Q It Up: “How do I get started in Voiceovers?”

Q-It-Up-Logo-3Q It Up: “How do I get started in Voiceovers?” This is probably one of the most common questions people in radio production are asked, whether it’s by your neighbor, the jock down the hall, the sales guy down the other hall, or the interns that come and go. How do you answer the question? What advice do you offer? If you’re doing professional VO work, whether it’s on the side or full-time, how did you get into doing voiceovers? What has been key to your success?

Cooper Fox <mornings[at]conwaymagic.com>, Magic 104, Conway, New Hampshire: Two ways...

1- If you have the proper setup (mic, processors/mixer, computer, etc.) sign up with voice123. But, you have to be fast because there are a lot of people on the site.

2- Make a demo and shop your voice to businesses/radio stations. Ya’ might start out getting paid in gift certificates (that’s how we roll), but it’s a way to get your foot in the door.

Joey DiFazio <Joey.DiFazio[at]siriusxm.com>, Sirius XM Radio, New York, NY: I’m sure a lot has changed since back in the day when folks beat the streets to go to auditions, but the main thing people need to know when breaking into voiceovers is the 90/10 rule. 90% of the jobs are taken by 10% of the actors. Also, you need to make yourself available during the day. When Mr. Bank Manager comes to me to help with his demo, he is quickly deterred by the fact that he has to hold down a full time day job at the bank. Before someone even spends their hard earned money paying me to work with them on a demo, I will ask them to listen to the radio and jot down commercials they think they can do. Then transcribe them and bring them to me and we’ll start working on something. 9 out of 10 times they never follow through. Folks need to understand the reality of the business. Voice work is not for part-timers. You’re either in... or you’re out!

Jay Rose <dplay1[at]gmail.com>, www.dplay.com: While I started in radio, I’ve spent most of my career in commercial studios. This means I’ve worked with literally hundreds of local and national free-lance talents, many of whom were either still working at stations or had made the transition.

So I can sum up the best advice in just two words: Harlan Hogan.

He’s a voice guy who wrote a book about ten years ago, “VO: Tales and Techniques of a Voice-over Actor”. It’s actually two books, interleaved. Chapters alternate between his story and advice about making the transition from air talent and PD to full-time freelance, and useful techniques for the commercial studio that radio people rarely get to learn at the stations. Things like dealing with agency producers, or how to get along happily with other freelancers competing for the same gigs, as well as some studio tricks.

I never met with Harlan but I love his book. Everything he says rings true. It’s under $15 in paperback or Kindle at Amazon, and the best investment any voice talent can make. Decently written, too.

(Harlan has also written a book about recording aimed at voice actors. I think my book on audio production is better. But I might be biased.)

Erik Cudd <erik[at]erikcuddvoiceovers.com>, Erik Cudd Voiceovers, Xenia, Ohio: I’m not going to go into all kinds of detail here, but I will simply say that there are two books you should read before you attempt to do anything connected with VO. The first is a book called “Voice for Hire” by Randy Thomas and Peter Rofe. The second book is called “VO: Tales and Techniques of a Voice-Over Actor” by Harlan Hogan. These books will get you on the right track, give you a look into the industry, and help you decide if Voiceover is truly the career path for you. I would go so far to say that ANY voice has a place in the VO marketplace, but determining how best to utilize your voice and turn that into revenue is the key. Talent and a great voice alone will NOT guarantee financial success in VO, but if you read the books I have mentioned, you will be better prepared to find the right path in the VO world that you can occupy and give value to for the long term.

J. Christopher Dunn | The Narrator <jcd[at]thenarrator.biz>, TheNarrator.biz: That’s a great question and I have a pretty good answer for you. Take a look at the blog I wrote, “Who Wants to be a Voice Talent”:

[The blog post below can also be found online at: http://jcdunnvox.wordpress.com/2011/08/02/who-wants-to-be-a-voice-talent/ or at http://wp.me/pZTkw-3i]

Recently, I’ve received e-mail from a number of folks who are checking out the prospect of becoming a voice-over talent. They ask me questions about how I got started; what I did to become successful; and what a typical day looks like for me. I openly let them know that it’s hard work and encourage them to give the idea some careful consideration before taking the plunge. My 1000-foot level response looks something like this:

Self Examination

There are a number of “things” to consider before diving into a voice-over business and it will be important for you to think about each one.

