VO’s Unfair, so, Grow a Pair!

Two pears

The other day it happened again.

In mid-session, I gave one of my voice-over students a simple script for a cold read. I thought he’d be excited to try something new, but this is what he said:

“You’re giving me this now? Are you trying to trick me? You gave me zero time to practice and get ready. I don’t think that’s fair.”

“Wow, I wasn’t expecting that response,” I said. “You’ve grown so much in the last few weeks, I thought you’d be up for a challenge. Maybe we should use this as a teaching moment?”

He agreed.

“First off, just as there is no crying in baseball, there is no fair in voice-overs, or in any freelance job for that matter.”

“What do you mean?” my student asked.

“Let me give you a few examples.

Yesterday, some A-list actor made fifteen grand for saying three lines in a 30-second commercial. Today, a VO-colleague got a nineteen hundred dollar check for narrating a lengthy novel that took her a month to record, and two weeks to edit. Is that fair?

How about this one:

A voice-over veteran auditioned for ten jobs a day for four weeks straight, and landed none of them. Meanwhile, a newbie walked up to a microphone, yelling a few words and hit the jackpot because some producer thought he sounded “raw and authentic.”

Here’s another one:

A fellow voice actor had been recording eLearning programs for the same company for six years at the same rate. His work was consistent, and he never missed a deadline. He came to think of himself as the go-to voice of that company. So, when year seven came around, he raised his rates a little, in line with the increased cost of living.

He never heard from the company again.

Is that fair?

Now, here’s something that happened to me.

A few weeks ago I auditioned for a very prestigious job that would have paid the mortgage for at least six months. At the end, it was between me and another person. Why didn’t I get the job? The reason was simple: the client preferred a female voice.

“Tell me,” I asked my student, “do you think that’s fair?”

He made a noise suggesting a lightbulb was slowly coming on in his head, so I continued…

“The idea of “fair” presupposes that there’s some grand equalizing principle at work in the world that gives equal opportunities to people with similar education, abilities, and experience.

Well, wouldn’t that be nice?

In many ways we may be equals, but that doesn’t mean we’re equal, or that we’re treated as such. What do I mean by that?

In a highly subjective and personal business as ours, things like training and experience count for something, but they will never get you hired. The fact that you’ve taken a few voice-over classes, and you’ve been knocking on doors for a few years, entitles you to… nothing.

The only guarantee I can give you, is that there are no guarantees.

No matter how hard or how long some people study, they’ll never become the next Albert Einstein, Yo-Yo Ma, or Don LaFontaine.

That’s not unfair. It is what it is.

On paper you may be the most experienced voice talent in the room, but a casting director isn’t listening for your resume or seniority. She needs to make her client happy, and the client wants someone who sounds just like his grandfather selling cattle in Kansas during the Great Depression.

Oh… but the specs didn’t say that, right? How unfair!

That’s because the client didn’t know he was looking for that voice until he listened to the top ten auditions.

My student let out a despondent sigh.

“That’s why the audition was a “cattle call,” I joked.

“But seriously, the only “fair” thing about this situation is that to most people in the middle, this crazy business is equally unfair. With “people in the middle” I mean the vast majority of voice-overs who aren’t making millions voicing The Simpsons, but who aren’t new to the business either.

I call them “the Nobodies.”

It may sound derogatory, but I don’t mean it that way. I mean it literally. Not figuratively.

Voice actors get hired for the way they move their lips; not for the way they move their hips. We’re not in the game for our glamorous looks, but for the way we sound. You and I… we are a no-body. Personally, that makes me very happy because slobs like me still stand a chance.

“But what about things like merit,” my student wanted to know. “Isn’t winning something like an Audie, or a Voice Arts™ Award going to open certain doors? That would be fair, wouldn’t it? I mean, winning a prize makes people more in-demand, right?”

“It’s a definite maybe. Let me explain.

Even though audio books have become increasingly popular, most people still think of a German car when they hear the word Audie. Secondly, I’m not sure clients will hire you on the spot because you won some gold-plated statuette they’ve never heard of. Accolades may be well-deserved, but they’re only worth their weight if they mean something to people outside the cheering in-crowd.

