Peter O’Connell

Factory Demos: Fatal First Impressions

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Promotion, Studio 15 Comments

You know what they say about first impressions and second chances.

As a voice-over, a demo is often your only chance to make that first impression. It’s your business card, resume, portfolio and audition all compressed into one 60-90 second package.

A great demo is the result of the combined expertise of those behind the mic and behind the glass. If done right, it condenses years of experience into a minute or more of magic.

A professional demo does not come cheap, but not having one could be an expensive mistake.

There’s one thing it should not be:

Mediocre.

If that’s a given, then why are so many demos completely underwhelming and unmemorable?

Audio and production professional Cliff Zellman thinks he knows the answer. He has been hiring talent for over 35 years, and receives between 12 to 15 demos a week. He’s heard everything. From the best of the best to the worst of the worst.

As the Voice-Over industry began to change, Cliff noticed what he calls a detrimental shift in the way VO demos are created. A shift, he says, that does not play well for the VO Artist.

DISTURBING TRENDS

Emmy Award Winner Zellman, who has a degree in Audio Engineering, is referring to a few things. 

First of all, he receives demos that have been slammed together after a “talent” has taken some entry-level voice-over class. You’ve probably seen the ads for those trainings. They always end with the words “demo included.” These demos are usually stitched together from old scripts and they’re overproduced to mask someone’s level of incompetence and inexperience. 

Then there are demos that will tell you more about the single-mindedness of the director, than about the versatility of the voice talent. Zellman told me he often wonders:

“Whose demo is this really, the VO artist’s or the director’s? There’s no variety. The copy is uninspired and the music is outdated.”

Demos from a third category may sound terrific, but Zellman says:

“I have been disappointed more times than I care to remember because the talent could not reproduce the level of competency I heard or that I require. And they give me no indication of what their audio will actually sound like.”  

In other words, each line of the demo was spoon-fed by the director and recorded and sweetened in a million-dollar studio. It’s false advertising, because the talent can not deliver the same quality in a home studio setting.

Cliff has a name for all these demos. He calls them “Store-Bought,” and warns they are a big risk to buyers.

Cliff Zellman

A NEW CONCEPT

Having listened to way too many of them, Zellman started asking questions:

“When a talent leaves the booth after three or four grueling hours of a store-bought demo session, did they do their best? Were they relaxed? Were they intimidated? Is one session really ample time to allow the talent to shine?

And when they leave the studio, what do they have, really? An audio file. No real world education, no new knowledge of microphone selections, what works best for them in their environment with their voice. They are not receiving the collective years of experience and success of multiple directors… Just one person’s ability or inability.”

And out of his frustration, an idea was born:

• What if he could get the best directors and voice-over coaches in the nation under one umbrella?

• What if one voice talent could pick six of these coaches and work with them via Skype for six one-hour sessions in his or her home studio, using six different microphones?

• What if the result of these sessions would be professionally edited and mixed by an award-winning master digital music editor to create one outstanding 60-second demo?

This is precisely the concept behind Zellman’s latest endeavor: Done By Six Productions. (click on the name to visit the website) 

He calls it “The Industry’s first Online, Menu-based Voice Over Demo Production Company.” 

EXCLUSIVITY

I have to warn you. It will take more than a dream and a credit card to get access to Zellman’s roster of experts. He explains:

“There is a vetting committee of four or five industry professionals. If someone is NOT ready, we will be happy to suggest a coach that can help with their gaps.  When the coach says they are ready, we re-evaluate. We are a team created to actually HELP the voice talent succeed… not a factory.

This is also why Done By Six REQUIRES a talent to have a professional website, an approved home studio, knowledge of delivery methods and previous VO experience. We exist to elevate, not to hold hands.”

CONFUSION

At this time, talent can choose from a list of 39 seasoned professionals who cover all areas of the voice-over industry. People like Marc Cashman, Roy Yokelson, M.J. Lallo, Peter O’Connell, Dan Friedman, Randye Kaye, Doug Turkel, Amy Snively, and even the writer of this blog.