  • Are you willing to make very little money the first two or three years in the business?
  • Are you open to working a “day job” while you’re developing your ability and establishing your client list?
  • Do you have the skills to set up and maintain accounting, taxes, insurance and marketing that a small business requires?
  • Do you like your voice and all the uniqueness it possess?
  • Can you read clearly and are you willing to take direction?
  • Do you have a thick skin and can you keep from obsessing about every audition you send out?

What’s Next?

After doing some honest reflection and answering the above questions truthfully, you may still be interested in the business of voice-over. The next step is to get started with training from a reputable coach. A good coach will tell you during your first session whether you’ve got the chops for VO or not. Next they’ll help you identify your signature voice and find genres that fit your voice and delivery. When you’re ready, many will also direct and produce your demo.

Take some acting classes, improv is best. Practice cold reading anything you can get your hands on. While voice-over talent get to rely on scripts, you have to act the part. You need to deliver the lines in a convincing way so that they don’t sound read. You need to sound like you know what you’re talking about even when you don’t.

Get your demo(s) produced and website created to feature your abilities. Your first impression to talent seekers is super important. Take your time getting the training you need before your demo is produced. Hopefully you will have found a coach that isn’t part of a production mill and can truthfully tell you when you’re ready. Your website acts as your storefront with demos, details and contact information. Do not start to look for work without either of these.

Where will you record your broadcast quality audio? In your very own home studio of course. You’ll need a quiet area to call your own, a mic, computer and software. Plus, the know-how to connect all these goodies and record your dulcet tones. Outside noises, distractions from family, pets and friends need to be removed.

You Gotta Work

Go out and look for work. Since you’ll be owning a business, it will be up to you to get clients on your own. Whether that means signing up with Voices.com or Voice123.com; leveraging your existing business contacts, family and friends or cold calling businesses… it’s up to you. You’ll find the most success in using a combination of the above.

Agents will not get you work. Agents will line up auditions for you. That’s it. If you book a gig from an agent arranged audition, you’ll pay her or him 10%. Yes, the agent will have access to the big money gigs but will only be interested in representing you once you’ve proven yourself independently. They’ll look at you and say, “What are you bringing to my talent stable?”

During an industry teleconference with the talented and respected voice actor Randye Kaye, she said that about 10% of full-time professional VO peeps are in the SAG or AFTRA unions. You’ll be more flexible to stay nonunion at the start. You’ll know when it’s time to join a union -- a client will want to hire you and only works with union talent. That’s the day you’ll be signing up.

Plan Your Day

My schedule is much the same from day to day. It’s flexible enough for me to schedule sessions. When not “working” my time is spent auditioning and marketing.

  • Check e-mail from overnight and respond
  • Add appointments to my calendar
  • Practice for 90 minutes reading copy, recording my takes and analyzing my delivery. We are, after all, our own worst critic.
  • Audition 4 hours
  • Lunch
  • Marketing 3 hours
  • Virtually socialize with my VO peeps (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, blog, other…)

I wake at 6:00 a.m. Pacific time and leave my studio to have dinner with my family by 6:00 p.m. If necessary, I work weekends and get up early when the east coast is calling for me to complete an early morning gig.

So, there you go. A little sporadic but it covers a lot of ground. This is what comes to mind every time I answer the question. I’m sure you have your own 1000-foot-level of what it takes in this business. What would you add?

John Pellegrini <pellegrinijohn[at]gmail.com>: After a couple of decades in the biz, I have learned the secret to guaranteed voiceover success. This is the ONLY way you can be certain that you will get all the voicework you could ever want. And it works in any kind of voiceover field, from commercial voicework, to film narration, to animation, video game, and audiobooks.

Here it is:

For commercial voicework: start a company and produce a product that people want and cast yourself as the company spokesperson.

For film work: write and direct a major film and cast yourself as narrator or whatever voice role you need.

For animation: write and direct a hit animated show or feature and cast yourself in as many roles as you wish.

For video games: create your own major video game and cast yourself in as many roles as you wish.

For audiobooks: write a bestselling book and cast yourself as the reader.

That’s it.

For everyone else, audition, audition, audition. And take some acting lessons.

Anthony Mendez <anthony[at]anthonyvo.com>, www.AnthonyVO.com: I used to produce radio spots. Then the regular VO went away for a couple weeks. At that point, I was asked to voice. Those were local radio spots, so I decided to take acting, improv, and voiceover classes in order to step it up and pursue representation here in NYC.

