Nancy Wolfson, Owner, BrainTracksAudio.com, Los Angeles, CA
Nancy Wolfson is a different kind of voiceover coach. A graduate of Vassar College with over 15 yrs. experience in Hollywood’s Entertainment Industry, Nancy was the Voice Over Department at ARL, a Playmate Wrangler (to be covered in our next interview with Nancy!), a celebrity talent manager, and producer of on air promotions for Playboy, FOX, WB/CW, and ABC. Today she is the Tough Love VO Branding Coach & Demo Producer, coaching both in-person in LA as well as via phoners for students worldwide. She’s also the “Go-To Cyber Casting Director,” facilitating auditions daily for her buyer and talent agent colleagues. A voiceover agent and promo producer turned voiceover talent consultant, Nancy warns you about what those who sign and hire talent reject and shares the secrets of what they crave. This month’s RAP Interview takes a look at BrainTracksAudio and examines how Nancy’s extraordinary skill set and coursework crack the code for beginners and working pros alike.
JV: What made you get into this line of work? Why aren’t you a doctor or a lawyer?
Nancy: I passed out in ninth grade biology when we were dissecting fetal pigs and I banged my head on the corner of the table. So that was out. My physician father was disappointed, and I had to come up with something else to do. Somewhere between that and majoring in 19th Century American Lit and being an on air promo producer and being a Playmate Wrangler and running a talent agency for voice over and being a celebrity talent manager, I went into the business of advising people on how to get into the business from the unique perspective of the person who controlled the access to it.
There were a lot of people out there who were teaching from a perfectly viable standpoint, and that is from what it’s like to be in the trenches of talent. But I realized that there was a really unique opportunity here because I was the only one who had a view from the balcony. So I began a teaching business to advise people on what we as agents and casting people expected of them that they really needed to know. I left being an agent about ten years ago, and I’ve been coaching and casting and producing demos since then.
JV: Tell us the philosophy behind Brain Tracks Audio.
Nancy: Well if you break the name of the company apart, it’s about getting your head right before you make choices about the sound you’re going to produce. And it starts in your brain, whether that means coming up with a business model that I advise people on that’s going to help them understand the true trajectory of what they’re getting into, or the skills on how to recognize copy, how to break down copy and how to perform, and then how to produce the auditions that will be useful as a service provider to somebody who is producing a TV spot or radio spot or narration project or audio book. But it starts in your head first, both as a business person and as a performer. You come to understand what you need to do in the business, in the marketplace, and then you move onto analyzing text, and then you move onto what you do with your voice.
But it starts in your head first. I have a very business-minded approach to creating a business model and a career in this. That’s why it starts in your brain first and then winds up on the track second.
JV: Sounds like there might be a little psychology involved here.
Nancy: A bit because one of the key operating principles is, once you’ve got the skills and before you have a demo produced for yourself that you’re going to go out there and use as a marketing tool, you need to come to understand, with the help of a branding advisory, just which one you are in the crowd so that you can break in. And coming to understand yourself as other people see you is transcendent. It transcends a student’s entire life. It’s imperative if they’re going to figure out how to get marketplace positioning, appeal to an agent, show them what’s going to be unique about what they can offer on a roster that they might not already have.
But it’s transcendent. It gives a person an objective understanding of themselves that they never had before. I have had all kinds of people tell me how this has reshaped their lives personally and in other areas of their profession just by coming to understand themselves as a brand.
JV: What are the specific services that Brain Tracks Audio provides?
Nancy: Coaching, casting, production. I give people the skills that they need to attack this as a business. I give them the skills they need to attack a piece of copy as a performer. I help them create a marketing tool of themselves, an appropriate commercial demo that can help them get into the business. I advise them on the steps they need to take to market themselves. I help them understand their own personal brand. And I help them make money by helping them understand the means of distribution, how to create your own opportunities.
Those are the services I give talent. Apart from that, I host opportunities for them as a casting director, for people who’ve studied with me and people I know. And to the business world, I provide the service of casting. I work as a direct liaison for agents in helping them find the right clients for particular projects without agents having to find those people. I also work as a business liaison for buyers and ad agencies and radio stations in helping them find the talent they need. And as a producer, I produce demos for various sorts of media.
JV: That’s a lot. You mentioned radio. Do you work with many people that come from radio?
Nancy: Tons. I love working with radio people. I believe everybody brings something to this process that we can dive in to and use to make the process easier to for them. Everybody’s got something in their background. If they’re a mom who’s only ever read to their kids, you know what? They read aloud all day; that’s good practice. If they’re an actor, the acting part of this will be easier for them and that’s the language I’ll speak when I work with them. If they’re a singer, that’s helpful because they understand how to work the pipeline, their instrument.