When I first heard about the concept, I thought:

Six directors for a 60-second demo. Isn’t that overkill? Aren’t six different coaches going to give conflicting advice, thus confusing the talent? Zellman:

“ABSOLUTELY NOT. It is a “real world” experience. When one goes to college, they don’t have the same professor for four years. Six directors will produce 60 seconds each. Each 60 seconds can be used as a full spot demo as well. 360 seconds will pretty much ensure that there is quality sections within each read.

Remember, we are NOT working with newbies. A talent is already used to working with different directors. Otherwise, why would someone attend a seminar with Pat Fraley, then Marc Cashman, then Myself, then Peter O’Connell et cetera. Conflicting advice opens doors! If everyone would bet on the same horse, the race would be boring.”

OWNERSHIP

When talking to Zellman, I mentioned that one of my colleagues had recorded a demo he wasn’t happy with. The pacing was off and the music was dreadful. He asked the producer for the dry audio so he could go somewhere else for a remix. Even though he had paid for his demo, the producer refused to give him the building blocks. And so I wondered: if a demo is produced by Done By Six Productions, who owns the audio? Cliff Zellman:

“The talent owns it! All dry files are already in the possession of the talent on their computer. I think any demo producer that doesn’t “gladly” give all dry audio to the talent is a paranoid fool and a charlatan. I am not looking to “lock-in” someone. I WANT them to spread their wings! Let them grow. Let them edit… let them punch-in!

I especially do not want the responsibility of being the ONLY one to help a talent. That’s ridiculous and I know demo coaches that feel very differently. I totally disagree. This is THEIR future, not mine. I am here to help, not control.

As far as music, I sublicensee it to the talent for this specific project. If a director has music in mind, cool. If not, all music used will be mixed into the production. If a talent wants to get creative in a few months, change up things on their own, I say YES!  They are one step closer to mastering this profession. Again, we are to HELP, not control.”

PS What happens if the voice talent isn’t happy with the end-result?

CZ “As long as they are in possession of the mics, every director I have spoken with agrees to an additional session of up to 15 minutes (or within reason).  Some may stick to 15 minutes sharp, others may be more liberal. If things get out of hand, I will step in, take responsibility and make sure the talent gets what they need. If I receive multiple complaints/concerns with a director, I remove them from the roster. Simple as that.”

Speaking of microphones, each talent receives a flight case with six of the industry’s most popular microphones: the Neumann TLM 103, the Sennheiser MKH-416, the AKG Perception 220, the CAD E100S, the Audio Technica T2020 and the Harlan Hogan MXL VO: 1-A.

This is the perfect opportunity to test these microphones in your own studio. It also ensures that each segment of your demo will sound differently. Shipping and insurance is part of the price of the package.

VOICEZAM

But there’s more. Included in the demo-package is a free 2-month subscription with VoiceZam.

VoiceZam is a new way of showcasing voice-over demos that gives clients and agents an opportunity to skip through the individual tracks of each demo. The user can also track who’s been listening to their demos. Cliff Zellman:

“I LOVE VoiceZam. My time is VERY valuable. I appreciate the speed, playback quality and ease of operation. I have had lengthy conversations with Bob Merkel (the man being VoiceZam), even to the point of offering him ideas and strategies at no consultation fee.

VoiceZam shows a professional attitude and a certain amount of savvy. I know if I go to a talent’s site and I see a VoiceZam player, there is a very good chance I am dealing with a solid pro.”

By the way, the VoiceZam image is just a picture. If you want to get a feel for how VoiceZam works, go to Bob Souer’s site and try it out. 

PS Why just focus on demos? You have a great line-up of coaches. Why don’t you offer more coaching services?

CZ “In time. Many new start-ups fail by trying to do too much too soon. Every Done By Six director is a potential coach. I know each of them personally and professionally. I know their strengths and weaknesses. Between the members of the vetting committee, we can steer the talent in the right direction. One of the benefits of being a Done By Six Director is the possibility of being selected as a coach. Once a coach is suggested by Done By Six, it is between the coach and the talent… for now.”

TASTE TEST

Go to any supermarket and you’ll find shelves filled with factory-baked breads. They may be packaged a bit differently, but you know that most of them are low on nutrition and they all taste the same.

