Sometimes I feel we can measure the degree of our privilege by how many things we take for granted.
Is the air we breathe clean? Can we put food on the table? Are we healthy? Do we feel safe? Do we have friends we can count on? Do we love the work we do?
For many of us, the answer to these questions is self-evident. That’s why we live our lives without realizing how privileged we are… until.
Until something happens that shakes up our life.
We end up suffering from terrible allergies. We experience food insecurity. We’re diagnosed with COVID. Our house burns down. Friends fail us. We hate our job…
Isn’t it sad that, for us to really appreciate the good, we often have to experience the opposite?
In a way it’s pretty pathetic that we have to dedicate a special day to being thankful.
Twenty-four hours of madness and indigestion.
And when it’s over, we move on. Pepto-Bismol in hand.
The next day, we shop our inner emptiness away, and retail resurges. Hopefully.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Of course not.
All we need to do is press pause…. and be mindful of the many ordinary blessings that make our life livable and meaningful.
It’s the little, big things we take for granted.
It’s the things that we don’t have to worry about, that are the small stones in the mosaic of our happiness.
Now, this may sound simple, and you might be right.
But everything that looks and sounds simple, never is. All of us can buy the ingredients to a five-star dish, but very few can make a Michelin-star worthy meal. This is a tough lesson to learn in a time of instant gratification.
We want things at the speed of a mouse click. A new computer. A new eye liner. A new career. Just get the right equipment plus a P2P membership, and you’re in business!
It’s easy to buy a blank canvas, some paint, and a few brushes. But that’s just the start of a long, winding road. There’s so much to absorb. So much to learn. And learning never stops.
Let’s be honest.
Very few people were born to be a soccer star like Maradona, or a top tennis player. Very few home cooks get to be a top chef. But you can still enjoy playing the violin, even if you never perform at Carnegie Hall. Many string players have a fulfilling career in an ensemble and not as a soloist.
So, on a day like today, be thankful for the talents you were born with. Be thankful for the people who love you for who you are. They don’t care if you’ll never be front page news. I bet they actually prefer it that way.
Share your talents with the world, and make it a better place because of you.
For most of us, pleasing people is the name of the game.
As a freelance service provider, that is why we exist: to please the people that pay us.
It’s how I grew up as a little boy in the Netherlands.
As the son of a minister, I always had to be on my best behavior and do what was expected of me. Children should be seen, not heard, and only speak when spoken to. Pleasing my parents and making them proud became my way of life.
That meant not questioning their authority, eat what they put in front of me, wear what they wanted me to wear, and be quiet when the grown ups were talking. And there was a lot of talking in the parsonage.
As an inquisitive and talkative child, this regime was not easy on me, to say the least. I wanted to engage and be social. I wanted to participate instead of observe.
Most importantly: I wanted to be heard.
Don’t we all?
My young parents were still learning how to run a church, and I think they were in over their heads, especially after the birth of my little sister. So, having a noisy son who always wanted to know everything about everything, must have been challenging. But I was a child. I couldn’t help myself.
After testing the rules over and over again, and being at the receiving end of numerous spankings, I finally learned my lesson.
Sit still. Shut up, and do as you are told.
In a way, this strict upbringing worked well for me. My life was like a coloring book. As long as I colored within the lines, I received praise. I was the good child, but I had to make sure to color the trees green and the sun yellow. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Deviation and disobedience lead inevitably to punishment (always administered by my mother, while my father made himself invisible).
Now, at a certain age, kids are supposed to grow up and rebel against parental authority. I left that job to my sister. She was the wild child, and very good at it, I might add! While I buried myself in books and music, she acted out in every way possible. Coming home late. Fooling around with bad boys. Drugs and drinking.
Meanwhile, I remained the pubescent, immature people pleaser. Mister goody two shoes who had no spine. Perfectly socially acceptable, well-adjusted, and never daring.
How did I stay that way, you may ask? By avoiding confrontation while fostering resentment, deep inside. It’s a coping mechanism many of us know too well. It works until someone really starts pushing our buttons and boundaries, and we can’t take it anymore.
Just wait for that pressure cooker to explode!
And when it does, we not only respond to what triggered us in the first place, but to years of keeping things inside; of sucking things up to keep the peace.
I truly feel for the person at the receiving end of this emotional outburst!
Now, why on earth would I be bringing up the past, in a blog about freelancing and voice overs? Who do I think I am? Sigmund Freud, or Dr. Phil McGraw?
