Should you “watermark” your VO audition?
Mar 23 2017
In the voice-over world, “watermarking” is the anti-theft practice of ensuring your audition is unusable for final production. Voice actors do this to prevent the client from using their audition without telling them … and more importantly, without paying them. Loosely defined, watermarks are implemented in various ways — such as adding an undesirable sound at some point in the audition, deleting a moment of sound, omitting or misreading part of the text, degrading the technical quality, or some similar measure.
Watermarks were a trendy practice back when online auditioning was a new phenomenon. Is it still a good thing to do? Was it ever? And what alternatives are there when submitting an audition to a voice seeker you do not know?
(And does watermarking apply only to auditions? Probably yes. Once you’ve landed the client, you shouldn’t have to even think about watermarking the final production, ready for approval. By then, you should have their identity and pedigree, some sort of written agreement (at least a detailed email).)
Let’s review various watermarking options. But be sure to keep reading, because these are NOT necessarily recommended!
- Add a beep now and then, or at a critical point (e.g., the phone number or product name). Or any inappropriate sound.
- Mix in a copyright notice at a low volume.
- Drop out the sound in significant places.
- Misread a word or phrase, or web address, or transpose a couple numbers in the phone number.
- Degrade the technical quality, for example by adding hiss or overcompressing the file (that is, by making the file size too small, not audio compression).
You get the idea. Such a list even acquires its own set of tips, such as:
- Totally change the phone number. (Maybe insert your own?) This would prevent some dastardly fiend from transposing the numbers back, if they’re lucky. It would also assure they don’t think you can’t read copy accurately. And don’t forget to include a note, or say in your slate, that you’ve done it intentionally. But that’s awkward, isn’t it?
- Make the watermark tone less obtrusive by making it something other than a pure tone. For example, a pleasant combination of tones, a sliding pitch, a nice “bloop,” or actual sound. Or make it funny. (A duck?) Except we doubt many prospective clients will think it funny.
- Save your watermark as a separate file and simply mix it into every audition. A problem with this (in addition other problems, discussed below) is that the sound might randomly come in a phrase that you distinctively voiced very effectively. Or it messes up your dramatic timing.
- Be sure to save the non-watermarked version, since sometimes a voice seeker will find the audition itself is sufficient for their needs. In that case, there should be no need to re-record or re-produce it.
A problem with many of these approaches is that some clients could get around them.
- For example, a technically proficient client might sample the beep and remove it. Or mix in music that obscures it.
- Or, if you just beeped the client’s name at the end, they could replace the tag with one from another commercial. (We’ll assume that such a client would be too cheap to hire another announcer.)
- You could just fade out before the very end, over many seconds. But a client willing to use an mp3 for their finished audio probably wouldn’t mind sliding the volume back up, noisy or not. And a technically non-discriminating client might have no problem with using your degraded mp3 instead of a wav file. In fact, they might not hear the difference.
Meanwhile, it can’t help but annoy the listener, or it distracts from your performance, however much you minimize it. And if there’s one thing end-clients are annoyed by, it’s somebody who messes up their name.
So really consider if watermarking is worth the risk and effort. Audition theft isn’t the problem it was once thought to be. Since then, the community of voice-over professionals has grown and become very cohesive. A client who regularly steals auditions risks being found out. (That is, unless they’re in some remote land, or in a region where intellectual property theft is commonly tolerated, or in an obscure medium.)
Furthermore, a knowledgeable voice seeker might hear your hatchet job as the mark of someone who hasn’t kept pace with the industry. Ironically, your concern that they are so naive as to steal your work … makes you look naive.
Or worse. Countless clients with impeccable scruples may say to themselves: “Do I want to work with a talent who doesn’t trust people, or who doesn’t see me as a professional?”
Or they might see you as a small-timer, someone whose experience is only with non-professionals. (That could be a profitable niche for you, but other clients might not understand.)
Or they could figure you’re a beginner.
Even if the audition screener (e.g., at an ad agency) understands the reason for watermarking and takes it with a grain of salt, they might shy away from playing it for their client. You might not think you’ve distracted from your performance, but the agency might not agree. What if they don’t even have final approval of their creative concept, and you’ve messed up their presentation? Many other genres have similar scenarios.
(An important distinction: Running auditions by the client for talent selection is common practice. But a recording used to present the script or idea to a client is a job that should itself be compensated.)
You’ll probably spend more time messing up your audition (and your reputation) than you might lose in an occasional theft. Remember that virtually all the other competitive submissions will not have been watermarked. If the client has to choose just five auditions for their short-list, why make it easy for them to rank yours #6?
Yes, there will always be audition theft, here and there, now and then. Some thieves may be outright crooks. Others might be amateurs — voice seekers whose main business is not audio production, or who are themselves novices — unaware of the injury they’re causing. Or maybe they’re just kidding themselves.
In any case, it’s theft, and it injures you. Period. If you are suspicious but still want to proceed with a particular audition, what are your best options?
- One is to reconsider and skip that audition. After all, you’re already very discriminating (we hope) in choosing which to answer. This is just one other criterion to have in your filter.
- Don’t read the full script. You might omit a paragraph in the middle, or record just the first 15 or 20 seconds. As they used to say in vaudeville, “Leave your audience wanting more.” On the other hand, in many scripts, the last few seconds are typically the client name and tag line. Why weaken or omit them? Always end strong!
- Whatever you do, do it at the end. The client either likes you by then anyway, and if not, they’ve probably already moved on. At least you won’t have annoyed them for the entire recording.
As Edge Studio Managing Director Graeme Spicer has said:
“I don’t worry too much about it. If I suspect that the voice seeker might not be completely above board, I might do something. But there isn’t really anything to prevent someone from stealing the recording and using it (other than their honesty). Meanwhile, suspecting them of potential theft is not a great way to begin a long and mutually beneficial client relationship.”
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