Personal

Bored Stiff

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Personal 10 Comments

The author behind his microphone

I’ve been behind the mic since I was seventeen. By the look of my grey hair, you can tell that’s a pretty long time. Thirty-seven years to be exact. 

“Does it ever get old” someone wanted to know. “This voice-over thing you do.”

“Well, ‘it’ doesn’t get old, but I certainly do,” I replied, not knowing that I had spoken too early.

An hour later I got this really boring script about ladders, and I changed my mind. It was poorly written, poorly translated, and I had no idea why they had selected poor old me to narrate it. Yes, it was money in the bank, but in reality I would rather go back to bed. 

Let me explain something to you. 

I have no particular fondness for ladders. Walking under them brings bad luck, and many of them wobble in a most disconcerting way. Ladders are ugly and dangerous. Just because they take you to the top, doesn’t mean they’re special. They’re just a few steps up from step stools. One of the reasons I became a freelancer is because I wasn’t good at climbing the corporate ladder. So, why out of all people, should I have to sing their praises? 

It’s for the same reason they talked me into voicing videos about agricultural insurance, miracle car wax, and motorcycle repair. It’s part of the unavoidable, unglamorous, unexciting work voice-overs do every day in dimly lit chatter boxes. 

I must admit: that part of the job does get old and boring. Especially if one has to edit, separate, and name hundreds of files per specific client instructions that make it impossible to do this semi-automatically. Of course the client conveniently “forgot” to mention it at the time of the booking.

Come to think of it: that gets old too. You know, clients trying to take advantage. The other day one of them sent me a message saying that I had “forgotten” to read one paragraph. Of course they would need it right away. The thing is, that mystery paragraph was never in the original script. It was a last-minute addition. 

Now, I know that some colleagues would forgive the client for this “mistake,” and record the five or six extra lines pro bono. In my book, however, more words means more money. It’s not that I am greedy. I just happen to run a for-profit business. With the Arctic temperatures we’re experiencing, someone’s got to pay the heating bill!

If you were to ask a contractor to paint your kitchen as a courtesy, right after she’s finished with the living room, do you think she’d do it? Would an Uber driver take you to the town next to your agreed destination, and not charge you for it? Of course not. Then why do some people expect they can get a voice-over to record a few extra lines at no charge? 

“Well, the other guy we hired did it.” 

“Then why didn’t you ask him to do it?”

“Because he sucked.”

It’s the same old story, and it makes me yawn every time I hear it. 

If you’re getting your feet wet as a VO, trust me. There are parts of this job that are “just work.” Work you may hate. For instance, you’ve signed up to narrate a 400-page audio book, and with every chapter you get this nagging feeling that it’s not getting better. In fact, it’s going nowhere. You start wondering how this piece of pulp ever got published. Then you find out this is a vanity project by someone who should have kept his job at the department of motor vehicles. 

Argh!

One of the most boring jobs you can get in this business involves speech synthesis. It’s the artificial production of human sounds by computers. The text-to-speech software “runs” on thousands of snippets of sounds (phonemes) recorded by voice-overs. Recording sessions can go on for months and are notoriously tedious (just ask Susan Bennett, the voice of Siri).

Once the engineers have what they need, they can use the program to simulate speech for apps, navigation systems, or virtual assistants such as Bixby and Alexa. Amazon now has a database of synthesized voices that is rented out to developers in need of voices for their applications. 

Here’s the kicker. As a voice-over you only get paid once for the database you helped create. That’s it. A colleague of mine heard his voice in at least twenty applications varying from computer games to language courses that were created artificially, and he’ll never see a penny. 

Since he recorded his phonemes, technology has moved even further. 

Did you know that Adobe’s Voco (the Photoshop of speech) only needs about twenty minutes of recorded target speech to generate a sound-alike voice, producing sound patterns that were not even recorded?

Watch this (and try not to be bored):

Perhaps they should have Voco read that terrible self-published novel I mentioned earlier!

Anyway, thanks to modern technology, the most boring parts of voice-over jobs might be behind us. If we can get machines to say anything we want them to say, why use humans? Computers can work without a break, and don’t require a SAG-AFTRA contract. 

In a strange way, that’s music to my ears. 

I might lose a few dollars, but very soon people like me won’t have to talk about ladders anymore.

How exciting is that?!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS If you’d like to hear an audio version of this story, be my guest:


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My Most Personal Post

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Personal 54 Comments

As a blogger, I often write about various aspects that play an important role in the way we lead our life, and the way we run our business. Think of things like our health, our state of mind, and the stuff we use to make a living.

Today’s topic is something I approach with trepidation. For one, it’s very delicate and personal. Secondly, some commentators believe it has no place in a discussion about work.

I respectfully disagree.

Hanukkah is being celebrated right now. Christmas is less than two weeks away. So, let’s talk about spirituality! 

EVERYDAY ETHICS

For me, spirituality has a clear role in how I conduct myself, and how I conduct business. It permeates everything I do, and it often guides me as to what not to do. It’s a moral compass.

Notice that I do not use the word faith in this context. I avoid it religiously. To me, spirituality is less divisive of a term. It’s more elusive and inclusive.

Whereas faith and religion are often associated with dogmatic, hierarchical institutions, spirituality is first and foremost a subjective individual experience. I cannot and will not define it for you. What I can do, is tell you what it means to me.

When I use the word spirituality, I am referring to a connection to something greater than myself. This can be a physical as well as a metaphysical connection. Spirituality tells me that there’s more to life than the naked eye can observe, and more than science can explain. 

Spirituality helps me answer some very basic but essential (business-related) questions:

  • Why do I do what I do?
  • Why is that important?
  • What am I (ultimately) trying to accomplish?
  • For what (higher) purpose?
  • What will it allow me to do?
  • How does that affect those around me, and the planet? 


Spirituality is linked to motivation and mission. It can provide us with a motive -a reason- that explains and drives why we do what we do. But it’s not as simple and superficial as that. Ultimately, it’s about living a life of meaning and purpose. It’s uniquely personal and universal at the same time. 

INTERCONNECTION

To me, leading a spiritual life acknowledges the fact that we don’t live on an island. Whether we realize it or not, we’re all part of a larger whole. We’re all connected. Our individual choices and actions have the potential to influence other individuals. Right now, and in the future. It’s impossible to know to what extent one simple decision will change the course of many lives, but action-reaction is a dominant force of transformation. 

Not everyone sees it that way, or acts that way. Too often, nations, corporations, and individuals act as if there’s no tomorrow, and their behavior has no consequences. We fight one another over faith, scarce resources, and land. We poison the planet to make shareholders happy, and we focus on ourselves because we believe we are at the center of our universe. To many, the here and now is all that matters.

We ignore the bigger picture because we refuse to look further than our own backyard. We choose to focus on what divides us, instead of on our common interests. And in doing so, we lose a vital sense of (global) community and interconnectedness. We may even lose part of our humanity.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

CONSEQUENCES

Being mindful of the consequences of our thoughts and actions, makes for a consequential life.

The Iroquois called it Seven Generation thinking. That’s the idea that decisions should be considered for their impact on the seventh generation to come. This focus on sustainability is philosophical and practical at the same time. It is based on a profound respect for this magnificent speck of stardust in the midst of an infinite universe we get to borrow during our lifetime.

That’s my kind of spirituality!

You may have noticed that I am trying to stay as down to earth as possible when it comes to spirituality. Rather than praying for some magical, mystical experience, I choose to also interpret spirituality as doing things in a certain spirit. That’s where the word inspire comes from. Spiritual people lead inspired lives, and strive to inspire others.

So, in what spirit do I choose to conduct business?

MY PERSONAL APPROACH

Well, I believe I’ve been given (and have developed) certain gifts for which I am eternally grateful. What better way to celebrate those gifts than to share them with the world? That’s one of the reasons I use my voice and my pen for a living.

Here are some other spiritual principles that guide me every day:

• I want to be of service, and use my talents to the very best of my ability.

