When you’re just getting your feet wet, there’s so much to do and so much to learn. It’s an exciting and confusing time. You have many choices to make, but which ones are right, and which ones are wrong?
Here are four things I wish I’d figured out ahead of time.
1. It doesn’t take much money to get started, but you can’t have a career on the cheap.
You already have a nice voice, an okay computer, and an internet connection. Now, run to Guitar Center and get yourself a USB microphone for under a hundred dollars and download free Audacity recording software.
Bam! You’re in business, ready to make the big bucks!
That’s what I was told by quite a few people when I became serious about doing this voice-over thing professionally. Until then I had had a career in radio and I knew nothing about setting up a home studio, getting voice-over coaching, marketing myself, and the thousand other things you have to pay for to begin a business.
No one told me it was going to take at least three years and a small fortune before I would be able to support myself as a voice talent. They also forgot to tell me how I was to survive those first three years that were filled with uncertainty, stress, and lots of ramen noodles.
Here’s a hard truth many hopefuls don’t want to hear:
2. You must invest to compete with the best.
When I share this with aspiring talent, they say I’m just an old-school party pooper who wants to scare off the competition.
They say you don’t need a seriously soundproofed recording space. Just build a booth from pvc pipes and put up some moving blankets. You’ll never be interrupted by a barking dog or the low rumble of the garbage truck.
They say you simply sign up for Fiverr and Upwork, and the money will start coming in.
They say you need no expensive training. Everything’s online and it don’t cost a dime!
They say you can easily put your own demos together and build a website from a free template…
…and then they complain about not getting any work (other than the “passion projects” they’re doing for free).
Let me ask you this: would you hire a wedding photographer who proudly proclaims he only needs a smart phone to capture one of the most important days of your life? Would you trust a physician you found on Fiverr? Would you allow an amateur electrician to redo your electrical wiring?
Some will say these are unfair comparisons. After all, voice acting is not a profession that requires an academic education, vocational training, or some kind of official accreditation. They believe it’s experience based. You pick it up as you go along.
Yes, experience comes into play, but also talent, training, specific skills, and equipment. I’ve encountered too many people with considerable experience and very little talent. Many of my students have tons of talent but very little training. Some of them are quite skilled but they don’t have professional equipment to compete in a crowded market, let alone an expensive dedicated recording space.
Especially in a business as unregulated as ours, the ongoing investments we make are part of our credentials. Remember: the very first thing that will make you lose an audition is poor sound quality. The second thing is your inability to interpret and narrate a script, sounding clear and natural.
Please do yourself a favor and seek expert advice. Don’t just believe any Tom, Dick, or Harriet, because it’s become a hobby for people to flaunt their ignorance in public and be proud of it. This is what I have learned:
3. The quality of advice depends on the quality of the source. Ninety percent of online chatter is just noise.
When I began to explore becoming a VO, I was like a sponge, soaking up as much info as I could. Here’s the problem: I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and I was unable to separate the wheat from the chaff.
I was brought up to believe that most people have the best of intentions, and I should give them the benefit of the doubt. After being burned more than once, I’m not so sure I believe that anymore.
Sure, there were plenty of nice guys and gals who wanted to help an enthusiastic beginner. But when it comes to depth of knowledge, I quickly learned that many helpful colleagues were surprisingly shallow, and they were giving terribly uninformed advice.
These days I often wonder: who is more ignorant? The person asking the question, or the one answering it?
Before you accuse me of bashing newbies again, I hope you’ll agree that my observations on online advice probably apply to most public exchanges, regardless of the topic. Just look at the Facebook page of the town you live in. Lots of opinions based on an embarrassing lack of factual and experiential knowledge.
That begs the question: whom can you trust in the wonderful world of voice-overs?
My rule of thumb: if someone hasn’t run a profitable voice-over business for at least three years, ignore their advice. After all, you would never ask a newlywed about the secrets of a long-lasting marriage, let alone a bachelor.
ARE EXPERIENCED PROS ALWAYS RIGHT?
Having said that, I must admit that there are many voice-over veterans I disagree with as well, because they are stuck in their ways. You know, the gear snobs who say that any microphone under $500 can’t be any good. It has to be Neumann or a 416. Then there’s the idea that you’re not a first-tier talent if you’re not a member of the union. Really?
I recently got into an argument with a seasoned pro who insisted that I shouldn’t take a vacation without bringing a mobile recording kit. This, after I told him I had sold my Apogee travel MiC. “But what if your client needs you?” was his argument. “You don’t want to lose a client, do you?”
I told him that on vacation my family needs me more than I need a client. I always tell my returning customers when I’ll be away, and when I’ll be coming back. Fortunately, most of them are in Europe and they understand the importance of taking time off to recharge the batteries. It’s those work-obsessed Americans that live in a no-vacation nation who think they always have to be available. It’s a recipe for burnout, which brings me to my last point:
4. Your health cannot be bought or sold, and it can make or break your business.
You are the personification of your product. You embody the service you are selling. You are IT, baby!
No matter at what stage of your career you are, if you don’t take care of yourself, you’re not protecting your most important asset. That’s why I see vacation as a form of preventative healthcare. It’s sacred time for the mind, the body, and the soul. It reminds us why we are doing what we are doing.
However, you need more than vacation to keep your engine running.
When you go to voice-over conferences, be ready to see lots of people who are out of breath and out of shape. They live a sedentary life, talking to imaginary people in a soundproof box you wouldn’t want to put a prisoner in. The uncertainty of freelance life, not knowing when the next job will fall into your lap and the next check will arrive, causes constant stress.
You’re isolated from the world, literally and figuratively. If you’re a social person longing for watercooler conversations, it’s a nightmare. “But it must be so much fun,” a friend of mine said. “Setting your own hours, being your own boss, all the freedom… You get to do what many dream of, and you’re even getting paid for it!”
I didn’t tell him that at that very moment I was waiting on a client who owed me a considerable sum. My rent was due, my car needed inspection, and my computer was on its last leg. I was living the dream, alright!
What I didn’t know was that years later I would face the ultimate test, as far as my health was concerned. I nearly died of a surprise stroke I had in my studio. It took months of recovery before I had the energy to start working again, and I still don’t have the stamina I once had. My voice is gradually coming back, but it will never be as strong as before. I’m not allowed to drive a car yet, and my heart’s rhythm continues to be out of control.
I am not sharing this with you so you’ll feel sorry for me. I’m sharing this to stress that life is as fragile as it is precious. Just as you invest in your continuing education, your studio, and in your marketing, please invest in leading a healthy, balanced life.
Get out of that studio. Move more. Choose quality food over quantity. Stay hydrated. Surround yourself with positive people who support you. Be kind to them and to yourself.
That way you’ll never have to tell me:
“If only I had known…”
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
PS photo courtesy of Carlos Alvarez
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