VO Coaches & Unions

Dave writes:

James, I am very interested in exploring/pursuing a career in voice over and getting the prerequisite training to do so. I reside in eastern Long Island, New York... a bit of a distance from San Diego. Is there a voice-acting trainer/work-shop in New York/NYC that you highly recommend?

Wish you were closer,


There are several good VO coaches and workshops in NYC. I highly recommend Susan Berkley at www.greatvoice.com. Susan is in NJ and teaches her Voiceover Bootcamp on a regular basis. It's an excellent workshop on what it takes to be successful in voiceover.

If you've been to www.voiceacting.com, you may have noticed that Penny and I will be in Chicago on August 21-22 with our Weekend Workshop. This is our 2-day workshop on the craft and performance of voiceover. In this workshop we focus on the performance craft. Susan's workshop focuses on the business side of voiceover.

Kimberly asks:

Hi, I think I e-mailed you a couple of times before and I wanted to thank you for giving me encouragement about pursuing voice-acting. I have a question: What exactly is the Union? I have a friend who is in acting he's and his mother was talking about agents that are with the Union and agents that are not with the Union. Would you please make this clear to me? 

Thank you for you time,


This may get a bit confusing, but stay with me, and I think you'll get the idea of what the unions are all about.

Thanks for writing. A union (any union) is an organized group of individuals (members) that exists for the purpose of protecting its members rights and maintaining high standards of employment and compensation. There are many unions for different aspects of show business. The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA - www.aftra.com) and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG - www.sag.com) are the only two unions that relate to voiceover work. AFTRA handles union work done for radio and television, and SAG handles work done on film. Both of these unions set standards of compensation for different types of performing for radio, television, film, and other voiceover and on-camera jobs. It is not necessary to be a member of either union to work as voiceover talent, but in some cities union membership is an absolute must. AFTRA is what is known as an "open union", meaning anyone can pay the initiation fee (roughly $1200) and semi-annual dues and join. SAG is a closed union, which means you need to be hired for a union job before you can join the union. In many cities you actually need to work 3 or more union jobs before you can join SAG. Union members are paid according to the union "scale" which is posted on their websites. "Scale" is generally pretty good pay and is usually much higher than the compensation for non-union talent, who must negotiate their own talent fee.

There are two basic types of businesses that hire talent: "franchised" and "un-franchised". A franchised production company has signed an agreement with one or more unions that it will only hire union talent. An un-franchised production company can hire union talent only under special circumstances, so they tend to mostly hire non-union talent - usually at a lower fee.

The same is true with talent agents. Some agents are "franchised agents" who work almost exclusively with union talent. An "un-franchised agent" will work with non-union talent. It is possible for an agent to represent both union and non-union talent. A talent agent makes their money based on a commission from the work they get for the talent they represent. When a union talent is booked for a job, the agent receives a commission of 10% of the talent fee, which is usually added on top of the talent fee. The person hiring the talent will also pay some additional fees to the union for the privilege of booking union talent. When non-union talent is booked for a jog, the agent can receive a commission of up to 20% of the talent fee. For non-union work, the commission is usually taken off the top of the talent fee, which means the talent will actually receive up to 20% less than than the booking fee.

As I mentioned, there are lots of different unions for different aspects of show business. AGVA (American Guild of Variety Artists) and Actors Equity are the two main unions for theatrical performers, and there are more unions for different crew and production jobs.

As I mentioned, it is not necessary to join a union to get work. My recommendation to anyone starting out is to NOT join a union until you absolutely have to. It is more important to learn your craft and become excellent at what you do. Your first few years of work may not have big paychecks, but the skills you will learn will far outweigh any short-term compensation. By the time you are ready to join a union, you'll know you are ready, or that you need to join in order to advance your performing career to the next level. Don't' rush to join any union!

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