The most important thing to do is understand how you’re seen by the market (agents, casting directors, producers, ad agencies, buyers, etc.) and then playing on that aspect of your brand. Before you expand to an area that you’d think you’d be best at, first train and work in or on that area before expanding. It’s simple business. I started in Spanish, because that was the easiest way in for me. Then, having been raised in NYC, I expanded to urban stuff. And, finally, after training with voiceover coach Marice Tobias and speech pathologist Susan Sankin, I now do general market work.

I also understand that because of where my voice lives, it’s best suited for promos and trailers, so that’s what I concentrate on. I don’t try to be something I’m not. I’m not the higher-pitched, cool, stoner dude. So, I don’t even try, because in the end it’s acting and acting is based on truth; when you try to be something you’re not, it will show in your work and then they’ll go get someone that is already that. I have an edge... an attitude. That’s why they hire me for launches or specials versus the “regular” guy. That’s ok with me.

Jim Van Dusen <jvandusen[at]astral.com>: It’s difficult to distinguish between the people who are actually interested in learning the craft of voice over, and those who think it’s an easy way to make money without putting any work into it. So, these days, I send everybody to voice123.com. Not to sign up, but to browse and learn more about the business. It’s much better for them to see and hear all the different voiceover styles for themselves rather than just from me. Also, they get an idea of what a demo should sound like. I tell them, go to that site, read and listen, then let’s talk again. If they’re serious, then they come back with questions. Very few come back though.

Jim Kipping <jim[at]jimkipping.com>: Let’s just say I usually start the conversation with “…you know I have a rock steady hand AND I love to watch Dr. shows on TV. Cool! I think I can do that….” This usually sets the stage for the reality of what it takes for those of us sitting in front of a computer and behind a mic every single day for someone that calls who manages a Chili’s and people have always told them, “wow you have a good voice.” I tend to dissuade people at this initial stage. Also, unless someone is physically going to invest both time AND more importantly money in equipment and training, don’t even bother. You also need to have talent and sales experience to do this. That’s right, sales experience. You, no matter how many agents or demos you have, still need to hock your wears, your talent. Right now because anyone can buy a decent mic and a software package; everyone fancies themselves a voice actor. Between this and sites like Voice123 with thousands of 50 dollar gigs, it’s kind of mucking up the waters. Those that can master all three T’s -- Talent, Technical and Time -- are going to be the ones that win, period.

The key to success is to treat this like a job, because it is. It’s a numbers game. You audition every day. You cut your own auditions every day. You don’t wait till the deadline or have to go see someone to record your audition, because you have people like me with the chops and equipment to turn auditions out in minutes and get them back. Meanwhile, newbie’s or even on-camera people that can do VO are struggling to make it happen because those that do this for a living have already cut the audition, sent it and moved on. You don’t think about it. I have actually landed gigs I don’t even remember I auditioned for. You can’t get wrapped up in “oh man, I hope I get this gig,” or even depressed because you didn’t. It’s all about numbers. Cut and move on.

If you want to do something part time, get into real estate. That pool isn’t muddy at all. ;)

…footnote. Right after writing this, a national VO came in via email from an agent. I had it cut, mastered (yes it must sound as good as broadcast material) and sent out in 7 minutes from receiving. If you can’t do that, don’t get into the business.

But other than that, have a great day! <3

Andrew Frame <andrew[at]bafsoundworks.com>, BAFSoundWorks, Lehigh Acres, Florida: How do you get into any kind of career field? You educate, practice, pay your grunt dues, and keep your eyes and ears open for opportunity.

I tell inquirers up front that if they want to do this as a hobby, and maybe make a dollar or two, then they have a realistic attitude. If they think they’re going to be narrating movie trailers – forget it.

It’s like racing – there are thousands of drivers wheeling around dirt tracks all over the world every weekend, but only a select few will make the political connections to get into the million-dollar winnings type of races. If they’re happy with bashing fenders on local and maybe regional tracks, then I can help, otherwise have a nice day.

Needless to say, very few stick around for the grunt work, particularly when you add to the upfront disclosure they’re going to have to hit the pavement and sell themselves.

“Oh, I can’t sell!” Then, you’re done before you start.

“But, don’t you have an agent?” is often the next question. Since they are paid on commission, agents don’t kick in until you’re capable of making them money. Agents are part of the “political connections” I mentioned earlier. They are an extra set of eyes and ears on the stream of opportunity, but you still have to get your own self out there and hustle.

Then comes practice, practice, and more practice.

Now, I know by name a lot of disk jockeys that make a dollar or two doing car and furniture spots. That’s fine! It’s opportunity and they have stepped in to fill the need. Well done!

