Making a Living in the Voiceover Business - Is the grass greener on the other side of the glass?

Tom-Richards-1By Tom Richards

Admit it, you’ve thought about it: you’re in a booth somewhere, reading a spot, digging how you’re sounding, and it occurs to you: “Hey – this is pretty coooool!” Maybe you’re carting up a national spot or listening to a promo on TV, and the idea starts to sink in: “Hmmmmm - why not be a full-time voiceover talent?” And then you really start to trip out. You see yourself socking away a seven-figure income, gliding from one VO gig to the next, telling your agent to go ahead and book that session tomorrow if you can squeeze it between the movie trailer and the game show taping. It’s a heady feeling that ramps up to a blinding fever, swirling, twirling, seeming like it’ll never let you go...

Just lie down for half an hour – it’ll go away.

For those who remain bitten by the VO bug though, just having great pipes isn’t enough. You’ve got to map your success with proven marketing techniques and good old-fashioned footwork.

The Big Flood

microphoneThe dream of making big bucks doing voiceovers has spread in recent years to the point where the market is well saturated, thank you very much. Los Angeles-based Patrick Fraley has created character voices for over 2500 cartoons, films, commercials, CD-ROM, and books on audio projects over the past 25 years – and he’s seen competition balloon. “When I began in earnest in the Los Angeles market there were about 600 voiceover people. Now there are 16,000. There’s more work, of course, but almost everybody is making about $3.45 a piece.”

Why the overpopulation? Technology’s a major culprit. 20 years ago, a home studio was a luxury that only a fortunate few could afford, with a price tag reaching well into the tens of thousands. Today you can get the job done with a computer, some software, and a semi-decent mic, all for well under three grand – sometimes even less. Add an ISDN codec like the Telos Zephyr, Musicam Roadrunner, or Prima LT, and zap! You’re in business. Cyndi Vicino [thevoiceoverpro.com], a 25-year vet who comes to VO via on-stage/on-camera, says, “The advent of ISDN capability of talent from their home studios has opened opportunities that were not as accessible.” But now they are, and VO types have been quick to respond.

Click any of the online radio sites and you’ll find literally hundreds of names, all providing some form of voice services. “ISDN, MP3, voice, production, or both. Negotiable rates, market-exclusive, a voice that sizzles!” (Add your own FX) Despite all that, I know one major radio imaging voice who finds all that accessibility to be a double-edged sword. “Sure,” he says, “I feed a lot of stations, but sometimes I feel like I’m chained to my Zephyr.” Fox and CBS comedy promo king Joe Cipriano [joecipriano.com] (“Sunday, it’s an all-new ‘Simpsons’ on Fox!”) recognizes the danger. “Once that happens, you’re cutting yourself out of doing a lot of other things.” So he apportions his time, confining ISDN work to mornings only.

The Impossible Dream

So talent has flooded the market. But when you start clicking links on those online directories, don’t be surprised if some of them go nowhere…maybe because that’s where their business went, too. You know the old saying: “they didn’t plan to fail – they just failed to plan!”

Hey, with an uncertain economy, start-up voiceover businesses have plenty going against them, and cutting through the clutter can be daunting. At the same time, people looking to launch a new career are invariably optimistic, and it’s the “almost” in Pat Fraley’s “almost anybody” that keeps ‘em coming. After all, who doesn’t believe they’re going to be a star?

For Donna Reed [spotcomm.com], progressing into VO was a natural after doing on-air radio in Raleigh, Houston, and Washington DC. “I enjoyed voiceovers and thought, ‘I can make a living at this!’ I just didn’t think ‘what if I couldn’t do it?’ It was never a question of that. I didn’t know any better!” Her VO career began mostly as a problem-solver. “I had a vision of having my own studio, working with clients, and being able to stay home with my two children.” Donna’s visualization and positive outlook have propelled her voiceover company, Spotlight Communications, since 1992.

And Randy Thomas [randythomas vo.com], after doing mornings at The Wave in L.A. in the early ‘90s, took the plunge in a big way, becoming the first woman to announce the Academy Awards telecast, in 1993. “I had always wanted to do voiceover work, so it was like standing up on a high diving board. I could see how wonderful and beautiful the water below looked. But unless I jumped in I would never experience it. So I jumped.” Randy’s career has continued swimmingly, as she’s gone on to become the first woman to announce the Emmy Awards, American Film Institute Awards, Tony Awards, SAG Awards, and the Miss America Pageant. Almost sounds easy, except that Randy’s always working at getting the work. Even with an agent, “you must work vigorously to advance your career, promoting yourself and marketing your talents to the buyers in a way that doesn’t offend them. The last thing you want is for your agent to call you and say, ‘I just spoke to so and so, and they want you to stop calling them.’ Find a creative way to get into their space without being in their face.”

