Voice Overs are usually known for their ability to talk, but I tell you what… Andrew can listen! He was kind enough to let me be his first guest.
He kept on asking questions, so I kept on talking. So much so, that poor Andrew had to slice our interview up into three, bite-sized pieces.
Here’s part one:
To be honest, I had to talk myself into watching the podcast on YouTube. Even though I listen to my voice every single day, it’s not easy for me to observe myself. When I listen to my voice, it’s usually because I’m editing a voice over I just recorded. I’m reading someone else’s text, and the words and inflection are very deliberate.
Being interviewed is a more or less spontaneous process. I can choose my own words, and once they’re uttered, I can’t take ’em back, or record another take. That’s why I prefer blogging.
Blogging allows me to edit my thoughts, and sculpt my message until I’m satisfied. Every post you read on this blog contains dozens of rewrites before it reaches you. It’s a neatly manicured lawn, whereas an interview can be a bit of a jungle.
Well, you be the judge. Part two of the interview is right here:
One of my greatest challenges during an interview is my altered awareness of time.
As recently as last night, I left a burner on our electric stove on the highest setting, after I had removed the pan and served our dinner. I then went up to watch some TV and totally forgot about the stove.
When my wife came down, the thing was red hot, and had been inadvertently warming up the kitchen. Imagine what could have happened, had I left a pan on the burner!
During live interviews I also lose my sense of time, and I just keep on talking. One thought leads to another and another. I’m sure you’ve noticed that while watching the interview. If you haven’t, you must have been in the moment, too!
Because I am aware of it, I instruct my interviewers beforehand to interrupt me when I’m going on too long. In our society, interrupting someone is usually seen as impolite, so, not every podcast host feels comfortable doing it.
If you’ve made it through part one and two, you might as well watch the conclusion.
I sincerely hope you won’t feel as uncomfortable as I am, watching myself. Of course I could have declined Andrew’s request for an interview, but I believe that it’s good to do things in life that make us uncomfortable. “Playing it Safe” is not a strategy I subscribe to.
One thing the great movers and shakers of society have in common is that they never play it safe. Many of them proved that what people believed could never be done, could actually be done once you turn fear into courage, and courage into action.
Those people dare to be different. They dare to stand out, and be laughed at for being dreamers. A flower will never bloom as long as it’s afraid of the sun.
There’s another thing that holds people back from sticking their necks out. It’s the following thought:
“What will others think of me?”
The moment I released that limiting idea, was the moment my freelance career started taking off.
Here’s the thing.
If you’re doing a good job as a content producer (such as a blogger or podcaster), people WILL talk about you. You actually WANT that! The moment people stay silent, or stop caring, you should be worried.
This is what I learned over time:
No matter how hard you try, you cannot force people to like you, or to agree with you. Even if you think you’ve explained your position to the best of your abilities, there will always be folks who believe they’re looking at a 6, while you are clearly talking about a 9.
Our perception of reality is subjective, and is always a matter of personal perspective. If you don’t believe me, read up on confirmation bias.
Now, how you respond to Andrew’s interview with me is up to you. I can only (more or less) control what I send out into the world, including this interview.
If you recall, it was a blog about ethics in our business. Apparently, it’s a hot potato in our community. Click here to read the full story called “You are an enabler.”
The gist of the story was this:
Before you accept a job because it pays well, think about the bigger picture. Who or what are you enabling by doing this voice over? Are you selling your soul to the devil for a few bucks? Just because you can do this job, doesn’t mean you should.
Some thought my article was too political because it mentioned colleagues who had been doing VO’s for right-wing media. Others questioned why I was pointing fingers. Who was I to call people out? Why don’t I mind my own business?
Many responses were supportive of my position, but there’s always this one guy who says:
“Screw morals. I have to put food on the table. I’m a hired gun.”
So, in his model of the world it’s either Money or Morals.
Beware of people who give you false choices. The moment you respond, you have to buy into the limited choices they present to you.
“Do you want A or B?”
What if you prefer C, D, E or F?
Why would you have to choose between money or morals? Can’t you run a for-profit business in an ethical manner? I’ve been doing it for years, and I’m not the only one. You can put food on the table AND be ethical. If you’re one of those rare people with a conscience, you’ll sleep much better at night.
IT’S ALL PRETEND
Then there are those who claim that doing voice overs is JUST ACTING. In other words, we can’t be held accountable for lines other people feed us.
It may be acting, but it’s still enabling!
As I am writing these words, we are observing International Holocaust Remembrance day. During the Second World War, thousands of professional musicians played in orchestras that were used to glorify the Third Reich.
Tell me, were they “JUST PLAYING,” or did they enable a well-oiled Nazi propaganda machine that lead to the killing of millions of people?
WINE AND TOAST
Another person thought he had a GOTCHA-moment by pointing out that I had voiced a national IHOP commercial, singing the praises of Hawaiian French Toast. On top of that, I had had the audacity to record a promo for wine!
Think of the poor souls dying from obesity and alcoholism! I had been encouraging them to eat junk food, and drink alcohol while accusing others of being immoral.
Stop the presses: Mr. Nethervoice is an enabler too!
Let him who is without sin cast the first stone!
I have several things to say about that. First, I never claimed that I am holier than Pope Francis. Secondly, our moral compass is always evolving.
Things we did years ago without reservations, we probably wouldn’t do again, knowing what we know now. I, for instance, used to eat meat. Then I learned about the agricultural-industrial complex, and how animals are mistreated. Now I am a staunch vegetarian. So, depending on where we are in life, our ethics may change.
THE WHEAT AND THE CHAFF
But there is a more important point I’d like to make. It has to do with the way I make ethical decisions in my business. Here’s my thinking:
If a voice over script deals with (purported) FACTS, especially if it’s news and current affairs related, I will think twice about what information I will or will not be spreading.
For instance, if some television news network would ask me to promote the lie that Donald J. Trump won the election and should be president, I would absolutely refuse, no matter how much they’d pay me.
What people see and hear in the context of a newscast, they will take much more seriously (as we have seen on January 6th).
If a voice over script is FICTION, however, it’s much easier for me to say YES to a job. To me, commercials fall under fiction, because anyone with half a brain knows most ads aren’t truthful. Be honest: do you take them seriously?
So, for me, promoting Hawaiian French Toast and Spanish wine falls in the category fiction. Promoting a big fat political lie on cable news as if it were fact, is not okay.
Let me quickly add that those are my personal choices. Different people do different things for different reasons.
WHO AM I?
On to the last point: Who the hell do I think I am to lecture people about what VO jobs they should or should not take?
The answer is simple:
I’m just a guy with an opinion and a blog, who can’t keep his big mouth shut. That’s probably why I am a voice over. But seriously, that’s it.