I want to treat clients and colleagues with class, kindness, and respect.

I want to do business in an honest, open, and accountable way.

I want to charge rates that are fair, not only for my benefit, but for the benefit of my entire professional community.

I want my business to be as environmentally friendly as possible.

I am totally committed to keep on learning and growing, and –

I want to assist and inspire others to do the same.

I won’t take on projects that go against my beliefs, e.g. games that glorify gratuitous violence and turn horrifying aggression into so-called entertainment.

I want to make this place a better world.

THE ANSWER WITHIN

Freelancing is not for the faint of heart. At one point in our professional lives we’re all going to be tested. Perhaps we’ll hit a long dry spell. Perhaps we’ll receive some horrible feedback. Maybe we will start doubting ourselves, or we’ll feel professionally isolated and alone. 

Especially during those times, we have to rely on our WHY. If the answer to the question “Why do I do what I do?” isn’t convincing enough, it will be very tempting to give in and give up.

But if, on the other hand, our inner fire is burning with purpose, we’re poised to get back on track, and turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones. Challenges become learning experiences and opportunities to grow and give.

I believe it is human to crave connection and look for meaning. Otherwise, why are we even here? Why do we even bother?

And should our lives be part of some divine design, I think a life well-lived may very well be measured by the number of meaningful connections we manage to make during our time on earth.

Professionally and personally.

If that isn’t spiritual, I don’t know what is!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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The Turning Point

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Pay-to-Play, Personal 37 Comments

Voice-Over and blogger Paul StrikwerdaPotentially, this could be my shortest blog post ever.

It’s the story of how I got from doing okay, to doing quite alright, professionally speaking. 

Almost every week I get emails from readers, asking me to reveal the big secret to my so-called success. 

Why “so-called success”?

Well, everything is perception, and perception is everything. We all define success in different ways. 

Before I tell you about this secret, you should probably know a bit more about me. 

As a freelancer, I work in a highly competitive and increasingly crowded field: I’m a voice-over. I talk for a living. The other day I recorded an audio tour of a gorgeous area in the North of France. Today I’m pretending to be a medical doctor, telling physicians about the side effects of a new cancer drug. It’s a fun job with many pros and cons. 

As a player in the new gig economy I have a lot of freedom, no benefits, and very little protection. Weeks of underemployment are usually followed by a crazy busy period where I’m scrambling to finish every project I was hired to do on schedule. It’s feast or famine. 

A voice actor’s income can vary tremendously. Some twenty-second commercials bring in thousands of dollars, particularly if you’re an A-list celebrity, which I’m not. An hour of e-Learning or audio book narration may generate a few hundred bucks (before expenses and taxes). Most clients come and go. Very few stick around.

Although my work is not physically demanding, sitting still in a small, dark studio behind a microphone for hours and hours, isn’t exactly healthy. It’s also easy to feel socially isolated because my colleagues are all sitting in small, dark studios in different parts of the world. And I’ll be honest: at times the stress of being out of a job as soon as a project ends, can get to you. Work fluctuates, but bills keep coming. 

Even though I think I’m experienced and highly qualified, most of my days are dominated by the search for new clients, and by auditions. Every audition is a crapshoot. Like most of my colleagues, I try to read between the lines of vague specs and scripts, attempting to second-guess what the invisible client is hoping to hear. And most days I’m wrong, and someone else ends up getting the gig. 

Now, in spite of this sad story, I love what I do for a living, and I don’t think there’s anything else I’d rather do, career-wise. I’m not a good candidate for a 9 to 5 job. I can’t stand bosses who have risen to the level of their incompetence. I’ve had too many of them. I wouldn’t want to waste hours a day being stuck in rush hour traffic, just to make some corporation happy. I rejoice in the fact that I don’t have to go to endless staff meetings or mandated office parties. Been there. Done that. 

My accountant is also pleased because every year I make more money than the year before. There’s still no Lamborghini parked in my driveway, but I can live with that. And every time I book a new job, I realize that there are probably hundreds of hopefuls who are trying to figure out why the client picked that silly Dutch American with the European accent over them. 

I know… It baffles me too!

Taking all of that into account, how did I get from doing okay to doing quite alright?

Do I use a special microphone that turns my vocal folds into the Voice of G-d?

Are eager talent agents fighting to add me to their roster?

Am I friends with the movers and shakers of the voice-over industry?

I have to disappoint you. It has very little to do with all of the above. 

Sure, I use first-rate recording equipment. I have a number of great agents and a nice network of connections. But the thing that has made a real difference in my career is not something you can buy, and it has nothing to do with other people. So, what is it? 

It is a strong belief in the Law of Cause and Effect. The mechanism of action and reaction. Specifically, my preference to rather be at the cause-side of the equation, than at the effect. It boils down to this:

I see myself as the prime instigator of change in my life. Change through choice. 

I choose to be proactive (at cause) instead of reactive (at the effect). It’s the difference between sitting in the driver’s seat, and being a passenger. I like to hold the wheel and set the course. 

People who share this belief are go-getters. They take the initiative. They take responsibility. 

People who prefer to be passengers are usually more passive. They tend to be finger pointers and complainers, who often see themselves as victims. They’ll sue McDonald’s for making them fat, or for serving coffee that’s too hot.

Here’s a question you can ask to determine where someone stands: 

“Do you like to let things happen, or make them happen?”

Of course I know we’re not omnipotent, and that certain things are beyond our grasp and control. My attitude only applies to the things I feel I can actually influence, and the person I can influence the easiest is… me. 

I control what I put in my body, I control the size of my portions, and I decide how much I exercise. I don’t blame the fast food industry for my expanding waistline. To bring it back to my profession: I don’t blame online casting sites when my voice-over career isn’t where I want it to be. Instead I ask myself what I can do to increase my skill level, to promote my services, and to attract more clients. 

Being “at cause” means being accountable for taking or not taking the necessary steps to achieve a specific goal. 

That’s why as a voice-over coach I never guarantee results. I tell my students:

“As your mentor I don’t have magical powers that will result in you booking jobs. I will give you tools, but it is up to you to use those tools effectively and appropriately. You are responsible for your own results.”

On a superficial level my proactive philosophy may seem a no-brainer, but it’s not. It is a lot easier to blame and complain, than to take fate into your own hands. 

Being “at cause” means sticking your neck out. Taking risks. Doing the hard work. Making tough decisions. Going against the grain. 

It’s not an easy way out. Quite often, it’s an uneasy way in. 

The moment I decided to take charge of my career and be “at cause,” was a turning point in my life. The effects of that decision have brought me to where I am today. From being a spectator, to being an instigator. From doing okay, to doing quite alright.

And you know what?

You can apply this principle in any area, whether personal or professional. 

Now, if you’re still with me, you have noticed that this wasn’t the shortest blog post ever, and I apologize. 

I guess I could have condensed my message into three words:

Just 

Be

Cause.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

Be sweet. Please retweet!

PS Last week, this blog reached 39K subscribers. I am beyond thrilled! If you enjoy my musings, the best compliment you could pay me is by pointing others to these pages. Thank you!


How Not To Impersonate A Saint

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Dutch, Personal 15 Comments

the author as St. Nicholas

Becoming a professional is very much like growing up. At some point we all have to lose our carefree, childlike naiveté.

Old beliefs about the trustworthiness of people disappear. Ideas we’ve cherished for too long, vanish as quickly as melting snow. The tooth fairy is a lie, parents aren’t perfect, and reindeer don’t fly.

In The Netherlands, every child grows up believing in St. Nicholas, or Sinterklaas as the Dutch call him. In November this legendary bishop leaves Spain on a steamboat loaded with gifts.

His triumphant arrival in Holland is broadcast live on national television. Just like his rotund brother Santa Claus, Sinterklaas will go from town to town to meet as many overexcited children as he can.