I usually buy my bread at the local Farmers’ Market from an artisanal bakery. They have a huge variety made from different grains, nuts and herbs. The ingredients are high-quality and the bread is baked with love. I can taste the artistry and dedication that went into the making of the bread. It’s a taste that lingers on.

If voice-overs are your bread and butter, what type of taste test are you serving your clients?

Are you feeding them stale, factory-baked bland bread with margarine, or fresh, wholesome, hand-made bread, topped with real butter?

If you only had one chance to make a first impression, what would you rather serve?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS: Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: Barbara.K via photopin cc, photo credit: Phil and Pam via photopin cc


How it all began

by Paul Strikwerda in Career, Promotion 4 Comments

As a blogger and rather visible voice-over person, there are three questions I get asked a lot.

  1. – How did you get started in the voice-over business?
  2. – What challenges did you encounter in your career and how did you overcome them?
  3. – What advice do you have for beginners?

Well, I could write a book about that, but  a while ago, colleague Peter Kinney O’Connell asked me those same things in his “5 Questions” series. Let’s start with Peter’s first question.

1. The beginning: When did you know you wanted to be a voice-over talent; how did your career begin (please include what year it started) and then when did your passion for voice-over develop into something professional?

When I was six years old, my parents gave me a Philips cassette recorder. It didn’t take long before I discovered how to capture the sound of my own voice. That’s when it all began. In 1969.

I can still see myself sitting on the front porch with a copy of “King Arthur and the Black Knight.” It would become my very first audio book. Actually, it was more of a radio drama. Around me were all sorts of self-made instruments I used for sound effects. Every character had a different voice. Every voice had a different character.

The tape I made that day was used over and over again, and eventually it broke. What didn’t break was my love for painting pictures with sound.

Eleven years later I auditioned for my first job in Hilversum, the heart of Dutch broadcasting. A public network was recruiting a group of promising teens to start producing radio and television programs. Veterans would coach them in all aspects of the business. I just knew I had to be part of that program.

In the years that followed, that program became part of me. I produced and presented documentaries, talk shows, music specials and radio plays. The microphone became my best friend. It was the beginning of a career in broadcasting that would take me to a number of national networks, the BBC and Radio Netherlands International.

In 1999 I made a bold decision: I would leave Holland and start a new life in the New World. In a matter of months I was represented by Mike Lemon Casting in Philadelphia. My European accent seemed to be a welcome addition to their talent pool. It took me a number of years to build a client base that would sustain a full-time voice-over career, but eventually I became the Chief Artistic Officer of a company I named Nethervoice.

2. What is the one thing you know now that you wish someone had told you when you first started out in voice-over?

If someone had warned me that this job could easily turn into an obsession, I still would have applied for it. It’s true though, but it might also have to do with my personality. When I’m passionate about something, I want to immerse myself in every aspect of it, and learn to do it well.

I realized early on that it takes more than a good voice to make a good living in this field. Success needs to be carefully planned. It’s like a flower bed that has to be protected, watered and fertilized regularly (more about that in Jonathan Tilley’s “Voice Over Garden“).

Because I have a home studio, I’m always at work. It seems ideal (and it really is), but for someone with an obsession it can be dangerous. It’s tempting to become a boring recording recluse who lives and breathes voice-overs. And you know me… When I don’t read and record, I write about it in my blog.

Life Coaches always advocate finding a balance between work and play. But what if your work is your play? At some point in the day, the headphones have to come off and we must leave our soundproof studio. Without sunlight, there’s no growth. Our job is just a means to and end.

3. What do you see as the biggest professional or personal obstacle you face that impacts your voice-over business and how are you working to overcome it?

I wasn’t born to toot my own horn. The Calvinistic Dutch preach modesty and frown upon anything that may be perceived as vanity. Why? Because human talents are seen as a gift from God, so we shouldn’t take too much credit for our accomplishments. Many centuries have passed since the spirit of Calvin touched the Netherlands, yet, some of his principles are still present in our DNA, the Dutch National Attitude.

Looking back, I really believe that this mindset kept me from promoting myself properly. But there was something else. Coming from the relatively safe world of broadcasting, I never needed to market myself. I was hired by a network to do a number of jobs, and I left it to the PR people to sing my praises.