Even Oscar winners need to audition again and again, unless a part is especially written for them. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It keeps people sharp and humble.”

I took a long sip of water, and formed my next thought.

“Then there’s this weird phenomenon in our business that’s hard to prove. Let’s pretend people actually know about your reputation as a prize-winning narrator. They might not consider you for their next project because they assume you’ve become too expensive. Do you think that’s fair?

I once thought I could convince a client to hire me by telling them about the famous brands I had worked with in the past. Big mistake! The software giant I was auditioning for, ruled me out once they heard a close competitor had used my voice in 2015. This is what I also learned:

Most clients aren’t very interested in what you did for others, years ago. They want to know one thing:

What can you do for ME, today?

I’m not saying accolades aren’t awesome, but as the Dutch soccer star Johan Cruyff used to say:

“Every advantage has its disadvantage.”

That’s unfair too, but here’s the ugly truth:

In an unregulated business, those in power, and those with the deepest pockets get to determine what is fair.

“Pardon me, but that’s depressing,” said my student. “First of all, you’re giving me a lecture instead of a lesson. Secondly, I thought you were supposed to encourage me. Now I don’t even know if I want to be a voice-over anymore.”

“Language is a wonderful thing,” I said. “Especially if you like to play with words. To the ear, there’s almost no difference between “the termination,” and “determination.” The choice is yours.

If you want to end this, it’s going to be the termination of something promising. If -on the other hand- you really, really want to become a successful voice-over, allow what I’ve just said to strengthen your determination.

Please don’t be a chicken. You didn’t hire me to stick some feathers up your butt, so I could make some money off your dreams. That would be unethical. Just like that coach in the gym, you hired me to take you through a series of exercises designed to build your muscles, and give you a strong spine. You’re gonna need it!

And just like in the gym, change is a gradual process. Some days, your muscles might ache because of the resistance training. Sometimes, it might feel like you’ll never reach your ideal weight because you see other people getting fitter faster. But remember:

You’re on a personal path.

Those scary slim people you admire so much were born with different bodies, and different metabolisms. Some of them go to the gym every day of the week, and stay there for hours. Others like you can only afford to come twice a week for a 45-minute session.

You know what isn’t fair? Comparing yourself to others!

Compare yourself to yourself instead. So, here’s what I want you to do.

Forget the word fair.

Instead, focus on the word Prepare.

My goal is to help you be the best you can be at this moment in time, and to become even better in the future. Forget the silly randomness of this subjective business. You cannot control it. But one day soon, opportunity will knock on your door, and you’d better be ready! That’s the part you can control. Do you get that?”

My student made an affirmative noise. 

“Before we end this session, I want to give you one more piece of advice. I’ve known you for a while, and you’ve told me more than once that you’re a perfectionist. That mindset will hold you back, and that’s why you probably didn’t want to do the cold read I just gave you. Am I right? Were you afraid of making mistakes because I didn’t give you any time to look at the text?”

Reluctantly, my student agreed, and I went on:

“Please listen to this:

Be soft on yourself!

I strongly believe that living is learning. As human beings, I feel it is our job to evolve; to unearth and develop what we’re capable of, and to share those gifts with the world. 

To that effect, life offers us lessons. And unlike in voice-overs, life’s unscripted. You never know what it will throw at you next, so you have to be prepared to catch it while you can. Sometimes you need to improvise, and try things you’ve never done before. Sometimes you’ll get it right, and sometimes you won’t. As long as you keep on learning and growing, you’re doing great. This is what I want you to remember:

No matter how long you train, and how hard you work, you will never be perfect, and that’s perfectly fine. You want to know why? 

Because perfection has nowhere to grow.”

My student’s response was so quiet that I could almost hear the penny drop. Then I said:

“Let that sink in for a while, and let me know what you think, okay?”

“Fair enough,” said my student.

