By Scott “Waz” Wasienko, partner, Philadelphia Post (formerly AudioPost MajaMedia)
Several years ago I wrote a Big Ideas article for Philly AD NEWS entitled “Voice-Over: Great work if you can get it!” By the looks of the picture of me, I’m figuring it was about seven years ago. I’ve grayed up pretty good since then. Google it, you’ll find it. Over the last several years, I know many have read it because I still get emails from voice talent on a regular basis telling me they just read it and now want to know how to break into the business. Some tell me that, “yes”, they are the next great voice to come out of Philadelphia. Really nice people. Most are quite sincere and are hoping for more good advice. But I stopped responding to these requests a few years ago because not one of the voices I traded emails with actually became a marketable voice in Philadelphia. Frustrating indeed to say the least. Today, I’m going to explore some of the reasons why I think it’s hard to break into the voice over business and even harder still to make a living doing it. Sit down and strap yourself in. This may hurt a bit.
Talent. There’s no avoiding it. You are either very talented or marginally talented. And those without enough talent don’t see or I should say, hear, the difference between being average and being very good. Do you need to be great to make a living at this? No. But you do need to be very talented. So how do you know? Like anything else, if you’ve got it, enough people will tell you and encourage you. But who is telling you? Know your audience. Consider your sources. Industry expert or your Aunt Kathy? It should be a natural extension of your personality. Does it require the deepest register voice? Must I sound sexy? No. And no. Most people are born to do something that can be difficult for others. For example, very few actors come from nowhere. It’s extremely rare to be picked from a crowd and placed in front of a camera or mic with high expectations. I think it’s easy to get your first gig. Heck, it’s easy to do one job a year. It’s the 30th gig of that year that makes you feel like voice work might be a nice way to make some real good extra income. You have a full time job already? Ok. Are you readily available tomorrow at 11am for an hour if I call you later today? Wait. Sorry. The client just called and they don’t have script approval. Let’s go with tomorrow afternoon at 2 then, but hold the day after just in case. That’s right; it’s a real commitment.
But, I’ve been told that I have a very nice voice and that I should be on the radio or in a TV ad. Uh huh. Ok, That’s nice. What’s the difference between being a busy on-screen actor and just another pretty face? Lots of beautiful people in this world, how many of them do you want to watch act for 22 or 43 minutes once a week, week after week? 90-120 minutes at $12 a pop for the big screen? My client has $500 for this ten-page narration. Are you worth it? What is it about you that would make me want to listen to you for 30 seconds straight? 60 seconds? A fifteen-minute corporate narration? Sound easy? 30 seconds can be an eternity.
Can you act? Bat your eyes, show me your biceps, trip and fall on cue and I might have a part for you in my no budget indie film, but can you emote with just your voice in an interesting manner for 30 solid seconds without forcing a listener to change the channel or surf to the next internet soup du jour site. Seriously. Can you control the timbre of your voice, inflect in just the right way and read the words like they were only formed in your brain at that moment without making listeners eyebrows crunch? Can you do this take after take so that when the engineer pieces together the best of you from various takes it all sounds like the same person?
Not many can. Heck, I do about 20-30 voice jobs a year now, and I can’t stand listening to myself for more than 30 seconds. I can only do what I’m capable of because I’ve edited millions of takes and I know how to work the voice system. I don’t know how many times I’ve voiced a spot for a client and thought I nailed it pretty good only to hear my playback in the context of what is actually needed and said, “Oh crap! That’s not good.” Thankfully, my listening skills are such that I can hear it out loud and switch to plan B before my client says, “Umm, we can live with that.” That’s code for let’s just get this done because I’m not using you again. Ha! As engineer/owner, I have the luxury of calling a do-over to my voice-over. I can record myself, grab a few syllables here, a sentence from there, kill some breaths, chop out an annoying lipsmack I was unaware of, add some cool plugins and after a few minutes, I sound like the real deal. But again, I know how to work the system and fool my audience into thinking I have a better than average voice. Don’t worry, as your engineer, I’ve got your back. You’ll get the same heroic treatment if necessary. But it takes time. Time is money. Clients’ money.