After I’d left Holland, I had to learn that it was okay to be proud of what I had achieved and use those achievements to attract business. To this day, I try to do this in a veiled way, by offering advice and entertainment in my blog. That’s where clients and colleagues get to know me as someone with a certain level of experience and pizzazz. Well, that’s the idea…

4. What personal trait or professional tool has helped you succeed the most in your career so far?

One thing that has helped me tremendously is a toolbox called Neuro-Linguistic Psychology. It’s a mix of positive attitudes, beliefs and strategies to help people design and live the life they’ve always dreamt of.

At the basis of NLP is the process of modeling. I’m not talking about the catwalk in Milan, but about the study of exceptional people: business tycoons, sports icons, therapists, artists et cetera.

The idea is that these people -in order to achieve something extraordinary- have set themselves up for success. They have carefully (and often unconsciously) conditioned themselves to accomplish amazing things. The question is: How did they do that?

NLP tries to break it down into bits and pieces: the ingredients of a recipe. Once the recipe is uncovered, it can be taught to almost anyone. The finest and fastest way to mastering something is to start teaching it. That’s why I eventually became an internationally certified trainer of NLP, and that’s the reason I started coaching voice talent.

5. In your development as a voice over performer, who has been the one particular individual or what has been the one piece of performance advice (maybe a key performance trick, etc.) that you felt has had the most impact on your actual voice over performance and why?

Find something that defines you but that does not limit you.

In other words: you want to box yourself in, to emphasize what sets you apart, but you want that box to be big enough to attract a wide audience. If you try to be everything to everyone, you end up being nothing to no one.

In my case, I describe myself as a European Voice. Not British. Not American. Not even Dutch, even though that’s my native language. I tell my clients that I specialize in intelligent international narration. For that reason I get to do multilingual projects and jobs that require someone with a more global, neutral English accent. 

WANT MORE ME?

Recently, my old Radio Netherlands colleague Constantino De Miguel interviewed me about the voice-over business on Voice Over Plaza. If you want to take notes, get pen and paper ready!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice


Is voices.com playing a numbers game?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Internet, Money Matters, Pay-to-Play 15 Comments

On February 11, 2011, VOICES.COM released new numbers testifying to the success of the company.

There’s every reason to congratulate the owners, David and Stephanie Ciccarelli. They proudly announced “$39,290,580 in Total Earnings by Voice Talent at Voices.com.”

Some commentators concluded that the data in the report are a summary of this company’s past year in business, but Stephanie Ciccarelli states:

“These numbers are based upon the last several years of data we’ve collected at the site.”

What does she mean by that?

Voices.com has been in business since 2003, starting as “Interactive Voices”. In September 2006, Interactive Voices became voices.com.

The new report speaks of:

155,915 All-time number of jobs awarded to voice talent.”

In 2011, voices.com stated on their About-page that they are “creating 6911 job opportunities on average, each and every month.” My calculator tells me that this adds up to an average of 82,932 jobs per year.

How did voices.com arrive at 155,915? The verbiage “All-time number of jobs” suggests that they started counting from the very first day of business. Was that in 2003 or as of September 2006? Let’s do the numbers:

155,915 : 7 years = an average of 22,273 jobs per year (2003-2010)

155,915 : 3 years = an average of 51,971 jobs per year (2007-2010)

And what about $39,290,580 in total earnings? Is that also “based upon the last several years of data”?

PERSPECTIVE

It’s impossible to put these numbers into proper perspective if we don’t know what time period we’re talking about. That’s exactly the problem I have with most of the numbers coming from voices.com. I’m not saying that they are pulled out of a hat, but they lack clarity and context and they don’t always stand up to simple scrutiny.

The same can be said about their “Annual Report on the Voice Over Industry.” It is not compiled by an established, independent market research firm, but by the CEO of voices.com, David Ciccarelli.

As long as we cannot independently verify the numbers, or get a clear sense of the time period during which these data were collected, I choose to look at these reports as marketing tools, more than anything else.

AVERAGE FEE

Stephanie Ciccarell broke down the $39,290,580 in Total Earnings by Voice Talent at voices.com.

On average” -she writes- “a voice talent made $252.97 per job” using their service.

I haven’t been keeping track of the voices.com numbers over time, but it would be interesting to see whether or not the average payment per job went up or down since 2003, and if so, by how much.

Stephanie Ciccarelli concludes:

“10,000+ people have earned a respectable income from doing voice overs with Voices.com serving as a key part of their marketing strategy.”

Once again, the numbers are vague and note that the term “respectable income” is not defined.

Here’s one scenario:

Let’s assume a talent lands one job per week on voices.com at $252.97. That would bring in $13,154.44 per year.

The talent decides to use the voices.com SurePay escrow system, at a 10% fee per job, costing him $1315.44. This brings the gross income down to $11.839.00. Subtract 10% for expenses and we’re left with: $10,649.10. Subtract from that amount $1504 in self-employment taxes and we arrive at a grand total of $9,149.10.

Would you call that a “respectable” income?

The 2011 Federal Poverty Guidelines of The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services puts the income level at $10,890 for a one person household.

Of course this is a theoretical example. Some voices.com jobs pay a lot more and some pay a lot less. No professional voice-over talent should entirely depend on one source to generate leads and make a living. At the same time, not everyone will land one gig a week using voices.com. Stephanie did write:

“10,000+ people have earned a respectable income from doing voice overs with Voices.com.”

In his analysis of the report, colleague Peter O’Connel comments:

Taking the Voices.com figure ($252.97), as a P2P industry average – that figure, I believe, doesn’t reflect what the voice over customer market “dictates”.

I believe it reflects what the voice over customer market “can get away with” with the help of the pay to play (P2P) business model.

ADDING IT ALL UP

There’s no doubt about it: voices.com has become one of the market leaders in online voice casting. That role comes with responsibilities. Market leaders have the clout to be trend setters and “power pricers”.

Voices.com has become more than a neutral playing field where supply meets demand. It has developed into a game changer that can write the rules of engagement by dictating the terms and conditions.

One of those conditions is “a minimum project posting requirement for any job posted publicly and this amount is $100.” By the way, this doesn’t mean that a voice seeker can’t go any lower than that. Voices.com states:

“If your budget is lower than $100 then you may post a job privately using the Request Quote function within our search engine or you may email talent directly with your project details and budget.”

Critics feel that the Pay to Play business model is in part to blame for the steady decline in voice-over rates and professional standards. Peter O’Connell:

I don’t believe or financially support any service in which voice talent “pays to play” i.e. pays a subscription to receive auditions. I believe such services lower the rate expectations of potential clients because so many voice talents who swim in the pay to play pool low ball their rates out of what I feel is a kind of sad desperation for revenue of any kind.

The pay to play model negatively impacts the voice over business and its practitioners, in my opinion.

It has been suggested that if voices.com is really interested in their members making a “respectable income,” they should start by raising that $100 minimum rate immediately.

Secondly, as of 2015, voices.com claims it has a global network of over 125,000 members. I used to be one of them. I think the members should expect and demand a lot more transparency and accountability when it comes to numbers.

As voices.com so aptly pointed out: they did not make $39,290,580 in total earnings.

Their members did.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice


8 ways to boost your web traffic

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Internet, Promotion 8 Comments

NessieHaving a website is not an accomplishment.

Bella the Hamster has one. Famous dead people do too.

I have even seen sites in loving memory of unfamous dead hamsters! Some of those websites get more visitors in a day, than you hope to have in a year.

Here’s my question:

If you have a business website and you’re not getting any traffic, what’s the point? You might as well give the money you’re sending to your Internet Service Provider to a worthy cause, such as the Don LaFontaine Voice-Over Lab.

If, on the other hand, you want to use your online presence to your advantage, you better roll up your sleeves and get to work! Unless you’re too busy auditioning for that $200 narration of a 300 page audio book.

Nilhan JayasingheiCrossing is a digital marketing agency with specific expertise in social media and 12 offices worldwide. In 2008, Nilhan Jayasinghe, their VP, wrote a paper entitled; “Optimizing for users, not search engines. Building a sustainable brand in a connected world”.  He says:

“As search engines become more sophisticated, they will increasingly incorporate user data to validate their results. The numbers of people visiting a site; the time that users spend on a site; the depth of their engagement; whether they return over a period of time; how many people add it to their social bookmarking tools such as Digg; all will potentially be taken into account.”