One Size Does Not Fit All

Okay, so what works? There are unlimited ways to reach out to your target audience – some traditional, others not so. Let’s start with the basics:

Phone. Some get excellent results from letting their fingers do the walking. “You need to be able to give great phone,” says the understated DB Cooper, an actor/VO talent who appears afternoons on Boston’s Mix 98.5 from her home studio in Maine. Others shudder at the thought of cold calls. Here’s a tip from a local Chamber of Commerce workshop. It’s the “past, present, future” technique: “Hello, I understand you use voice talent (past). I’m looking to grow my voiceover business by building relationships with excellent producers (present), and I wonder if there might be a way for us to work together (future)? I’d be happy to audition for any script you’re currently casting for.” A mouthful? KGB, KCBQ, KFRC, KHJ radio and VO legend Bobby Ocean [bobbyocean.com] has a different style. He just cuts to the chase: “Mainly it involves letting the current decision makers know I’m in business, the nature of my business, and how it can benefit them.” Neat, quick.

Snail mail. Postcards are a staple for actors and VO talent alike – “the most non-intrusive way of keeping your presence known,” according to Vicino. Talent agencies and casting directors say they like them because they’re quick and disposable – they get a brief, simple message (“Tom Richards: Booked for Burger King radio VO”), file it in their brain, and move on. Bulk-mailing your demo, on the other hand, seems to be an idea whose time may be long gone. Today’s pros generally prefer a more targeted approach.

Mass e-mailing and faxing. A higher-tech solution, yet with a downside: the nuisance factor. If you choose mass e-mails, find a way to make them personal. And avoid sending MP3s unless they’re requested – there’s probably no quicker way to really tick somebody off than to bog down their inbox with a big file they’re not expecting. Try using a link instead.

Networking. A favorite of many, because it’s more fun. After all, you’ve presumably got a lot in common with the people you’re prospecting – you love media, a good performance, a good joke, whatever. There’s a producer I always enjoy working with who has the same goofy sense of humor as me. We also happen to love the Beatles, opera, and Neumann mics. And during our gabbing, we usually manage to throw each other a lead or two. Why? Just because. As Pat Fraley says, an essential element of being a voice talent is “being a ‘people person’ – or faking it, if you’re not.” And remember that engineers are people too. Cyndi Vicino says, “Lots of times a producer will ask the engineer for his/her input on talent selection. More valuable than anything you can drop in the mail.” Except, maybe, for the holiday card you faithfully remember to send him.

Demos. Polish ‘em up bright and shiny and lead with your most killer, absolute best stuff. A minute of quick cuts is probably plenty. Segment them – commercials, radio imaging, TV promos, documentaries, even books on audio and telephone on-hold messages, if you’re so inclined. And make sure you send them to the right people. Research your prospect. A documentary producer really doesn’t want to hear your commercial demo, unless it contains such utterly recognizable material that it identifies you as “the voice who does ‘that’ spot.”

Gifts. Consider the six-figure voice talent who entertains his current, prospective, and even past clients with concert tickets, movie premieres, dinners, trips, and more. Or the guy who sends his demo packaged with a CD player “to make sure he can actually hear it.” Wink, wink. One entrepreneur I know says an executive’s assistant can be his most powerful ally, so he never calls on a producer without bringing flowers for the assistant.

All this is well and good, but be aware that, while a strategic gift can help you jump to the front of the line, gifts alone won’t keep you there. You’ve got to follow through with the outstanding performance that’s expected of you. And while we’re at it, a gift needn’t be expensive. Sometimes a silly, cheap novelty item can be just quirky enough to make a producer smile, if only for a moment. In that moment, though, you’ve made an impression that’ll pay off far beyond its cost.

Customer Focus. Your client is your king, your queen, your “without-whom-I-couldn’t-be-paying-the-mortgage.” The hand that feeds you. Any questions?

Early to Bed, Early to Rise

Good work habits are the foundation of success, and winning VO pros have their own combinations of what works for them. Eileen Brady, a Mid-Atlantic area voice who also performs on camera, has a basic health thing: “I work out every day, take vitamins, and eat well – you can’t work if you’re sick.” Philadelphia talent Ian Alexander [ianalexander.com] avoids smoking and drinking for their effects on the voice, drinks lots of water to avoid dehydration, and makes sure he gets plenty of sleep.