I’m taking you back to my childhood because in my work as a coach I have found that many of us have evolved very little from the time we were a child. It usually manifests itself in our relationship with perceived authority figures. Authority figures such as the clients we serve.
After years and years of growing up, many of my students discover that they’re still the same obedient people pleasers they were as little kids.
Sit still. Shut up, and do as you are told.
One way this manifests itself is in a subservient relationship with clients. If a client wants things done the next day, they deliver the next day, no matter what. If a client wants to pay them in 90 days instead of in 30, they accept 90 days. If a client changes the script after they’ve already delivered the previously approved VO, they record the new text for free. And so on and so forth.
People bend over backwards just to avoid confrontation and rejection.
I see the same pattern when it comes to rates.
“The client said he had a limited budget, so why should I ask for more?”
As a coach I always challenge my students. The other day, I said to one of them:
“How do you know how much a client can or cannot afford? Are you psychic? Do you have someone inside the organization? Did you even ask for more money? If not, why not?”
“Well, I’m afraid they’ll give the job to another talent. I want to maintain a good relationship.”
I told him:
“How can you predict with absolute certainty how the client will respond? I mean, out of the hundred plus people that auditioned for this job, they picked you for a reason. That should give you a bit of leverage, don’t you think?
What you are offering is not some kind of cookie anyone can bake; something simple that disappears as soon as you eat it. What you’re about to record will last. It has the power to move minds, and inspire people to take action. Only you can say it the way you say it. That’s why they picked you, for Pete’s sake!”
One of my students was in a pickle because she didn’t allow enough time to finish the eLearning module she was recording.
“Why don’t you call the client and ask for an extension?” I suggested.
“Oh, they’re not going to like that,” she replied. “This is my first time working for them. I need to show that I can handle the job they gave me. Otherwise they’ll never hire me again.”
“Here’s my assignment,” I said: “Call them up. Tell them where you are with the project and how much time you need to complete it, and see what they say.”
A day later she called me back and said:
“I’m so relieved! They gave me until next week to finish it. It turned out they weren’t going to listen to it for the next couple of days anyway, because they’re so swamped. The project manager told me they’d rather have me do a good job and take more time, than to rush things and make mistakes. She even thanked me for keeping her in the loop.”
Those two students had one thing in common. Because they assumed to know how the client would respond, they avoided a confrontation by not asking for what they wanted. Here’s the thing.
If you don’t ask, the answer will always be NO.
I wasted years of my life being overly concerned about what other people might think. It was the little boy in me that still was intent on pleasing his parents. The boy who always found an easy way out, to avoid conflict and confrontation.
The trouble was, playing it safe usually didn’t get me what I really, really wanted and deserved. I had to learn that it’s okay to gently and respectfully put my foot down, and ask for what I wanted.
When I finally started to speak up for myself, I discovered that the confrontations I dreaded in my mind, hardly ever happened. It was just my very vivid imagination of a worst case scenario that held me back.
These days, the people pleaser in me still plays pictures in his mind. But this time around I make sure to imagine the BEST things that can happen, instead of the most terrible outcome.
Remember this: whether you imagine the worst thing, or the very best thing, you never know how it’s going to turn out. But if you visualize a positive outcome, you’re more likely to be in a positive mindset, and take positive action, leading to a positive result.
All I ask of you, is to try this approach for the next week or so, and experience the difference it makes.
There’s one thing I absolutely love and hate about my life as a freelancer.
It’s the unpredictability of it.
To me, predictable is boring. It’s eating fish every Friday. Going to the car wash on Saturday, and spending every stinkin’ summer at the same overpriced rental on the Jersey shore.
Predictable is no fun. It’s playing it safe, doing what you’ve always done.
On the other hand, a predictable life means stability. No guessing what happens next. You always know what’s coming.
Most people love the familiarity of the seasons and the holidays. Times like Easter and Christmas serve as markers of time passing. As soon as it’s fall, pumpkin spice is wafting in the air, and retailers rush to get their Halloween collection out on the floor.
Being able to count on things is rather reassuring. Uncertainty stresses people out.
As someone who has always been self-employed, I have learned to live with and appreciate unpredictability. Right now, I don’t know what voice over project will land on my desk tomorrow. I have no idea if the client I spoke with yesterday, will like the audition I sent out today. And please don’t tell me what I’ll be working on next week.
