by John Pellegrini
Okay, so you think you’ve got a tape ready, and you’ve had everything done up properly for it (the J-cards, the labels, the duplicates, the resume, the whole schmear). You had a graphic artist do your label art (yes, you must!), and you have a great looking cassette. Now you have to find an agent(s). So why, you ask, am I putting an (s) on the end of agent? Good question. That depends upon where you decide you want to try to get work.
Here in Chicago, you, the artist, are allowed to be represented by more than one talent agent, but not in New York and not in Los Angeles. You can only have one agent in those cities. Those are the rules. I don’t know why, it just is. Being rep’d by multiple agents has its advantages and disadvantages. You’ll have to learn which system you prefer. But the most important thing to do before anything else is to find out which of the Theatrical Agents (that’s the listing you look for in the yellow pages) handles voice work. Many will claim that they do, but you want to look for the ones who specialize in voice work, and little else. This is just to get you started. After you’ve been in for a while, you can make your own decision about which agent(s) is(are) right for you.
So order a copy of the Chicago Yellow Pages (or whatever city you’re going for) and start dialing. Call. Ask lots of questions. Ask for references. Ask to speak to some of their talent for references. Ask for the names of advertising agencies they work with. They should send you a list. Ask for all that kind of info, and if they won’t give it to you, drop them like a load of fermenting bovine effluvia. You don’t want to get stuck with an agent who’s not ethical (yeah, I know all the agent jokes).
Then ask the agent what they need from you. They might give you a laundry list of qualifications that you must fulfill, such as acting and names of voice-over coaches that you’ve studied with. Don’t be shy if you don’t have any. Explain to them that you’ve worked professionally in smaller markets doing radio commercials (don’t say you worked at a radio station) and you want to get going in the bigger market. Ask them for voice-over coaching references (but don’t ask them for advice—that pegs you as a no-experience beginner), and tell them that you plan on taking the classes soon. Make sure you tell the agent that you have a tape and you want to send it to them for their review. They will accept it, because it’s their job. By the way, if they tell you that there is a fee for them to listen to your tape...hang up! Agents are not allowed to charge for listening to your tape, and if they do, you’ve got a shyster on your hands.
Here is, inevitably, where the subject of AFTRA or SAG comes up—The Union. Do you have to join the union to get voice work? No. Will you have to join the union before you can get voice work? No. Will you be asked to join the union when you get voice work? Yes, but you don’t have to (YOU SCAB!). However, you will not be asked to join the union until you have made a certain amount of money per year as a voice-over talent. The only one you need to be concerned with is AFTRA, the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists. SAG is the Screen Actors Guild, and you can’t join them if you’re only doing voice work. I know they’ve been combined into one union now, but they’re still separate entities. Personally, if you’re going to become a free-lance voice-over artist (your title-to-be), I think you should definitely join when you get the opportunity, but that’s only my opinion. You might want to consider calling AFTRA in Chicago or New York or LA to get more info from them, including where your local office is for the market you’re currently in. Yes, AFTRA can and will represent you at your current station, but they can tell you more about that than I can.
You might even want to call AFTRA for a voice-over talent agent reference list (although they tend to reserve that list for members, but you can still tell them that you plan on becoming a member as soon as you get work). Yes, you can ask them for “getting started” career advice and ideas, too; expanding the membership is always profitable for the unions.
The bottom line about the union is, they’ll help you if you join, but you are not legally required to join. However, the agencies who refuse to work with the union are the ones who usually have the worst track records in taking care of voice-over talent, i.e., your pay. Mind you, I said the ones who REFUSE to work with the union. Some agencies don’t work with the unions because they’re just too small to hire union scale voice-over talent (they’d like to, but their client base can’t afford it), and some of them are perfectly legitimate and pay right on time. You’ll have to decide for yourself if you want to work with those agencies or not, as well as if you want to join the union or not. Personally, having a large union with the capital to hire first-rate legal experts to help you and protect your income is worth the expense. Plus, AFTRA has a fairly decent health plan, which is probably something to consider when you’re thinking of striking out on your own in the world of free-lance. Also, never forget that your AFTRA dues are perfectly legitimate tax deductions for your free-lance income.
Now, a word or two about the difficulties of becoming a voice-over artist. The one aspect of this business that causes so many people to quit before they ever get anywhere, especially those of us who’ve worked in radio stations, is DIRECTION (i.e., YOUR EGO DIES RIGHT NOW). When you become a voice-over artist, YOU are no longer important. You, “Joe Radio.” are not the reason the client decides to hire you. The only reason why you’ll get called to an audition in the first place is because the Creative Director heard something in your voice (on your demo tape) that he or she liked. But the only thing that will keep you being hired again and again is your ability to take, or not take, direction. Your input into how the spot should sound is NOT WANTED OR WARRANTED!!! Allow me to repeat that. Your input into how the spot should sound is NOT WANTED OR WARRANTED!!! The Creative Director knows exactly how the spot is supposed to sound. The scripts have been approved by ten to one hundred different people, committees, boards, panels, and/or focus groups. The agency has already spent a few thousand dollars, or much more, on finding out how the spot is supposed to sound. Your on-the-spur-of-the-moment, “brilliant” idea, right off the top of your head as you first gaze at the script in the studio, is NOT WANTED OR WARRANTED! So keep your mouth shut and only speak the lines as written and as you are directed.