But radio people are special. Radio people understand a microphone. They were born with a clock inside their head, and they have an appropriate sense of time. They know how to pretend to talk to somebody even though they may be all by themselves in a room. And more importantly than anything else – and this is going to make me some enemies in the acting camps -- I think more than your average actor, your average radio personality tends to have a better business acumen. Their history of having had to interface with other professionals is a little more buttoned up.
There are unique things that radio people need to learn to deconstruct, but I’ve worked with enough radio people that I smell it before it even walks into the room, and it’s pretty easy to fix. If you’ve got the right advisor, those things are easily recognized and tweakable. But generally speaking, I have a thing for radio people. They’re fun.
JV: We’ve heard how radio people shouldn’t even mention to agents or potential clients anything about their radio background. Is a background in radio still a red flag?
Nancy: If their demo shows them to have superior skills and a contemporary understanding and respect for the marketplace and is a portrait of a really unique brand, they can mention they have a background in radio till the cows come home. It’s only in the absence of a contemporary, well branded portrait of themselves that that can shackle them.
The prejudice being that one, radio people are in love with the sound of their own voice. Two, that they don’t understand acting. Three, that they think that just because they have a nice voice they’ll be able to be a good service provider on any kind of copy that they’ll be given. I get excited about that because I know exactly how to break that down and teach it. I really love teaching that. But if somebody shows up pitching an agent saying that they have a radio background, and their inventory reinforces the prejudice rather than rebukes it, it can be an issue.
JV: What are some of the biggest hurdles for radio people that want to get into voiceover?
Nancy: Those three things that I just sited actually. The other limitation is that depending on what kind of radio person you are, there are different cages in the monkey section at the zoo. If you’re background is as a radio engineer for example, and then as a jock, one of the sand traps can be the mistake of producing your own content. That’s a big mistake people make, when engineers who are really good with running the board and have a great ear for other people try to produce their own demo. You should never produce your own demo. Engineering skills don’t de facto mean you know what to write and produce about your own brand. You can’t brand yourself, and without an advisor you don’t know what does and doesn’t belong on the demo.
JV: Psychology coming in again perhaps? Self analysis is difficult to do.
Nancy: I think you know Bob Sauer; when we talk about branding he always says, “You can’t read the label from inside the bottle.” I have a girlier analogy: you don’t want to be designing your own gown for the Oscars. Even if you’re good with a needle and thread you have to have someone else create that objective portrait of you.
JV: In one of your online teleseminars, you talk about the importance of education first, and then getting a good demo next. Let’s talk a bit about the education. You have a 20 chapter course that you teach. What are some of the things that you cover in the course?
Nancy: The fact that a curriculum even exists is unique. Lots of people sell the dream, but very few people know how or what to teach. I’ve broken it down to a process of pattern recognition, so that as a performer you can identify different contexts and circumstances and writing patterns so that you can concoct a useful audition quickly and easily.
Because I sit at the intersection every single day between auditions and booking the student or other people, I see the difference between what’s amusing and what’s useful. And so my course work is based on patterns that a talent needs to recognize and service that hook bookings. I think a lot of people out there who teach this truly as an acting endeavor, have these group classes where everyone has this really fun time and they laugh and they amuse each other, but they’re not necessarily being guided in a curriculum that takes them into choices that create bookings.
My curriculum was based on what I see every day and what I hear every day that agents and producers book. So that’s what I begin to teach, whether it’s knowing the difference between the choice you would make performing an audition for what is to be a part of a television spot versus a choice you would make when it’s a radio spot. Entirely different. Whether it’s mic technique, whether it’s some non-announcery tricks for deconstructing the musical progression of a line, there are some things that are intuitive to some people and need to be taught to other people, which is why the coursework is modular and tailored to the students.
It’s exciting to watch people grow and see concrete change and then actually be able to host opportunities for them to make their money back on what they’ve spent on me. That alone is really satisfying.
JV: What are some hardest things to teach?
Nancy: The things that their mother never taught them. I can teach someone voiceover, no problem. But I’ll be honest; there’s a bit of vetting that goes on when people are studying with me. If they prove to be a person who can’t follow directions, or they become a lot of homework for me and my team, I can’t risk my reputation with buyers by ever giving an ornery or sloppy student an audition. And God forbid, I would never put them in touch with a buyer or an agent.