If you’re a pathological planner craving closure, you’re not going to like that very much. You’ve got to have the right personality to handle being an independent contractor. To explain what that means, I often turn to culinary and musical metaphors.
You see, there are two types of cooks. The first type needs to follow the recipe to the letter. It has to be done the way the author intended. Doing otherwise would be sacrilege.
The second type of cook grabs a couple of ingredients depending on what’s in season, and starts creating a dish from scratch. No book needed. You make it up as you go along.
The musician who likes predictability always plays from the score, and measures his or her performance by how accurately the notes were replicated.
The musician who embraces unpredictability is more like a jazzer. Improvisation is the name of the game. Making things up on the fly.
Mind you: neither is right or wrong. There is a time and a place for organization and planning, and we all need to let loose a little. It can’t be all work and no play.
But as much as we try to be in control of our lives (and that’s the key concept: control), life has this strange way of throwing monkey wrenches in the works, just to test our flexibility and creativity.
After almost forty years of being a freelancer, I have learned to trust one thing, and it has become my mantra:
Things will always work out (but often not the way you expect they will).
Remember that time you were rejected for a project you so wanted to work on? You felt angry and inadequate, in part because the decision was made for you. Not by you.
But you also need to remember what happened next. Thanks to that one project going to another talent, you were able to take on a different job that eventually opened the door to an amazing opportunity. Something you could not have predicted.
Years ago, my wife went on Yahoo Personals looking for a skiing partner to go down the slopes with.
She ended up with this Dutchman (who could not ski if his life depended on it), and on October 4th we’ll be married for sixteen years!
And as she will gladly attest, no day with me is ever predictable. She, on the other hand, is my stability. She’s the rock in my roll.
Listen, if you’re a fellow freelancer, I hope you’re enjoying the variety of work that comes your way. I hope you enjoy being off schedule with the rest of the world, giving you the freedom to do things those with a 9 to 5 job can only dream of.
I also hope you have found a way to deal with the financial instability, and the constant search for the next big project. If you’ve been at it for a while, you know that when it rains, it pours. And sometimes it just rains.
But throughout this unpredictable existence, know that there is this one constant you can always count on.
Voice-overs love to talk. Sometimes, they even get paid for it.
But there’s another skill that’s almost as important, yet we rarely speak about it.
Do you hear me?
Here’s the weird thing. Early in life, we learn how to walk, talk, and color inside the lines. But did anyone ever teach you how to listen?
We’re instructed to sit still and shut up, or else…. One day, my Kindergarten teacher dragged me by my ear, and shoved me into a corner for incessant talking. To add insult to injury, she taped a huge Band-Aid over my mouth.
I’d love to run into her one day, and tell her how I make a living….
By the way, keeping one’s mouth shut is not the same as being a receptive, retentive listener. Listening is a lost art that begs to be rediscovered. Why? Because we’re so used to tuning things out, and for a very good reason.
TOO MUCH NOISE
I don’t know about you, but on any given day my brain finds it easier and easer to reach stimulus overload. That’s no surprise. Every minute of every waking hour we are bombarded with images, smells, sounds, and other sensations. They all cry out for attention like ravenous septuplets wanting to be breastfed, and it’s too much to handle.
If we’d give equal attention to all our sensory input, we’d go mad. Literally. So, our noggin needs to prioritize what it’s going to pay attention to, and for how long. The rest gets tuned out. While that’s a good thing, we do run into another problem.
As we are drowning in information, our attention span is getting shorter and shorter. In fact, I’m surprised that you’re still reading these words! What’s wrong with you?
You may have heard of this one notorious consumer study claiming that the human attention span has gone down from twelve seconds in 2000, to eight seconds today. In contrast, the average attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds!
I’m not surprised. Goldfish tend to be very good listeners. Although they are a bit slippery, they’d make great shrinks.
Joking aside, my point is that in order to be a good listener, we need to be able to focus on something or someone, and preferably for longer than eight seconds. Why is this particularly important to voice-overs? To begin with, it is vital to the success of our one-person, volatile business, to listen to our clients. We need to know what our clients need to hear from us to be satisfied with our work.
One of my students was working on a project, and the client had asked her to give what he called “a decisive read.” “Say no more,” she said. “I know exactly what you’re after.”
A day later she delivered the audio, and guess what? The client was not happy. He called her up and said: “I asked you to sound decisive. I just listened to your recording, and you sound aggressive. I can’t use that.”