You don’t have to agree with me. I don’t want to convince you of anything. All I want is for you to look at certain aspects of our business through my colored lens, and then make up your own mind.
If you don’t like what I have to say, move on!
If my writing inspires or amuses you, GREAT!
But please, even if I annoy you and push a few buttons, stay civil. This isn’t FOX News. Don’t make assumptions about me, or utter rude remarks. Those reactions say more about you, than about me.
In the end, the Facebook moderator had to disable the comments because things got a bit out of hand.
Heaven forbid we ever talk about ethics again.
Let’s talk about microphones and Pay-to-Plays instead. Those are not controversial topics, are they?
One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a freelancer, is to see yourself and what you have to offer, as an expense.
Every day, colleagues of mine put in lower bids on Pay to Plays, and charge lower fees, dreading that clients might think they’re too expensive. If a company like Apple or Tesla would use that strategy, it would no longer be in business.
Competing on low price is a desperate attempt to win over clients, used by those who don’t see themselves as valuable enough to land a job based on talent. It reeks of fear instead of competence, confidence, and experience.
THE FEAR FACTOR
Clients love using fear as a tactic to make you lower your rate. They’ll tell you they can easily find someone cheaper. They’ll plead poverty and say they cannot afford you. We’ve all heard it a million times. It’s the oldest trick in the book.
Let me say it again:
You have no way of knowing how much or how little a client can afford.
Successful negotiation is about finding that space between “can afford” and “willing to pay.”
When a client objects to your rate, three things could be going on. They have to do with:
VALUE, NEED, and CONNECTION
If there is little or no personal connection between you and the client, making a deal is so much harder. People who get along find it easier to come to an agreement. If you encounter resistance, strengthen the connection first, then renegotiate.
Let’s say you have created rapport, but the client still seems hesitant, make sure you establish an absolute and urgent need for what you have to offer. Window shoppers aren’t necessarily window buyers. Some clients aren’t serious. They’re just testing the waters to see what’s out there.
Give window shoppers the information they need based on what they think is important. It’s what they need to hear that matters. Not what you want to say. Don’t spend time convincing them they should hire you. Spend that time creating a connection and building trust.
Never mention price until you have established that you meet their needs.
The last reason a client may reject your rate is because they don’t feel you’re worth it. As they say in sales terms: your value proposition is lacking. This brings us back to where I started this story. The client sees you as an expense.
Here’s my take on that:
If you do your job right, you will MAKE your client money instead of COSTING your client money. Even if you’re working for a non-profit, your job is to always add value, and for that you deserve to be fairly compensated.
As a reminder to yourself, copy the following text, print it out, and put it where you can see it:
As long as you’re adding value, you’re not costing anyone anything.
Let’s look at an example of adding value.
Apple just launched the AirPods Max at $549. A premium price for a premium product. These things sold out in a matter of days. Here’s what’s remarkable: most buyers did not have a chance to try these headphones out first.
Because of Apple’s reputation and marketing, these buyers believed they’d be getting value for money.
Have I got news for you!
You don’t have to be an Apple to make people bite. As an independent contractor YOU are in charge of your product or service. You are the head of quality control. You are responsible for your reputation, and for your marketing.
So, instead of watching mic reviews on YouTube, or getting into arguments on social media, spend part of your time studying sales and marketing. Instead of spending money on new equipment you don’t really need, have someone build a better website or produce a better demo. Something that tells the world you’re not some amateur, but a real pro!
A NEW MINDSET
Turn the tables around for a change. At least in your head.
You don’t depend on that one client. That client depends on you. The client doesn’t dictate your rate. You determine how much you are worth. Within reason, and within your market, of course.
No matter what number you end up with, you’ve got to KNOW YOUR WORTH and PRICE for PROFIT. Whether you’re just beginning, or you’re a VO veteran. Otherwise you’re merely a hobbyist.
But what if a client refuses to pay what you think is fair?
As a business person you should know that you’re not right for every client, and not every client is right for you.
The great thing about being a freelancer is that there are always more and better opportunities. You just need to find them, or have them find you. That’s part of your job description.
It’s no accomplishment to book a low paying gig. It’s a lot harder to find clients that pay well and give you return business.
THE COST OF ADVERTISING
At the start of this new year, please get it out of your head that you are expensive. The word “expensive” is a comparative deletion. The question is: “expensive, compared to what?”
When you look at the cost of a television commercial, the money spent on a voice over is but a fraction of the total budget.
Unless they’re celebs, VO’s are always cheaper than on-camera actors, and cheaper than the entire crew and equipment needed to film those few seconds. VO’s are way less expensive than the big shot director, the guys who wrote the lousy script, the composer responsible for that ear worm of a tune, and the musicians playing the music.
And I’m not even talking about all the lawyers involved in making sure the campaign is kosher. When I did my David Attenborough soundalike for a national IHOP campaign, three lawyers on two continents were listening in. They had to make sure I didn’t sound too much like the famous British naturalist, or IHOP would get in trouble.
These lawyers were the reason the session took over three hours because the client wanted me to sound more like Attenborough, and the legal team wanted me to tone it down. Every word and every inflection was debated and recreated ad infinitum.
I love Hawaiian French toast, but I’ll never eat at the International House Of Pancakes again!
Do you think these corporate lawyers made more money than the humble voice over doing all the work?
Do I even need to answer that question?
If there’s anything I’d like you to take away from this blog post it is this:
You are an asset. Not an expense.
True pros consistently give more than what they take.
In the USA (where I’ve been living since 1999), people are obsessed with one thing:
It’s the only nation in the world where vacation is not a right but a privilege. If and when Americans dare to take a break, it’s usually only for a few days allowing them to… do some more work at home.
When they finally take a vacation, they travel to Europe where they see ten countries in five days and come back exhausted (telling me how much they liked Amsterdam which they think is the capital of Denmark).
Of course I’m exaggerating a bit, but you get the point. Your worth in the USA, is determined by your work. People publicly boast about how much they work, how long they stay in the office, and how much overtime they have clocked up, just to please the Big Kahuna.
These days, people can’t leave their job without checking the email inbox at least a few times a day. It’s an addiction! What if the boss needs you to do something, or a colleague has a question? Heaven forbid you’re not available!
In a way it’s even worse when you work from home, because your job never leaves you. Freelancers are constantly posting on social media about all the amazing projects they are working on, and the ones that are in the pipeline.
“Look at me. I’m still relevant because I’m working my behind off!”
Do you want to know something?
Americans spend more hours working, yet they are less productive than most of the rest of world. People in vacation nations do more in less time while feeling less stressed. To them, work is not their life but a way to make a living. And vacation is not only for fun, it’s also a form of education and preventative healthcare.
What a concept!
Now, because of the pandemic, most of us can’t just jump on a plane and fly away to some tropical destination. But there are plenty of other ways to unwind. Read or listen to a book. Discover new music. Do yoga. Meditate. Cook a meal together. Sleep in. Play a board game. Take up a new hobby.