But if they’re a great student just in terms of their diligence and their passion and their professionalism and their demeanor, I am their biggest champion. I train on skills. I brand them and I also make sure they’ll be a great client, or they’re out.
The thing that’s the most difficult to teach is professional respect, being on time, not being what I call a “homework person” to a buyer. But the voiceover… that part is easy.
JV: Now that practically anybody can get into the VO business, it seems that the market is probably oversaturated with talent, making work hard to find. What’s your take on that?
Nancy: There are more people involved in voiceover than ever before, but there are more opportunities than there ever were before. There are more forms of media than ever before. There are more radio channels than ever before. There’s not just terrestrial radio. There’s a gazillion channels of cable on my television. There’s this crazy thing that Alan Gore created called the internet. And now, for every concept dotcom, there could be a radio spot rather than just tangible goods.
There are so many forms of media that never used to exist before and so many forms in which people can use their voice and get paid for it, to be a service provider, that the opportunities far exceed the percentage of new people that have “flooded” voice over. It’s a matter of proportion. There are more people than ever doing voiceover, but there are more opportunities for them in a quantum percentage that far overwhelms the growth of talent pool.
In addition to that, there’s never been a better time to try and break into this business because with a well branded demo and the right information, you can create your own access opportunities now. And that’s totally new. The days of agents in LA and New York City controlling every bit of access had slipped. It used to be, if you never got an agent you could never get access to jobs, and now this obsession with getting an agent is less important. I don’t even care so much if my students get agents so long as they get the skills and performance and they learn how to get their own jobs that are right for their brand.
There’s never been a better time to break in because of the access you can create for yourself that never used to exist before.
JV: So an agent isn’t a “must have” anymore?
Nancy: They don’t absolutely and completely control the pipeline the way that they used to. It used to be that absolutely every single job that needed a voiceover talent in markets large or small was routed through an agent or a couple of agents in New York and/or an agent or couple of agents in Los Angeles. And if you didn’t get an agent to take to you and couldn’t convince an agent to see what’s unique about you and put you on their roster, you had no access to making money back on your investment. Oh, and by the way, you needed to live in one of the major markets if you really even wanted to get serious about this.
And now, of course, agents are still important and agents are still governing access to a piece of what’s going on out there, but it went from a light switch to a dial. It’s now become a situation where if you never get an agent, you still can create work opportunities for yourself, and that ability to reward motivated hardworking, aggressive, entrepreneurial people is so encouraging to me. Because you no longer have to move to a major market and hope to win the love of somebody before you can even hope to have access to an opportunity to make money. You can create your own opportunities in a way that never existed before -- if you know what you’re doing, if you have the right skills, if you’ve got a contemporary top market demo.
JV: But once you get the demo, if you don’t have an agent, you become your own salesperson. Is that what you’re saying?
Nancy: You can. There are many different forums where you can have access to opportunities. Some require winning the love of an agent, and that’s when it helps to have an advisor or coach who’s in with these people. Some of them are circumstances where you can create opportunities for yourself depending on your brand, depending on your gender, depending on your abilities, depending on your interests. I tailor make a business plan for people that will help them go hunt down the jobs that would be right for their brand in the areas where that’s possible to do for yourself.
I’m not saying that agents are dismissible, but it’s gone from being the exclusive way for you to get opportunities, if you could get them, to being one of many ways you will create opportunities yourself.
JV: You don’t call yourself an agent, but you have a ton of contacts and you’re a caster. Seems you would be as valuable a contact as an agent, if not more so.
Nancy: It’s a unique proposition. It’s a unique circumstance that I’m in, both as a coach and as a casting person. Agents use me to hone their rosters. Agents know that if somebody’s gone through 20 hours of training with me, I’ll know what that person can do in a way that’s richer and deeper than even what their demo would say about them. So, agents use me to help them hone their rosters. Agents sometimes run their castings through me. I have direct relationships with ad agencies and buyers that go straight to me depending if things are union or non-union. So I’m in a unique position to create opportunities for all different kinds of people where the situation merits sharing those opportunities with the right people.
JV: What are some of the key elements of a good commercial demo? What are some of the things you try to achieve when you do a demo for someone?
Nancy: Branding, branding, branding. I don’t have the same goals for everybody in terms of content because some people are funny and should be putting amusing content on their demo. And some people don’t have an amazing sense of comedic timing or skills that other people have, or stylistic elements that other people have, so it’s critical one not try to be all things to all people. So the elements of the demo that I try to make sure are on everybody’s demo are quality issues, not one size fits all style issues.
