HOW THE NET OFFERED VOICEOVERS THE WORLD
I almost wasn't going to write this blog, until a friend of mine I've been helping set up his own voice studio at home, told me that his marketing efforts to get voice over work had started with organisations local to where he lived. And I couldn't quite understand why he was doing this, as he didn’t actually know anyone there and also these companies didn’t have audio studios.
Yes of course, make good relationships with local recording studios, where you may physically go into from time to time, but when it comes to potential clients, the internet has opened up the complete planet to us all, and home studio working is now so easy.
As I mentioned in the introduction, when I first started my voice career in the 70’s, actors had to physically turn up at studios to record scripts. It was extremely rare to do anything “down the line”. If a specific required voice actor couldn’t make it to your studio, you would have to book audio lines days or weeks in advance, and quality audio line bookings would be very expensive.
So, a group of voice artists and actors would literally tour the country continuously, staying in cheap hotels or even sleeping in their cars to save cash, and then knocking at the doors of radio stations in that city the next day to ask if there were any suitable scripts in the commercial production department’s “in” trays!
It was a very hard life for the freelance voiceover back in the 70’s and 80’s. These people didn’t even have mobile phones, so had to find phone boxes or cadge the use of radio station office telephones to see if anyone had booked them via various concierge services. Today, it doesn’t matter where you live. Create a .com website as a shopwindow and the world is yours!
You know, some say that you have to get lucky breaks in our business to be successful, but remember the old adage, “the harder you work, the luckier you get”.
WHY WE’RE LUCKY!
Lucky that the internet connects us all together so we can be directed by someone the other side of the planet with virtually no delay or extra costs.
Lucky that broadband speeds are forever getting faster and more stable.
Lucky that digital technology can provide incredible quality audio equipment at very affordable prices so we can set up home studios without breaking the bank.
Lucky that developers have created solutions to make remote direction easier for us voiceovers such as Source Connect, ipDTL, Riverside, Cleanfeed and so on.
Lucky we can be paid instantly via PayPal or Bank transfer and not having to physically pay in those silly “cheques” at banks.
Lucky that English is an international language, and if somebody wants an English language voice over recording, they're not going to care where you are physically located, they just want to know they are going to get a good professional job, recorded properly.
Lucky that media creation is expanding, and voice artists of all types are in demand.
EXCLUSIVE AGENT OR INDEPENDENT?
When you’re starting out, you really need to decide which voiceover “camp” you wish to be in. The two camps are best explained as “voiceover artist with exclusive agent” and “independent, with various non-exclusive agents”. We’re all different types of people, with different talents and connections, and some voiceover artists are better suited to one camp than the other.
First of all, if you have an agent with an “exclusive” deal, this means that if you’re approached directly by a client, such as an advertising agency, production company, or even a direct end-client to record and to edit a voiceover script, under the terms of your arrangement, you would have to refer them to your agent, and not discuss any details of the fee or even if you’d actually do the job. “Call my agent!”
You’d also not be generally allowed to post your services on voiceover directory sites or so called “Pay To Play” sites like Voices.com, Bodalgo, Voice 123 and so on. If you have your own website, the only contact numbers and emails will those of your agent – only! If you get direct calls, you’d refer all job enquiries to your agent. In return, your exclusive agent would promise to try and get work for you, and to negotiate the best fees for you. However, there would be no guarantee of any work at all.
So what are the advantages of having an exclusive deal with a voiceover agent? Well, it saves you any hassle dealing with bookings and invoicing, and your agent will know other potential and confirmed bookings for you, so nothing gets double booked and also you won’t have issues recording scripts for rival brands in the same sector which can cause real problems.
The other major advantage is that you may find it difficult to put a decent fee on your services, so your agent will be able to negotiate for you often an amount far more than you would maybe have dared to suggest, so even with the agent’s commission, you still earn more on that job. This fee negotiation isn’t often that important for basic non-broadcast narration, corporate films or internet promos and so on. For these types of basic script, most fees are pretty similar for similar script duration and type, but good agents can negotiate high fees for TV and radio commercial use using every trick in the book if an advertising agency really wants your voice for a project. Agents can also chase extra payments if your voiceover recordings are used for longer than in the original agreement.
Voiceovers with exclusive agents tend to be based in cities, as this arrangement works best for bookings in recording studios, and often voiceovers with exclusive agents don’t have a studio of their own or aren’t that technically inclined. Some agents do try and persuade their voiceovers to have a recording facility of their own, even a basic one, just to record basic custom mp3 demos they can send off, but there are many who don’t have a studio at all, and actually never want to do anything technical, which can work out fine for some, but for others they will find that this will put a big dent in their earning potential, as they won’t be able to record custom demos for jobs unless they go to a studio, eating up precious time and somebody has to pay that studio bill.