The “Sint” (a Dutch version of “Saint”), always brings a big book in which he keeps track of the behavior of every child. In the olden days, nice children would be rewarded. The naughty ones would be punished by one of his helpers.

DUTCH BOXING DAY

In the weeks leading up to Saint Nicholas’ Eve, kids are expected to be on their best behavior. They put their shoes next to the chimney (or radiator), and leave some treats for Sinterklaas’ horse. Children also sing traditional songs before they go to bed. The next morning, they’ll usually find some sweets or a small present in their shoes.

On the evening of December 5th, the Dutch celebrate their version of boxing day. It is still the main gift-giving day in The Netherlands, and retail wouldn’t be the same without it.

In my family, most presents would be accompanied by a rhyme, making innocent fun of the receiver. Sometimes a poem would contain a clue as to where the present was hidden. Some gifts would be disguised in all kinds of creative ways, and the recipient had to guess what he or she was getting.

As a kid, I never doubted the existence of Sinterklaas. After all, he came to my school and he visited my house, year after year. Even when I started having some logistical questions about the distribution of so many presents to so many homes on one single night, I kept the faith. Like every other kid, I was afraid that the minute I’d start believing Saint Nicholas was bogus, I wouldn’t get any presents anymore.

All was well, until that dismal day Sinterklaas came to my Elementary school.

SINTERKLAAS GOES TO SCHOOL

I must have been seven or eight years old. All classes gathered in the gym, which doubled as an auditorium. I can still smell the pungent aroma of sweat and tears this dreary hall was notorious for. We kids were arranged according to our grades, and as we were waiting for the Sint’s arrival, a bespectacled young teacher started playing songs on an out of tune piano. Soon we all joined in.

After about ten minutes we’d come to the end of our repertoire, but Sinterklaas and his helpers were nowhere to be seen. It didn’t take long before docile kids turned into a restless mob of minors. The principal who’d been on the lookout, rushed back to calm the crowds.

“Kids,” he barked, “if you’re not going to be quiet and show some respect, Sinterklaas will be skipping this school. Now, is that what you want?”

“NO!” we answered in unison.

“So, are you going to be quiet?” he asked.

“YES!” we shouted at the top of our lungs. “We want Sinterklaas! We want Sinterklaas!” the whole room chanted.

At that very moment, a rusty, beat up compact car arrived at the gates. This couldn’t be the old man, could it? He was supposed to arrive on a magnificent white horse. Not in a Morris Marina. A few boys in sixth grade stood up to catch a glimpse of the bearded shadow that came out of the car. A single helper in blackface called Zwarte Piet (or Black Pete) accompanied the tall man.

“It’s him,” the boys cried. “He’s coming! He’s coming!”

WHO IS THIS MAN?

“Children, children,” shouted the principal. “Remember our agreement. If you can’t be quiet, I will ask Sinterklaas to leave, and you can all go back to your classroom. Now, let us sing a song to welcome our distinguished guest.”

To many children, Sinterklaas was as close to a living legend as one could get. On one hand they would fear him, because he knew exactly what they’d been up to in the past year. On the other, they’d revere him because he was old, wise, and dignified. His warm, deep voice and saintly demeanor was enough to turn the biggest chatterbox in the room into a shy and silent mouse.

As my heart pounded with expectation, the doors of the auditorium swung open, and in came Sinterklaas, wearing his traditional red cape and a rather faded mitre. He was holding a long gold-colored crosier. He waved at the children as his helper handed out traditional treats called “pepernoten.”

The second I saw the Sint, I knew there was something familiar about him. Of course I’d seen Sinterklaas before, but that wasn’t it. This was different. First of all, he was wearing thick rimmed glasses. No Sinterklaas I’d ever seen wore glasses.

Secondly, for a man who was supposed to be in his eighties or nineties, he walked remarkably fast and energetic. There was also something very wrong with his white beard. It looked like it had been quickly attached to his face with cheap tape. It seemed to have a life of its own, because the thing barely stayed in place.

As the Sint sat down on a makeshift throne, I noticed something else: his brown shoes. I could have sworn I’d seen those shoes before. But that could just be a coincidence, couldn’t it? Then the principal started talking. He asked Sinterklaas about his trip to Holland, and about his plans for the day.

That’s when it happened.

A DREAM DASHED

Instead of that deep, grandfatherly voice every child had grown up with, “our” Sinterklaas had a relatively high-pitched, young voice. To tell you the truth: He didn’t sound like Sinterklaas at all. Not even like a bad imposter.

I was utterly confused, and I wasn’t the only one. Something wasn’t right, but I still wanted to hang on to my conviction that this man was real. I tried to see in him what I wanted to see. Meanwhile, the girl next to me started crying, and said she needed to go the bathroom.

Then one of the bigger boys in sixth grade whispered something astonishing:

“Jongens, dit is Sinterklaas niet. Het is de dominee!”

“Guys, this isn’t Sinterklaas. It’s our minister!”

The rumor spread like wildfire through the gym. Soon enough, kids in each row repeated the same phrase:

“It’s the minister. It’s the minister,” until it reached a very uncomfortable looking principal.

I must say he handled it gracefully. He told us Saint Nicholas wasn’t feeling so well, and that he had to cut his visit short. The “old” bishop left as fast as he had come, without much ceremony. Later on, one of my friends claimed he’d found a fake beard in the bushes.

AN ODD DISCOVERY

When I came home that afternoon, the first thing I noticed was a pair of brown shoes on the doormat. I walked up to the study where my dad was working on Sunday’s sermon. He was wearing his usual thick rimmed glasses.

He looked up from his books.

“I’m not much of an actor, am I?” he asked rhetorically. “I’m really sorry.”

He waited a few seconds, and gestured: “Why don’t you come a little closer?”

“You know,” he said, “this morning I got a phone call from your school. The guy who was supposed to be Sinterklaas had fallen off his horse and couldn’t make it. Your principal practically begged me to fill in. I just couldn’t disappoint him.”

I didn’t exactly know how to respond to that. At that age I did not get the irony of a Protestant minister pretending to be Catholic saint. Then my dad continued.

“Paul, today I learned a valuable lesson.”

“What lesson is that?” I asked.

“I learned that just because you can, doesn’t mean you must.

Remember that,” said my father. “I knew I wouldn’t be any good, and yet I forced myself to go through with it. What was I thinking?”

He stood up from his desk and gave me a big hug.

“Papa,” I said with a trembling voice, “may I ask you something?”

“Always,” he said. “What is it?”

“Does this mean I won’t be getting any presents this year?”

“Of course you will,” my dad responded. “The whole school is well aware that I was just pretending to be Sinterklaas, but you know what? The real guy is still out there. Trust me.”

I so wanted to believe my father, but I couldn’t. Not anymore.

That day, my childhood (and the childhood of seven hundred other kids), had lost a bit of its magic, simply because my father couldn’t say no.

COMING HOME

Forty-four years later I look at my inbox filled with voice-over auditions (I am a voice actor). Those are all opportunities other people think I should embrace. But when I look at them, I know I don’t want to be the guy with the fake beard and the brown shoes, arriving in a Morris Marina. And I think of my fathers words:

“Just because you can, doesn’t mean you must.”

The author and his father.

My dad ain’t no saint, but his words of wisdom are a gift I will treasure for the rest of my life.

Some three years ago, I left for The Netherlands at the beginning of December, and knocked on my father’s door. We both knew this was going to be the last time we would see each other.

In my father’s presence I once again became the boy I used to be, and we talked about the day my dad impersonated a Spanish bishop.

We laughed.

We cried.

And we said our goodbyes.

My father died a few weeks later.

This Saturday it will be my turn to play Sinterklaas for the families of the Netherlands-America Association of the Delaware Valley. 

The family tradition continues. 

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
PS Be sweet. Please retweet.


Paying The Piper

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, International, Journalism & Media, Pay-to-Play, Personal, Promotion 19 Comments

Chinatown, Philadelphia ©paul strikwerda

“May you live in interesting times.”