By the way, I’m not saying you shouldn’t work. Work can be fun and fulfilling, but it is about finding the right balance between rushing and relaxing.
I always welcome December, because I know my work as a voice over slows down. I don’t panic. I don’t complain. I just build it into the rest of the year, and I relax. December is a month to recharge and reconnect. As much as I love my job, recording voice overs is just a means to an end. Things tend to get crazy when I lose sight of that end.
It hasn’t always been this way. A few years ago I thought I had to “prove myself” by doing as much work as I could fit into a day, a month, a year. Until one day, a rescue team found me on the floor of my basement recording studio, paralyzed, and barely breathing.
Not taking a break, not slowing down, not stopping to smell the roses can have deadly consequences.
Now that I have pretty much fully recovered (brain cells don’t grow back, unfortunately), I live much more in the moment, and I have left the rat race that was keeping me up at night. And you know what?
You may be getting some pity laughs at parties, but your impersonations are quite pathetic, really. If someone would give me a dollar for every aspiring VO telling me he can do “a mean Sean Connery,” or a silly Schwarzenegger, I’d retire early.
And no, I won’t be back!
Pretending to be someone you’re not, is NOT your ticket to voice over fame, UNLESS you’re truly extraordinary.
If you wish to stand a chance to make it in the overcrowded world of voice talent, take this to heart:
Be An Original.
Agents aren’t looking for folks that sound like the people that are already on their roster. They want new, natural, refreshing, raw, daring, dazzling, and authentic. They want someone who doesn’t try to sound like someone else.
2. You need job security.
Does your family depend on a stable income? Do you have monthly bills that always need to be paid on time? Do you have enough of a cash cushion to survive for a year on very little money, while you invest in your voice over career?
By invest I mean: hiring a VO coach, building a home studio, buying reliable audio equipment, installing Source Connect (sorry, not the free version), getting a website, having demos produced, creating your brand, and launching a marketing campaign.
If you’re not in a financial position to make these investments, is your partner able to pick up the tab and the slack, even in these economically uncertain times? Oh, and did I tell you that freelancers don’t get a benefits package, vacation time, sick leave, or paid training? It will all come out of your pocket. Good luck with that when you start peddling your services on Fiverr!
Are you psychologically ready to embrace the unpredictability and stress of freelance life? What are you willing to sacrifice to pursue your dream, knowing that it may take years before you finally break even?
3. You’re not disciplined, and self-motivated.
If you’re used to the nine to five routine, you’re in for a rude awakening. Once you are your own boss, no one will tell you to get out of bed in the morning, or get down to your office (which now consists of a small, dark, padded room with a microphone). You don’t have a list of old clients to call, or a sales department to sell your services.
When you’re self-employed, everything is always on you.
Your first question is going to be: How on earth am I going to find work? Where are all the auditions everyone is talking about? And when you finally find a few opportunities, you see that hundreds of hopefuls have already sent in their custom demos while you’re still trying to work out how to use this Pro Tools nightmare.
Let’s assume you’ve finally learned how to record a decent audition, what are you going to do when you realize that your recording is being dumped into a gigantic black hole, never to be heard of again? At that point you’ll finally recognize that…
4. You know nothing about running a voice over business.
That’s right. It seemed such a great idea at the time: you get paid to talk. A dream come true!
Being a successful voice over has everything to do with your ability to run a profitable international freelance business all by yourself, 24/7.
Let that sink in for a moment or two. Then read this line again.
Being a successful voice over has everything to do with your ability to run a profitable international freelance business all by yourself, 24/7.
Don’t think for one moment that you’ll spend most of your time speaking into a microphone. You’ll spend a lot of time doing the boring, unglamorous stuff, like keeping the books, trying to connect with clients, figuring out how to market yourself.
During those moments you discover that…
5. You don’t like tooting your own horn.
You’ve always been taught not to be boastful, and that modesty is still a virtue. You get uncomfortable when people are paying you compliments. You brush it away saying: “Oh, it was nothing, really. No big deal.”
The thing is, clients aren’t going to hire you if they can’t find you, and they won’t be able to find you when you’re playing hard to get. Like it or not, you need to create a presence in the marketplace, and because you happen to personify your product (or service, rather), selling your services means selling yourself!
If that makes you uncomfortable, too bad.
I’m a reluctant extravert who had to learn how to reach out and promote my one-man business. It was a bit weird at first, but it helped me uncover parts of myself I didn’t even know existed. If you’re not comfortable being uncomfortable, perhaps this business is not for you. This world needs plenty of people who are happy to play it safe.
6. You hate technology. You just want to read.
Technology is not just for geeks. I started my career at a radio station with sound engineers taking care of every aspect of the recording. All I had to do was open my mouth and make intelligible noises.
Now I am my own sound engineer. I am in charge of the equipment and technology needed to send my voice across continents. If it works, it’s amazing. If it doesn’t, God help me!
Over the years I have learned to ask for advice, but not to rely too much on outside help. I’m an independent contractor, after all. Besides, the people who tell you “Call me when you need me,” never answer the phone when you’re in a pickle. They’re usually too busy helping other people.
There’s also this: other people’s opinion (emphasis on “opinion”) is no substitute for my own hands-on experience. There are too many gear snobs in this community with a big mouth and limited knowledge (see my final point).
Take my advice.
If you wish to have a career as a VO Pro (especially in times of Corona) you MUST have a decent home studio and quality equipment that you know how to use. You expect a plumber to have the tools of the trade, before he or she enters your house, don’t you? Your clients expect the same of you. Remember that the number one reason auditions end up in the bin is bad audio quality.
7. You always take things personally.
Is it easy to step on your toes? Does your mood depend on how others treat you? Do you secretly seek affirmation? Do you crave to be included?
If that’s the case, how will you deal with the horrific R-word?
R E J E C T I O N
When an audition doesn’t go well for, let’s say, a trumpet player, he or she can always blame the instrument. But when the instrument is your voice, it’s personal! You can’t go to a store and buy a more expensive voice box. Of course you can train your vocal folds to become more resonant, but what if the client just doesn’t like the way you sound?
Listen, if I book five percent of all the jobs I audition for, I can keep my boat afloat. That does mean that nintey-five percent of the time the client chooses someone else. What’s even worse, I’ve wasted my time and energy creating the custom audition I thought would win me the job (and would pay the bills for the next few weeks).
If you’re a sensitive soul, this is not good for your self-esteem.
The way you deal with rejection (or selection, as some like to call it) will determine how happy you will be as a performing artist. Some people become stronger. Others eventually give up.