“I’m sorry, I really tried,” answered my student. “You asked for decisive, and this is what I thought you meant. How could I have known you wanted something different?”
“Well,” said the client, “you didn’t give me a chance to demonstrate. Before I was able to give you an example, you interrupted me, and said you knew what I was after. Make sure you really understand what the people you’re working with want. Don’t make assumptions. Just listen, and ask questions. Do you think you can do that?”
There was a long pause on the other end of the line.
FOCUS AND INTENT
So, the secret to being a good listener has to do with focus and intent. Give yourself permission to focus on someone for longer than eight seconds with the intent to understand (instead of the intent to reply). Be genuinely interested in the other person. Keep your ears open, and your mouth shut.
Resist the impulse to interrupt and fill in the blanks. Those blanks are YOUR blanks, and may have nothing to do with what your client is trying to tell you.
This may sound easy, but in this fast and crazy world filled with manufactured distractions, it’s hard for people to sit still and slow down the running commentary between their ears. That commentary is usually evaluating what we just did, or figuring out what we should do next. It is rarely in the moment.
For us to really listen, we need to be in the moment.
To me, the ability to be in the moment is an essential life skill. There are many ways to achieve this state of mind, and some are more esoteric than others. I like to close my eyes, and slow down my breathing. After watching a moving documentary about Spartacus-star Andy Whitfield, I added the following mantra to quiet my mind:
As you are reading these words (attributed to Ram Dass), give it a try.
Close your eyes.
Begin breathing more deeply and s l o w l y.
Say to yourself in a soothing voice:
Thanks for playing along! You may need to relearn what it’s like to be here now (I certainly did), and this could be a good start. Take a few minutes each day to center yourself, and practice being in the moment. It may take you a while, and that’s okay.
Be gentle. Be patient, and be quiet.
LET THE WORDS SPEAK
Now, there’s a second reason why as a voice-over you need to learn how to listen. This has nothing to do with the people around you, and everything with what’s in front of you: your script. No matter what it is, an eLearning module, a historic novel, or a commercial, this script is trying to tell you something. It has a message. It wants to be understood.
While part of your restless brain is still conditioned to skim the words, please take your time to take them in. Don’t tune out. Tune in! Find out how the information is organized, and how the ideas unfold in sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. Some scripts can be like jigsaw puzzles. They come to you in many pieces. The only way to put them together, is to have a clear understanding of the big picture.
As a listener, I can always tell whether or not a narrator knows what he or she is talking about. I can hear the difference between a rush job and a thoughtful recording. I know when a narrator is in love with him- or herself, or with the text. It all comes back to listening. There’s a reason why a well-known Turkish proverb goes something like this:
“If speaking is silver, then listening is gold.”
THE QUIET CONDUIT
Author and radio host Celeste Headlee wondered why people would rather talk than listen. She says that when we’re talking, we are in control. We are the center of attention.
I think she’s right.
As a voice-over professional, I see myself as a conduit. It’s not about me. It’s about the message. And the only way to honor the words I am about to speak, is to let them speak to me first.
All I need to do, is be in the moment, and listen.
I love my job as a blogger, even though I don’t get a dime for all my work. There’s no subscription fee for you to pay, and I have no sponsors to support me. But please don’t pity me.
My reward is that I get to interview cool colleagues like Barri Tsavaris who was featured last week. I test out new equipment, such as the brilliant SSL2+ audio interface, and I review books like Voice Over Man by Peter Dickson. It’s not even out yet, but I got an advance copy, signed by the man himself!
Now, if you haven’t got the faintest idea who this Peter person is, don’t worry. I’ll let him introduce himself, the way he does best in his book:
Dickson began his career at the BBC where he holds the unique distinction of being the youngest ever TV news presenter at the tender age of 17. In 1982 he moved to BBC Radio 2 in London, as an announcer. And that was just the start. Peter continues:
“I have spent the last forty-three years locked in acoustically isolated, padded rooms shouting about pizzas, cars, gas boilers and three-piece suites, playing zombies and wizards and fighter pilots and working with and alongside some of the planet’s biggest stars. And yes – I’ve had the most unimaginable fun. I have been the voice of over 200 TV series, many of them multi-award-winning, the promo voice for over 60 TV channels, acted on over 30 of the world’s top-selling AAA game titles and I’ve voiced over 30,000 TV and radio commercials. Perhaps surprisingly, very little of what I have done survives, much of it having been broadcast, is now far away in the ether – halfway to Mars – and will eventually clatter around the cosmos forever. God help the inhabitants on Planet Zarg at the outer reaches of our universe when ‘The X Factor’ eventually reaches them in the 25 th Century. Lord only knows what they will make of it!”