It’s a well-known Chinese curse, and for me, the past two weeks have been very interesting to say the least. I must indeed be cursed.

It all started with my outrageous blog post Divided We Stand. In it, I talked about a few topics the voice-over community doesn’t quite agree on: WoVO (World Voices Organization), the Union, our rates, and Voices dot com (VDC).

At the eleventh hour I decided to add The Voice Arts® Awards (VAA’s).

Out of all those topics, what do you think people picked up on? Fair rates? How the Union treats VO as an afterthought? How VDC is trying to monopolize our industry?

Nope!

Let’s put it into context.

The longest strike in SAG-AFTRA history had just ended with a less than ideal deal. VDC took over VoiceBank, and announced it was going after union jobs. VO rates are plummeting. And what were we getting fired up about?

A few shiny statuettes! And it’s all my fault!

If it were not for me and my wicked ways to get hits on my blog, we’d all be happily schmoozing at Lincoln Center (the location for the VAA’s), enjoying an abundance of excellent food AND an open bar at $200-something per person.

But no. This begrudging, predictable party pooper had to rain on everybody’s parade. What a bitter, bad sport he is! This Debbie Downer must hate all things that create community, and he’s probably out on some personal vendetta against the organizers.

Now, hold on one second…

TRUTH OR DARE

It’s obvious that my piece hit some raw nerves, but did I divulge things in my blog that were uncalled for and untrue?

Based on the many responses in the Voice Over Pros Facebook group as well as other comments, people proved my point. As a community we are divided about the VAA’s. Is that a terrible thing? Not at all. There is strength in diversity. It certainly makes life more interesting.

Here’s another fact I mentioned in my piece: you have to pay to participate in the VAA’s. Isn’t that true for many award shows, people asked. Absolutely. That -by the way- doesn’t mean such a show is inherently good, bad, or even relevant. Did I ever suggest that people had to pay to get nominated? Never! Is charging an entry fee the only way to preselect participants? Certainly not.

Are there other costs involved for those who end up being nominated? Of course, and if people believe these expenses are a solid investment in their career, they should go and have a great time (and I don’t mean that in a cynical way).

One of the colleagues I quoted said that the things that had sold him on the 2016 show did not materialize. The other colleague felt it was disingenuous to “honor the dubious distinction of buying temporary adulation and ‘stardom.’ “ Those were real quotes from real people.

What am I getting at? As a former journalist I know the importance of getting my facts straight. If you don’t like ‘em, challenge the facts, but there’s no reason to attack the person, and his/her perceived motives.

FALSE DICHOTOMY

Here’s what really bothers me. The VAA’s are portrayed as something utterly positive. Those who sing their praises are portrayed as the good guys in the industry. The people who don’t, are labeled as being negative. Those who dare to be critical are accused of badmouthing, and are unfriended and blocked from certain groups. Is that how we have dialogue in our community? Are we that insecure, that we can’t handle a bit of feedback?

And here’s another thing that’s not sitting well with me. Criticism of these awards is seen as criticism of those who enter and organize this event. Why the need to make things personal? Can’t we have our reservations about a game, and still like the players? Some have suggested that the people who question the merits of the VAA’s must be jealous or bitter. I can only speak for myself, but I’m neither bitter nor jealous. On the contrary.

CRITIQUE IS NO CRIME

No organization is perfect, and if it wishes to better itself, it can’t just be surrounded by cheerleaders. You need supporters, as much as you need contrarians. You need like-minded people on your team, as well as those who can point out imperfections. Otherwise you end up like those CEO’s on Undercover Boss who are only told what people think they want to hear, until they speak to their employees in disguise.

And speaking of disguise, I have received a number of emails from colleagues who say they agree with my analysis, but refuse to go on the record. The quotes I used in my piece were anonymous on purpose. Some are afraid to speak out, fearing it might have a negative impact on their career. It takes years to build a reputation, and seconds to tarnish it.

Heaven forbid you become known as someone who is opinionated, and who dares to challenge some of the heavy hitters in our industry. It’s better to stay under the radar, smile, and pretend all is well. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

No matter where you stand in this discussion, no one should feel intimidated, and fear for his or her career for speaking one’s mind.

FINDING COMMON GROUND

If you’ve been critical of my assessment, I want to thank you for engaging in a dialogue. I don’t think less of you because we’re not on the same page as far as this topic is concerned. Frankly, we have bigger fish to fry. I respect your choice to support and/or enter this competition, and I hope it was worth it. Perhaps we can agree on the following:

Different people define worth in different ways, based on their experiences, their expectations, and their priorities.

That’s why in the same thread one award-winning colleague says he can “unequivocally quantify the extra earnings directly attributable to relationships and bookings resultant from the VAA’s at well into the six figures and counting,” while another states:

“I have been a pro VO for 23 years and collected various awards over the years (that production companies entered into, not me) and they never, ever got me any gig. Not one. Never, ever, a client told me they casted me because I had an award. Ever.”

Is one right, and the other wrong, or can both exist at the same time? If you accept that last premise, you also have to accept that the value of a win varies per person. Isn’t that true for any award show? Of course it is. I never contested that. It’s especially true for a show very few people outside the voice-over bubble have heard about. It also means that as a promotional tool, the value of winning an award is uncertain. Is that me being derisive, or is that just the way it is?

Awards are by definition selective and exclusive. It’s never a level playing field.

Again, this is not a specific flaw of the VAA’s, but it’s a problem with most award shows. You don’t excuse or fix a problem by pointing out that others are struggling with the same things.

For instance, for years, the stunt people have lobbied for a special Academy Award. The powers that be, decided that those who often risk their lives (and sometimes lose it), are not Oscar-worthy, but those who compose a silly song may walk away with a statue. Is that fair and reasonable? You tell me!

HOLLOW HYPERBOLE

The voice-over announcing the 2017 VAA’s, said:

“Tonight, we honor the leading international talent in the voice-over industry. We recognize the greatest voice actors who impact our ears, our lives, our world.”

Really? 

If your publishing company, agent, distributor, radio station, or network wants to enter your work, you’re in luck, and you’re a contender to be among “the greatest.” If they’re not interested, or they don’t want to pay the entry fee, you won’t be considered, even though you might be mega-talented.

The VAA’s were created to provide international acknowledgement of the extraordinary skill and artistry that goes into voice-over acting. Apparently, it’s easier for some people to be acknowledged than others. One commentator remarked:

“I work every day on some cracking radio and the odd TV ad, but mostly, like today, I will go and voice 10 explainer videos for one of the UK’s largest supermarket chains. And you don’t get awards for that I’m afraid. You don’t even get a discount voucher for the shop.”

STRANGE CATEGORIES

And why is there a special VAA for podcasts and not for radio dramas? To me, radio dramas are about voice acting. The podcasts are about people talking about voice acting. And on that note, do the Oscars have an award for the best acting demo reel? Would the Country Music Awards ever award a demo tape sent in by an aspiring singer? Then why on earth are we recognizing demo reels at the VAA’s?

Some have argued that the cream will always rise to the top. I don’t agree. Turds tend to be pretty lightweight too. At any award show, only the people who enter and pay have a chance to be measured and rise. And if the competition in a particular category isn’t very strong, it’s easier for mediocrity to take top honors. In the land of the blind, the girl with one eye is queen.

Some have also suggested that the purpose of these VAA’s is not to boost one’s career, but to celebrate it. If that’s the case, why sell these awards as a marketing opportunity? Why not organize one big VO party for equals among equals? Skip the speeches, the celebs, and the shiny objects. Go straight to the dance floor and have fun under the disco ball!

NEW INSPIRATION

To make the VAA’s more beneficial to our community and beyond, we need a different model.

It’s one thing to point out weaknesses, but another to come up with concrete suggestions for improvement.