Now, if you’re still reading, I have to reward you with a bonus sign! Here’s one more thing telling you you’re probably not meant to be a voice over…
8. You think you know best.
There are two things I can’t stand: willfully ignorant people, and people who believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are (see my story “Incompetent and Overly Confident“).
The first group is hard to help because they stay ignorant on purpose. With all the information in the world only a few mouse clicks away, they are usually too lazy or too recalcitrant to educate themselves.
The second group is unable to recognize their own incompetence, and because of that, they overestimate their own capabilities. In psychology this is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.
“In many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”
Bear with me here.
If doing voice overs seems like something fun you’d like to try, I’m happy for you.
And you know what?
It is so much fun, and it’s hands down the best job I’ve ever had.
But it’s also so much more than that, and if you’re seriously considering making this your career, you need to know about the more. A lot more!
So, please don’t think you know what’s best for you as you’re starting out. I don’t mind a good dose of natural confidence, but it has to be backed up by competence. Competence is not just something you can buy on the virtual shelves of Amazon. Competence requires patience because it is gained over time.
The trouble is: patience isn’t very popular in these “I want it, and I want it now” times.
By the way, experience itself doesn’t necessarily lead to competence. Some of my coaching students have been in the business for years, and they have acquired bad habits they need to unlearn before they can make any progress.
Experience in one area does not necessarily translate to another area, either. Having had a career in radio for instance, does not automatically lead to a successful career in voice overs.
It’s the quality of your experience that qualifies you.
If you think you know best in this business without having anything to back it up, good luck to you. You’ll need it.
The newcomers who do well in our community recognize their limitations, they respect more seasoned talent, and they are willing to learn from them, instead of giving them an attitude.
Please don’t be that person David Dunning calls a “Confident Idiot.”
One last thing, if I may.
In the past, some of my readers have accused me of writing wild rants telling people what not to do, without advising them on what they actually should do.
To them I say: explore this blog. You’ll find over 350 articles on all aspects of the voice over business. These stories are packed with practical tips that won’t cost you a penny but can make you a ton of money. Don’t take my word for it. Ask around.
Being an expat myself, I’ve always had a soft spot for those who left everything and everyone behind to start a new life in a new country.
There’s the predictable culture shock, and in many cases a language barrier. In the beginning, every day is an exciting and surprising adventure. But as you start to settle in, you quickly discover that your dream of living in a new land does not resemble reality in any way, shape, or form.
To some people in your adopted country, you’re an unwelcome foreigner trying to steal their jobs. To others, you’re an exotic outsider with weird manners and a strange way of speaking.
As you’re settling in, you come to the following realization.
Living, loving, and working far away from home, you’ll never feel more connected to where you came from.
The longer you’re gone, the stronger this feeling gets. Until you go back for a quick visit after a few years have passed, and you notice how much has changed in your absence. And for the first time in your life, you feel like you’re no longer fitting in at home either.
I remember coming back to the Netherlands, and finding out all the money had changed from guilders to euros. It’s only money, but it’s something valuable you use every day. It’s a symbol of a nation’s identity and pride.
I also observed that people had started speaking differently. The familiar Dutch was increasingly interspersed with English words and expressions. And when I spoke, I saw some raised eyebrows because -as I learned later- I was using words that had gone out of fashion.
FROM NORTH AMERICA TO SOUTH KOREA
In this edition of the Nethervoice blog, I am talking to fellow expat Barri Tsavaris. She’s an American voice over colleague who lives and works in South Korea. When I asked her how she ended up there, this is what she told me:
“I was working for the jewelry brand John Hardy, planning all their trade shows. At the end of ’08, the US was struck with the housing crisis and subsequent recession, which led to me losing my job in early 2009. I used that year to produce my semi-autobiographical play, I Will Follow, which debuted in the NY International Fringe Festival. Once that closed, I sat in my office (the grand hall of the New York City Public Library) and decided that I couldn’t just go back to temping and the occasional acting gig while waiting for the next big thing. I had to create the next big thing for myself.
The economy in NYC was a mess, I’d gone through a divorce the year before, I lost my apartment…all signs were telling me it was time to step away from New York for a bit. So I googled “what job can I get abroad with only a bachelor’s degree in film?” Haha good times! I got a job teaching English at a public school just outside of Seoul. I flew to Asia 4 months later.”
Are you there permanently or temporarily?
“Temporarily. Wait…does 10 years count as temporary?! When I left New York, I told myself it was just for a year. My plan was to write the next “Eat, Pray, Love” and return to NYC to produce it on stage. But toward the end of that first year, I was in a production of The Vagina Monologues, and one of my castmates was a woman who was working as a voice actor. We became friends, she introduced me to her agent, and within a few months, I was scurrying around Seoul to recording studios.
I know all too well how difficult life is trying to be an actor in NYC. I found myself suddenly working full-time as a voice actor, while friends that had put in 5, 10 years in NYC and LA were still struggling to make ends meet. So I decided to stay. I say I’m here temporarily (despite owning all my appliances, getting married and having 3 cats) because my husband and I do plan to leave Korea eventually.”
What do you like about life in South Korea and what do you miss?
“After a decade, it’s easy to get Korea-fatigue. But I try my best to focus on the positive. Like the phenomenal public transit system. I can get anywhere in Seoul for a buck, the trains and busses are always on time, and I swear, you could eat off of the subway floors. The city employs older Korean women to clean all the subway stations. That’s another thing I love – growing old in Korea is viewed differently than America. Older generations aren’t put out to pasture; they’re encouraged to stay active physically and mentally. I love my expat community. There are countless English teachers here and many help form a thriving expat arts scene.
I thought I would miss New York City, and I do, but what I really miss are people. I miss hugging my parents, I miss sitting around and gabbing for hours with my best girlfriends from high school and college, I miss all the cool artists I used to perform improv and theatre with. So people… and food. Seoul has gotten better during my time here in terms of foreign food, but man, I miss a real bagel and a slice of New York pizza. That’s always the very first thing I eat when I visit the states!”
Tell me about the voice over scene. How does it differ from the US? What do you wish you would have known in the beginning?
“How much time do you have?! I could go on for hours about this. First, entry into voiceover here is much simpler. Pro demos, a VO website and home studio are not required. You can go into one of the main agencies here, audition, and if you’re good, you could be sent out to work the next day. Second, demos. Korean voice actors use voice “samples” and the professionally produced demos that reign supreme in Western markets are unheard of here. A sample is a short voice clip, 15-30 seconds, oftentimes an excerpt from an actual job you did. Actors keep a file of anywhere from 10 to a few dozen voice samples that they send to prospective studios and clients.
When I decided to venture into the global VO market, even though I had almost a decade of recording experience, I didn’t have a single demo appropriate for use outside Korea. Third, it’s a small pond. The core English-language VO community is just a few dozen people and we all know each other. And lastly, we don’t have a union, we’re not permitted to join the Korean voice actor’s union, and it’s illegal for foreigners to unionize. This means we’ve had to work tirelessly as a group for standard rates, protections, and respect.