The work ethic is a strong motivator. Bobby Ocean puts in a bunch of hours. “Have to – I do a 14 to 16 hour day, Monday through Friday, and every second counts.” And Joe Cipriano recalls the advice he once got from hall-of-fame voice talent Mark Elliot: “Never buy a house on voiceovers, and never take a vacation.”

Getting paid is good, too! While billing and collections are chores that talent with agents seldom have to deal with, unrepresented talent just starting out frequently bear the burden themselves, sometimes with ingenuity. At the conclusion of a session, one voice I know pulls out a waitress’s order pad, scribbles an amount, and presents it on the spot as his invoice. Separate checks, please! Another talent quotes his rate at the time that he’s booked, and offers a 20% discount if there’s a check waiting for him at the session. And while most VO people run a one-person shop, many, like Internet voice presence Connie Terwilliger, [voiceover-talent.com] would love to have a bookkeeper. “I seem to spend a lot of time double entering, which is offset by the time I don’t spend forgetting to enter things!” And Philadelphia-based voice/writer/producer David Witz [davidwitz.com] believes that while marketing, networking, paperwork, and customer service are essential, “an on-call accountant and lawyer are the most important.”

Intangibles

But just as “Citizen Kane” is more than a mere collection of words spoken by actors in a given sequence, a successful voiceover career is ultimately driven by individual qualities. “Patience, persistence, patience, dreams, patience, hope, passion, patience...” That’s what one New York VO guy who’d rather not mention his name attributes his recent phenomenal success to. But there’s still more. “Do it for the love of the work, not the love of money. And,” he says, just to make sure you get it, “be patient.”

If having patience is a particular challenge for you, you’re not alone – it’s not exactly in vogue these days. But understand this: if we were successful every time out, we’d have no need for patience. Setbacks and rejection are the norm rather than the exception, and dealing with them is critical – not only for those considering full-time VO, but for anyone considering…well, living.

At the same time, the refusal to fail is common among winners. “I never quit. I am relentless,” Randy Thomas says. “I learned to get out of the survival business when I was a hippie,” says the still-hip Bobby Ocean. “Only perseverance furthers.” And for Cyndi Vicino, there’s simply no other way. “If there are slow times when I think I’ll never work again, I allow myself some whining, and then continue to persevere, because, uh, this is what I do.”

David Witz anticipates hard times and rejection like a good driver scans the road for hazards long before he reaches them. “The more you market yourself, the higher your percentage of rejections, and worse, non-responses. Don’t let it get to you.” And don’t let his apparent world-weariness fool you, either. For him, success is an extension of his personality. “Trusting me to be me—that gives me something unique to market. Took me forty years to figure that out.”

Impressionist Joel Gibbs [voicechoice.com] points out an “innate sense of what’s funny and what’s not... what’s enough and what’s too much... what works and what doesn’t.” For Eileen Brady, you must “believe in yourself – prepare yourself to do your job well, and you will succeed. Follow your dream.”

And Pat Fraley finds success to be an expression of his spirituality. “As a Christian, I’m to be excellent in my craft, and to serve others. Come to find out, these aspects of my work have provided me with a wonderful, fulfilling career.”

Choices, choices…

So the question is, what kind of career do you want? Some plan and execute. Others plan, execute a little, see where they are, reassess, execute a little more, re-reassess…it’s a constant process of self-correction. Do you envision your goal to the extent that there’s no room for adjustment, accommodation, improve-ment? Do you have a reality check built into your plans? Are they conditional – “if A occurs, then B,” or “if C doesn’t occur, then D?” Or do you go with the flow, like water seeking its lowest point? Do you take what’s offered, or pass, with the hope of something better? Do you accept the work that comes your way, or hold out for the work you want?

Your responses, both internal and external, have undeniable influence on how you’re perceived by others – not only by producers, agents, and casting directors, but by neighbors, cashiers, and total strangers as well. As a result, you’re largely responsible for your place in the world. Why not take control of whatever you can?

And then, of course, there’s the stuff you just can’t control. As Randy Thomas reminded me over lunch one perfect Los Angeles afternoon, every career has four stages:

“Who’s Tom Richards?”

“Get me Tom Richards!”

“Get me a cheap Tom Richards!”

“Who’s Tom Richards?”

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