This might surprise you, but I’m not entirely against competitions. My wife’s piano and flute students take part in them. It gives them something to prepare for, and an opportunity to get valuable feedback from experts. This feedback is used to reinforce good habits, correct bad ones, and help kids grow as a musician. It’s always about the music, and not about the applause.

In Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley where I live, the Freddy© Awards are to high school musical theater what the Tony Awards® are to Broadway. Each show is rated by a number of evaluators, and every high school receives extensive feedback on all aspects of the production. This feedback is then used as a teaching tool in the drama departments.

In other words, even if you’re not nominated or a winner, you will be able to read your evaluation, and benefit from it. Wouldn’t it be great if the Voice Arts® Awards would do the same? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. This is how it’s done:

“In each category, each judge shall rate each entry on three indices. These indices vary by category and are listed below. For each index, judges enter a score from 1.0 to 10.0, where 1.0 is valued as “very poor quality” and 10.0 is valued as “perfection” in the personal standards of the judge.” 

What is there to learn if your performance is summarized in an abstract number?

NEW VOICES

Another model is the international opera competition Neue Stimmen (New Voices). I know about it because I voice the semi-final and final videos for this event.

After a lengthy preselection, all competitors take part in a week of open masterclasses where they work under the instruction of renowned artists to improve their vocal performance, musical expression, song interpretation, stage presence, and skills such as self-management, networking, and interview training. In other words: the actual competition is only a part of the program. It’s as much about coaching and career development. Even those who don’t win, walk away with an invaluable experience.

What about expenses and prizes?

For those entering the final round, Neue Stimmen reimburses travel expenses and board and lodging (up to a certain amount). The two winners receive a cash award of €15,000 each, and an opportunity to pursue a career as an opera singer. The second and third prize winners receive €10,000 and €5,000 respectively. To give you an idea, 1,430 contestants from 76 countries registered to take part in this year’s event. 39 talents qualified for the final round, and 16 female and male singers participated in the semifinals. Now, that’s how you get the best of the best!

I’m not suggesting we turn the VAA’s into an opera competition, but there’s a reason why out of many singing competitions, Neue Stimmen has produced most careers. I like the fact that there’s a focus on extensive feedback, artistic growth, performance, and career development. Oh, and no one has to pay for his or her prize.

DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES

I hope we can agree that there are different ways of looking at the Voice Arts® Awards. To me, they were best summarized by two colleagues. One of them said:

“Human beings are very simple creatures. Most of them are impressed with shiny things and pay attention to those that have them. That isn’t just in voiceover, that’s in life in general. You can either decide to work with that principle, ignore it altogether or work against it.”

And another stated: 

“The real reward is the remuneration for your work. The recognition you ultimately need is from your clients who put food on your table and pay your mortgage who’ve never heard of these ceremonies and conferences. I get the impression that some people are too busy enjoying their pop-shield selfies and frantic tagging at events to ask themselves the honest questions.”

What can I say? 

We live in very interesting times.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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What The Heck Am I Doing Here?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Personal 19 Comments

The Bachmann Players. Click to enlarge

Is it okay if I’m a bit personal today?

You’ve probably read my blog before, but if this is your first time, you should know that I’m an expat. I was born, raised, and educated in the Netherlands. After a career in broadcasting, I moved to the United States at the end of 1999. To be honest, I never imagined that I would end up here.

As an anglophile, I could see myself living in the UK, and working for the BBC, which I did for a while. But had you suggested that I would move to the States at the age of 36 and start a new life, I would not have believed you. Now, in 2017, there are still times I can’t believe I live in this town in Pennsylvania called Easton. I have an American wife and an American daughter. I even became an American citizen.

THE HOME OF HISTORY

Easton, by the way, has an interesting history. It was one of the first three cities where the Declaration of Independence was read out loud for the very first time. Every year on Heritage Day, thousands of people flock to Centre Square to witness a reenactment of that declaration. I became part of an acting troupe called The Bachmann Players, dedicated to bringing colonial history back to life, mainly through theatrical productions in the historic Bachmann Publick House.

Easton also has the longest-running, continuously operating outdoor farmers’ market in the nation, now in its 265th season. As one of the announcers, my voice reaches most of downtown every other Saturday, as I continue a tradition that started in 1752. Organic produce, anyone?

Most days, I am very comfortable with my decision to leave Holland behind. I love my community, and they often give me the feeling that it’s mutual. On other days, I’m not so sure I made the right choice because I don’t know if I truly understand my fellow citizens.

WHERE AM I

I’m still trying to figure out the American psyche, if there is one. I live in a divided nation that calls itself a melting pot, but I don’t see a lot of melting going on. Being used to the Dutch multi-party parliamentary system where compromise and cooperation is the name of the game, I’m now absorbed by a world of Republicans and Democrats, where conflict and confrontation are the operative words.

Even though America likes to be known as “The Land of the Free,” and “The Defender of Democracy,” people in my neck of the woods don’t seem to give a damn. On one hand they enjoy parades with veterans, boy scouts, and Sousa marches, and they fly the flag every day of the week. In schools and council meetings, Americans faithfully recite the Pledge of Allegiance. But when it’s time to vote, most of them stay home. Some seem more motivated to get their morning cup of coffee, than make the short trip to the polling station. They’ll never miss a football game, but they think it’s okay to skip election day.

To give you an idea, turnout in my Borough in the 11/7 election was 16.88%. Out of 4,704 eligible voters, only 791 people voted. On social media some people called that “a great result.” I have to admit, it was an improvement over the May primaries where only 10.33% voted. Countywide, fewer than one out of four registered voters turned up. I’d say that’s pretty pathetic.

INSULAR MINDSET

People don’t seem to care about the things they take for granted. I’d love to take them on a no-expenses-paid trip to a number of totalitarian countries, to give them a sense of what life is like in a dictatorship. But according to the State Department, only 36% of Americans own a passport, and that makes things difficult.

This also means that 64% of Americans has never left the country. In 2012, the average American received about 12 days of vacation (but used only 10), so even if they’d feel inclined to travel, they wouldn’t get that far. In contrast, most Europeans receive between 25 and 30 days of vacation a year, and they use every single day. What does this mean? For one, I’m no longer surprised that most Americans aren’t able to find the Netherlands on the map, or any other exotic country for that matter. Just so you know, to certain Americans, Canada can seem pretty exotic.

WELL-ARMED

Another thing I fail to understand, is America’s love affair with guns. They call it the “gun culture,” as if the National Rifle Association is a cultural institution. To handle a weapon in Holland, you’re either part of law enforcement, or you’re in the military (and no one wants to be in the military anymore). In the United States, even the mentally ill can go to Walmart (thank you Donald), and get their hands on a firearm. They even come in pink for the girls.

Then we all act very surprised when a disturbed person shoots 20 children between 6 and 7 years old in Sandy Hook, another idiot kills twelve people in a movie theater in Aurora, yet another murders 58 in Vegas, and a Texas gunman kills 26 people attending a church service. No doubt they’re all part of the “well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State,” mentioned in the Second Amendment. Please send your thoughts and prayers, people. That will do the trick.

DEVELOPED NATION

Of course I could ramble on about the American healthcare system. It’s the most expensive and least efficient in the world. The American diet and sedentary lifestyle has become one of the leading causes of death. I could talk about the failing education system with overcrowded, underfunded schools, and uninvolved parents, where teachers have to buy supplies for their students. I could mention America’s tendency to treat symptoms but never the cause, as demonstrated by the highest incarceration rate in the world. The U.S. represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but it houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners.

I could go on and on and on, and you would be wondering when I’d make the transition to talking about my work as a voice-over. That’s not going to happen today. Today is personal.

“Well, if you don’t like it, why don’t you go home?” some friendly folks on Facebook suggested. “We don’t need you.”

WHY I STAY

Here’s the thing: my little town of Easton (the Borough of Wilson, to be more exact), is my home.