From the business perspective, I wish I’d known about standard rates, both within Korea as well as globally. I was taken advantage of when I was new and I worked far too many jobs for far too little money. From the performance perspective, I wish I’d known sooner that voice acting is storytelling. Korean clients tend to want a woman’s voice to be bright and bubbly (though that’s gradually changing), so I spent so much time focusing on making a certain sound. Now, especially after coaching, I focus on telling the story first and allowing the sound, whatever it is, to come from that.”
Do you have to speak the language?
“It certainly helps, but I wouldn’t say you *have* to. I learned most of the Korean I know in my first few weeks here. I don’t eat beef or pork, so I had to figure out how to say a few key things quickly or starve. While it’s tough to learn to speak Korean, it’s super easy to learn to read it. You can learn the Korean alphabet, Hangul, in an afternoon. A few years later, I hired a Korean tutor to teach me what I call “studio Korean” – about 50 phrases I wanted to be able to communicate during a recording session. That got me through most of my career here! Last year I formally enrolled in a course for the first time, but then voiceover work picked up, so I dropped out. I’m actually a touch embarrassed at how little Korean I can speak.”
Is it easy to get work as a foreigner?
“It was 10 years ago! It’s definitely not now. It used to be all you needed was a 4-year degree in anything, from anywhere, and you could get a job teaching English. Over the years though, the government has shifted money from language education to math. This has affected the work for voice actors because roughly half the VO work in Korea is for the language education machine – textbooks, exams, prep materials, etc. COVID has further impacted employment; nobody is hiring anyone from abroad right now. A decade ago I would’ve said, yeah, sure, come on out, there’s plenty of work to go around. Now, I wouldn’t suggest trying to move here for work, at least until a vaccine for Coronavirus is developed.”
Do you feel you’re integrated in Korean society, or are you mainly mingling with expats?
“I’m mainly mingling with expats. I’ve integrated in the sense that I have a strong and steady career and the respect of the Koreans I work with.”
How has living in Korea changed your outlook on America?
“It pains me to say it, but living in Korea has made me view America as not quite the great nation I was taught it was. My quality of life in Korea is so high compared to the life I led in New York, and that is due to Korea’s national health care system, prohibition of guns, state-of-the-art infrastructure, and the familial mindset that stems from Confucianism. We certainly give up certain privacies and liberties here – the government can track our every move. But that’s been exactly why Korea has been a forerunner in combating COVID-19.”
When and how did you know that voice overs was the thing for you?
“It was after the first month that I went full-time. I’d been part-time for 8 months and was very nervous to walk away from a very good job at a private elementary school within a major Korean university campus. My agent told me it was time and I’d be fine. That first month I earned twice what I did as a teacher. I knew voiceover was my calling and I never looked back.”
Who have been instrumental to you in terms of getting your VO career off the ground, and in what way?
“The very first person that I always have to give credit to is my friend and fellow voice actor, Jessica Rau Chin. She’s the one who first introduced me to her agent in Seoul 10 years ago. She left Korea several years ago and is now in LA.
And the next person I met several years later: Anne Ganguzza. I knew I needed coaching and proper demos. There were a few coaches on my short list. I scheduled a 15-minute consultation with Anne. We spoke for 45 minutes. I’ll never forget the final thing she said to me during that first call: “Whoever you choose for your coach, be sure they are going to brand you and focus on marketing.” I wound up coaching with Anne for a year and in the end she produced a corporate narration demo and an e-learning demo that are each perfectly suited to my brand.
I also have to give a shout out to Marc Scott.VOpreneur in all its incarnations (the blog, the Facebook page, the podcast) is where I’ve gotten most of the information I’ve used to pivot my career from the Asian to the Western market. In that community I’ve discovered knowledge, support, and an overall touchstone for the voiceover business and where I fit into it.”
What are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned from them?
motion capture for a video game
“From Jessica, I learned that it’s okay to allow space for new voice actors to enter the business. Operating from a place of scarcity and fear will only fill you with negativity. Now, a decade later, I do my best to create space for other women just starting out. I’m a mentor to several newer voice actresses in Seoul, and it fulfills me just as much as landing the raddest video game job or global commercial spot.
From Anne, I’ve learned (and am continuing to learn) how tobe a VO Boss. As my performance coach, she helped me engage the storyteller in me. But our sessions were also peppered with chats about the business side of VO.
From Marc, I’ve learned that I need to outsource! Haha! But seriously, Marc’s Marketing Playbook is an invaluable resource. My greatest takeaway from it is that the work is out there, and how much of it I’m gonna get is entirely up to me and how much effort I put into direct marketing.”
Congrats on your new website. What were you hoping to accomplish with this new site, and what were some of the stumbling blocks you had to overcome to make it happen?
“Thank you! The point of this new site is to introduce me to the global VO marketplace. They love me in Asia, but it’s time for me to step out of the pond and dive into deeper waters.
There weren’t many stumbling blocks, per se. It was more that various pieces took me longer to put together than I originally thought. Like coaching and demo production, for example. I naively thought that it would be a fast process. Bang that out in 6 weeks. (Hahaha) I realized after a few sessions with Anne that it would take much longer than that. Then I had to find a way to process my antsiness, my just wanting to launch and start booking ASAP. So I suppose the greatest stumbling block was learning to give everything time to come together.”
“I’ve got a tough name. Both halves are tough – the Barri and the Tsavaris. People never know how to say either one, how to spell either one… sometimes they don’t even know I’m a woman! For the record, Barri is pronounced like Barry, as in Manilow, Gibb or Sanders. So, after talking to some trusted people in the business, I decided to keep it simple and go with just my first name. That’s how most of my Korean clients know me anyway. (I’m like the Cher of English voiceover in Korea). But believe me, it was a tough decision to make.”
“Karin, Joe, Lo-An and the rest of the team at Voice Actor Websites are just incredible. I came to them with some unique requests and at no point in the process did they ever say, oh no, we don’t do that. It was always, oh cool, we haven’t done that before, but we’ll figure it out for you. Specifically, I wanted my site to be accessible to both my Western and Korean clients, so having a Korean language version was key. I also wanted clients to be able to submit testimonials directly through a form on my site.
Voice Actor Websites had never done that for anyone else, but they figured it out for me and now it’s a function they can offer to other actors. I also really appreciated that they always made themselves available to speak with me at times that were convenient for me, despite the awkward time difference. The experience was smooth, collaborative and well worth the investment – So much so that we’re now having them design my husband’s site!”
Looking back at a decade in South Korea, what are you particularly proud of?
“I’m proud that I came to Asia completely by myself and built an amazing voiceover career from nothing, but I’m particularly proud to have been the official voice of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.”