The style needs to be a real appropriate and unique portrait of the individual, and the content needs to be a smattering of what could have been television or radio spots that could have viably aired in a major marketplace. It can’t sound like a bunch of stuff that was pulled out of a box of copy from 1984 in the small market where they did a bunch of radio stuff. It can’t sound like it was a bunch of stuff that was pulled from print ads, from products that never buy TV or radio media. It has to be produced properly by someone with top market demo ears that knows the proportion of sound mixes. There’s a lot that goes into it. It doesn’t have to be all real booked spots, but the right demo producer knows how to create a demo that sounds like it was all real spots, and is narrowly branded to create a portrait of the person’s style.
JV: What are some of the biggest mistakes you see people make, either that are in the VO biz or trying to get in?
Nancy: The biggest mistakes that I see people making trying to get in are cart before horse investments. It just kills me when somebody comes in for a proper paid consult, where they want my advice on the viability of the commercial demo that they’ve got. Maybe they spent a dollar on it or they spent $1,000 on it, but they made it in haste without getting the skills first. I just have to tell them why it’s not working, what’s not working about it, and everybody has to suck it up and they have to start over.
It’s often their enthusiasm and their haste that has them doing things cart before horse. It has them taking classes that won’t get them to their first most necessary goals and bleeding their budget on things that are off target. Then they don’t have the money left to finish what they started to get to the target because they took a class that was fun rather than purposeful. That’s why at the very beginning, when somebody starts the process of building a voiceover business with me, I lay out a plan for them in the first teleseminar that I ever have them get. It’s on my website; it’s called “Your Voiceover Business.” It maps out a plan for them that is both a budget and a trajectory of tasks that we want to accomplish so that we can get them to a place where they’ve got a machine that is one part their skills and one part their demo and one part their marketing tools and their website and one part their equipment that they can then use to generate income that will pay for the secondary and tertiary things that they want to do.
But the biggest mistake I see people making is, in their lather and excitement to get to what they think should be their goal, they’re hasty and don’t get enough skills and produce a demo before they should. They do a cheap demo. They try to make a demo themselves. And they present that to agents and buyers, and you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Then they have to loop back and start all over again. That’s the biggest mistake I see people making, cart before horse investments.
JV: You mentioned the branding a moment ago and talked about websites and paying for good graphics and that kind of thing. I take it that the look alone is one of the main things that put you ahead in this talent saturated market?
Nancy: It’s a piece of your business model that has to be as buttoned up as the rest of your business model. You have to have your skills in place, your education. You’ve got to have a good demo that you hired a professional to make for you who knows what they’re doing and knows what agents want. You have to have marketing that is an accurate portrait of your storefront. You have to have a website. You have to have graphics that help show visually what your demo is going to do aurally, and that is again a portrait, now visually, about what is unique about your selling proposition in the marketplace.
So I wouldn’t say the graphics and website are more important than anything else, but just like you can’t afford to have corny content in your demo, you can’t afford to have corny content or off brand content in the first thing that they experience in visiting your business, which is your website. Its’ got to be branded just like your demo is branded.
JV: In “Your VO Business” teleseminar, you mention that a person can expect to pay $2,000 to $5,000 to get their VO business off the ground. What are they going to get? Would the 20-chapter course be part of this?
Nancy: It’s more than an acting class would cost, but it’s not a lot if you look at it as starting a business. I’m not sure that would cover 20 lessons. It depends on what the rates are for someone who might be reading this. But in a range of somewhere around $5,000, it includes what I started to bullet point a moment ago, which is your education, your private lessons, your inventory, your demo -- one commercial demo is all you really need at the beginning -- your marketing, which would be your website and your graphics, and the basic equipment that would allow you the means of distribution to do your auditions, something that would allow you to traffic all these great skills that you’ve learned how to do and these opportunities that the first three bullet points have helped you create. So education, inventory, marketing, means of distribution.
JV: And the equipment you mention probably includes a decent mic and that type thing.
Nancy: Yeah, a decent mic. I send people to a specialist for this because it changes every five minutes. Every day they make a newer, better, smaller, less expensive widget. But a basic condenser mic is what you need. I have them typically get CEntrance MicPort Pro, an onstage mic stand of some kind, depending on the environment they’re in, professional sound foam if that’s necessary, a pop filter... or like I’ve joked, you could use a coat hanger and pantyhose – MacGyver.
JV: You mentioned another number in your teleseminar that caught my ear. One of your students landed a $60,000 campaign. Most of us radio guys are happy if we can find a few hundred dollars here and there. What kind of gig pays that well?