I also know my limitations. I can be Mr. Sincere. I can be Mr. Smart. And I can be Mr. Insinuating. All of that works incredibly well for political spots, healthcare and the occasional combination that adds up to a smart aleck with good timing. But, you’ll never hear me be smiley guy or promo guy or goofy guy or man of authority. You wouldn’t believe me. I’m narrow scoped. I can’t be all things to all people. And neither can you. There’s only a very small handful that graduate to that level. Very small. Meaning I can count them on my hand. My voice changed just enough three years ago at age 40 to pull off the above with some success. So it begs the question, where are you in life? What do you know about yourself? Some people always sound happy. Some can sound ominous. Some sound like the guy next door that you always like hanging out with. Most don’t. Ever. Most people have incredibly non-descript voices. Most people have no idea what it means to turn a phrase; to be engaging and interesting instead of annoying and boring.
Can you be consistent for an hour or two behind a mic? Are you fun to work with? Do you understand the process of spot making? I nearly fall out of my chair when I hear any voice actors say they don’t watch TV or listen to the radio. Really? Are you aware of advertising trends? Directorial references? Are you in the game or are you out? When you read a book, do you occasionally read a few pages out loud? At full voice? It’s hard to do. It’s tiring. It’s necessary. Do you record yourself? There’s no excuse now not too. A simple iMac and QuickTime and you could record for hours. Not professionally, of course, but have you actually listened to yourself speak on a digital playback? Would you hire you? Do you have talent? It’s a real craft, voice acting. You have to continually work at it as if you are only talented and not very talented.
How do you handle mistakes? Do you have trouble reading? Out loud? Do you speed read so the words carry no weight or meaning? Are words images to you? Or are they just words? Do you start every pick up with so much variation that you don’t sound like the same person from paragraph to paragraph? What’s a pick up? When you make mistakes do you know right away or do they always have to be pointed out to you? Do you giggle, make excuses, blank stare or worse, start cracking jokes and carry on a self-conversation after every blown take? Can you self medicate? Meaning, as you are reading through copy or a script, do you hear yourself enough to stop and start over at an earlier sentence or paragraph because you know the engineer and producer are hoping not to have to chime in on every misstep? Can you do this without drawing even more attention to yourself? Do you have the confidence to read a phrase a certain way and without skipping a beat go back, hit it again, twist it slightly, yet do it in such a way that the engineer will have no trouble dropping that alternate read into the body of the spot so that we don’t all have to labor over the process? Can you hear volume? Too loud, too soft from sentence to sentence? Start strong end weak? Trouble breathing? Do you argue for 5 minutes or question why you’ve been asked to read something a certain way, instead of just taking the 15 seconds to read it the way the producer wants to hear it, thus giving them an opportunity to say how wrong that sounds, apologize, and defer to you?
And there’s more! Do you know how close you are to the microphone? Do you realize how close or far away you are 5 minutes later? Do you know what your voice sounds like when you read the top of a page compared to the bottom of the page? Do you know how much noise you make when you are reaching for the script before you have actually finished reading that page and then subsequently how much noise the paper makes when you are removing it from the stand and trying to read the next page in one clumsy swoop? Does every script have logical page breaks so that this does not happen? No. Do you know how to position the pages so that when this problem arises, you’ve bent the preceding page over the stand and off to the left but you haven’t moved one inch from the microphone in the process? A,B,C, please. Three in a row please. I’m just going to leave it open, give us some alts. Watch those P’s. What does that all mean? Do you have a quieter shirt? Your pants are brushing every time you bounce your knees. Stop playing with the headphone cord, it’s banging against the stand. And yes, I know the stand has dropped 6 inches because you are leaning on it, just put your foot on one of the legs and raise it back up. Lowering your headphones doesn’t mean you pull the headphones down past your ears. You are listening too loud and the sound is leaking back into the microphone so that I’m hearing your voice full and hearing your voice like it’s coming out of iPod earbuds. “Rolling” means we are recording and you should start speaking, no need to look at the engineer and say, “should I go?” It’s not actually warm in the booth. You are sweating because you are nervous. Did you know you have a Philly accent too? Uh oh!
Phew! There’s some stuff to think about, huh? Still feeling talented? Great. Let’s move to business. Who hired you? Did the studio call you and book you and tell you how much the gig was? Or did the ad agency? Your agent? When it comes to money, remember who your source was and speak about dollars only to them, in private, after the session if you have a question about billing. Nine times out of ten, the whole session should go off without a hitch. You read. Client was happy. Sometime in the next 20-45 days, you should expect payment. Of course, that’s only if you get your billing in on time. The worst are talent that email two months later and say, “Hey, should I send a bill to you or the client?” Or 10 moths later, email and say, “I don’t think I ever got paid for that session we did.” Well, you were supposed to bill the client and since it’s nearly an eternity since that job existed, good luck getting paid since everyone’s books are closed on what we all did last year. Run your business like a business.