What’s next for you?
“Short term, I am in conversations with agents in the States and Europe and am looking to have representation in those markets soon. I’m also gearing up for the launch of my passion project, TIGHTS, a radio play about superheroes and their alter egos (@tightstheshow). It is the brainchild of my producing partner, Greta Wink. I came in as the recording director, we brought together two dozen actors from around the world, and we recorded most of it in my studio in Seoul. We’re in post-production now and it will go live before the year is out.
In the long-term, I look forward to moving back to America with my husband and 3 cats (a.k.a. The @Voiceover.Kitties) and finally getting to meet in person all of the amazing voiceover peeps (like yourself!) who I’ve had the pleasure to connect with on social media these past couple years.”
As a blogger, coach, and voice talent, I think a lot about why certain people make it in this business and why others don’t.
Those who are doing well don’t always know why they belong to the happy few.
“You’ve got to have a lot of luck,” they say, and “be at the right moment at the right time.”
It’s a nice observation, but as a teacher that doesn’t help me much. Just as I can’t predict who’s going to win the Powerball, I cannot influence luck. And if I knew how to be at the right moment at the right time, I probably would be doing something else with my life right now.
What I can help people with as a coach, is preparedness. If you’re lucky to be at the right place at the right time and you’re not prepared, you’re not going to get very far. But preparedness alone is no guarantee that you’ll have a successful career as a creative freelancer.
Let’s say you’re talented, you’re well-trained, and you have the right equipment that gets the job done. Is that enough to start and grow a for-profit business? I think we all know well-educated people with great skills and a nice set-up who can barely make ends meet. So, there must be other factors at play that determine the difference between success and failure.
Looking at colleagues who are at the top of their game, I have identified three characteristics all of them have in common. Number one I call:
The difference between dreamers and achievers is that achievers attract jobs. This is anything but a passive process. People don’t become magnets overnight and without planning. You’ve got to have an extensive network in place that generates a continuous flow of leads from multiple sources. If you’re just starting out, this is where you have to spend most of your time, energy, and money.
How do you become a magnet? Think about what you can do to draw people to you. You’ve got to offer something special at a price that tells people you take your work seriously. You have to make sure your presentation is in line with your (desired) reputation. Then you need to connect with clients and colleagues to let them know that you exist.
Obviously, this is not something you can do in a few weeks or months. Every self-employed person can tell you that this will be your life from now on, until you decide to close up shop. This type of magnet is like a rechargeable battery. If you don’t charge it regularly, it will quickly lose its power.
Now, let’s assume your magnetic powers have the desired effect and job offers are rolling in. Should you jump on every opportunity? Here’s where the second factor comes in. I call this:
Beginners often make the same mistake. They go after every single job offer, if only “to gain experience.” I remember when I first became a member of an online casting site. As soon as I had posted my profile and the membership fee was paid, the auditions started coming in. In my naïve enthusiasm I applied for every job, thinking that the more I auditioned, the greater the chance I would be hired. I was wrong.
Being a successful freelancer is not a numbers game. It is about going after the opportunities that are right for you. In order to do that, you have to filter out the misfits. That’s where the colander comes in.
Runners know their strengths. Some of them run marathons. Others sprint. In my line of work, some voice actors are great at narrating audiobooks. Others excel in voicing short commercials. Only a handful of people in every profession are true all-rounders. Chances are that you’re not one of them. That’s why you have to do yourself a favor: know your strengths, and become picky. Very picky.
There’s one last factor that separates the wheat from the chaff. I call it:
No matter how good you are at attracting and selecting jobs, once you have landed a new project, you have one objective and one objective only: to make your client happy. That’s by no means an earth-shattering revelation, so why even mention it? Here’s why. So many people believe that if you do the very best you can, the client will be pleased with the result. That’s not necessarily true.
Your very best might not be good enough, and/or the client may have different expectations. That’s why it is so important to find out what those expectations are before you get to work. I often tell my clients: “If I don’t know what you want, I can’t give it to you.” And that’s where the clay comes in.
Clay is just potential. It can be molded into any shape, depending on the talent and skills of the potter. No matter what kind of freelance work you do, whether you’re a scriptwriter, an industrial designer, or a voice-over, you’ve got to know your material and be a master molder. The better you are at understanding your client and at working the clay, the more successful you will be.
Mind you, this isn’t something you can pick up from reading a book, or by listening to a podcast. It will take talent, training, and time. It may take a few years before you break in and break even. But when you do, this is what you will discover:
Doing exceptional work almost always leads to more work, which brings us back to the concept of the magnet.
One last thing.
If your career isn’t where you want it to be at the moment, ask yourself:
“Where are my greatest challenges?
What needs more work?
Is it the magnet, the colander, or is it the way I handle the clay?”
I’ve always been intrigued by people who can do things I believe I wasn’t born to do.
I suck at sports, so that’s out. My mind has trouble processing numbers, so forget math. My DIY skills are minimal, so please don’t ask me to fix your plumbing, or you might be in for a wet surprise.
Don’t feel sorry for me. I think I have other talents this world may benefit from. If all of us would be good at doing the same things, boy, would life be boring!
I will say one thing. It seems to me that in this day and age people are perfecting their ability to critique one another, while we’re gradually losing our ability to understand, appreciate and admire. What a shame!
One person I greatly value and admire is my Dutch colleague Dorith Hassing. Not only is she a successful voice talent, she’s also a very talented painter. The other day I asked her how her voice over career began. Here’s what Dorith told me:
I didn’t go to the Fine Art Academy, even though I thought I would, and for years and years I kept trying to find my place in this world. I enjoyed a very rewarding career, but it felt like I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do. I wanted to be self-employed. I wanted to be creative.
I didn’t discover my vocation until the day my youngest child got a toy the parent had to record a voice for. When I learned that one could actually make a living using one’s voice, the penny dropped, and light bulbs went off in my head!
I started researching the VO business. How does it work? Who’s doing this? What skills does one need to have, and where can I learn these skills? I took some workshops with Barnier Geerling of stemacteren.nl, and for the next few years I practiced by myself: recording, listening back to the recording, recording it again. Listening to others, mimicking them, giving it my own spin.
Then there was the technical aspect. How does one record voice overs, and where? Because I decided to totally go for it, I immediately invested in professional equipment and an amazing vocal booth. After that, my career took off.
I’ve been doing this for five years now, and lately, the work has been finding me. The first years I was very busy generating work by adding myself to the roster of online casting agencies, making demos, doing auditions, responding to job offers, networking, and improving my website.
How would you describe your niche in the business? Do you specialize in certain genres, or are you a Jill of all Trades?
