Should voice actors accept buy-out jobs?

Edge Studio

Ring, ring goes your phone. Or “bloop,” you’ve got an email from a prospective client. It’s an interesting job. But either explicitly stated, or reading between the lines, you see that it’s a buyout – an “in perpetuity” job or audition. No residuals. Theirs to use forever, in any way they wish.

Still, it’s an interesting opportunity. Should you be interested?

The obvious answer is, can you make your next mortgage payment and if not, will this cover it? At the other extreme is if you’re a union member and may accept this type of work only on union contract terms.

But there are many genres in which SAG-AFTRA or other union membership is not relevant, and situations where your actual existence is not at stake. At what point are you selling a valuable service for a simple, fairly valued price, and when do you begin to sell your soul?

The issue of “in perpetuity” has been discussed among talent almost in perpetuity itself. There is no absolute answer. But here are some questions to ask yourself before asking a potential client about this. Our point in these is that it’s not a black-and-white issue, and there might be self-limiting factors. Above all, our point is that you should think about it fully and carefully.

Is exclusivity also an issue? It’s not the same issue, but it is related. A voice actor could voice an ad for one advertiser, then for a competing advertiser several years later, without anyone objecting or listeners even noticing. But if sold “in perpetuity” and the two campaigns thus might run simultaneously, that potentially becomes a problem. Understandably, future prospective clients might at least want to have been warned. If you always sell your voice in perpetuity, the universe of non-conflicting clients begins to close in on your career.

Is it a genre or market where vocal identity is not a significant issue?

For example, if you’re the voice of one toy, is it a problem if you voice another toy? Or if you’re the voice of a flower shop’s phone system, does it matter that you also voiced the local car dealer’s phone prompts? On the other hand, if you greet callers to one industry leader, how does it sound if you also voice their competitor’s phone menu?

Is there something self-limiting about the script? For example, is it about a specific item for a specific sale at a specific store at a specific price? It’s probably not likely that spot will run forever.

Is it required that you sign away all future rights, or are you just assuming it? There are at least six types of client situation: 1) The client actually wants it in perpetuity; 2) The client figures they might as well try to get perpetuity; 3) The client has included it just as part of a standard contract; 4) The client hasn’t thought about it, and maybe hasn’t even mentioned it; 5) The client is open to negotiation; 6) You assumed the client will insist on perpetuity and you go along with it. If you want to limit usage rights, only in situation #1 are you necessarily going to lose the gig, and you don’t know yet if that’s the case.

We might go further, but you can see that the potential gray area extends infinitely wide and far into the future. As you and/or the clients grow, the potential for regret and/or abuse grows, too.

No doubt you will lose some prospective jobs if you insist on limiting usage rights. Depending on the marketing venue, maybe a lot of jobs. But you will also protect future opportunities, and probably some future income.

As the saying goes, “Do you want a job, or a career?” In this case, the contrast between “a job” and your career prospects is at its greatest.

To address timeframe concerns, here are some things you can stipulate in a written contract. Those that don’t limit perpetuity may limit in compensatory ways:

(This is general advice, and not necessarily exhaustive. Unless explicitly signed away, you may retain rights to your work already … but in any case, it is wise to be clear and prevent misunderstandings. To properly cover all issues in your locale, consult an attorney conversant with performance law. Also, in some examples, we have focused on commercial genres, but these principles apply to a wide range of genres, some more than others.)

  • Delete any reference to “work for hire” or “work made for hire.” It means that the work belongs to your employer, not to you (even if you wrote it), to use as they wish.
  • Limit the term (time period). We understand in some countries, use of recorded talent’s work is by law limited to a certain period, such as one year, after which it must be stopped, renewed or renegotiated. Wherever you are, you can do this yourself, stipulating a year, a month, 13 weeks, whatever seems appropriate. If you suspect you’ll meet resistance, include the right to renew – at some additional cost. Remember that it is easier for a satisfied client to renew than to cast and produce again from scratch.
  • Limit the territory (geographical area). Specify usage only in a certain city, state, country, or defined regional market.
  • Limit the media. If you record a radio commercial, it should not be used on TV or online without additional payment. If you record for one educational product, do not allow it to be used for another product without further compensation. (An exception might be, for example, an audio logo or broadly applicable credits, but that should be stipulated.) Who knows, your simple one-time telephony recording of “Have a great day!” could be repurposed to be heard by customers exiting half the stores in the country. Imagine your mixed emotions over that.
  • Limit the number of uses. This might or might not be practical, depending in part on the medium. But you could conceivably limit the number of times, say, a radio commercial will run.
  • Limit the client. The client you recorded for should not be able to sell it for use by someone else. Or if you record for one retail outlet of a chain, specify that it is to be used only by that one store. A museum might run your audio tour for as long as they have those paintings, but should not allow another museum to use it, and your audio tour should not itself go on tour.
  • Limit the script usage. For example, if you record a commercial, the end should not be separated or combined with another commercial as a tag. Or if you record a 30-second spot, you should be paid extra if they also cut it down to 10.
  • Point to the provisions of a union contract. Even if you are not a union member, you might still ask to observe its terms.
  • Work out an ongoing royalty or percentage basis. As an independent, unrepresented, freelance talent, this might be a rare situation, and difficult to audit and enforce. But it’s a thought. Just be sure to get enough as an initial payment to cover your “bottom” (line, that is). Otherwise, you’re working on spec. (The great voice artist Mel Blanc defined “spec” as “a small piece of dirt.”)
  • Charge a super-high price for your work. If the client absolutely insists on perpetuity and unlimited scope, make yourself worth it. Ditto if the use will be one you cannot monitor because it is an obscure product or medium, or geographically remote from you (or any reason).

But chances are you’re already worth it. You’re just not demonstrating your value clearly or earnestly enough. You’ll lose some opportunities, but as you communicate your value in more professional terms, other opportunities emerge and grow. In any case, you have little to lose by asking in a polite, professional way. YOU are the expert! As we observed (and you likely will), some clients are not as insistent as you might think. And clients who do not respect such a request might not be the sort you will serve for very long anyway.

Meanwhile, the ability to retain control over your work is a valuable business skill that will remain yours … in perpetuity.

Do you have a comment or suggestion? Please send to [email protected].

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