voiceovers myths

Voice-Overs: the Untold, Unsexy Story

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Pay-to-Play 20 Comments

Standing at the gates of hellSomething strange is going on.

Whenever I try to warn people about the intricacies and pitfalls of the voice-over business, I get two types of reactions.

More experienced colleagues thank me for painting a realistic picture of a complicated industry.

Beginners criticize me for spitefully dashing their dreams.

To some, I am a hero for speaking my mind. To others I’m a villain who wants to curb his competition. There seems to be no middle ground. Just look at the reactions to my YouTube videoThe Troublesome Truth About A Voice-Over Career.” Even though I made it a few years ago, I still stand behind every word of it. One of the commentators said:

“Why would anyone seek out this negative party pooper? Don’t just offer the problems, offer the solutions, or at least direct people to where they can find the solutions. That might be on your website, but most people will never go there as all you’ve done with this post is attempt to suck the life out of their dreams.”

Another one said: 

“Why is this guy such a douche bag? Haha. This is a video about a VO actor that sadly didn’t “catch the big break” and made a rant video.”

Here’s a third response:

“Tough love. I appreciate it. Thank you for this, but it has me more determined than ever!”

And one more:

“A very honest and accurate summary of the voiceover business. As I tell folks, my job is not doing voiceovers. My job is finding voiceover clients.”

THE POWER OF PREJUDICE

Positive or not so positive, every response teaches us something about confirmation bias. It’s this very human flaw that makes us see what we want to see, hear what we want to hear, and believe what we want to believe. It’s a way of filtering information that confirms our preconceptions. Quite often, it makes people immune to facts.

Advertisers create entire campaigns to play into people’s biases by offering simple solutions to complicated problems. Here’s a familiar example from a new website, using the persistent myth (bias) that every ignorant fool with vocal folds has a good chance of becoming a professional voice-over!

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Yes folks: anyone with a camera can make money as a photographer. Anyone with a hammer can become a carpenter, and anyone with a piano can be a concert pianist. You just have to believe in yourself, and sign up for whatever training program they’re trying to sell you. Clients worldwide are waiting for you!

CUTTING THE CRAP

Well, let’s do a reality check, shall we? If you believe I have a hidden agenda and can’t be trusted, perhaps you’re willing to listen to an accomplished colleague of mine. He’s a writer, producer, and voice talent. A while ago he responded to one of my blog posts entitled What Clients Hate The Most.” His story is a tale I have heard many times since I started writing this blog.

It is honest. It is raw. It is painful.

Minutes after he posted his remarks, he asked me to delete them because of possible repercussions. Sharing setbacks could be bad for business, he said. I think he has a point. 

Most of us do our best to look successful in the eyes of colleagues and clients. That’s why we share our latest and greatest accomplishments with our peeps. Colleagues refer colleagues with an impressive track record. Clients want to hire winners, not whiners. 

So, I shelved his message for months, but in some way it continued to haunt me. Here was a story from the trenches that deserved to be heard. I’m not saying it is representative of what every single voice talent goes through, but it tells a story you have to hear. This week he gave me permission to share it with you.

RICK’S RESPONSE

Hi Paul:

I’ve written and produced for thirty years. One of my pieces is used by Dan O’Day in one of his courses, specifically the use of music in a commercial. I am quite good at nuance and communicating just what the client wants in the way he wants it. I have top-shelf recording gear with a couple of the world’s finest mics and preamps, and my stuff sounds very, very good.

I’m a good editor with an instinct for timing, layering, choosing the right music when required, and knowing where to put it. My demo is as good as anything you’ll hear. I’m a nice person with good people skills, and an ability to empathize.

I was mentored by a writer who did “Where’s the Beef,” and “Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut.” He told me 25 years ago, after working with him for many months, that I had reached a level where I should be making $75K. This was in 1981. I have read the books, gone to the seminars and webinars, written and produced 2000 commercials plus audio and video pieces for corporations and government agencies.