NATURAL STORYTELLER (AND NAME DROPPER)
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of being in Peter’s company, you know the man is a born raconteur. If you haven’t had that experience, his book Voice Over Man is the next best thing. Not only will you meet a whole cast of colorful, and mostly British characters. You’ll learn about the changing media landscape in the United Kingdom, and how Peter has skillfully navigated that landscape to build an unparalleled portfolio as one of Britain’s most prominent, beloved, and versatile voice talents.
His career started, like so many of us of a certain generation, playing with a tape deck. Peter writes:
“I was a strange kid. Outwardly normal in every respect but with this weird compulsion to talk out loud in rooms on my own. I am laughing now because you could say I haven’t changed one bit!
On passing my eleven-plus Grammar School entrance exam on the second attempt, which was known as ‘the review’, my parents had bought me a brand spanking new National Panasonic cassette recorder, which was cutting edge technology back then, can you believe it? I would spend hours on that, recording little programmes, performing on the fly drop in edits, and reading aloud in the privacy of my bedroom where no one could see or hear me, or so I thought. My father was probably listening at the door thinking “What in the name of sweet Jesus have I spawned?””
And thus begins a journey that leads us to the studios of the BBC, and many other venerable institutions where Dickson’s voice could be heard in many different incarnations. He takes us behind the scenes of the many shows he has worked on, and delights in painting a picture of the often dimly lit, and most unglamorous spaces that were reserved for announcers:
“The old radio continuity desk at Radio Ulster was built like a Rolls Royce and probably cost as much. It was virtually bombproof, which was just as well because there were loads of them exploding on a nightly basis outside. Completed and installed back in the days when budgets were only for Chancellors and Aunty BBC had never heard of a bottom line. All black shiny Bakelite and Formica, with gleaming silver-plated knobs and dials illuminated from behind by impossibly exotic looking German valves with names like Telefunken EL84, which cast a comforting orange glow through the ventilation grill onto the wall behind. It must have cost fifty thousand licence fees. In the centre of the desk were the huge, doorknob sized orange handled ‘pot’ faders. These were the days before the horizontal sliding faders, which are now commonplace on today’s mixing desks.”
I don’t know about you, but when I read that description, I was right there at Radio Ulster. That’s just one of the many aspects that makes Peter’s book such a delightful read. Peter’s son, who is a graphic designer, was responsible for the look of the book. There are lots of cool graphics relating to the voice over world, including a volume knob as a page footer that appears to rotate when you flick through the pages! It’s these type of ingenuous touches that makes this autobiography stand out in a unique way.
MEETING MOVIE STARS
But the bulk of Peter’s life story is taken up by numerous, humorous anecdotes. Stories, such as this one:
“One afternoon, I found myself alone, wandering down a corridor trying to find the sound stage where Purple Taxi was being shot, when a slightly built man wearing a beautifully tailored suit, stepped out of a room in front of me. There was no one else around and he proceeded to walk in front of me towards a large set of double doors. He stopped, turned 90°, opened the door, motioned with his hand and said, “After you!” Impressed by the stranger’s good manners I turned to him as I walked through and thanked him for his kindness. It was only when I looked at his face, I realised that I was looking at one of the biggest movie stars of all time, and I mean all time. They don’t come much bigger. I was face to face with none other than Mr Fred Astaire!”
Peter Dickson with Boy George
The first part of the book is mainly devoted to Dickson’s fascinating career in radio and television. But when he decides to break free from the confining corporate culture, and venture off on his own, things become even more relatable for voice overs trying to make a living in the gig economy. Dickson:
“The freelance life is altogether more discomfiting. There’s an edginess about it, it’s a hand to mouth, dog-eat-dog, day to day existence where the only yardstick of success is the amount of cash flowing into your bank account on a monthly or in most cases, an annual basis. The freelance world is so uncertain and irregular, that one has to invariably take this longer-term view. Annual income rather than monthly is the more accurate window of measurement. Scary stuff indeed for the dutiful wage slave I had become.”
