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Rip Off! Protect Yourself From Voice Over
Clients Who'll Try To Cheat You Out Of Pay

By Sean Ahern
Laugh Traffic Audio Production Agency

Artists get taken advantage of all the time.

As a professional audio engineer working for several marketing agencies, I serve not only as the producer but also as the liaison between talent and the agency.

That being said, it's often up to me to solve any sort of payment dispute. It shouldn't be up to me, but I have a feeling it's because both parties would rather do a "he/she said to tell you" sort of thing.  

One VO artist in particular that I've worked with for years has had their fair share of issues with payment and use of their voice. I decided to ask them a few questions in order to shine some light on the situation:

What was the worst incident in which you didn't get paid for VO services?  
"I was owed $3,000. The client later had a stroke, so collecting payment at that time seemed uncouth. I waited a few years, and carried the balance forward until he recovered. I reached out some time later, and when we reconnected, he indicated that he really wanted to get me paid and that he 'had some things in the works,' and that I should call him back in 5-6 weeks.

"After several attempts to follow up, I received a call from the client's sister, telling me that he had committed suicide. I did not get paid."  
Do you feel as though you often get taken advantage of as a VO artist?  
"Yes. In usage and cost."
"Firstly, I oftentimes feel that the spots I record are used multiple times beyond the cycles I've been told they'd be used for, but because, in many cases, I live out of market, I have no way of knowing.

"I have, however, accidentally discovered 'abused usage' scenarios, and have had to chase down the money. It's not fun, and sometimes, the client will either deny it, or pay it, or pay it and then never hire me again."    
Are you paid enough compared to the industry average?  
"I don't believe that I am. But, these days it's hard to know what the 'industry average is.' 

"Many times an individual ad agency or production company will set a rate and if I don't follow it, they will hire someone else. In these trying times, I cannot afford to push back. There are too many low-cost voice over providers that drive the prices down, and I don't want to participate with those entities, but the competition is too great to take those chances. It's a grave landscape out there." 
How can other VO artists ensure that they get paid for services rendered?  
"Go union. And, do everything in your power to help clients understand that this protects everyone's best interests. And it keeps track of when and where spots are used, so voice artists are appropriately compensated, and clients don't have to keep track of everything and have to do extra work later.

"Also, there is a set rate sheet in place that negates the need for haggling, creating a negative environment for an artist to have to justify their costs.

"I can't think of any other way. If a client refuses to 'go union,' unless they are able to provide an acceptable reason why not, then perhaps this is not a client who respects the voice artist and what they are bringing to the table, and are just trying to be cheap, with no accountability."  

Going union is a great way to get paid industry standard rates that also factor in size and scope of how your voice is being used.

However, not all artists want to go union.

Union artists run the risk of being undercut by cheaper non-union voices. And the agencies that I work for have never - and will never - hire union VO artists; we always make sure to check before sending any work.

The concept of the union functions best in an ideal world where every artist is a part of it, but unfortunately that isn't reality.


So what else can you do as a VO artist to protect yourself?

1. Get a P.O.

I highly recommend always asking for a P.O. (purchase order) before beginning any work.

Often, and especially with fast-paced deadlines in the agency world, artists will be pressured to rush an order out to air on time, without receiving the P.O. But the P.O. will serve as adequate proof of the job, especially if there's a job number associated with it as well.  

2. Be wary of agencies asking you for "scratch tracks"

There have been many times where an artist, especially a new artist, will send a scratch track as an audition, but since the audio is usually ready for airing anyway, the agency will use it as the finished product. If you submit an audition or scratch track, be sure to follow up.  

3. Ask new clients for pay up front

If you're servicing a new client you don't know or trust yet, ask for half of your pay up front for at least your first couple jobs with them. They may or may not agree, depending on how they stand with the aforementioned issue on the risk of client disapproval.

4. Use a professional contract

Have a contract written up by a professional and ask the agency to read and sign it before any work begins.

Be sure to outline how you would like to be paid depending on:
  • what you provide (multiple voices, singing, acting),
  • how it's used (scope and size of audience), and
  • how you'd be compensated for your time (production cost mentioned before).
You may also want to consider hiring an agent to represent you who can help with these steps.  

"The client hated it. We can't pay you."
An issue of ethics?  

In certain situations, I'll send an approved script to a VO artist, give them the direction that was described to me by creative and the AE. They send it back, I complete the spot, my team approves it, sends the P.O., and then sends the spot to the client.

The artist's rate was approved, the job was done, and they're expecting to be paid.

However, it turns out that the client hates it. They may not necessarily hate the read, but more so, the concept or script.

Either way, they won't accept it.  

This in turn results in the agency saying:
"Well, the client didn't use the spot, and didn't pay us for the work, so we can't pay your invoice." 
I've asked the opinion of a few VO artists regarding this specific situation. Collectively we all agreed that the artist should at the very least get paid a "production cost" for their time spent recording.

We also agreed that the agency should understand that there's always this sort of risk in a client services based industry, and that the agency should roll with the punches and still pay the artist. After all, there are more valuable things than a couple hundred bucks, such as relationships with your vendors as well as your reputation as an agency.

Unfortunately, some agencies are just cheap, and may try to pull this sort of thing on you at some point.

A good preventive measure would be to ask for a certain percentage of your invoice still be paid to you if the spot doesn't air. Very rarely will one of our clients disapprove a spot; so this is a relatively safe measure to take that will not only be fair to you and the agency, but will also further develop the business relationship between the two of you.  


The agency hasn't paid you yet. Actually, it's been a couple months now. What can you do?

You could pursue legal action, but that may end up costing you more money, and the agency will most likely never work with you again. Plus, if you don't have a contract or P.O., things might be even more difficult.  

Similar to how the agency should acknowledge the risk of client dissatisfaction, you will also have to assume the risk of an agency not being able to pay you. I say "not being able" because it's more likely that the agency is in some sort of financial pickle as opposed to them being cheap and evil people who want to steal your VO.

In actuality, agencies go bankrupt often enough.

Try to be patient while still following up regularly. Usually if you send enough emails, they'll get around to paying you.    
Sean Ahern is the owner of the comedic audio production agency Laugh Traffic. He believes that combining the contagious effect of comedy with the reach and versatility of radio is one of the most effective methods of advertising. After earning his degree in music production from Drexel University, Sean acquired advanced skills in sound design and audio engineering that he uses to create vibrant and creative audio advertisements. After producing audio ads and working with voice over talent for the past 8 years, he's gained significant insight into the back end of the audio advertising industry. Check out his website to listen to some of his work.

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Comments (2)
Bobbin Beam
5/11/2020 at 9:36 AM
Hi Sean,
I've learned that many overseas clients in the EUR can take months to pay. All I can say is BEWARE! They may end up not paying and stringing you along. It's not feasible to consider hiring an attorney or broker to collect. I could name one large producer, but won't. Even in the USA, once you're past 90 days, the likelihood of getting paid diminishes almost entirely. Good article.
Thanks, Bobbin
Chuck Davis
5/11/2020 at 7:42 AM
What fun seeing Sean’s comments pop up here. We work together very frequently and have for years now. Great blog post. May I add to the "Union" issue that, as a Union performer (ficore) I have seen VO castings decrease over the past few years. I've even lost a very lucrative, long term union gig to, what I'm fairly sure, was a non-union talent.
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