It’s also the home of Porter’s Pub, Black & Blue, and Two Rivers Brewing. You’ll run into Earl Accordionist on your way to Mercantile Home to see Ron and Ken. At The Quadrant they’ll make you an amazing Righteous omelet, and when you’re done, you go up one floor to buy a used book. You can see a Broadway show at the 90-year old State Theatre, and go to an open mic night at Connexions Gallery. It’s a town where Mayor Sal Panto and State Representative Bob Freeman know who you are, and where you can run into Larry Holmes, whose left jab is still the best in boxing history.

Easton is the two-river town where the Lehigh and Delaware rivers come together. It’s where thousands of bacon lovers meet, and where Crayola crayons were created. Easton is the place where New Yorkers go when they’re tired of living in New York, and where you can find one of the best chocolateurs on the planet, a jovial Belgian who goes by the name of JP. In a few weeks, we’ll light the 106 foot (32 m) Peace Candle, said to be the largest non-wax Christmas candle in the country.

So, whenever I get a bit cynical about this new nation of mine; this land of unlimited opportunities, crazy dreams, and stunning natural beauty, I think of where I landed.

I think of my beautiful wife and daughter.

I think of Easton.

I think of the fact that I can do what I love, and I love what I do.

And I’m elated to be alive.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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You Too?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Journalism & Media, Personal, Social Media 12 Comments

Police line upThe “aholification” of society, otherwise known as the increase in the number of a-holes in the world.

That was what I was going to rant about this week.

You know, the people who just don’t seem to care about anyone but themselves. The people without manners. The loudmouths. The whiners. The bullies. The bullshitters.

I’m talking about the people who treat the world as their trash can. The folks who cut you off as they weave toward the next stop light. The ones who always skip the line because they’re so important. The people who love to criticize but never contribute. The ones who believe the world owes them everything, and the rules don’t apply.

I’m thinking of the blamers, the willfully ignorant, and the folks who hide behind screens as they troll their way into social media with poisonous pens, racist ideas, and bad spelling.

HORRIBLE HARVEY

Then the Weinstein scandal broke, and I had to add a whole new group to my list: the pigs, the perverts, the abusers of power, the ones preying on vulnerable and impressionable people, the horny sickos in bathrobes, the catcallers, the womanizers, the humiliators, the guys who think a short skirt is an invitation, and the men who can’t keep their hands in their pockets.

I call them the Players, the creeps, the sexists, the intimidators, the ones who pretend not to understand the meaning of the word NO, and those who believe that money and power can buy decades of silence.

As a man, I am utterly horrified and shocked by all the #MeToo messages, and sickening stories of sexual harassment and abuse. Judging by my Facebook timeline, a-holes are everywhere! They hold respectable positions: teachers, doctors, therapists, members of the clergy, managers, casting directors. Some just have a bit more money and influence than others. Many of them are friends of the family, and helpful neighbors.

The question is: would you recognize a sexual predator if you saw one?

FIND THE BAD GUY

Years of television typecasting has taught us how to spot a criminal, right? There’s the unibrow. The scarface. The ever-present five-o’clock shadow, clothes that don’t fit, and -in some cases- the British accent. Reality is very different. I bet you wouldn’t be able to pick a pervert from a police lineup. Fathers of five look too normal. I met one of them once, and I was utterly clueless. Here’s how it happened.

When I was seventeen, I got an opportunity to produce and present youth radio and television programs for a national broadcasting company. It was the chance of a lifetime, because all the teens that were chosen would be coached by industry veterans. Some of our coaches turned out to be minor celebrities with major attitudes, but my favorite teacher was a jolly guy in his sixties. Let’s call him Hans.

Grandfatherly Hans had been a producer of beloved children’s programs for years, and he knew everyone in the business. I learned a lot from him, and as we got closer, I asked him if he missed being involved in the day-to-day production of TV shows.

“I never really retired,” he told me. “I run a small production company out of my home, making low-budget movies. Come to think of it,” said Hans, “I wanted to ask you… would your girlfriend be interested in doing some acting?” At the time my girlfriend was in the same coaching program I was in, and apparently, she had caught his attention.

TAKING THE BAIT

When I told my girlfriend about the acting opportunity, she was flattered, and she thought it might be a good experience to work with a renowned producer. One quick screen test later she was hired, and within a month she heard that the first shoot would be on a remote location. “How do I get there?” she asked, because she was too young to drive a car. “Don’t worry, I’ll take you,” said Hans. “It’s quite a drive, but I have a fast car.”

At this point you probably hear the sound of a million alarm bells going off, but this was years and years ago, and we were quite naive. Hans loved everybody, and everybody loved Hans. His professional reputation was stellar, and there was no reason to doubt that his intentions were less than honorable. He always told us that he “wanted to pay it forward,” and pass his knowledge and experience on to younger generations.

Little did my girlfriend know that she was on her way to a porn shoot.

What really happened during the drive I still don’t know, but after an hour of grooming, patting, and sweet talk, it became quite clear that the budget for this production wasn’t going to the costume department. My girlfriend was furious, and at a stoplight she started screaming her head off. Drivers in other cars took notice, and an embarrassed Hans offered to turn around. What a gentleman!

THE OFFICIAL DENIAL

When we told the head of the coaching program what had occurred, he said my girlfriend must have misread Hans’s intentions. It couldn’t possibly be true. After all, “nothing happened.” Those were his words. Later on, we learned that they were old pals looking out for each other. Sounds familiar?

If you’ve ever been in a similar situation, you know that there is no such thing as “nothing happened.” There’s the shame, the embarrassment, the violation of trust, the anger, the disbelief, the self-doubt, the cover-up, the nightmares, the bitter taste of betrayal.

Back then there were no hashtags, no social media, and no reporters interested in the story. Today is different! Thank goodness so many courageous women are speaking out against the a-holes who are now on notice. They will be named and shamed in public. Their reputations will be ruined. Their families will be torn apart. Their businesses will pay a hefty price.

If that’s what it takes to create a safe, respectful society, so be it.

It won’t happen overnight, but all the Weinsteins of the world should know this:

Karma has no deadline.

If you knowingly and shamelessly dig yourself into a hole, Karma will come and find you!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Three months after publishing this story, the voice-over community was rocked by the news that 16 women have accused New York voice talent and coach Peter Rofé of sexual harrassment. CNN broke the news. Click here to read the article. Since then, another 13 women have stepped forward with similar experiences. If you were the victim of sexual harrassment in the voice-over community, you may confidentially share your experience or ask a question. Please contact voiceoverjusticeclub@gmail.com.

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The Agony Of Ignorance

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 41 Comments

Rocking the mic?

Can you believe the stuff people put on t-shirts these days?

This morning, one of the guys who looks like he lives in the gym I go to, had this slogan printed all over his colossal chest:

“If it’s not hard, you’re not doing it right.”

What kind of message is that? It’s along the same lines as “No pain, no gain.”

Do people actually believe that stuff?

You see, I have the exact opposite experience. When I’m doing things right, everything seems to flow naturally, and nothing is hard or painful. Granted, it has taken some hard work to get to that point, but when I’m in the zone, things are surprisingly easy.

If you happen to share that experience, take it as a sign that in certain areas of your life you may have reached a level of what experts refer to as “unconscious competence.” You’re not even aware that you’ve become pretty good at what you’re doing. It feels like driving a car. In the beginning it was frustratingly complicated. Now, you don’t even have to think about it. 

“So what do you find hard in your business?” one of my workout buddies wanted to know, as we were doing our exercise routine. “You’re a voice-over, right?” 

He was not the one wearing that silly t-shirt, by the way. 

“At the risk of sounding brash,” I said, “it’s not so much the work I find hard, but the people I have to deal with every now and then. Particularly the people who think they’re the best thing since sliced bread. Maybe it’s my age, but there are at least three things I can’t stand:

Ignorance, pretentiousness, and a sense of entitlement. Especially if all these qualities reside within one person.”