There is a level a few steps over though, where the pay is a skosh better, and the environment is somewhere between radio and recording studios. The criteria, though, is akin to the bigger operations, and one thing that will get you bounced is if you “sound like a disk jockey”. So, when jocks ask about getting into voiceover, I tell them that. Lose the “deejay puke” - much harder than you think.

I’ve never had anyone say, “let’s work together, I’m committed”, so I can’t offer any comments beyond this part. But I have had the honor of serving with a guild for the last decade that has taken good regional voice talent and made some of them capable for their foray into the national and international spotlight.

Noticeably, all of them remember their roots and are ready to help the next person trying to sincerely cross that bridge. So, in addition to everything else, having a good mentor(s) and a modest amount of professional networking would be an important part of success.

Blaine Parker <bp[at]slowburnmarketing.com>, Slow Burn Marketing: In a nutshell: don’t bother.

I’ve said this to many people. It’s the exact same advice I’ve heard actors give about getting into acting. And since VO is a kind of acting, I guess it’s the same thing.

If that doesn’t dissuade you, if you’re still insistent, if you want to do it for the money and the glamor, well then.

Don’t bother.

No glamor. No money. Neither fame nor riches come easily in VO.

If that still doesn’t dissuade you, my advice is to do it the way I did it: (a) get a job in radio, (b) never expect anyone to call you, (c) don’t expect an agent to get any work for you, (d) get the best VO coaching money can buy, (e) get on Voice123 and (f) be relentless.

Radio stations have fabulously huge budgets and will pay handsomely for good talent.

Oh, wait. That’s law firms.

Radio stations have crappy little budgets and try not to pay for much of anything.

Which means, hiring freelance voice talent is anathema to them. They will typically try to source the performance in-house before going outside. “Hey, June on the reception desk would sound perfect for this!” A lovely woman with a sparkling personality, June becomes a lox who can’t act her way out of a wet paper bag when the microphone is opened. But she tries. And people keep trying to coach her. It’s always nice to have an alternative to that.

So, if you can act moderately well, put yourself in a situation where you can do VO as often as possible.

I took a position as a Creative Director at a Christian radio network, where my responsibility was supposed to be writing commercials. The fact that I could voice commercials was a bonus. And since I was writing the commercials, guess whose voice I was writing them for. It was a hell of a training ground for VO -- especially if you go in with the idea that sounding like a radio announcer is the last thing anyone needs.

You also have to put yourself out there to the people who are casting for VO, because nobody is ever going to call you for VO. You need to prospect. Casting directors can become your best friends.

Before doing that, it would be a good idea to get coaching from Nancy Wolfson. There are other coaches out there. She is my coach of choice. Yes, she’s expensive. For a reason. I can credit an enormous portion of my success in VO to what I picked up from her. Yes, I had some enormous success prior to working with Nancy. I’m SAG/AFTRA ONE UNION. VO helped buy my first house.

That kind of success is akin to winning the lottery.

Nancy Wolfson helped make me a better craftsman and a more versatile performer. I can directly attribute her workouts to the skills that have made me an on-call VO for NBC TV.

I’ve had a couple of agents. The best ones I’ve worked with are not in Los Angeles. Of four, only one of them has ever gotten me work. (But then again, maybe I suck.)

Voice123 has been like a cash machine for me. If you work it, and understand how it works, and if you have good demos, and you’ve been to Nancy Wolfson, you can make money on Voice123. But if you don’t understand how it works, and you don’t have good demos, and you’ve had no training, there’s a good chance you’ll sound just like all the other crappy VO performers on Voice123 who suck out loud. There are a lot of good ones and a few great ones. Aspire to greatness.

At the moment, I make a pleasant five-figure part-time income doing VO. I don’t make more because I am virtually not auditioning any more. I’m too busy with my wife running our ad agency. (Well, she runs it and tells me what to do.) I don’t have the time to audition. People find me on Voice123 or they call me. (OK, I lied when I said you should never expect anyone to call you. Expect it when you’ve paid your dues and gotten decent at it and made friends and proven yourself to be reliable.) If I were to throw myself at VO full time, I would likely triple my numbers.

In short, VO is not easy, and it’s not an easy way to make money. As Danny Dark is reputed to have said about doing VO in the ‘80s, it was like having a money truck back up to your house every month. Those days are over. Do it because you love it and it’s great fun, and some of the smaller money trucks may well follow you. And the big one will always be on the horizon.