“Fair enough.”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

About the author

Paul Strikwerda

is a Dutch-English voice-over pro, coach, and writer. His blog is one of the most widely read and influential blogs in the industry. Paul is also the author of "Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs." goo.gl/ihVpMc

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Personal

16 Responses to VO’s Unfair, so, Grow a Pair!

  1. Pingback: The Cost of Having a Conscience: the Ethics of Voice-Over | Nethervoice

  2. Robert Sciglimpaglia

    So true. I would suggest that any teacher taking on a new student makes them read this article as a prerequisite. Perfect depiction of day to day life of us nobodies.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thank you, Rob. I’ll catch up with you in Atlanta!

    [Reply]

  3. Jem Matzan

    I’m not exactly sure that it applies perfectly to VO in general and audiobooks in specific, but in other industries I know that official-looking credentials, nominations, plaques, etc. are often impressive to prospective clients who are new to this aspect of the industry and who don’t know what they’re looking for.

    But do we really want totally new-to-this clients? Maybe, maybe not. My job is to find new clients; audiobook production is the service I’m selling to them. So I do want those ‘green’ clients, I do want to stand out, but I don’t think awards and nominations and such are going to do that (I tried it, it was a huge waste of money). I’ve built my business around self-published authors, most of whom used to have corporate publishing contracts, but are now on their own and are just figuring out how to hire a cover artist, proofreader, and audiobook producer. They are learning that they are not “writers” or “authors;” their business is also finding new clients, but the product they’re selling is books. If an author is making money, cost is not usually much of a concern. It’s the authors who don’t have profitable books that want to haggle. Publishers are running a numbers game — as many titles into audio at the minimum acceptable standards for the minimum amount of money — and so I haven’t worked for/with any in a while.

    According to an Edison Research survey from 2015, an audiobook’s narrator is slightly more important than its author among people who are actually purchasing audiobooks. I found that shocking; I wouldn’t have guessed that such a large percentage of listeners not only cared so much about who was narrating, but that the narrator was the most important factor in their decision to buy and listen.

    If I can get my samples/excerpts into profitable authors’ ears, they’ll know whether or not I’m right for their book. Or I’ll audition with a short excerpt from the manuscript, if the rate or sales rank meet my qualifications. I’m sure my sales funnel would be a lot wider at the top if I won an Audie Award, but because I am not famous it is extremely unlikely that I would be nominated regardless of which book I produced or how incredible the performance was. Secondly, it costs at least $200 ($100 for the privilege of entering, $100 for each category you’re entering) per title. Without a nomination, that’s dead money, so it doesn’t make much business sense if I’m focused on steadily building long-term profitability.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    If only those who pay narrators would realize how important the voice is that brings the words to life… and would pay accordingly. It’s all about added value, and as I continue to say to my clients:

    My added value is always higher than my rate.

    [Reply]

  4. Shane Wilson

    Best blog I’ve read re: VO in years! And that’s not just me sticking some feathers up your butt 🙂

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Now you’ve got me blushing…

    [Reply]

  5. Sara Starling

    Couldn’t agree more!
    Happy to be a fellow Nobody. 🙂

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    We may be invisible, but we sure know how to make ourselves heard!

    [Reply]

  6. Randye kaye

    Hi paul. All so true ! And I love this business anyway . Happy to live with the balance as it plays out . Thanks for a great post !

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    It’s all about balance, and you’ve had some experience with that in the past few years. But you’re back on your feet, kicking some serious you know what! You inspire me, Randye!

    [Reply]

  7. Pingback: “There is no fair in voice-overs” | San Diego City College Acting for Radio / Voiceover

  8. Conchita Congo

    Perfect timing!Mere words could never express how grateful I am for this blog article, Paul.
    I’ll stop being so hard on myself & persevere.
    Thank you.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I’m glad this came at a good time, Conchita. Be gentle and kind to yourself, and keep on creating possibilities that give you joy and fulfillment.

    [Reply]

  9. Jill Goldman

    Paul, what a well thought out and meaty post. Thank you for sharing these truths. It takes a toughness, as well as a softness, to handle this business. Always something to work on, always a challenge, and not always “fair”. It’s cool you address all this with your students. Thanks again!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thank you so much, Jill. Some find it tough to be soft on themselves. It took me years…

    [Reply]

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