“We must be working with the same people then,” laughed my friend, as he was programming his treadmill. “I’m a professional photographer, and you wouldn’t believe how many people think they can do what I do without having a clue.”

“That’s the trouble with ignorance,” I said. “People don’t know what they don’t know, but it doesn’t stop them, does it?”

“Agreed,” said my buddy, “but here’s what I don’t get. Everyone understands that playing the violin is not something you can learn overnight. However, every ambitious idiot with a camera believes he’s the next Annie Leibovitz. It ticks me off.”

I wanted to tell him that I saw the same thing in my line of work. Give a monkey a microphone, and he thinks he can be the next Tom Kenny. 

“Ignorance isn’t always bliss,” I said, as I increased the speed on my treadmill. “Usually, ignorance is a pain in the neck, and I find it very challenging to teach ignorant people who think they know it all. I mean, if they supposedly know what they are doing, why do they want me to be their coach? It doesn’t make any sense.”

“I have no problem with beginners who come to me, and who are aware that they have a lot to learn,” said my photographer-friend. “Everything you teach them is new and exciting. I admire kids with an open mind. They remind me of the time I got started. That’s why I love being a mentor.”

He wiped the sweat from his forehead, and said: “Is it just me, or are today’s kids a bit full of themselves?”

“Quite possibly,” I responded. “Parents are quick to praise, and hesitate to criticize, so as not to damage the delicate self-esteem of their offspring. I’m all for raising confident kids, as long as they know their strengths and their limitations. In my class they’d never get a trophy, just for showing up.”

I took a sip of water, and continued:

“Now, there’s another type of ignorance I’m allergic to.”

“What might that be?” asked my friend, as he was walking uphill on the exercise equipment. 

“It’s the lazy type of ignorance. You know… quasi-ignorant people who are looking for a big, fat, silver platter. I just got an email from someone who asked to pick my brain about casting sites and voice-over rates. I politely suggested she do a Google search first. 

“What was her response?” asked my friend.

“Oh, I never heard back from her,” I said. “But on Facebook she told all her fans that I was the most unhelpful person in the voice-over community. To be honest, she didn’t use the word “person,” but the term she used starts with a “p” and it rhymes with chick. 

“Some people think I’m rather obnoxious,” said my buddy, “just because I refuse to give them the answers they are fishing for. Of course I want to help, but I tell my kids: ‘You won’t learn anything as long as I spoon-feed it to you. The things you discover yourself tend to stick much better.’

I want my students to make an effort. I want them to fail, and I want them to overcome the biggest challenges. Otherwise they’ll attach no value to what they have learned, and they’ll have no respect for the business. 

There’s no gratification in arriving on the top of a mountain in a helicopter. But when you start at the bottom and climb your way up, the journey itself becomes meaningful. And when you’ve finally reached that peak, you feel on top of the world!”

“Are you sure you’re a photographer?” I asked. “That’s a darn good metaphor you just used. I might steal that one for my blog.”

“You go right ahead,” he said. “I used to do a bit of mountain climbing when I was younger. I have the pictures to prove it. And a few scars. But what about you? Are you a climber?”

“Oh no, I’m from The Netherlands,” I answered. “There are no mountains in our tiny Kingdom below sea level. Holland is as flat as a pancake.”

“In that case, I have the perfect exercise for you,” said my buddy, as he pointed to the StairMaster.

“I believe this baby has your name on it,” he smiled. “Come on! This thing is the perfect way to get nowhere fast. Try it.”

Reluctantly, I climbed onto the steps, and started my ascend into nothingness. 

“I hope it’s not a metaphor for my career,” I said, gasping for air. “This is really hard!”

“Well, you know what they say…” said the photographer with a big grin.

“If it’s hard, it means you must be doing it right!”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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photo credit: 50 of 52 via photopin (license)


It’s Time To Choose

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Money Matters, Pay-to-Play, Personal 8 Comments

Back in the Netherlands (where I was born), the fathers of my two best friends both worked in the same chemical plant.

I was eight or nine years old, so I wasn’t sure what the plant was producing. We did notice nasty clouds of yellow smoke coming from the chimney day and night. The stream behind the main building was smelly and bereft of life. My parents always warned me not to play there. 

Then, a local journalist, suspicious of what was going on, went undercover for a year, and with the help of an environmental group, he discovered that this plant was dumping dangerous chemicals left and right to save money. That money, by the way, went straight into the coffers of the two brothers who owned the plant.

The news of the pollution shocked and surprised the community, but it turned out that many employees knew all along what was going on. They said management had told them the dumping was necessary to keep the plant competitive, and that mother nature could handle it. 

How did the fathers of my friends respond? Very differently! One said that what this plant was doing was despicable, and he could no longer work for a factory that poisoned the environment for the sake of profit. So, he quit.

The other wasn’t happy about the pollution either, but said he needed to make a living. His family depended on his job, and he couldn’t afford to give it up. “Don’t make me feel guilty for staying,” he used to say to critics. “Do you want my family to starve? There’s no pride in poverty!”

While the father who quit went on to start his own business, the one who stayed died within a year. Doctors said his cancer was probably linked to the chemicals he had been dumping on a daily basis. 

A UNIVERSAL EXPERIENCE

This story of choices and the consequences of those choices is by no means unique. All over the world, at any hour of the day, good people do great work in bad organizations. They know the organization is bad, and yet they stay. Why? Because it pays the bills, and they have no other job lined up.

You see, the father who left the chemical plant had a small side business going on in his spare time. He had developed a line of biodegradable cleaning agents, and with the help of an investor he was able to launch his own brand which eventually became a household name. 

I was reminded of this saga after reading some of the responses to my last blog post entitled A Deal With The Devil, about voices dot com acquiring Voicebank. In it, I think I’m pretty clear:

It is time to choose sides.

Either, you’re part of the solution, or you’re part of the problem. As long as you keep investing in a company that does not have your best interest at heart, you keep that company in business. So, if you want voices dot com to stop poisoning the voice-over well while it is grabbing a larger share of the market, you have to act, and you have to act now. It’s in your own interest, and in the interest of your community. That is, if you feel part of that community.

Perhaps there’s the rub. 

To me the word collegial means “relating to, or involving shared responsibility, as among a group of colleagues.” It means standing up for common interests, and having each other’s backs. It refers to a friendly spirit of cooperation. As far as I’m concerned, we have a common goal:

To deliver the best service, to increase our standards, and to ensure that we’re getting paid a fair and decent rate.

BROTHER AGAINST BROTHER

Clients love to have us fight among ourselves, especially about what we charge. They’re trying to drive a wedge between those who sell their talent for less, and those who refuse to devalue what we have to offer. It’s up to us to play that game or not.

No matter where we stand, all VO Pros are small business owners, and it’s a no-brainer that the higher our rates, the more we make. The more we make, the more we can share and grow. So, it’s in our best interest to do whatever we can as a group and as individuals to educate clients and newcomers, and charge a decent rate for decent work so you and I can make a good living.

People have asked me to explain what I mean by a “decent rate,” and “making a good living.” That’s a good question.

My definition of a making good living is going to sound rather technical. It’s to make enough money to cover a family’s needs, to achieve financial independence while maintaining housing and food security, and have enough resources for health care, child care, education, transportation, savings, taxes, charitable giving, vacations, investments, and provisions for retirement or home purchases that build wealth, and ensure long-term financial security. A decent rate is a rate that allows you to realize these goals. 

Is that something you’re interested in? 

MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS

You may believe it’s none of my business what you or other people charge, or to which Pay to Play you want to belong, but I believe it is everybody’s business, because we don’t operate in a vacuum. We’re all connected, whether we realize it or not. The movement of the markets is the result of many, many individual decisions. 

Some readers thought it was incredibly rude of me to suggest that someone who’s okay with doing low-budget jobs, finds another line of work. Well, I think it is rude to resort to predatory pricing to undercut the competition by cheapening the value of our services. People who are willing to work for less than minimum wage or in some cases for free just to get exposure, should seriously consider another career before going broke trying to break into the business. 