Ric Gonzalez <Ric.Gonzalez[at]coxinc.com>, Cox Media Group, San Antonio, Texas: I’m guilty of not doing enough to promote myself in this area. I’m a Creative Services Director for 6 radio stations in San Antonio, Texas. I also do VO for our other 80 plus radio stations/TV stations around the country. Putting in the hours I do just at the office leaves me very little time for auditions and hunting down work. But occasionally I get a client who wants the commercial I voiced to run on stations not owned by our company. I get a talent fee for that. Occasionally I get a client who will ask me to do the VO for a separate ad they are running in other markets. I get a talent for that. Or I get a client who asks me to voice their TV ads. I get a talent for that. These are few and far between. Giving 120 percent to my job leaves me little time to seek out additional income from freelance work.

I had an agent once, but they kept sending me to on screen and on camera auditions. Those were fun. I landed a few that paid LOTS more than a radio VO. But you go to more auditions than you get gigs. Again… after taking a few vacation days off to do auditions, I realized this is crazy. I’m surrounded by 6 studios, the best microphones, ISDN lines, and a good agent would be getting VO work sent my way. So I dropped the agency. As for the folks that ask me, “How do I get into the voice-acting biz? Everyone tells me I got a great voice.” I tell them the truth. It takes more than a great voice. Can you act? Take some acting classes. And even with those classes, and a great home studio setup, you may go dry for a long time before you get a gig. There are a gazillion jocks, out of work and working, that are willing to do VO for 10 to 25 dollars a pop. It’s a tough market. But sweet if you can get some steady clients.

Johnny George <jg[at]johnnygeorge.com>, Johnny George Communications, Inc.: Like many of your readers, I too started in radio. My forte was in Production and that’s where it all started, of course.

In 1981, while working at WTLC-FM, an urban station, I became the commercial voice of the station in a day before there really were Production Departments. Several clients of the station liked my work and it stood out on the station, due to the format and me being Mr. Midwest, neutral-sounding. Several clients asked if I would send dubs out to other stations. I said, sure. That will get my voice out on other stations. Soon I realized that I was doing them a payable favor and not just for my ego or exposure. I began charging a flat fee to release it to other stations, and my “hobby”, sideline job was created (with my PD’s blessing).

Word spread back in those days, due to our market size in Indianapolis, being far from the top, yet sounding better than what other stations were putting on the local air. I worked hard to build a “sound” and professional attitude about it. By the time I went up the street to WZPL in 1986, I had a stable of about 6 solid paying clients and another handful of other accounts that came & went.

I got a bit more serious about my side biz once I was at WZPL, which had a solid reputation and the numbers to prove it. I increased my client list to about a dozen and finally did business cards, gave my biz a name, “HotSpots! Creative Communications”, and bought a fax machine at home, put in a business phone line, stationary letterhead, labels for tapes and boxes, etc. I was working full time at the station, part time running my biz and record promotion biz too, plus spinning in the nightclubs 2 nights/week. Where did that energy come from?

Got fired from ‘ZPL in 1993 on my 40th birthday and felt, damn, no one is gonna cut me out of my studio. So I borrowed $25,000 and built a full studio in my home. (Paid back the loan in 10 months.) Took me 6 months to get off my training wheels of editing on my Otari and on to my DigiDesign Session 8 digital system, the precursor to ProTools. A client insisted and off I went.

Was thinking about leaving radio when Sconnix/Emmis asked me several weeks later to re-image Oldies 93 WKLR and then later re-launch WNAP, the legendary station from the ‘70s here in Indy. That gig lasted until 1997 when I got cut loose there, and Susquehanna made me an offer I could not resist as the first Imaging Director in our market. Loved working for them as my VO business continued to blossom. When Cumulus bought out Susquehanna in 2006, I was cut again and was really ready to jump in with both feet. Yes, I had to jump off my safety limb and I have never regretted it. I was making up for my quite respectable salary and benefits and my side VO biz within another 10 months. Seemed as soon as my client base knew that I was now available as a full-time VO guy, everything changed and I had many doors to agencies, agents and clients open up like never before.

Thank God I started into the biz full time in 2006 before the bottom of the economy fell out in 2008, or I may have been in trouble. I actually used the bad economy to cut several lame clients and grew my business another 17% that next year. I have a full studio with ISDN, Pro Tools and an adjacent office where all the computers (noise & heat) are located. 2012 is looking to be a good year with the advent of new clients and a new agent. I am very fortunate to be blessed and I pray each morning that it continues.

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