So, I think you’ll see that for a voiceover who is maybe a jobbing actor or has another full-time job in a city and is trying to get a start in the world of voiceovers, having an exclusive agent to source and to get you work is a highly attractive option. Especially if it seems that they are going to do all the marketing for you! But of course, it’s not as simple as that.
You will need to persuade the agent to take you on in the first place, and with an agent, you don’t just simply sit back and wait for the phone to ring, you’ll need to do your part as well, and more on this later.
You don’t HAVE to live in a big city near lots of recording studios to have an exclusive arrangement with a voice-over artist. Quite a few of the big names I know live in the middle of nowhere, but they do need to be technically proficient with their own broadcast quality studio. Plus, for urgent jobs, they need to be able to drop everything to get to an in – person session at a recording studio.
So, I think you are getting the idea, that this type of voice-over, is more of an actor-type person, or even a sort of existing “celebrity”, who has got an exclusive agent to do most of the marketing, to sort out recording sessions and to invoice and chase the cash afterwards. Generally speaking, these sessions would be well paid and worthwhile to travel to a physical session in a recording studio that’s not your own. An agent wouldn’t be interested in the smaller jobs, because the hassle of setting them up and doing the extra work needed, would not justify the small amount of percentage the agent would get, especially if re-takes were needed.
So, would you as a newcomer to the voice-over world, be able to secure an agent? Well, that’s all up to your talent, your connections, and whether maybe you are a bit of a celebrity already. There are many actors who are already quite established on the stage or doing TV work, who have never really thought of doing voice-over work, and they’d be naturals at doing it....maybe you’re one of these people. In this sort of situation, because you have a bit of a “name”, it should be fairly easy to get a voice agent, either an individual, or an established voice agency in the city where you are based, to represent you.
Don’t automatically think, by the way, that your existing “acting” agent would be skilled at getting you voice work, as they may not have the contacts or knowledge about what specific skills or parameters are required, or anything about the rates and deals relating to voice artists. So, in this case, you’d need an agent or agency who would represent you solely and exclusively for voiceover work and nothing else, and you’d need to square it with your acting agent – saying that you wish to be represented by a “voiceover only” exclusive agent. Don’t let your acting agent find out by hearing your voice on a TV spot, unless you want some ugly scenes or a nasty phone call!
So, if you are getting an exclusive voice agent under an exclusive relationship, what is the point learning more about the business from me? Well, as well as learning the essential techniques to be a first-class professional voice artist in the recording booth, you need to be able to know that your agent is doing everything they should be doing to get you work, but more importantly, one day you might like to break out and become an independent voice-over. This has been my own situation, where I once had an exclusive agent for many years, and then when that agency closed through no fault of my own, I simply tried to see if I could make it as an independent. I was remarkably successful, and I honestly made far more income as I did with an agent representing me. It was also to me much more fun, and I felt much more in control of my own destiny. So did that mean I had a pretty bad agent? No not at all. It’s simply that I realised that I am a sort of person who actually suits being an independent voice-over.
A summary. For people who are in full-time work and don’t have time to commit to doing their own recording, editing and marketing, and have managed to get an agent on an exclusive basis, they may get two or three really well-paid jobs in a week, and need to travel to recording studios. They still need to have a handle on marketing, to ensure that their own agent is on the ball, and be prepared to suggest new voice showreels or voice characters for video games and so on, you have still to be active in looking for opportunities and assisting your agent.
But the other side of the coin is the life of the independent voice-over. These people are generally the types of people who like to get out there and promote their own services, and generally have the time to do it. It’s not a case that the independent voice-over just doesn’t want to pay any agent fees, it’s because that they genuinely enjoy the variety of smaller to medium-sized jobs that come in to their email in-box each day. They like being busy. Plus, usually the independent voice-over actually enjoys the studio work, recording, shaping sound and editing. I know I do! Nothing is more frustrating to me personally, then going to a big recording studio in London, and working under an engineer who maybe is a bit slow or doesn’t conduct the recording session as I would do myself. But that’s just me! I happen to have been brought up with a technical mind and even as a kid, I was building little recording studios and radio transmitters! (I’m sad to admit)
So, if you want to be an independent voice-over, or you have to be because you just cannot find an agent who is willing to take you on at this stage in your career, then you will need to do all your own marketing, get an invoicing system set up and be organised with a “business head” on. You will also of course need to build a home studio or do a deal with a local friend who you can share facilities with, learn some technical skills of recording and editing your material. It is honestly not as scary as it may look, and today’s software is quite easy to get used to.
If you need help, I have various video-based courses on VoiceoverMasterclass.com all about how to set up a voice over studio and how to do basic and intermediate audio editing with Adobe Audition software which is the industry standard.