If you’ve read my last blog, you already know that the new Google is going in that direction. And where Google goes, others follow. In my opinion, there are at least two things you must do to take advantage of this development. These are the things that will drive people to your website; keep them there and make them come back:

1. Start writing for people, not for search engines: offer fresh & relevant content.
2. Stop “telling & selling”. Instead, engage your visitors and begin a dialogue.

Here are a few ways to do it:

1. Offer FREE STUFFParadoxically, some companies are making lots of money by giving things away for free. It’s called the “freemium model” whereby some content is offered at no charge, while premium content is not. Seattle-based Big Fish Games distributes more online games than anyone else, at about 1 million a day. You can try almost any Big Fish game for free, but there are add-ons that players have to pay for.

Slide 1A few months ago, our colleague Peter O’Connell made his e-book “The Voice Over Entrance Exam” available at no charge. I’m pretty sure that this brought new visitors to his website. It did something else too: it established him as an expert. Here’s a third bonus: free resources get links. Isn’t that what I just did?

2. Contests & Awards are another way to drive people to your site. Videovoicebank.net organized a contest, and voice-overs were invited to share their professional horror stories. Not only did the Videovoicebank-team manage to engage their community; for days, visitors could enter their email address and vote for their favorite story. I wonder what they’ll do with those email addresses…

Voice Over Directory

3. Provide a resource that will benefit your target-group and (of course) offer it for free. Veteran VO-artist Mahmoud Taji compiled a voice-over directory of casting websites for “the benefit of established and up-and-coming voice over talent who want to secure more voice over work through the Internet.” He asked everyone in the industry to help out, and this is just another example of how to get people involved. So far, Taji has a list of 239 sites, and you might add a few to the directory.

4. Quizzes and Games on your site are a fun way to make people come back and spend more time with you. British talent Emma Clarke is the voice you’ll hear for a majority of the London Underground lines. Her website is terrific and it has games, spoof audios and even an online “Emma flip book”.  One of my favorites is a fridge magnet game where you can move the words around to make your own sentences and phrases – and have Emma speak them for you.

5. Actress Amy Walker (above) became an overnight sensation when her YouTube video 21Accents went “viral.” “These days, it’s not unusual to see a search engine like Google pull up a YouTube video in its top 10 results,” says Linda Girard, co-founder of online marketing consulting firm Pure Visibility in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “The best way to maximize this trend is by uploading your video to various sites and attach good, searchable terms to the clips in order to get those high rankings.” (source)

6. Then there’s the old trick of offering limited Deals & Discounts. Bristol-based voice-over talent Alison Pitman once offered a promotion of 25% discount on all message on hold voice-over recordings. Particularly if you’re also offering individual coaching and voice-over classes, never miss an opportunity to throw in an early bird special or a web coupon. Irresistible offers turn browsers into buyers.

7. Develop an ongoing relationship with your visitors (colleagues and clients). Answer their emails. Follow up with them. Ask them for feedback. Use social networking sites to connect. Take an active part in your community, online and offline. Send email newsletters using a service like Constant Contact or Aweber. It’s all about building your brand and positive reinforcement.

8. Blogging benefits business. Internet marketing company Hubspot surveyed over 1500 small businesses. They found that those with blogs attracted:

  1. 55% more traffic
  2. 97% more inbound links
  3. 434% more indexed pages

Blogs are a very effective way to create valuable content; to connect, to interact and to build relationships based on trust. Nilhan Jayasinghe put it this way:

“The closer that Google and others get to reading real interaction, the better they will become at separating the sites that look relevant from the sites that are relevant. Inevitably, it will become ever more difficult to fake the quality of a web page.

Given that this is the case, by far the best way to rank highly for a given term is to offer what the search engines are getting progressively better at finding – content that is genuinely useful to those people searching for that term.”

How to come up with quality content is going to be the topic of my next installment! In the meantime, how did you manage to increase your web traffic? What worked for you and why? What was a waste of time and money?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS What makes people click? Click to find out!