>: Radio America Network, Washington DC: I’m not union, although I have considered it. Trouble is that would mean a whole new general work agreement with my current fulltime employer, which would actually probably result in me being let go and replaced by less-expensive talent.

My rate is 70.7% of what an AFTRA performer would charge. There is nothing magical about that figure -- it is the same number used to calculate the RMS value of an amplifier’s output and seemed a convenient rate for a non-union guy. Although that comes as a bit of a shock to those “Craigslist agencies” who advertise for non-union voice talent and expect to pay something like $35, which is why everyone should completely ignore those ads.

In only a few months, radio and TV will be inundated with political advertising for the 2012 Presidential election. Now is a good time to get those demos out to every production house you can find -- someone is going to be voicing those ads, so it might as well be us. I find a really good, interpretive voice on those spots will often trump a low-ball talent rate. These parties want their guy to WIN and they have millions to spend to see that it happens, so they frequently won’t be nickel-&-diming on the production budget.

Dave Foxx <DaveFoxx[at]clearchannel.com>, Clear Channel, New York, NY: I know, I know… I’ve already spouted off in this month’s issue of RAP, but if you’ll indulge me for just a moment, I have some very strong feelings on this topic.

I fall into the AFTRA/SAG – Talent Agent group. Sometimes I really dislike that status. I don’t belong to the union because I feel I get a better rate. Fact is, my rates are substantially higher than most, and certainly much higher than the union minimums. My rates are higher because people will pay for a quality product. Too many of my voiceover brothers and sisters out there really undervalue their talent and service and don’t charge nearly enough. When I see talent advertising their services on a website for $25 or even $10 per piece I want to cry.

A quick story: Back in the day when I was an on-air talent, I used to get requests to deejay birthday parties, high school dances and the like every week. I didn’t want to charge too much, for fear I wouldn’t get the gigs, so I’d ask for $110/night, a pretty small set amount. Before I knew it, I was booking 3 and 4 appearances every week. It actually got to be too much, so slowly but surely I started to raise my rates. My thinking was that I would keep raising them until the business slacked off some, allowing me to have at least a couple of nights off. Once I started charging $1000/night, almost 10 times my original price, the pace let up a little. Thinking I had found the threshold, I raised them just a bit more. The demand started to go up again. I started raising my rates even more. Before long, I was charging $2500 to $3000 per night and the demand kept going up.

It wasn’t that I was that good. I don’t think I was. People saw the price and made the basic assumption that you get what you pay for.

Today, I have an agent who is arguably the best in the business. One of his mantras to clients is “You get what you pay for.” Trust me, he knows what he’s doing.

Do non-union talents have an impact on my rates? Nope. They DO have a major impact on other non-union talent though by keeping the bottom end of the scale far too low.

Up your rates. It doesn’t have to be a substantial amount. You might lose a little business at first, but think about what the client is asking you to do. When they complain, point out that they want you to be their spokesperson, their “voice.” If they think 35-50 bucks for a commercial is too high, they clearly don’t value themselves very highly. You should value what you do more than the “dollar a holler” guy down the street. You’re much better than that. 

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