To most people, my voice sounds surprisingly familiar, as if they already know me. That’s why I’m a good fit for projects that need familiarity, things like explainers, or for projects that require people to trust the narrator. But I’m also good at voicing the every day stuff we all want and need. This means I can handle a wide range of work and I take every opportunity to do it. Most of my jobs are corporate in nature, like voice response systems, videos, and animated explainers. But I also love voicing commercials and instructional videos. (Click on the blue hyperlinks to see and hear samples of Dorith’s work.) More recently, I started recording audio books which is great fun!
Name a few projects you’re proud of.
My first television commercial was such a thrill, but what I liked even better was to be the voice of the Lifestyle Collection of Swiss Sense (a Dutch bedding and mattress chain). In the past couple of months I’ve worked on e-learnings for Shell, and I’m the voice of customer service at American Express Netherlands. To be honest, all jobs make me equally happy, whether they’re long or short, and whether I get a lot of exposure or no exposure at all.
Where do you find voice over jobs in the Netherlands?
I’m listed on many national and international voice casting sites. Networking has been very successful for me. A couple of years ago I went to have a drink with a few colleagues, and last month that resulted in me landing a big project. Being part of online groups and being active on LinkedIn also leads to work. It often takes one contact to get the ball rolling.
What kind of projects would you reject out of hand?
I don’t believe that my personal preferences matter when it comes to voicing projects, but I stay away from jobs where people are clearly scammed. A private investigator wanted me to record a few tapes he wanted use to bate cheaters. Trying to frame people using fake recordings isn’t my thing.
What would be your dream project?
I would love to be the signature voice of a reputable brand, and cultivate a long-term business relationship with that brand. I imagine myself helping them navigate the seasons and the ever changing world, working together to find the right tone of voice.
What do you see as your greatest obstacle preventing you from reaching that goal?
There already are so many great, established voices at the moment, which makes it challenging to be noticed by the big studios and agencies that book the big accounts. I get that, but it’s kind of tough to be a small needle in a huge haystack.
Which came first? Painting or voice overs?
As a child I spent a lot of time in my dad’s art studio. I’ve always felt I had a future in the arts, but when I came to an open house at the fine art academy, I didn’t feel at home. My teenage angst got the better of me, and I bailed out.
My lingering artistic longing has been replaced by inspiring life experiences. Voice acting set things in motion, allowing me to become more daring and in charge of my destiny. This opened up new opportunities inside of me. It made me focus on what I really wanted, and apart from painting with words, I wanted to paint with brushes! Thanks to voice overs, I started working on canvases again!
Do you see yourself having two professions, or is one more like a hobby?
Doing voice overs is my (amazing) job, and painting is part of my identity. In my ideal world I would sell a few more paintings allowing me to spend more time with my canvases, but I’d still record voice overs. Doing voice overs expands my window to the world, and I love the variety it brings. I go from pharma to automotive, from health care to commercial, and from local to international. I go from speaking to children to talking to the elderly in need, from a heartwarming bedtime story, to a very serious script. All of this inspires me to keep on painting.
Tell me more about your artistic side.
I paint using the name FacingDorith. My work revolves around beauty and emotion. With beauty I don’t mean perfection, but character, atmosphere, and originality. I paint people because they touch me deeply. Because of who they are, of what they do, and what they don’t do. I’m also endlessly fascinated by what they have to say. Meeting people leads to new insights, to rethinking, and sometimes to confusion. This whirlwind of emotions finds its way onto my canvas.
I do not feel the need to be ultra realistic. What’s important is the feeling I get regarding the person I’m painting. I want to capture their charisma, their intensity, and strength. There are some remarkable similarities between people from all over the world and their faces. It takes less than a second to feel a sense of familiarity and emotion that connects us all.
My own emotions are at the basis of my work. Not only do I want to paint the beauty of life and people’s strength, I also want to paint their fears, their losses, and their sorrows.
The darkest nights bring out the brightest stars.
I love using color. It expresses a certain feeling. Every color has its own character, but it can appear in so many nuances, and it can create an entirely different image in combination with other colors.
What’s the nicest thing someone has ever said about your work, and why were you touched by that?
When someone is really moved by my work, that’s a tremendous compliment because it affirms that what I put into it, is resonating. Some people get emotional because my work can be intense. It touches a nerve because feelings that were hidden inside, are coming out. I love that. All of us experience life in different ways, so what they are feeling is not necessarily the same as what inspired me to create the artwork. That’s never my intention.
By evoking an emotion, a connection is created. In my opinion, a work of art is never finished until it is observed by someone. The act of observation creates a message. Everyone is free to distill their own message, and that message changes depending on things like personal experiences, someone’s mood, or something simple like a different environment, or a change of light.
Do you get the same satisfaction from your voice over work?
I compare my voice over work to painting on commission versus painting spontaneously. I do work on request and that can be challenging. It’s less free, but the limitations and restrictions create a tension, a pressure, and a focus that bring out new things in me, and help me grow. That happens too, when I record voice overs.
You’re a mother of three young, energetic children. You’ve got to be there for your clients and for your kids. Does that sometimes cause friction, and how do you deal with that?
What I predominantly experience is lots of freedom. That’s because it’s easy for me to unwind and leave things as they are. It’s super busy at times, but I love working in the weekend or at night. After all: it’s me I’m doing it for. When things are slow in terms of voice overs, I grab my brushes and start painting, I go to a museum, or to the beach. I need that space to be there for my children and for myself.
My workload comes and goes, and the pressure to perform can be intense. But I also know that things will eventually calm down, so cleaning up the house can wait a little longer. When I’m busy doing voice overs I paint less, but sometimes both activities reinforce one another, and I keep on creating at night and during weekends.
What tips do you have for working moms and dads?
Here’s the thing. You’ve made the choice not to work a regular, nine to five job, so don’t put that pressure on yourself. I see no benefit in sitting behind a computer for forty hours a week. Working efficiently is different from being busy.
Take advantage of your freedom, and don’t worry about the slow times. Enjoy what you’re doing! These dry spells allow you to work on your website, to do some networking, et cetera. I get my best ideas when I’m doing something totally different, so please enjoy your freedom. By that I also mean the freedom to choose whom you want to work with. I stopped working with some clients because I was getting bad vibes. Isn’t that great? I no longer work with unpleasant or unreasonable people.
These days it’s not enough to be good at what you do. You also have to sell yourself.
To me, that’s the most challenging part of being a freelancer. As a voice over and a painter I AM selling myself. I feel vulnerable when I do that, especially when I don’t get the jobs I was in the running for. I always keep in mind: different strokes for different folks. Sometimes I just don’t fit the bill and that’s okay. I’ve learned not to take it personally. Having said that, I’m still uncomfortable presenting myself in public. I’m an introvert at heart. I register what’s going on around me, but I prefer being in the background.
What role do social media play in your professional life?