Another advantage of being an independent voice-over, with your presence all round the world on various websites, and with your own personal website, is that you get a huge VARIETY of work each day, as well as having rarely a day without any jobs. In fact, it’s a relief when you DON’T have jobs come in, to have time free to do the accounts and invoicing, and to see the family!
But as with any freelance life, psychologically, when you get a whole day without any jobs coming in at all, you sometimes get this awful feeling that the whole world doesn’t want you or needs you anymore. It often isn’t the case like this at all, but if you get lots of smaller jobs to keep you busy and then this is peppered with some really decent big jobs over the week, you are kept busy and you continually have that feeling that you are in demand.
The world of the voice-over is very much supply and demand, and if you go the route of having an exclusive voice agent, you may have a wonderful agent, who is trying very hard for you, and gets you to audition for all sorts of things, but you don’t happen to get the actual jobs in the end. It can be very frustrating, and sometimes you will go for weeks without any paying job at all.
So let me tell you more about what type of person this second breed of VO is…an independent voiceover, like myself. This is somebody who may have many connections with various voice agencies, not just in their city or country, but round the world. You would not be under any exclusive agreement with anybody. You would be on the websites of many agencies around the world, with voice samples and a photo as if you were working just for them, but of course, you are not, as you’ll have non-exclusive arrangements! Some of these web-based voice agencies will ask you to use a false name on their site, or you’ll not be allowed even a photo and you’ll be just a code number on their site to identify you. That’s fine, just play their game, you’ll still get paid and it won’t harm your other work!
As an independent voice-over, you would also of course have your own personal website, featuring audio voice samples and also videos and TV commercials that have you featured as a voiceover, and unlike your own site when represented exclusively with an agent, you’ll have email and phone contact numbers direct to you.
You may also be enrolled on various other voice directory websites; some of which you would pay to subscribe to, some of which would be free. More details of the best of these sites are in the section at the end. These sites would all have their different systems, and fee structures, and you may not hear from some of them for weeks or months, but then suddenly a very decent job comes in, so it’s worth being on as many as them as is practicable.
So would any of these jobs for the directory-type sites be well paid, like the big city advertising agency funded jobs? Maybe, but usually they will all be small to medium-sized jobs, say between 50 and 100 dollars per script, but over time, an independent voice-over who markets themselves well, will be able to get regular work from all the various income sources. All the small jobs add up, and we’ll do some maths later on to determine income values you could attain.
To be honest, you will find as an independent, most of your income will come, not from being on voice websites with loads of other voices as competition, but from the solid relationships you will make with studios and producers who will hire you directly and regularly and will not even think of auditioning anyone else for your type of voice. We’ll all be different, but with my own contacts over the years, I make about 60% of my income from direct clients, with 40% from agencies and studios, and the “Pay to play” websites like Voices.com and also the free voice directory VO sites like FiverrPro. Then you get long term projects such as huge eLearning and audiobook projects that also are essentially direct.
SKILLS REQUIRED FOR VOICEOVER SUCCESS
Skill 1 - The voice itself
I'm sometimes asked by people outside the business what EXTRA skills are needed by a voice over artist. They say “Extra”, because they seem to think that you just simply need to have a “nice voice”. On asking what they mean by “nice”, it transpires what they really mean is when it comes to, say, a British voice, someone that sounds like they're reading the news on BBC Radio 4. Sigh….
But of course, that's not actually the case at all. I know many voice artists making a really decent income, capitalising on their original regional or ethnic accents, or they have the flexibility to be able to perform many kinds of character voices, so they're more of a “voice actor”, than a “voiceover”. That’s absolutely fine. And I know quite a few people who are brilliant at sounding “normal”, just like a “man or woman in the street” and for some voice artists, that’s strangely hard to do, as once you get into the groove of thinking like what a voiceover “should” sound like on many radio and TV ads, you just can’t do “normal” without really struggling!
So the first skill, isn't really a skill at all, because often you just have to be yourself, and that’s why virtually anybody can work in the voice business and be successful; you just have to find the clients who are looking for a voice like your natural voice or one that you can create, building on your natural voice. It really is astonishing how many different voices you can find within you when you lose your inhibitions and just try some variations out. You won’t be great at them all, nobody is. But I bet after some hours trying things out with the techniques I go into later with character voices, that you’ll magically discover a list of new sounds, accents and characters that you never thought you could achieve before.
Skill 2 – Sightreading
Yes, you DO have to be proficient in the language you are recording in. Otherwise, you will be forever tripping up and leaving gaps, and it will take ages for you to edit after your recording. so, sightreading is an essential skill for voiceovers. You can see how good you are by picking up a random newspaper or book, flicking it open and just starting to read anywhere at reasonable speed of 150 words per minute, and not making any mistakes.
