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Jon Dryden Taylor: How can we ensure voice-over artists get paid on time?

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With delays of six months not uncommon, voice actors are often paid long after their work has aired. Jon Dryden Taylor looks at ways of dealing with the problem without jeopardising future career prospects

When a pipe bursts or the boiler packs in, most people call in a plumber. When everything that needs fixing has been fixed, the plumber sends an invoice. Two months later, the plumber sends a polite email asking when the bill might be paid. No response.

Another month, another – less polite – email. The plumber is told that the payment round for this month has gone out so it will be at least another four weeks. Eventually, five months after the work was done, the money is paid – though the plumber gets the impression that their services might not be used again because one of the emails was a bit stroppy.

It sounds absurd, doesn’t it? Yet replace ‘plumber’ with ‘voice-over artist’ and it’s a perfectly accurate description of how long it can take to be paid for a job. At the time of writing, it’s January and I haven’t been paid a four-figure fee for an advert I voiced in early October. The campaign has been and gone from our screens and, so far, I did it for nothing.

This is not unusual. Four months is standard, six is common. Other actors have told me about waits of nine months or even a year. It’s very hard to manage finances when payment is this erratic. On countless occasions, I’ve had to spend voice-over money long before it arrives, so that by the time it actually comes in, the amount is filling a hole rather than registering as actual income.

I’ve often wished I was brave enough to go public – to tweet “Hi, @BigCompany, I voiced an ad for you made by @AdAgency five months ago and I was wondering why you haven’t paid me yet?” It would probably work, in the short term. But the effect on my career wouldn’t be pretty. Writing this piece is worrying enough: what if I lose a gig because someone happens to read it and thinks ‘this one sounds like trouble’?

I should stress that agents aren’t the problem here. My own voice-over agents are brilliant at keeping me informed, and work tirelessly to bring payments in. But they’re in just as much of a bind as the artists. Make a fuss, make trouble, and the advertising agency – which may have countless wealthy multinational organisations on its client list – won’t come calling again.

So we’ve ended up with a situation where a perfectly reasonable request – to be paid on time – has become one that nobody is prepared to make. I’m not a conspiracy theorist on this one. I don’t think a deliberate, industry-wide decision was ever taken to do this. It just happened, and then it happened more, and now it happens because it has always happened.

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I’m sure there’s a reason behind the delays. People who work in accounts departments are probably screaming at me as they read, telling me I don’t understand. But from the view of the person waiting for the payment, it’s hard not to feel a little resentful towards someone who gets a regular, uninterrupted pay packet who, for whatever reason, isn’t making the few keystrokes that would send the money we’re owed into our accounts.

It’s harder to handle at some times of the years than others. At least in summer you can be skint in the sunshine. But it’s always upsetting not to be able to buy Christmas presents for family and friends when the ad you recorded in that sunshine hasn’t paid up yet.

Something has to change. Equity has an audio department and can offer brilliant help and support in these situations, but as voice-overs tend not to be covered by Equity contracts, their powers are limited. Ideally, half the fee would be paid up front. That way it would be a little easier to plan our finances, because as soon as a gig were confirmed there would be some guaranteed income – and if it didn’t turn up, neither would the artist. That would at least assuage the maddening experience of doing a job and leaving the room with literally no idea when any money might appear.

Legally, interest is chargeable on an invoice that has remained unpaid for 30 days, but no voice-over artist would risk going to court over it

Legally, interest is chargeable on an invoice that has remained unpaid for 30 days. But for some of the reasons outlined above, none of us is ever going to be prepared to go to the small claims court over this point. If agents made a collective undertaking to enforce the interest I’m sure things would get moving. But it would have to be collective: it would be too exposing and risky for one agent to do so unilaterally.

Perhaps social media might come in handy after all. While naming and shaming still feels too risky, perhaps a #notpaidyet hashtag could give an idea of the scale of the issue, without being specific enough to jeopardise future work for anyone who used it.

As actors, we can definitely be better at sharing information. It wasn’t until I chatted to friends about this that I became aware of how widespread the problem is. When you think it’s only happening to you, it’s can lead to a self-pitying response rather than a proactive one.

I can understand a certain amount of eye-rolling at this. Nobody’s going to be moved to take to the streets to protest for the rights of voice-over artists. In general, the rates of pay are excellent, and there are infinitely worse ways of earning cash than sitting in a cosy booth for an hour talking into a microphone and being brought coffee. But we do still deserve to be paid on time, and it would be great to see if any of the above suggestions would help.

Failing that, there’s the option I learned at a media consultancy I once worked with. When my boss there was overdue a payment, she’d go to the client’s office, sit in reception and not leave until she’d received it – with her toddler, his crayons and his lunch.

Jon Dryden Taylor is an actor, writer and editor of The Green Room

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