CHANGING THE GAME
When Dickson became his own boss, he found himself on the road for most of the week, driving from studio to studio, reading script after script. The money was coming in, but at a hefty price because of all the travel involved. He was one of the first voices who saw the potential of ISDN, and jumped at it. Dickson installed ISDN in his home studio in 1999, and it was a total game changer. He writes:
“For those of us who adopted ISDN, it was revolutionary. I could work around the globe from the comfort of my own home, frequently wearing my pyjamas! What other job affords you that level of delicious informality and comfort.”
However, he soon discovered that every advantage has a disadvantage:
“What I and others hadn’t bargained for, however, was that this was about as far from a sociable way of working as you could imagine. In practice, it was exactly the opposite. I now found myself spending whole days in the studio – often not seeing or speaking to anyone, with only myself for company. Now, I don’t have an issue with this because I am by nature a fairly private individual and like my own company, but some of my colleagues, however, have found it difficult to adapt – and struggle with the long hours in isolation. It was this very issue that led me, Tony Aitken, Lois Lane, Jacky Davis and John McGuinn to found VOX, the world’s first social network for voice talent and much later, gravyforthebrain.com – a global training and networking organisation.“
As the saying goes, it takes at least twenty five years to become an overnight success, let alone build a solid reputation. Peter’s long career is definitely a testament to that, and a powerful lesson to anyone thinking of breaking into the voice over business to make a quick buck. There is no such thing as a quick buck, and the buck is rapidly decreasing to fifty cents.
In his book, Peter pays loving tribute to the many mentors he has had, without whom he probably would have stayed stuck in some stuffy studio as an anonymous disembodied voice. And let’s not forget the crucial role of his agent who seems to present him with golden opportunity after golden opportunity.
Full disclosure, I know Peter personally, and he asked me to write a short quote which you’ll find at the beginning of his book. I like and admire him immensely, so I’m not going to be too hard on him. But I do want to say the following.
If you’re looking for a book that teaches you the art of voice overs, this isn’t it (watch this instead). I had hoped to read a little bit more about how Peter created and maintains his signature sound; how his technique and approach has developed over the years, and how he has weathered the many trends in announcing and voice acting.
When you listen to broadcasts from forty years ago, you know how much has changed. People just don’t speak the way they did in the forties, fifties, and sixties. How does one stay relevant and marketable? Peter makes it sound so easy, and that usually means it is not.
You also have to realize that this is a quintessentially British book. If you’re an Anglophile like me, who grew up watching British TV and listening to the BBC (heck, I even worked for the BEEB), you’ll recognize many of the people that “guest star” in Dickson’s autobiography. People like Sir Terry Wogan, Bruce Forsyth, Harry Enfield, Steve Wright, and many, many more. Peter is of the generation that witnessed the birth of the comedy group Monty Python. When I mention Python to today’s generation, they’ll give you a blank stare and ask: “Monty who?”
That’s why many of the names that Dickson drops throughout his book, even the names of television shows and radio programs, won’t mean a thing to the average American, and perhaps not even to a younger generation in the UK. He tells fascinating stories, but if you’re not familiar with the eccentric characters, why should you even care?
That brings me to the main thing that bothers me a bit about this book. There is so much captivating anecdotal material about other people, that I feel I didn’t really get to know the real Peter Dickson.
Like many of the Brits I know and love, he remains charmingly reserved, not talking about who he is, but about what he does so well.
The Voice Over Man.
Why be so elusive, I wonder? Don’t you want us to know you, or am I so used to my American surroundings where unbridled self-disclosure is a national sport?
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.”
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.
Instead of telling you a story, or giving you some kind of Top Ten, I will answer three seemingly simple questions I get asked a lot.
I’ll start off with some career advice, then I’ll talk about gear, and I will finish with my most embarrassing moment in this business.
Why not save the best for last?
As a voice over coach, I work with experienced people and absolute beginners. This is what many want to know:
How do I become a top-earning voice talent?
This is actually easy to answer:
By NOT becoming a full-time voice actor.
Just look at the evidence. I’m sure you’ve seen a few lists of the best paid voice overs. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are usually on those lists. They are the creators of South Park, and they wrote The Book of Mormon musical. Matt and Trey are screenwriters, producers. directors…. and they do voices for the cartoons they created.