“But Paul, I can’t afford to leave voices dot com. I have to eat. My family has to eat.” 

Well, I’ve been freelancing for most of my life, and I’ve discovered that it doesn’t have to be either/or: either we starve asking for a decent rate, or we eat while charging a rate that’s not so great. It’s a false dilemma. It’s also bad business as a freelancer to make yourself dependent on one or two sources of income. You’re supposed to be an independent contractor!

Every time someone gets hired for a reasonable rate, they prove that clients are willing to pay good money for good work. It’s a matter of identifying one’s strengths, and targeting clients looking for someone with those strengths. If you’re not doing so well financially speaking, you might be looking and booking in the wrong places. But if you’re good at what you do, you compete on much more than price. You compete on added value!

Remember what I tell my clients?

My added value is always higher than my rate.

YOU DESERVE MORE

There’s no pride in settling for less than you deserve. If you feel you’re not getting paid what you’re worth, hire a coach to help you improve and grow your business. That’s where you should spend your money. Don’t spend it on a hefty membership fee that gives you the privilege of auditioning for low-paying jobs that may go out to hundreds if not thousands of other “privileged” members. 

Now, let’s be honest. If you feel that voices dot com rates are as fair as their business practices, I want you to explain why it would be beneficial to a freelancer to leave money on the table, and why it’s okay to play a part in the overall decline of voice-over rates. Explain to me why it is fine for a non transparent company like voices dot com to turn voice actors into a commodity, and keep most of the money for managing a job (whatever that means), and handling your payment. I dare you!

The people who decided to stay with “Voices,” have told me they are aware of what’s going on, and they don’t necessarily approve. If that’s the case, I challenge you to get a spine, raise your voice, and contact the CEO, David Ciccarelli. Tell him exactly how you feel, and give him a chance to respond. Companies can change course under pressure, and Ciccarelli knows that without voices, there is no voices dot com. Let’s see if the company you still trust, is trustworthy, and open to feedback.

Here’s what I’m wondering, though: Do you have the guts to speak your mind, or will you continue to whine about people who you think are trying to make you feel guilty (thereby making them the problem, and not voices dot com)?

BACK TO HOLLAND

Meanwhile, the chemical plant in the Netherlands I was talking about denied the allegations, and tried to discredit the journalist who had exposed their practices. The government launched an independent investigation, and did indeed find that the chemical company had been poisoning the environment for years, putting an entire community at risk.

The company was ordered to pay a huge fine, clean up the polluted property, and change their production process. The brothers who owned the plant said they could not afford to do that, and when the government forced them to, they declared bankruptcy. Hundreds of people lost their jobs. 

Rumor has it that the two brothers moved to Switzerland, where they live a life of luxury.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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The Weight Of The World

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Personal 5 Comments

photo credit: © Paul Strikwerda

Last week, I did a webinar on blogging for members of The VoiceOver Network.

One of the things host Rachael Naylor wanted to know, was how I got from zero to over thirty-eight thousand subscribers.

Although I did not survey each and every reader of this blog, I do receive a lot of feedback from my “fans.” This gives me some indication as to why they return to my musings, week after week.

The one comment that comes back again and again, is that -even though this is a voice-over blog- people like that I write about more than microphones, making money, and the secret to winning auditions.

Ultimately, I see my work as a means to an end, and sometimes I feel more like writing about “the end,” than about the means to getting there. To illustrate the point, I ended my webinar by reading my blog post The Weight of the World, which -in light of the recent terrorist attacks- turned out to be terribly relevant.

After my appearance on the VoiceOver Hour, some of the students in the U.K. asked me if I could republish that particular blog post, because it really resonated with them. It had only been a few days since a suicide bomber had blown himself and twenty-two others up, during an Ariana Grande concert.

Last Saturday, terrorists struck again on London Bridge, killing eight people.

So, with great sadness and a heavy heart, here is The Weight of the World:

 

Paris. Kabul. Manchester. London.

On some days this beautiful planet is so full of hatred and hardship that I feel guilty writing about such trivial things as “work.”

It sure is fun to blog about freelancing, marketing, and microphone technique, but I have to ask: “To what avail?”

Does it lead to a deeper understanding of the human psyche?

Does it tell us why young, radicalized men stuff their luggage with glass and nails, before they blow themselves and innocent others to bits and pieces?

Does it explain why so many people still believe that violence is the only way forward to further a cause?

As a blogger, shouldn’t I be writing about those issues, instead of talking about home studios, auditions, and online casting companies? 

Whenever I ask myself these questions, I have to remind myself of where I came from.

Before leaving the Netherlands, I worked as one of those stone-faced newscasters informing the world of yet another tragedy. On air, I asked countless experts about the roots of evil, and I grilled politicians about their ideas on how to fix a broken world.

Day after day I reported on endless suffering and strife, and I was part of the sensationalist “if it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead” gang, that determines what is newsworthy and what isn’t. On sunnier days I would be searching for that snippet of positive news we could end our program with, to remind the listeners that not all people are perverts, rapists, or suicidal religious radicals. 

Don’t get me wrong: I loved the excitement and the adrenaline of the newsroom. It gave me a steady income, a certain status, and a sense of purpose. A democracy can only function when people are able to make smart decisions based on hard facts, and I was in the business of providing those facts. My radio station also gave me a unique opportunity to hold the feet of the famous to the fire.

Yet, one day, it all fell apart when I noticed myself caring less and less about the horror stories I was covering. In the beginning I would blame my lack of response on the need to “stay professional,” meaning detached from the raw emotions that are part and parcel of every human tragedy. I was supposed to stay as neutral as our network professed to be, and not get emotionally involved. But it came at a price. 

I gradually developed a tendency to disassociate myself from all kinds of feelings. Positive and negative. That invisible screen I was using to shield myself from sadness in the newsroom, had become like a second skin. It protected me, and it numbed me at the same time.

Over time, I came to a frightening realization:

I had lost one of the very few things that separates humans from animals: the ability to empathize.

I’d seen this happen to veteran journalists who were trying to cope with the crazy demands of their job. Some became chain smokers, heavy drinkers, and lifelong cynics. Others filed for divorce. It was not a road I wanted to travel.

One day, after covering yet another disaster, I just knew I had reached my limit. Years of reporting had done nothing to change the world. If anything, the world had gotten worse. All I wanted was to get out of broadcasting, and do something useful with my life. Something exhilarating. Something inspiring. Something uplifting.

When I finally left the poisonous bubble that was the newsroom, it took me a while to adjust to a new reality. A reality that wasn’t nearly as violent as I had thought it would be. Slowly but surely I discovered a world filled with kindness and good people. It was as if someone had opened the dark blinds that had been filtering the light from the windows for such a long time.

I came to realize that the news I had covered for all those years focused on the exceptions; on the grotesque and the extraordinary. The thousands of planes that land safely every day will never be on CNN. It’s the plane that crashes that ends up making headlines. And if you add all those headlines up, it’s easy to get the impression that this world is rotten to the core. But it’s a deliberate distortion of reality, contrived to kick up the ratings. 

Reality is so much better and less sensational than the networks want you to believe. For most of us it is reassuringly unspectacular and ordinary. It revolves around friends, family…. and work. Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to blog about work, even when evil forces are trying to fill this world with fear.

The question remains: how do we respond to those who want to scare us by causing panic, pain, and suffering?

How do we deal with the fact that -to quote Harold Kushner- bad stuff happens to good people?

All of us have to come to terms with this in our own time and in our own way. Life and death are mysterious teachers.

Let me leave you with what I think.

The only way we can learn to live with darkness, is to focus on the light, and to become a reflection of that light.

Whether we realize it or not, all of us were born with the ability to shine. 

Once we start taking that to heart, perhaps we can begin making this place a better world.

In Paris. In Kabul. In Manchester. In London.

Everywhere.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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