All Work and No Pay Makes Acting a Risky Profession

There’s been a lot of talk around these parts lately about volunteering your vocal services when maybe you should be paid. It’s a tricky situation, but one that might point right to the name “Show Business.” Everybody loves the Show, but forgets the Business.

Back when I was a kid, I was raised on acting for free. School plays. Community theater. Acting camps and after-school classes. It became something of a habit. I wanted to learn this craft, and the best way to get much needed experience was to volunteer my services, or even (have Mom and Dad) pay to join an organized group of like-minded young actors. I did that from third grade all the way up into my early post-college years.

Of course, after college, I had to take wing from Mom and Dad’s subsidized nest and try to make my way in the world. I started interning at a local radio station, and eventually snagged a coveted part-time gig doing weekend overnights and running the audio board for various syndicated shows, as well as voicing and producing assorted commercials. And I got paid, albeit by the hour, meaning if I wasn’t working, I wasn’t earning. But still, my kind-of-steady income gave me the chance to continue to volunteer for community theatre productions, and I did lots of them. Of course, it hadn’t occurred to me that the community theatre producers were charging money for tickets, and none of that money was trickling back down to the actors. That’s more than a little dicey.

Meanwhile, back at the radio station, I had learned the wonders of the medium-market concept of talent fees. When you recorded a commercial spot for your own station, it was considered part of your job duties and you weren’t paid extra. But as soon as someone decided it should air on a crosstown rival station, that meant you got paid a nice little talent fee above and beyond your wages. How cool is that?

Eventually, through a series of hirings and firings, I got some full-time radio gigs, including one that provided time to do one last community theater show. All the while, through the same hirings and firings, I had collected samples of my various voicework into a demo tape, shopped it around, and started to book an assortment of anime and cartoon work, which I was able to pursue only by moonlighting on my day job, ducking out for extended lunch hours to record numerous roles you might know and even love, picking up some lovely extra scratch in the process.

Eventually, all that moonlighting cause the full-time day job to implode, leaving me to fallback on the voice-over career which I probably should have been doing in the first place. And that’s when my opinion on volunteering for community theater productions had to change.

As I’ve explained in other screeds, acting is my lifelong passion. Always has been, always will be. But in that Human-Resources-driven instant, it immediately went from being my avocation to being my vocation. Acting was now my day job, and giving it away for free suddenly became a huge conflict of interest, so community theater and its volunteer nature became a major problem. Committing to days of rehearsal and hours of free performances for no remuneration now ran opposite my goal of being a working actor. How could professional clients pay for my services by day while I was literally giving my talents away by night? As I was now my own small business, that didn’t make sense from a business standpoint. Had I been a member of Actors’ Equity, the stage actors’ union, I could also get in a heap of trouble for doing a non-union production without the union’s express permission. That wouldn’t end well.

Acting is somewhat unique among most professions in that it has a ton of people who pursue it as a hobby. These are the denizens of school and community theater I mentioned earlier. I used to be one of them, so there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing that in your spare time. But when you’re an amateur and decide you want to turn pro, that’s where it turns messy.

It occurred to me just recently, what if the same thing happened with, say, the medical profession?

“I like model trains. What’s your hobby?”

“Oh, I dabble in neurosurgery. Y’know, why should people have to pay big bucks for a top doctor when I can fix their nervous system for free!”

Wait, what? How is that okay? It’s not, is it? And the same holds true for voice actors who are willing to work for free or cheap for allegedly professional productions. Especially if the producers are expecting to profit off the back of your hard work, you should be compensated for your time as well. Your time and talents have value, just like a plumber or electrician. Don’t sell yourself short.

The low-rate is thing is also a problem for the voice-over industry as a whole. Professional voice talent have earned the right to command industry-standard rates. Union scale or better for SAG-AFTRA union members, comparable non-union rates for others. But if a professional client can find someone on the internet willing to work for five bucks or even nothing, why would any clients want to pay professional actors with their much-higher market rates? On the flip side, if you as an amateur convince these clients that you’re only worth five bucks or even nothing, how will you convince them to pay you those much higher market rates once you turn pro? Good luck with that.

Accepting low-budget work will ultimately hurt the voice-over industry as a whole, as a falling tide lowers all boats. It’s one thing to volunteer on an all-volunteer project such as a fandub (although the potential for copyright infringement and alienating a potential client raises its own questions), but if there’s any kind of a budget behind a project and you're contributing voicework, you should be a line-item on that budget. You should be paid, and ideally, higher than the single or double digits. That’s the nature of capitalism, I’m afraid. If you tried to open a store that gave everything away, your first day would likely be your last.