Production 512: Speaking…For Money

Prod512 Logo 400pxMy wife has a habit of informing people she meets who have interesting voices that they should pursue a career in voice work. She means well. Any of you who have met Jan know that she is a generous, warm and caring person. She honestly doesn’t have any kind of mean in her, and yet she keeps giving out this free “advice” to otherwise blameless people. They’ve never done anything cruel to her, at least not yet…but I worry.

Jake, my wife’s new friend, and I have spoken. She was right; he has an excellent voice and is the inspiration for this month’s column. I’ve pointed him in the right direction and he’s promised me free beer. Well, at least one.

It seems like such a simple concept; you sit down in front of a microphone and ‘talk’ for a living. So simple in fact, the ranks of voice talent have exploded in the last few years. There are literally thousands of VO people out there, willing to be your voice for a “dollar a holler.” Sadly, there are literally thousands of clients out there who view this as a good thing as they look out for their bottom line. They simply don’t understand the concept of ‘you get what you pay for’ and they often get abysmal results. Eventually, most will end up blaming the medium, rather than their poor casting.

At the other end of the spectrum, A-List actors have gotten into the game…big time. Donald and Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Harrison Ford, George Clooney, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino have all lent their voices to commercial work. Clients generally get major bang for their buck and assign the credit to the box-office draw of the actor, without understanding that nearly ALL of the audience has no clue that the guy telling them about Bank of America is Kiefer Sutherland. The reason actors make such incredible announcers (normally) is because they know how to put on a personae that the audience can relate to intimately. That’s what they do in their day jobs. Any actor worth his or her salt can make the listener cry, laugh or shriek with joy. Is it any wonder that they’re so good at commercial work? Clients would do well to learn that they are not benefitting from box office appeal when they hire George Clooney. The audience almost never knows that it’s George talking…they only react to his delivery, which is always stellar.

I’ve discovered that the vast majority of production people have given serious consideration to doing VO one day. A lot of them actually have pretty decent ‘instruments’ too. As simple as the act of recording your voice is, the distance between the huge ‘dollar a holler’ crowd and people like Harrison Ford is like flying to the moon and back. I’ve known dozens of people with pretty nice voices who have given up on the idea of ever making any real money. Well, today I want to map out that journey for you in 5 steps. It’s not 5 easy steps. It’s 5 steps you have to master before you can sit down in a studio, deliver a few lines and walk away with $25k.

I give you these with the same caveat I gave Jake: there are NO guarantees.

Step One: Keep Your Instrument Clear…Always

The first step is really the simplest but at the same time, one of the most difficult. Take care of your voice. Drink a TON of water. Water is the lubricant for your voice box. Don’t clog up your pipes with soda or dairy, especially before you’re about to attempt a session. Coffee is a long-time staple of most production people, VO people too, but without cream and go light on the sugar. Water should be your go-to beverage. If you completely discount expression and are just talking about vocal quality, pitch is NOT the major concern…it’s clarity. You don’t have to be a health ‘nut’ to take care of your voice, just pay attention. 

As a producer, I get particularly irked when an announcer has a lot of mouth noise. All the snap, crackle and pop that makes editing a chore comes from having too much sugar, milk and cheese, other creamy sauces and heavy syrups. What’s worse is how those things prevent your vocal chords from vibrating against each other the way they should. It makes the voice sound ‘thick’ and cuts down the vocal range of your pitch. Brushing your teeth can make a big difference in clarity, especially when you carefully rinse with cool, clean water. I highly recommend you carry a portable toothbrush with you at all times. You really don’t need toothpaste, although it adds to the efficiency of brushing. It’s not about the smell of your breath, it’s about getting into all the nooks and crannies in your mouth and lifting out the debris. Oh, and be sure you brush your tongue. The final step is the rinse. Even if you don’t brush, rinse and gargle before you sit down to wow the audience with your vocal skills.

Step Two: Train Yourself in The Use Of Your Voice

Once upon a time, I thought I had this ‘announcing’ thing all figured out. I thought I would simply have a conversation with my listener, like I would with a friend. That seemed to cover a lot of the territory for quite a while. I was booking pretty regularly, carrying a decent sized list of clients and feeling pretty good about my place in the VO world. Whenever I didn’t get the BIG gig I just always assumed the casting directors didn’t know what they were doing and that eventually they would see the light.