Seth MacFarlane, Harry Shearer, and Hank Azaria are also on that list. All three are multi-talented multimillionaires. Hank is a stage actor, director and comedian. Seth created Family Guy and co-created American Dad. He’s a writer, a producer, actor, and singer. Shearer hosts his own weekly radio show, and stars in many movies.
In 2015, the movie Minions hit American theaters. The voices of these cute yellow fellows didn’t come from a professional voice actor, but from French animator Pierre-Louis Padang Coffi. In the Despicable Me movies, fellow director Chris Renaud voiced a few minions too.
One last exhibit.
Have you seen the list of Primetime Emmy’s Nominees For Outstanding VO Character Performance & Outstanding Narrator that just came out? On that list are people like Maya Rudolph, Leslie Odom Jr., Wanda Sykes, Angela Basset, Lupita Nyong’o, and Sir David Attenborough. Now tell me: how many of them are actual voice actors as opposed to screen actors doing VO as a side hustle?
So, if your goal is to make a ton of money doing voice overs, the sure-fire road to making a fortune does not lead to the VO studio, but to a film set, a Broadway stage, or to a comedy club. Unless your name is David Attenborough. There are exceptions, but the people for whom voice acting is just something they do on the side (among many other things), tend to be the highest earners.
My advice: get famous doing something in the entertainment industry first. Once you’re a household name, the voice over offers will start pouring in.
What equipment do you recommend for the voice over studio?
First off, even the best gear sounds crappy in a bad environment. I strongly urge you to spend most of your money on creating a semi-soundproof and acoustically treated recording space before you blow it all on a Neumann mic.
When it comes to selecting equipment, I find that a lot of people go for familiar brand names without looking any further, and they spend way too much money.
Now, it takes a good preamp to make a microphone shine. Audient might not be the first brand you think of when it comes to voice-over gear. Yet, this British company is known throughout the recording industry for their pristine preamps. If you’re looking for a pre with top-of-the-line AD/DA converters, a monitor controller, and lots of connectivity, the iD22 is an excellent choice.
The iD22 has a little brother: the iD4. It’s a compact, robust, portable plug and play solution. At two hundred bucks, this stylish all-metal powerhouse is hard to beat in the studio and on the road.
What was the most embarrassing moment of your voice over career?
Let me preframe my answer by saying that I firmly believe that people make decisions based on the information that is available at the deciding moment. This information is always insufficient, and it is colored by many factors such as our emotions. Looking back, some of the decisions you and I have made may seem silly or stupid now, but had we known better, we would have made better choices.
Here’s one decision I came to deeply regret.
Back in 2009 I was launching my voice-over career in the United States, and I signed up for voices.com. That turned out to be a pretty good move, because straight away I started booking a handful of lucrative jobs.
A few months later, Voices held a contest called “The Ultimate Success Story,” asking their members to write a few words about how well they did using the online voice casting service. The grand prize was a $500 gift certificate to pro audio retailer Sweetwater.
I think you can guess what happened next: my glowing testimonial turned out to be the top pick. Last time I checked, it is still used for promotional purposes.
Why was winning the grand prize so embarrassing?
Well, right after claiming my reward, my luck on Voices ran out, and after a few years I started to dislike the whole Pay-to-Play model. As I wrote in my book Making Money In Your PJs:
“In 2013 I had a five-star rating, 5445 listens on voices.com (more than any other Dutch talent), and I landed a total of… (are you ready?) TEN jobs, earning me a whopping $2,740.89. God only knows how many auditions I have had to submit before being selected.
This can only mean one of two things. Either, I stink at playing the Pay-to-Play game, or I’m a talentless, misguided soul who should be doing something useful with his life.”
That year I left voices.com, and I never looked back. I no longer believe that a site like Voices benefits my career or my community. As I wrote in my article Leaving Voices.com:
“Today, I’d rather work for agents who have an incentive to send me quality leads with decent rates. There are no upfront fees. When I get paid, they get paid. When they negotiate a better deal, they make more money too. That’s only fair. I only pay when I actually get to play.”
Every now and then I still run into people who have read my prize-winning VDC endorsement. They also know of my overall disenchantment with online casting mills. And when they bring up my old testimonial, I get very uncomfortable.
It is the unfortunate price I pay for my Sweetwater shopping spree!
But don’t feel sorry for me.
I may not make as much as Trey, Matt, Hank or Harry, but I’m doing quite alright.
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?”
After a brief but beneficent stay in the hospital, I want to take a minute or two, to share some of my worries and concerns as I mentally prepare myself for what lies ahead.