I have to repeat this again and again. Your job is to do exactly as you’re told by the Creative Director. AND NOTHING ELSE. This was the hardest thing for me to learn about voice work. In fact, I didn’t learn it the first time around, and I lost work and eventually quit because of it. This is also the reason why I am taking one-on-one master classes in voice-over with this particular coach, to get myself out of this mind-frame and into the “actor” mode. The fact is, I’ve met countless people in radio who tell me the same thing. One person, an air talent with a couple of decades in the business, said bluntly to me, “I hate those #@#%$ agency people because they’re always trying to get me to change my style! Hey! I’m the talent, I’m the star! They don’t tell me what to do! I read the spots the way I feel comfortable!” This is exactly why this person has NEVER BEEN HIRED for any major agency voice-overs! And never will be. Because he just doesn’t get it that he is not the star; the client is. The product is. The pitch is.
The fact of the matter is, when you do major agency voice work, you are nothing more than a paid shill for the client. You cease to exist as a known commodity and your only purpose, your only reason to be there, is to make the product, and to a lesser extent, the agency, look phenomenal, if not God-like. If you have a problem with that, then you’ll never get any work. Sorry if that’s harsh, but that’s reality, folks. I’m just trying to save you some of the grief I went through.
You’ve perhaps heard that Creative Directors can be tough. This is true, especially when you’re faced with one who wants to be the next Martin Scorsese. (Note: all advertising Creative Directors think they’re Martin Scorsese.) I know one voice actor who was required to go to a health club and work out because the Creative Director he worked with thought his vocal cords were getting “too fat,” which was making his voice sound “too fat.” I’m not making this up. They actually wrote in his contract that to continue with the job, the actor had to provide his health club membership contract and proof from the club that he was going in on a daily basis to work out! But, he was getting six figures a year from just that client alone, so he did it.
Also, in the never-ending battle to get yourself established as a voice-over artist, you cannot in any way let your political, ethical, or religious views interfere with your work. In other words, you may get called to audition for a script or a product or a client whose very existence is completely against everything you personally believe in. Unfortunately, in order to get work when you’re just starting out, you cannot afford to turn anything down for any reason! If you turn something down once, they’ll never call you again for anything.
Why is this? Because, when you get started, you’re going to be handled by the flunkies of the agency. The low kids on the totem pole. Those people are, just like you, trying as hard as they can to make a name for themselves, too. If you are seen to be a “problem” talent or someone who’s picky about who they’ll work for or what clients and products they’ll read for, the agents will just drop you from their lists and your phone will go dead before you even know it. They’re not going to waste any time on someone who may not do the work they supply because they lose commissions that way. After you get established, after you’re making the huge bucks, then you can afford to be picky because by then, you’ll be handled by the big wheel agents at the talent agency, and they can power negotiate anything for you. But, that’s not going to happen until you become a moneymaker for them. You don’t get until you produce. Sound familiar?
Every famous actor has, in his sordid past, a film, a play, even a commercial that totally embarrasses him today. If they could live their careers over again, they all say, they’d never have done that film, play, or commercial. Sure, they all say that now because now they’re rich, fat-cats. But back when they were starting out, when they were hungry nothings, they were grateful to accept anything (and I mean ANYTHING) that came their way. That’s the only way you get noticed enough to have a career. It’s the same in the world of commercial voice-overs.
Is it all worth it? I don’t know. That’s for you to decide. All I can say is it takes about two to three years to successfully launch a career in major agency voice work, sometimes longer. You’ll obviously need to have a job for a steady source of income while you’re auditioning during those years, so you’ll probably have to work second or third shift somewhere because you need to have your daytime free to rush off to the auditions.
The biggest motivator for this is the money. If you get established, if you practice, if you really make an effort, you can make lots of money. How much? Most of the really big name voice-over people are millionaires, or darn close. I’ve heard of people being paid anywhere from fifteen thousand to one hundred thousand for one voice job. One thirty second read. There are also people who don’t get the huge cash for one project, but they get paid maybe a thousand or two for a spot or two per session, and they do perhaps a hundred or more sessions a year, and that’s a six-figure income right there. Figure that each recording session maybe lasts an hour or two, and that’s pretty good wages. Add in residuals (you get another full session fee—the amount they paid you for the original session—every eight weeks that the spot runs), and it’s a nifty amount of money. The truth is, many voice-over actors are as well paid as most Hollywood TV and film stars. And they don’t have to look anywhere near as good. But, you’re going to sacrifice your short-term economic future big time in order to get there. In other words, plan to starve for your first two or three years. You can’t afford not to.
For those of you who are already doing voice work, I know I’ve probably omitted many things that you think are very important. Not deliberately, but there just isn’t enough room to hit on everything. So, I summed up what I thought was important for the beginner. I’ve gotten some letters over the first part telling me that there are a number of you who are doing voice-over on a part-time basis in other markets, and everything I said about putting a tape together is wrong, that you were able to put together your own tape, and you didn’t even need a talent agent to get work. Great. But that, as I pointed out in the beginning of part one, wasn’t the reason or purpose of these articles. My intention was to answer the loads of questions that people call and write me with on how to get the really big jobs, how to be the next voice of VISA, or AMOCO, or Kraft Foods, how to be the next Ken Nordine or Sally Kellerman—not just a one-shot deal, but a permanent voice gig with major residuals. Also, I spoke with some Talent Agents and Creative Directors at the big agencies here in Chicago in order to find out what the requirements are. Like I said, you don’t have to be here to get work, but it makes your chances a whole lot better if you are than if you’re not.
If you have more to contribute, please do so! This article is hopefully just an informative piece that will help those readers who have no experience, but would like to learn, how to get it, and what it’s gonna take. Good luck, and let us know how it goes for you! Just remember though, especially in getting voice work, luck has nothing to do with it. Being persistent is the only way to make it. However, there’s a fine line between persistence and stalking. Don’t erase that line!