At this point in Philadelphia, I’m working under the assumption of a non-union pay structure agreement. Meaning, you worked, check’s in the mail, we got what we needed, and my client owns it. Forever. Unless something has been prearranged, unless it’s a union (AFTRA/SAG) situation, it’s a done deal. On to the next. There’s a studio with a lot of “locations” in this country that believes that after 3 months they can ask for a “re-up” fee for their non-union talent if the spot continues airing. That is highly unusual. Almost suspect.
And no, your parking tab is not part of the deal. That’s a cost of doing business line item. Oh, but in the session you ended up reading more than what was originally agreed upon. Now what? That can be a sticky situation for sure. Out loud, you can say, “Hey, so this is more stuff, should we have a conversation about what that costs?” See who sits up straight and addresses it. They own you for an hour per spot on average, unless it’s narration. But it’s not “how many spots can you read in an hour for one price” world either. Some alternate phrasing is really just that. Kind of like saying the same thing in a different way. Clients want options if they need to resort to a shorter line reading you did in case their spot balloons to 32 seconds. Options. Price points, location changes, sometimes it’s hard to figure it out. But a cut down 30 from a 60 that you have to reread for timing even though “the words are pretty much the same” is another spot. How much? The going rate. How long does all this take? It varies. If you’re out in 15, cool, if you take the hour, that’s normal. If the client keeps you for three hours for a 30 second spot because they don’t have their act together and the spot keeps getting rewritten or the approval process is taking forever, then that’s a real issue. Again, they don’t own you for the whole day. Refer back to who hired you and strike up a conversation. An agreement needs to be reached.
Want to know why most of the same people continue working? Because they completely get the process I’ve illustrated and they have a lot of talent. Meaning, everything I’ve described above is perfectly normal to them. It’s how business gets done. Even on their worst day, talented voice actors give you a very solid performance. Do you get better over the years? Most do. The voice changes and their skill level get better. Do some just dial it in? Of course. Doesn’t everyone once in awhile? You’ve got to find your motivation deep down inside. Your passion for the craft will come through those vocal chords loud and clear. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink whiskey the night before. Don’t come in and announce that you have such a cold that you hope it won’t show up in the recording. Too late. It does. More client money wasted. Listeners can hear a person with a cold a mile away.
I could have done that spot. I’m better than that voice. No, you’re not. You’re just different. And on the day that was all decided, the client wasn’t feeling your audition. Why? Because. That’s why. Next week, your voice is perfect for something else. It’s just life. Or maybe your audition was recorded in your living room through the iMac microphone into Garage Band and the woman who got the gig did hers with a $1000 mic in the quietest room of her house and edited her audition together giving herself the best possible chance to succeed? Or maybe you read it twice, fired it off and then went on vacation and became unavailable. Who knows?
Who is directing? These days, I find that I’m doing more and more. I love it. It’s my passion. I’ve been in love with the human voice since I was a young kid. Today I have the distinct pleasure to give feedback and encouragement to actors on The Good Wife and Blue Bloods each week and a host of other films as an ADR mixer. It took 20 years of working in Philly to be entrusted with that responsibility I have now. I’m very grateful to all that have allowed me to put my two cents into their recording sessions over the years. That kind of collaboration has afforded me great opportunities. These days, an engineer with really good ears and a knack for saying the right thing at the right time is still a good value. Clients know this. Do you? Oh, but you’re getting conflicting direction from a few people in the room? That’s annoying for sure. The engineer is usually the first to bow out of that scenario and should always defer to the folks paying the time at the studio.
It’s their baby. It’s not your baby. When someone comes in with very definitive ideas, that’s great. Once voice, one vision. It doesn’t happen enough these days because there are less people involved in the overall process. It’s fun when it’s collaborative and it’s fun when the client says to the engineer, “I’m cool with you running the show.” And that’s a great way to get going. Once the session gets up on two legs and we start making real progress, clients will usually take over because they see the players in action. They see what you are capable of doing as a voice, they see the relationship you may have with the engineer and then they see themselves bringing it all together in order to cross the finish line at the same time. Win, win, win.
So I ask of you, do you get it? Do you? Are you really the next great voice to come out of Philadelphia? Great. And cut! I’ll save some for another article 5-7 years from now.
PORTFOLIO NIGHT 11: Portfolio review and networking
Lincoln Financial Field
How to Increase Sales Revenue Using Social Media
News Journal offices
Radio & Digital Sales
NEW MEDIA DESIGNER