Big League VO is where some of the meatiest, most lucrative voice over jobs are acquired, but the latest news out of the traditionally union-dominated Manhattan voice over scene may surprise you.
Find out how the US economy continues to take a bite out of union work.

Big League VO

One year has passed since we last met with Super Agent Billy Serow and heard him speak on the topic of Big League VO. While the man and the agent are still the same, the way the game is played has changed considerably.

Billy Serow

For those of you who don’t know Billy Serow, Billy started out as an actor who later moved to the other side of the dinner table to work as a casting director, followed by becoming a voice over agent working at William Morris representing celebrities. Although William Morris paid the bills, Billy’s heart was set on developing talent more than further lining the pockets of established personalities. He enjoys making people stars, not servicing stars, which led to his current position as a voice over agent at Abrams Artists Agency where he has been for the past six years.

The Abrams Artists Agency voiceover department has 6 agents. They make money for their talent in every possible venue using the human voice.
Sounds pretty normal so far, doesn’t it?

The Conversation Took a Decidedly Different Turn

Fact: The voice-over world is rapidly changing.
When Billy first got into commercials, 95% of national network commercial jobs cast in New York City were union jobs and 5% were non-union jobs.
Commercials are the mainstay in the union field.

In recent years that reality has dwindled. Non-union network voice-over commercial jobs in New York City now account for 38% of the work and climbing while only 62% presently remains union voice-over work.
For union talent (SAG / AFTRA), that’s a tough pill to swallow — for a franchised union agency, that’s a wake up call.
The non-union sector is growing in leaps and bounds and uncertainty is ravaging the landscape, overshadowed by a thick cloud known as “New Media”.

Big League VO has Found Itself in the Wild West

The new frontier of New Media is quick to move and the unions have yet to find a satisfactory and standardized way of handling work contracted for mediums and applications such as podcasts, DVDs, mobile devices, cell phones, viral marketing campaigns and Internet.
Let’s be clear: There is no contract for œNew Media.

Example: A commercial that was on radio first and then re-broadcast online has additional fees. Online use post-broadcast is billed at the equivalent of 3 session fees ( $400 per session ) = $1200 for 1-years rate. That being said, when the audio is procured initially for distribution via New Media and then subsequently applied to other mediums, there’s nothing in place to charge for usage of the material.

If you think this subject sounds familiar, take a moment to remember the Writer’s Guild of America strike last year and think ahead to the imminent discussions SAG will take part in with producers regarding issues of compensation for usage of broadcast material in New Media.

US Economy Poses Challenges for Union Talent

The US economy is in danger of entering into some murky waters and as a result union work is becoming harder to come by and negotiate each day. Enter Financial Core. Some people in the union struggle with the thought (and some with the reality) of taking non-union jobs just to make enough money to support their families. In most cases this would be impossible, but not where Financial Core is concerned.

In a nutshell, Financial Core is the only way for union members to do non-union voice-over work without being scrutinized or risk excommunication by the union. While work can still be pursued on both union and non-union terms, the individuals who apply for the status of Financial Core do lose some privileges such as the right to vote on union politics and attend union functions.

Several years ago, there was a glaring stigma associated with having Financial Core status in the union, but the stance held on the issue has become seemingly less stringent and more forgiving in recent months.

This Is The Sound of an Industry Changing

What happens now? Many are debating over whether or not to join the union considering the financial outlook, diminishing signatories who hire union talent, and increasing percentage of non-union jobs.
With living expenses on the rise, an uncertain economy, sparring unions, and fewer union jobs to go around, some people will need to make difficult decisions in order to get by.

What Do You Think of All This?

Leave a comment sharing your thoughts.
Best wishes,

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Stephanie Ciccarelli is the Co-Founder and Chief Brand Officer of Classically trained in voice, piano, violin and musical theatre, as well as a respected mentor and industry speaker, Stephanie graduated with a Bachelor of Musical Arts from the Don Wright Faculty of Music at the University of Western Ontario. Possessing a great love for imparting knowledge and empowering others, her podcast Sound Stories serves an audience that wants to achieve excellence in storytelling. Stephanie is found on the PROFIT Magazine W100 list three times (2013, 2015 and 2016), a ranking of Canada's top female entrepreneurs, and is the author of Voice Acting for Dummies®.


  1. I have found that non union work is the way to go in this economy. You can actually pick up more clients than ever before if you can work at more reasonable rates and not have union restrictions hanging over your head. My business has remained strong in this bad economy and when it returns to normal, I will simply eliminate the lower paying clients.
    Dave Mann