After I went through a fairly long dry spell, I went to my agent and asked what he thought my problem was. “Why am I not getting these jobs?” He said I needed a vocal coach. I thought he was crazy and ignored his advice, but after the spell stretched on a bit longer, I called and asked if he could recommend someone. As it happened, another one of his clients was not just an announcer/actor/voice guy, he was also a voice coach. My agent told me that one of David Lyerly’s long-time clients was Hal Holbrook. What? Hal Holbrook? Why in the world does he have a voice coach? At the time, he was one of the most in-demand VO people in the business. After a long, slow burn, I finally saw the light.

You absolutely need to have a disinterested third party help you get past your bad announcing habits, to help you develop a more natural rhythm and learn to emote.

Within days of my first session with David, I landed one of those ‘big’ gigs. He had picked up on one of my bad habits that made me sound pedantic and not at all relatable. Once I could hear what he was talking about myself, I could start the process of breaking that habit. I still struggle with it. Bad speech habits are like any other habit; once learned they are wicked hard to stop.

Most of the best VO coaches are in New York and Los Angeles, mainly because that’s where the bulk of the really big gigs are cast. However, there are coaches in just about every medium to large city. Google “voice over coaches” and you will find bunches of good coaches, some of whom will work with people over Skype. Or you can go to New York or LA and spend a week or two in a VO workshop, which can be extremely helpful. If you add the name of your town to the Google search, you will no doubt find several local coaches whose rates are often very affordable.

How do you know if the coach is a good one? A couple of things to look for would be the size of their current list of clients and the size of their list of successful clients. You want a smaller number on the former and a larger number on the latter. Most of the top coaches only have an active list of 4 or 5 clients. Some really good coaches will have more, to be sure, but that’s a measure I’ve found to be pretty reliable. Also, the ones who will spend an hour or more with you before anything is agreed to are looking for the students they feel will push for excellence so they can add to their list of successful clients.

Step Three: Produce A Kickass Demo

A lot of the VO coaches offer a demo creation service as part of their deal. Even if you have been producing commercials or imaging for your station or business for a long time, this is a really good option. Just as having a disinterested third party find and help you conquer the bad habits and help you develop your skills, a disinterested third party can build a demo that they KNOW will appeal to agents and casting directors, helping you get excellent representation, which will be key to being successful in the VO world. (That is step four.) If you want to make your own demo, you certainly can, but bear in mind that while you might be your own worst critic, you are probably your own least objective critic.

Step Four: Secure Excellent Representation

This is no doubt, the most difficult step. I knocked on agency doors every few months for seven long years before I got any interest. It wasn’t until I snagged an audition to become the solo VO for VH1 that I found any interest at all. I was one of the first to audition and on the sign-in sheet, I wrote ‘independent’ under the agent heading. The next day I got a call from an agency I won’t name here. It turns out the VH1 casting director was raving about me to every other producer and casting director in town. It seemed like I was locked in to get the gig and once this agency heard I was ‘independent,’ they smelled a big payday. I went into the agency and signed a deal that hinged on my landing the VH1 gig. The auditions went on for almost three weeks and my new agent informed me that a woman had come in to audition and the casting director had narrowed it down to the two of us. No callbacks…just a decision based on the auditions we had already done. A couple more days went by and the word came down that she was in and I was out. I never heard from the agency again.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I became the primary announcer on Z100 that William Morris Agency brought me on board. A few years later, they blew up that division and I moved on to Atlas Talent, where I have been ever since.

I have a lot of friends in the VO biz who are either independent or are represented by small, boutique agencies and they do quite well, indeed. The big players (in my mind) are Atlas Talent, Buchwald, and CESD and they all are pretty tight on signing new talent. I strongly suspect that the only sure-fire way to get their attention is to walk in with business, like I did with VH1. They’ll be polite, mostly, and will entertain T&Rs that come in (Tape and Resume…an outdated phrase, I guess), but callbacks are rare.

My experience was they’ll sign you if you bring deals with you, but deals without them are mighty difficult to get. It’s the Catch-22 of broadcast/film announcing.

Step Five: Quit Your Day Job

Once you have an agent, the auditions should start rolling in. Hopefully, you’ll hit one early on and you’re off to the races. If not, you might want to hold off on this step. Having a dream like this is fantastic, but eating is much superior.

Again, remember what I stressed to Jake: there are NO guarantees.

For my sound this month, I offer my CHR demo that currently lives on the Atlas Talent website. I did produce it myself, but I ran it past a BUNCH of producers, PDs and a couple of casting directors, making adjustments throughout the process. I’m not really sending it to get work, although I certainly wouldn’t turn it down. I’ve been told, by a number of people whose opinion I trust, that it’s a ‘kickass’ demo. I hope you agree.

Dave welcomes your correspondence at Dave@DaveFoxx.com.

Comments (1)

  1. Robert McCubbins

WOW... Thanks for this post!

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