This year I will perhaps make $30K, only because I’m now on social security, and have a couple of new clients. All my clients are local. The average amount they spend per month on advertising is $700-$1000. I have sent out very well-designed and well-written post cards. I made hundreds of phone calls. My average income 15-20 years ago was $20-25K. For the last five it’s $15-18K.

I used to believe that if I learned my craft, had natural ability, never stopped learning, and worked diligently in making contacts and handling them well, I would succeed. I no longer believe that. 

I have lost clients to people who don’t write any better than radio stations, and don’t know how to schedule for effectiveness. 

I went with the two large pay-to-plays, and after 200 auditions and getting one inquiry that didn’t go, and after seeing people make it who sound like every dj you ever heard, I believe that success comes only when you (luckily) land that One Big VO gig or (luckily) get that One Big Client, and it all flows from there. 

For the people I know, that’s how it happened for all of them. I’m sure for many it’s different, but I haven’t seen or talked to anyone like that. I know there are more than enough people out there whom I could greatly help, whose messages are off-point and blandly produced, and who believe a commercial should “sound like a commercial” because that’s mostly what they hear.  They’re tossing their money in the street and don’t know it, and don’t know they don’t know. But I’ve never been able to find them. 

It’s an understatement to say I’m crushed. I know several talented people who just can’t make it, who will probably never make it. I am one of them, apparently. It’s a horror, Paul. I mean that quite seriously.

I am 66, sound like I’m 40, am still firing on all 8, and am writing and editing better than ever. But after three decades of not making enough to keep my family above the poverty line, I feel I am condemned to having small clients forever: Moms and Pops who, God bless them, believe they know more about advertising than I do, because people think “anybody can do advertising” and “all you need to do is get your name out there” and advertising is an afterthought; something they can give to Mikey the office assistant. You know what I mean. My few clients think I’m a genius, and I’m always naturally ‘up’ when talking with them or talking to a possible new client.

Because I love doing this, I have offered my services free to several organizations including charities. I have yet to get one callback.

VO guys and people who write and produce, have told me they spun their wheels for five years before getting the break that opened the Horn of Plenty to them, and they complain about “all that time” it took before it happened.

Really? Try starting in 1981 and still be nowhere.

Dante posted a sign outside the Gates of Hades saying “Abandon hope, you who enter here.”

Well, I know how that feels.

Rick*

THE TAKEAWAY

So, here’s a guy who is a triple threat. He was trained by the best. He has tons of experience, and he owns the right equipment. Yet, he’s struggling. I don’t know enough about Rick’s situation to tell you where and why things went wrong, and how they can be improved. I do know that Rick is not alone.

If sharing Rick’s story makes me a party pooper, or a douche bag, so be it. Frankly, I don’t care what you think, because throughout history people have always blamed the messenger. The question is:

What do YOU take away from Rick’s story?

Does it upset you? Does it make you more persistent to pursue your dreams? What does it tell you about breaking into voice-overs? 

I’ve had some time to think about Rick’s story, and here are my two cents.

If there’s a lesson in his narrative, it is this: The advertising/voice-over industry is not fair. In fact, life itself isn’t fair.

Studying hard, working hard, having the right chops, and owning the right equipment does not guarantee anything. Putting out nice brochures or postcards entitles you to… nothing. Being a nice guy doesn’t mean you’ll make enough to pay the bills.  

Uncertainty is the name of the game. There is no promise of work. There’s just potential, talent, and subjective selection. 

This is not a message many want to hear. It is a message most Pay-to-Plays, training companies, and demo mills want to suppress because it’s not sexy, and it doesn’t sell.

YOUR TURN

Now, Rick was brave enough to stick his neck out, and I would like him to walk away with something positive. That’s where you come in!

Ideally, I’d love it if you would use the comment section to answer some or all of the following questions:

• Is Rick’s experience unique, or do you recognize what he is going through?

• If you’ve been in a similar situation, what have you done to get out of it?

• What needs to happen in our industry to make it more likely that people like Rick can make a decent living?

The floor is yours.

Your input is much appreciated!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be Sweet. Please retweet!

*As you can imagine, Rick is not his real name. 

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