  2. This is a tough one. Of course, in just looking at one’s personal business and financial stability the path may seem obvious – and the bottom line. However, in looking at the big picture, the demise of the unions would lead to a free for all with rates paid to performers only spiraling downward – and eventually hurting everyone. Why did the unions come into being in the first place? To help set a standard of fair pay and fair treatment – wages and working conditions. If producers don’t have to pay a specified amount – scale – they probably won’t. If they don’t have to be a signatory to union agreements to get the talent they want, they won’t.
    While some people are opposed to all unions in principle and politically, the unions helped to create the middle class in America at great cost to the original organizers. In some union organizing efforts violence occurred. In the performers’ unions organizing efforts, some were blacklisted. The more union busting that has gone on, the more the wages, benefits, and working conditions have declined, even though some industries are seeing record profits.
    There’s always someone willing to work for less. Sometimes that’s the bottom line, and on occasion, talent will out and the employer is willing to pay more. Unless you’re a star, holding out for more is risky business. You have to be prepared to lose work to the lowest bidder. Keeping the playing field even was another reason for creating standardized scale wages.
    In challenging economic times, the performers unions can’t roll back wages to the determinant and outcry of their members, but they have often been forced to only go for marginal gains and compromise with the industry. Power plays within the unions aside, their efforts are made with the best of intentions and the welfare of the performer in mind. Keep in mind that the union leadership is made up of other performers volunteering their time to help others. Paid staff is relatively small. Most of the various board members are not well known names or stars, but performers just trying to make a living, too.

  3. Stephanie,
    I cannot say I am surprised at the reversal in the percentage of union vs. non-union voice work being produced. This is not to say I am against unions, I grew up in a household where my parents both worked at union shops and I understand their value. But technology changed and with that the game changed. Anyone who has a thousand bucks for equipment and an internet connection can say they are a voice talent. Voice producers/seekers, of course, want to get the best voice they can for the lowest price.
    At VOICE 2007 in Las Vegas AFTRA & SAG were talking to people making their case in favor of representation. I just couldn’t buy it. More to the point I’ve seen unions becoming less and less effective since the 70’s. They represent a dwindling niche of performers in tiny areas of the country (largely New York and L.A.). Can unions reverse the trend? Not bloody likely and certainly not anytime soon. If you are a union member do I think you should leave your union? No. In fact it would be nice to think that as the voice-over industry grows that union membership would grow along with it. You may not like it but as a voice talent the reality is that it’s better to do a couple of non-union jobs a week at, say, $300 ea. than to sit on principle and wait for that union job that pays $500.

  4. Hi Stephanie,
    I was making the rounds in NYC in the ’80s and well remember Billy Serow at Abrams in at Ross Report… well out of my league. I was mostly doing extra work on the soaps and tending bar… eventually got into industrials and vo. Anyway, in those days you could conceivably make put-a-kid-thru-college kind of money from the right commercial. So much has changed. Positive changes for me… and good for, I would think.
    Be well. Keep up the good work.

  5. Wow! There’s so much to consider. I grew up just outside of New York City and moved away as a teenager – and I plan on moving to within at least a 1/2 hour of Manhattan when my youngest gets out of college in 4 years. By then, I hope I have a better idea of if I want to be in a union or not. Until then I will keep plugging away!

  6. A Lesson to be learned from the writers strike: The Writer’s Guild published the names of those which elected financial core. In short, blacklisted.
    This is the very thing the unions fought against during the McCarthy era.

  7. I’m the iPod, Unions are the RIAA (Recording Industry Assoc. of America).
    They don’t get it, and all they want to do is preserve their piece of a bygone legacy to the detriment of WHAT-COULD-BE.
    As a 30-yr veteran of broadcast TV, I saw time and again the effect of unionizing a shop. It meant a clear decline in quality of news product, and a loss of morale and teamwork.
    The analogy breaks down when applying it to VO individuals, but unions DO tend towards ponderous, institutionalized bureaucracies that lose their sense of purpose over time, then become mired in politics, egos, and rigid positioning — often incapable of adapting to rapidly changing times, such as we’re seeing now in VO.
    Although the free market philosophy does lend itself to occassional inequities, it is a paradigm that works (in the end), and certainly is the formula that has brought the United States to the top of the world’s economies.
    A person who commented above, pointed out that unions helped to form a successful middle-class. Back then, it meant something. Now, American unions have helped to form a successful middle class in Mexico, India, Poland, and Thailand, because Unions here have priced themselves out of the global economy.
    Service unions like SAG/AFTRA are not agile enough today to see clearly how to better represent me as a voice actor in the marketplace. They have not made their case, they have not reached out, they present no clear advantage.
    Talent unions are a floundering relic, lost in a sea-change of new media that is going to find it’s own center with or without them.

  8. The writing has been on the wall for a long time – outside of LA and New York. Thanks for the update.
    I’d like to know some additional statistics for the big markets if you can find them.
    1. What percentage of national commercial work is being cast out of the big agencies?
    2. Are the big clients starting to bypass the big agencies and use the “pay-to-play” sites? Yes, I know you hate that term, but if the biggies started using these innovative (yet still growing and maturing) software services, then the stigma of the term would end up being positive.
    3. What percentage of national commercial work is being done remotely using ISDN, Source Connect, Phone Patch?

  9. Even though this article is months old it is still relevant. I have had to overlook 5 auditions in the last month – good paying jobs – 4 digits – because of my union status. Though I believe in the unions I regret being AFTRA right now knowing that without an agent I am between a rock and a hard place. It feels like all the union does is take my money. So many cracks to fall through: I had COBRA health insurance, but because it was through a regular job, I did not qualify for either the government subsidy nor the AFTRA subsidy, and am no longer making enough to sustain the coverage so it is gone. That makes overlooking these job opportunities that much harder. I mean, to ask us for solidarity when we are essentially providing it for the benefit of a minimal percentile? And financial core is viewed like a dirty thing. It is like there is no win in any direction.


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