Pretend you're being recorded, and you mustn't leave any gaps, or trip up anywhere. The trick is that while your mouth is reading a set of words, your eyes need to look ahead to find any “danger” words , maybe a name that you're not sure how it's pronounced so your brain can start thinking of this while you are still speaking. Then your ears need to monitor what you’re saying to make sure it is accurate.
Skill 3 - Timing
One of my party tricks was being able to judge exactly the duration of 30 seconds without looking at a watch or clock, because I had recorded so many 30 seconds radio and TV commercials, and there seems to be a sort of an internal clock in my head. Maybe it's the voiceover equivalent of having perfect pitch in a musician!
This particular skill isn't essential, but you do need to have a sense what pace is, so for example, if you are on a directed session, and the director asks you to speed up a little for the next “take”, you will know what you had recorded before in terms of your delivery speed, and you’d be able to shave a small part off it.
For many voiceover scripts, exact timing isn't actually that essential, but if you are recording commercials or are replacing a non-English narration of a video, then every split-second counts. In fact you may get a timed script with each paragraph or even sentence given with the exact duration required.
As time goes on, and you get more experienced, you will be able to judge exactly how long durations are, and also you’ll be able to compensate for the fact that you will be able to cut out breaths afterwards if necessary. So even though you may not have an inherent good sense of timing to begin with, after a while, with many recordings under your belt, you will no doubt develop this skill to a high level.
Skill 4 – Accurate Self-Monitoring
An essential skill when you are working on your own, is to be able to monitor yourself, and I go into this in much more detail in a later section. If it's just you who is checking how accurate you are with the words and how close the performance is to what the client has asked of you, then you need to be very strict with yourself, as if there was a producer looking over your shoulder or who is sat in an imaginary control room next door.
Yes, it can be lonely working on your own as a voiceover in your home studio, especially when you have got many self-directed scripts to do. That's why if you are not that good at self-directing, you need to try to angle your marketing to get the kinds of jobs which do have the need for a director calling the shots over your headphones.
Skill 5 – Technical skills
Technical skills are pretty essential, because unless you learn how to record and edit everything yourself, a big chunk of your wages will be going out to your engineer or audio editor. I do know a couple of people who are terribly technophobic, but great voice actors, and they’ve just have never had any yearning to learn the technical side of their job, and would rather have someone else do it all. But they’re happy in their work, and they don't mind paying an outside studio to do the technical work for them. If the idea of grappling with software and technology fills you with dread, and you think this is an option for you, be aware that not only will you lose money you earn sharing it with someone else, but you will not optimise all the work you can possibly get, as quite often voice work has the tendency of creating urgent projects at very unsociable hours, when most commercial studios are shut.
Skill 6- Patience
Patience is a skill that you’ll need when dealing with some clients. On a directed session, where you are in an external studio or in your home booth wearing headphones, you may be reading the same 10 second line over and over and over, as various agency people on your headphones chip in with their own thoughts of how you should say the words, and quite often, they end up selecting the very first take you recorded anyway! Grrr!! Even if you know you are right and the clients are wrong, and even if you believe there is a far better way of doing the job, unless you are specifically asked for your opinion, just button your lip and do what they ask you to do!
Sometimes, you will be directed by a production company who have had the script from the end direct client, and sometimes there's some pretty poor English in it. So, you can point this out if you like, although I have known occasions where the production company was too scared to change their client’s script, and I reluctantly had to read the bad English. But a situation like this can sometimes work in your favour, when they have to ask you that to record it again, and you get paid another fee!
Skill 7 - Flexibility
Flexibility - not in voice style, but in your time. Especially if you get clients in countries in other time zones than your own one, you will need to be prepared to get up early or go to bed late, but it's fun talking to people from other countries in different parts of the planet, and you really feel that you are literally a man or woman of the world.
So these are the main skills I think a voice over should have, but there are also loads of different techniques that you will need to use for various projects in the future, and to be honest, you never stop learning. That's what makes this job so challenging and rewarding at the same time.
Skill 8 – Life experience in communication
If you’ve ever done business presentations or “tool talks” to colleagues at work, done any teaching work or are a parent where you communicate regularly with your kids and teach them things, all these basic human communication skills are needed to be a great voice artist. In fact, why not replace the term “voice artist” with the word “communicator”. That is a far more accurate description of what your job entails.
To prove this point, go to YouTube and watch a Ted Talk or TedX Talk. Often you will be totally enthralled and sucked in to the presentations even on subjects you may not have an interest in. But often these great communicators haven’t a traditionally “good” voice for voiceover work, yet the passion and nuances of their presentation, the pauses and emphasis words that all come naturally to them, add up to a very strong form of communication.