Nancy: What’s fun is that non-union gigs get a really bad name, or historically they’ve gotten a bad name, especially from people who support SAG and AFTRA. But the fact of the matter is that a lot of times, when something is a non-union project, the buyer has to pay the talent to own the talent’s performance on that forever. And if it’s a TV spot that’s running national network and cable possibly, and internet, possibly global, possibly forever, they have to pay for what they might have paid you over the course of many, many years of many, many, tens of thousands of dollars of residuals. I know plenty of people who’ve done union jobs for everything from Carl’s Jr. to American Express to Mercedes to MasterCard that have made far more money on a job than $60,000 because of what it paid in residuals. But if it’s a non-union job – like if they got booked on something and it was a TV spot for Citibank and it ran for cycle after cycle, year after year -- that person easily could have made six figures on that project.
To a union person, a $60,000 job is a great job, but it’s not a crazy unusual job. To a non-union person, $60,000 is a fantastic job, but it’s not totally unreasonable if it’s a buyout where some buyer wants to be able to own and use that for years and years and years to the tune of what could have cost them $400,000 to pay you union. So it’s all a matter of perspective.
JV: I think people in radio, or production people that read this magazine, any one of them would be thrilled to get close to six figures a year doing voice work, getting a handful of $2,000, $3,000, $4,000 gigs or whatever. How obtainable is that?
Nancy: It’s totally obtainable. It’s obtainable because I could name off the top of my head any number of students who have achieved that goal. They didn’t achieve it immediately, but I know very few doctors who start off making a half a million dollars in their first year out either. But it’s not delusional thinking to know it’s possible. It’s absolutely possible. But then again, it depends on the talent and it depends on their tenacity. It depends on how they conduct themselves, on how on top of their business they are. It depends on how motivated they are. It depends on availability, their affability and their ability.
JV: I suppose the question came from the premise that back in the day it was just a handful of people that were doing 95 percent of the voice work out there. You’re saying it’s not that way anymore. That there are a lot of people doing it, that there’s a lot of opportunity, and there’s plenty of money to be made for a lot of people. Is that right?
Nancy: There is plenty of money out there. I don’t operate on a belief system of limitation. I think that there is plenty of money to be made out there for people who do everything that I tell them to do. But it’s shocking how many people don’t quite follow everything that they’re told to do. Not because they’re contrary, but sometimes circumstances prohibit them from doing everything I tell them to do.
Then there is always the luck factor as well. It would be irresponsible to not include that in the equation. But never before has the marketplace been such that it can reward really aggressive entrepreneurial. I see it every day. Just before we started talking, I had a student email me about a major national gig that he just landed for himself that pays really well. He is trying to find an agent, but meanwhile he found himself this job. I get little sparks of encouragement from my former students all day long. It works.
But it’s imperative that people get a realistic and honest evaluation of the demo that they already have, if they have one, as a proper paid professional service, or that they come into it willing to get super serious about this and come in and get a plan, professional feedback, and drill in to get the skills that they need that will help them build the career that they want.
JV: What are some trends that you’ve noticed in the last few years that might give us an idea of what’s ahead in the future of VO?
Nancy: The biggest trend was the absolute annihilation of trends, and that happened while I was still an agent. This notion that you had to have some one-size-fits-all, genetic tone in order to judge your potential or your viability -- if you have a big, deep, rich baritone for a guy, or if you’re low and husky for a woman, then we can start to have a conversation. That kind of thinking had a tectonic blast hit it about 10-15 years ago, and it started to get replaced by what everyone considered the everyday person sound. Now there might be some jocks out there that have really gorgeous voices, and all they have to learn how to do is relax and communicate rather than indulge creating a yummy tone. But there are as many different styles out there that are considered as there are snowflakes from the sky as there are talent. So it’s this actual inversion of this notion that there’s a sound or a style that’s popular, and the explosion of bringing you and your brand to the story. So the trend is you.
JV: Any final thoughts for our readers?
Nancy: My brand in the marketplace seemingly has become this tough love coach. It’s pretty intense because I’m that person who used to be the agent, and so I’m pretty firm and I’m pretty strict and I’m pretty intense, but it’s because I want people to win. And it’s shocking to me that there’s no nationally syndicated radio show that can advise voiceover talent the way Suzy Orman advises people about finances or the way Jillian Michaels is intense about advising people on fitness. That’s just something to hang out there. It’s amazing to me that that doesn’t exist.