Thank you, by the way, for all your support and well wishes. I got the sweetest messages from all over the world, and I feel enormously grateful for your kindness!
Now let’s return to my soap box.
One of the things I worry about is the general level of willful ignorance among those calling themselves voice-over professionals. Increasingly, people without training, experience, or common sense, are populating Facebook groups for voice-overs, asking basic questions.
They have no idea where to start, where to find jobs, how to set up a simple studio, let alone what to charge. They can’t wait to jump into the ocean, but have no idea how to swim.
These ignoramuses write things like:
“I’ve just completed a six-week voice-over training. I think I’m ready to start auditioning, but I have no idea how to market myself. Please help!”
It turns out that this so-called training consisted of one evening a week, spread out over a six-week period. If that’s enough to get a serious career started, it must be magical! However, no one bothered to even touch upon the idea of marketing, so I doubt this program was as comprehensive as the brochure said it would be.
Two things are really bothering me:
The fact that someone is making money convincing impressionable people they can become a VO in six sessions
The fact that people are still falling for these stupid schemes
USE YOUR NOGGIN
Whatever happened to critical thinking? Whatever happened to thoroughly researching something you’re interested in before you fork over a small fortune? Does it really take an extraordinary amount of brain power to imagine that a six-evening introduction might not be enough to break into a very competitive market?
Could this be a sign that the current wave of anti-intellectualism has overtaken our community? I know that for some of you faith and gut feeling play an important role in your decisions. However, our creator has purposely endowed us with gray matter unlike any other species on the planet. Wouldn’t it be sinful to not use it?
I know this is a huge generalization, but based on what I see in social media, critical thinking has left the building, and common sense has gone fishing, while more and more people expect the keys to the kingdom on a silver platter.
This year I made a conscious effort to no longer help and support people who aren’t willing to learn how to swim, and I implore you to do the same. “Isn’t that a bit harsh,” you may ask?
I don’t think so.
All successful VO’s have at least one thing in common:
They are self-sufficient.
EARN YOUR PLACE
They study up, and by that I don’t mean asking others to answer basic questions for them on Facebook. That’s not studying. That’s asking others to do your homework.
Please don’t tell me that I’m mean and egotistical by not willing to share information. I’ve been sharing information in this blog for over a decade! Free of charge.
I got my start in the late eighties-early nineties, and there were no resources available to the aspiring voice over. In Holland (where I grew up), there were only five or six people who booked all the VO jobs, and most of them were stage actors. There were no online tutorials, educational videos, VO coaches, or books about the business. At that time it made sense to ask those who did what I wanted to do for advice. But only after I had exhausted all my research!
These days, you can pretty much find the answer to any voice over related question by doing a quick Google search. If you’re too lazy to even do that, you’re not cut out to be an independent contractor, and you don’t deserve my help.
We don’t teach babies how to walk by holding them up by their arms and dragging them around the room. That way they’ll never develop strong muscles needed to find their own way. Same thing with voice over newbies.
I also want to encourage you to make smart business-related decisions that benefit not only yourself, but our community as a whole. Be more discerning! Stop working with companies that do not have (y)our best interest at heart. You know, the companies that turn your talent into a commodity, where the lowest bidder ends up working for the cheapest client. Do not enable them to increase their influence!
Stop bidding on projects without knowing how much to charge. Don’t settle for a full buyout in perpetuity without proper compensation. If you don’t have a strong backbone, ask an agent to negotiate on your behalf. Support the VO Agent Alliance. Join the World Voices Organization. Sign up for the Freelancers Union.It’s free!
And if you’re a member, keep pushing SAG-AFTRA to take voice actors just as seriously as the other actors they represent. Not just because COVID suddenly opened their eyes to the work we do as professionals.
Above all: stay vigilant!
BE THE CHANGE
Don’t hide your head in the sand hoping rates will magically go up, and “the market” will take care of itself. It doesn’t. Things get worse when people with good intentions sit still, hoping others will lift the first finger.
Question what you read and what you hear, especially on social media. Always take the source of the information into account.
Be clear on how you want to spend your time. There are too many forces competing for your attention, and most of them are useless distractions.
The best chance of changing other people’s behavior is to change what they react to, namely your own behavior, so:
Use your brain, and become the colleague you most want to be.
That’s the person I’d like to meet next time we see each other in person, or online!
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