They’re really important to me. This includes my profiles on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn, as well as the online networking groups and my websites. I update them regularly, and I have noticed that people are finding me more frequently. However, I will only do things that fit me, so you won’t see me writing blogs, vlogs, or newsletters.
I see you’ve included English demos on your website. What do you think you have to offer clients outside of the Netherlands?
My voice sounds friendly, clear, and familiar – even in English. Most people find it hard to tell where I am from, which is ideal for an international market, particularly when a service or a product isn’t linked to a specific country. This subtle Northern European accent enhances the authenticity of the message.
Being both a visual artist and a voice over artist comes with a lot of uncertainty. Do you ever long for a “normal,” steady job with fringe benefits?
When the Netherlands was still in what they were calling an “intelligent lockdown,” I worked very little. At those times I thought a more permanent job would be more desirable. On the other hand, it was relatively easy to combine home schooling my kids with working on the projects that did come in. Life has taught me to trust in my abilities as well as in the power of the mind.
When I look back at the path I have taken, I am grateful for every success, big or small. I realize I can’t see the road ahead, but I know where I want to go, and I am convinced that I will get there.
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 prepare. 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?”
“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 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:
“The best thing I can tell you is 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?”
The question came out of nowhere. I was talking to a client about a job he wanted me to do, and he verbalized what many customers are thinking when they hire a voice-over:
“Why should I pay you over four hundred dollars for three measly minutes of audio? It’s outrageous!”
“Why are you so expensive?”
How would you react to that question? Would you start doubting yourself? Would you apologize for your fee? Would you say: “Well, if it’s too much, perhaps we can agree on a different amount?”
The truth is this: money makes many people uncomfortable. Especially those who have chosen to do what they love. You know: creatives like musicians, writers, photographers, and yes, voice-over artists. If you are fortunate enough to enjoy your dream job, the wonderful work itself should be rewarding enough, shouldn’t it?
For years, the Concertgebouw (Amsterdam’s Carnegie Hall), didn’t pay young musicians a penny for playing lunch concerts. Not even travel expenses were reimbursed. Meanwhile, the ushers, sound engineers, and other staff members making these concerts possible were receiving a salary. How could that happen?
The Concertgebouw said it was giving artists a unique opportunity to gain some experience and get exposure. It’s a familiar story. The same reasoning was used by schools “hiring” musicians for educational concerts, by pubs, churches, charities, and even TV shows. “Exposure” was the magic word. This went on for years and years. Why?
Because the artists agreed to it, thus teaching clients how to treat them.
Many of them had to give up their dream career because exposure doesn’t pay the bills.
JUSTIFYING YOUR FEE
As a for-profit freelancer, you have to answer the question “Why are you so expensive?” on at least two levels. First, you owe yourself an explanation. Secondly, you have to explain it to your client.
Before you do that, you have to realize that most questions are based on unspoken assumptions. If you buy into these assumptions, you buy into the client’s way of thinking, which is not such a smart thing to do.
The question “Why are you so expensive?” has three elements. WHY, YOU, and EXPENSIVE.
The word WHY demands justification, immediately putting you on the defensive. Do you even wish to go there?
Here’s the thing: if you are comfortable with your rates, there is no need to defend them. The moment you feel unsure about your prices (and your self-worth), you’re more likely to lower your fee at the first sign of resistance.
In the beginning of my career, I was afraid to lose jobs because my fees might be perceived as too high. As soon as a customer uttered the magic words “we have a limited budget,” I believed them, and I lowered my price. Big mistake.
These days I know that there is no way of knowing how much a client can or cannot afford. I do know that I cannot afford to work for low rates. Here’s the kicker: low fees are often seen as a sign of inexperience and amateurism. Charging less may actually result in not getting hired!
Bottom line: STOP BEING SO DESPERATE!
Have some dignity. If you are running a for-profit business you must be okay to walk away from a bad deal. Let others record that lengthy, self-published, shitty novel for $75 per finished hour thinking they have landed the deal of the century. You can’t convince stupid. Stupid has to learn from experience, or repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
THE REAL DEAL
This brings me to the YOU in “Why are YOU so expensive?”
The question behind the question is: Compared to whom?
The unspoken assumption is that there are others who are willing to do it for cheaper. That may be true, but you have to realize that the client is talking to you for a reason. You are not a dime a dozen. You sound like a million bucks. You know it and they know it.
Your voice is used by multinationals, world-famous brands, and well-known organizations. You need no hand-holding and no sound engineer to fix your audio. You’re easy to work with and you always meet your deadlines. That’s worth something.
A lot, actually.
And if you’re a voice talent that’s just getting started, you know you have this fresh voice no one else has. You have a solid studio with decent equipment, and you’re a natural at making the words in the script dance off the page. You listen to your clients, and you give them what they need without an attitude. You may be new to the business, but you are a PRO who should be paid accordingly!
A wedding photographer I used to work with got this question all the time:
“Why should we pay you a fortune for a few hours of your time?”
She learned that the first thing she had to overcome was the costumer’s ignorance about pricing and ignorance about what’s involved in doing the job. Most people had no idea of the going rate, so they had no way of telling whether someone was expensive or not. They just heard a number that seemed high. They made a mistake many beginning freelancers make:
Thinking that what you make is what you take home.
They did not realize that the fee for a photo shoot paid for professional cameras, lenses, lights, a shooting assistant, computers, editing software, a website, advertising, accountant’s fees, taxes, memberships of professional organizations, insurance, continuing education, a retirement plan, transportation, a photo studio, time spent looking for work, doing the books, editing photos, et cetera.
Whatever is left has to pay for rent or mortgage, groceries, utilities, childcare, vacations, charitable donations, and many other expenses.
Believe me: your clients have no clue about your cost of doing business, and they do not care.
However, if you don’t build these expenses into your fee, you will go broke. All the talent, skill and experience in the world is not going to save you if you’re not turning a profit.
So, the next time someone asks you “Why are you so expensive?” think twice before you answer.
My friend Bob van der Houven told me the story of one of his VO colleagues who was asked:
“Why should I pay you $500 for an hour of your time?”
“You’re not paying for an hour. You’ re paying for 30 years of experience!”
Personally, I am comfortable with what I charge. I think it’s more than fair, and frankly, I deserve it.
When people ask me why I charge what I charge I tell them in a friendly but self-assured way:
“That’s my rate,” and I leave it at that. And you know what? Nine out of ten times they accept it, and that’s understandable.
I mean, I don’t go into a restaurant challenging the chef why he charges $35 for the main course.
If I don’t want to pay that much, I should eat somewhere else.
There’s fine dining, there’s fast food, and anything in between.
So, tell me: what are you cooking up for your clients?
In this blog I may discuss/review products or books that I believe are relevant to my readers. As a service to them, I often provide links to those products or publications.
Instead of having a tip jar, Nethervoice is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com. In other words, as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.