What do you think voice-overs do all day long?
Sit behind their microphones and record the most amazing scripts?
Make $5,000 for a twenty-second commercial?
Narrate yet another best-selling novel?
If you choose to believe Facebook, that’s what voice-overs do. They book, they record, and they cash in. Rinse and repeat.
Unfortunately, that’s a big fat lie, told to the world because no one wants to look like a loser on social media. We’re one happy family, everything is always great, and business is booming!
The truth is, some voice actors are doing really well, and many are not. Going into 2019, even the big names are asked to work for smaller budgets at full perpetual buyouts, while $249 seems to be the new normal for many non-union jobs. Jobs that would easily go for four or five times as much some years ago, perhaps even more.
If you’re just starting out, and your expectations are as great as your ambition, that’s probably not something you want to hear. But let’s be realistic for a moment.
Once you’ve told the world that you are now a professional voice-over, it stops being a hobby or a daydream. In fact, you’ve just opened up a business. Congratulations.
Are you ready to be a business owner?
Just to be clear: the IRS considers an activity to be a business if:
“that activity is carried on for profit if it makes a profit during at least three of the last five tax years, including the current year (…).”
As someone who has coached many beginning voice talents, I’ll be straight with you. Most of my students have no clue what it means to run a for-profit business in a market saturated with wannabes. That’s a huge part of what makes doing voice-overs so difficult!
Think about it. You may be a crazy talented chef in your state-of-the-art kitchen, but if you don’t know how to run a successful restaurant, you’re doomed to fail. If you don’t believe me, ask Gordon Ramsey!
Here’s where the comparison stops. A smart chef has a staff managing all business aspects of his establishment. That way, he can concentrate on the cooking. As a VO-pro you are on your own, wearing many, many hats. You’ve got to get customers in the door, set the tables, cook the food, clean up at the end of the day, and do the books.
On top of that, too many beginners don’t know what they don’t know. Between you and me, they just want to have fun talking into a microphone, and get paid for it.
I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret: most voice-overs spend way more time trying to get the work than doing the work, myself included (and I’ve been at it for over thirty years).
Like any business, you’ve got to attract customers. How do you do that when no one has ever heard of you (and no one cares to hear about you)? Have you thought about that?
Don’t tell me you’re going to sign up for a voice casting website, and expect them to get you work. That big unethical one in Canada claims to have a global network of over 200,000 voice-overs, and most of them speak English. By the time you open that casting email, you’re at the back of a long line of hopefuls who just received the same message. Chances are that the client won’t ever hear your carefully crafted custom demo. I mean, who’s got time to listen to over a hundred auditions?
And you pay for that “privilege”?
Don’t expect an agent to send you work either when you still have to prove yourself. The irony is: agents want you when you no longer need them. As soon as you have clearly demonstrated an ability to make them money, you become interesting. By that time you should already have a portfolio of returning clients giving your business a sustainable basis.
So, if you can’t rely on Pay to Plays or agents, what are you to do? Where do all these fantastic money-making voice-over jobs come from? Do you find them on Craigslist? Do they grow on trees?
Ultimately, finding work comes down to one person: YOU!
Here’s secret number two: it’s easier to have clients find you, than you having to find clients.
To get people’s attention, you’ve got to toot your own horn. That puts you not only in the business of providing voice-overs. You’re also in the business of self-promotion and marketing. Be honest: do you have expertise in those areas? Are you even comfortable telling people why they should hire you?
Let’s be more specific. Do you know how to design and maintain a kick-ass website that’s search engine optimized, and ready to withstand hackers? If not, do you know a reputable company that can build that site for you? Let’s assume you just spent thousands of dollars on coaching, professional demos, equipment, and a good recording space, how much money is left to get you an online presence? Include the money you pay to a company like SiteGround, to host your website.
Building a website is not just about finding an attractive template and some stock photographs. You need someone with serious copywriting skills to sell your services. Someone who can capture your essence and turn it into a brand. You also have to develop fresh content to give visitors a reason to come back to your website. How are you going to do that?
Then there’s your social media presence. Your brand new company has to be on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, and whatever the next big thing is going to be. Each platform has its own rules, algorithms, and format. You’ll have to learn how to shoot and edit decent home videos, how to take striking pictures, and how to write compelling copy that makes you stand out above the crowd.
A word of warning. Once you get started, you’ll soon notice that social media is a monster that constantly needs to be fed with fresh, relevant, and unique content created by YOU. This takes time. Lots of time. If you’re lucky, your content gets picked up. More likely, it gets lost in an ocean of mindless, self-absorbed chatter crying “Look at ME. Look at ME!”
Those who are young and full of energy are used to living life online. Their self-esteem is linked to the number of likes each post receives. To them, creating a social media presence is no big deal. I have coached quite a few people for whom voice-overs is a second or third career. They’re in their fifties or sixties, and to them building a website and being active on social media is intimidating and often frustrating. It’s not what they signed up for when they dreamt of being an audio book narrator.
They want to try it the old-fashioned way: cold calling clients. It’s the most masochistic way to spend your day. With people being sick of unwanted solicitation and robocalls, good luck trying to get past the screener before you can read your script to some teenager who is in charge of promotions. These days, more and more people refuse to answer the phone if they don’t recognize the number. If you love listening to voicemail and pissing people off, go for it!
So, let’s quickly recap. Why is doing voice-overs so difficult?
Last week I told you it is hard to sound natural in an unnatural situation, and to act as if you’re not acting. You need much more than a great voice to make it.
Today we talked about running a business, finding work, and self-promotion.
Next week I’ll add another layer: dealing with constant uncertainty.
Be certain to check it out!
PS Be sweet. Subscribe, Share, and Retweet!
PPS Bob Souer, one of the nicest people in the voice-over community, has had a tough year. He has asked for our help to turn a corner and move ahead. Through the years, Bob has supported many of us with his wisdom and insight. Now it is time we support him and his family. Please visit his GoFundMe page, and give what you can give. Thank you!
About the author
is a Dutch-English voice-over pro, coach, and writer. His blog is one of the most widely read and influential blogs in the industry. Paul is also the author of "Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs."