The Deadly Dozen – The Top Reasons Voice Talent Don’t Succeed

Everybody in our business knows the talent. The guy or gal with the great voice who should have been the next big thing…except it never materialized. While the market plays a part, more often than not talent is either not ready for the opportunity or never will be. Here are my “Deadly Dozen:” reasons why careers fall flat.

1. Great voice/no talent – the voice is an instrument like a guitar or a piano. Of course, the greatest instrument is irrelevant if you can’t play it.

2. Lack of experience – in order to get better, everyone needs to get his or her at-bats. Without them, it is virtually impossible to improve.

3. Not enough skills – experience also begets skill(s). Everyone needs to start by doing one thing well but to maintain a career, the best need to adapt and reinvent. Without skill(s) and a foundation to build upon… that’s impossible.

4. Representation – too often agents are blamed for their actor’s lack of success, when several factors are usually the cause. When representation is the fault, either the agent has little enthusiasm for the talent or too little access to opportunities.

5. Lack of professional and personal resources – everyone wants to be working with the right people but the damage of working with the wrong people can never be underestimated.

6. Personal obstacles – whether health, financial or interpersonal dynamics, sometimes life and timing simply gets in the way of success.

7. Lack of motivation – everyone likes making money but as a rule, the more money someone has in the bank, the less apt they are to provide the service that got them the work in the first place.

8. Unreasonable expectations – what is success? Everyone’s ceiling is different but unless a talent’s goals are reasonable, his or her enthusiasm and hard work will eventually wane and the stress will only increase.

9. Lack of education – voice-over education can vary from traditional academic rigor to life experience to voice-specific training. This learning can never stop.

10. Lack of professionalexperience – with so much competition, acting like a pro regardless of profession is more important than ever before.

11. Lack of competitive spirit– Voice-overs is a competition and some simply lack the drive to keep pushing to better themselves and their competition.

12. Burn Out – it can happen to anyone and usually happens even before the talent recognizes the problem.

It’s my job to be on the lookout for these Deadly Dozen within my own stable of talent, but I also have to recognize that I too can fall in similar traps. Hopefully, awareness is the first step to avoiding the pitfalls, as I know I want to be as good at what I do as all the performers who entrust me with their careers.

Microphones for the Voice Professional

The Never-ending Question

Keep in mind, I know very little about sound engineering, yet I’m constantly asked the question: “what microphone do you recommend?” In general, I recommend one of two microphones, the Neumann TLM-103 and the Sennheiser 416, with an overall preference for the Neumann U87. Unfortunately, I consider the U87 cost prohibitive for 99% of the voice community and absolutely unnecessary for anyone who is not doing significant commercial or narration work.

The Usual Recommendations

For the sake of this article, I’m assuming the performer is earning a living, making the cost of the TLM-103 and 416 (both between $1000-$1500) a solid investment and a positive step forward from a prior and less expensive mic. I am also going to grossly simplify my perception of the two mics. I think the Neumann is the warmer and more nuanced of the two. The Sennheiser is the more precise and cuts through better, especially if the talent is only a couple inches away from the “sweet spot.”

The Key Questions

When a performer approaches me about mics, I usually ask a series of questions and figure out a consensus depending on individual circumstances. Here, I will ask the questions I normally ask, answer them based on the most common answers, and then recommend which mic based on circumstances.

Here goes:

How noisy is your room? Noisy, such as an urban residency – Sennheiser. Relatively quiet – Neumann.

How large is your room? Large and relatively quiet – Neumann. Small such as Whisper Room – Sennheiser.

Do you sit or stand? Sit – Neumann. Stand – Sennheiser.

What kind of work do you do mostly? TV Commercials – Neumann. Radio Commercials – Sennheiser. Trailers – Sennheiser. Promos – Sennheiser. Narrations – Neumann. Radio Imaging/TV Affiliates – Sennheiser. Audio Books – Neumann. Political Advertising – Sennheiser.

Do you have a professional preamp? Yes – Neumann. No – Sennheiser.

Are you doing the majority of your sessions via ISDN or are you sending compressed files? Yes – Sennheiser. No (uncompressed) – Neumann

Do you travel often with remote gear and mic? Yes – Sennheiser. No – Neumann.

The Final Prognosis

As you can see the majority of the answers lean to the 416 even though I actually prefer the sound of the Neumann. My feelings, in general, are that the Sennheiser tends to hide deficiencies, so unless you really know your way around audio equipment, start with 416. As your business grows and you begin to upgrade your equipment, consider the Neumann.

Supply and Demand in Voice-Overs?

The Drill

Every voice rep has been through the drill:

  1. Someone is looking for an 80 year old woman.
  2. She has to be a great storyteller.
  3. She needs to be the real thing, i.e. not a younger actor pretending to be old.

Life before Voicebank

Prior to Voicebank an ad agency would hire a casting director, usually costing between $1000 and $5000, and he/she would be paid for the time and effort in finding the woman.

In the last ten years two new dynamics evolved:

  1. The ad agency would post the job on Voicebank and the talent agents would bring older actresses (usually on-camera talent) to their offices for the audition.
  1. The agency would post the job on a P2P (Pay-to-Play) and hope there is an octogenarian with a home set-up who will deliver the necessary file(s).

Here is the kicker

All of this time, if the work was union and regardless of the casting resource used…

The work was automatically listed at scale.

If the work was non-jurisdictional or non-union the work paid less, and at times paid significantly less than typical rates.

Why do I bring this up?

I bring this up because non-celebrity voice-over work has rarely been a supply and demand business. If it were a supply and demand business, the 80 year-old voice actress would be paid significantly more because there is such a small supply of these voice actresses.

Granted, there is little demand as well, but as soon as the need arises most market solutions would lean toward the 80 year-old being paid a premium rate. In more frequent scenarios, the same would apply to children and most ethnicities.

Is there a solution?

I think there is a solution: If someone wants to be that creative and needs a specialty voice, then they should pay extra. There will be definite pushback especially in the case of older women and children.

Why? There is a perception that “they should feel lucky to be getting the work”, as if the “good luck and attention received” is more valuable than the “paid fee.”

Of course, the belief “luck” is more important is ridiculous and agents will likely ignore that argument, but so should talent and more so their parents to teach the child voice actor the importance of self-worth at an early age.

An alternative solution

Agents can simply resist working on the project, if there is no added financial incentive. I realize this is counter intuitive for most agents who strive to work on every project possible with equal vigor.

However, the return on booking the 80 year-old on a radio spot will likely be in the neighborhood of $30.00, and that is if the agent books it. Usually, there will be three or more other agents who did not book the job and spent at least an hour of time on spec for a relatively meager reward.

If either or both solutions are routinely implemented, I think you will see a change in behavior with ad agencies. Either they will focus on easier and less expensive solutions for their creative, or budget accordingly for their needs.

Developing Voice-Over Talent

During the first 15 years of my career, I had a real simple method of developing new voice-over talent:

  1. I would first focus on a small group of men and women.
  2. Next, I would provide them with as many opportunities as possible.
  3. From there, they would come up to my agency’s recording studio and I, or my booth directors, would spend a tad more time directing them, providing them with pointers, building their confidence and sending them on their way with a better understanding of the audition process.

The combination of repetition and attention was consistently effective. If I compared my results with the 80/20 rule, I would bet my real success was closer to 50/50. Of course, financial success is relative, but the roughly 50% I’m referring to had no other jobs beyond voice-overs.

Client Satisfaction

Better yet, my system was incredibly efficient for the clients for the following reasons:

  1. They were getting auditions almost every day, and while some were at a casting director’s, most were at our offices.
  2. There was no need to hire a coach, as my booth directors and I became their de facto coaching staff.
  3. They already had our representation so there was no reason to produce a demo.

In fact, as they booked we collected their spots, until they had a demo of real material that we then edited together.

In the end, the total cost was virtually nothing. Granted there were transportation and opportunity costs, but in the end, I cannot think of a client that was ever truly in the red.

Things Have Changed

Actors generally need a demo now to get an agent’s attention. The exceptions are film, television or stage actors, who create a buzz for an on-camera commercial client, which somehow gets the attention of voice-over agents.

Regardless, 95% of the actors need a demo and that will generally cost them between $1000 and $2500.

Performers also do not have enough auditions to get better, and without these at-bats, need coaching and work groups instead. After everything is said and done, $2500 to $5000 can easily be spent.

Everyone is also working from home, so they need equipment. Taking into account that almost everyone has a computer these days, there are still costs for a mic, mic stand, pop screen, pre-amp, software, foam padding etc. In the end, decent equipment will run between $500 and $2000.

How Much Does This Cost?

Those three things can easily add up to $10,000 without yet booking a job. Even worse, if you spend less, you likely are increasing the time needed to be successful so the short-term savings may actually be incurring even greater long-term costs.

The more and more I think about this, the more often I think that voice-overs have evolved into all the other professions you need college for except there are no scholarships, student loans or Pell Grants. Pushing this analogy further, there is also a vast gulf in the costs and quality of coaches and demo manufacturers like there are for universities.

No Guarantees

You may do everything right and hire a top coach and demo maker, but like attending Yale or Harvard, there is no guaranteed success. There are only better odds you will be successful. The reverse is true for talent choosing the wrong path. Whether you realize it or not, your odds of success are incredibly slim regardless of how much money you spend unless you align themselves with the right people to nurture you and provide you opportunities.

Voice-Over Rates Part II: Maintaining the Floor

I wrote a piece last week about the unforeseen consequences of accepting lower rates. The response has mostly been positive and since then I have received a bunch of really nice comments and emails lauding me for being so open about my mistake.

While I appreciate the sentiments, I realize I may have stated my problem, but did never offered a solution. More importantly, although I learned a lesson, I’ve still made plenty of crappy deals subsequent to my ESPN experience for dozens of reasons mostly beyond my control.

Planting the flag in the ground

If you were curious where I stand when I negotiate any deal, the first thing anyone should know about me is I’m a strong advocate of SAG-AFTRA. Why stand by this union, given these turbulent times and especially when SAG-AFTRA has been so slow to act on so many issues? The answer is because they at least create a floor (scale) for most of the various voice-over markets.

Why is scale so important?

Two factors make scale important:

  1. Misinformed, unscrupulous or ignorant talent
  2. Agents/managers undercutting market rates

I’ll start with talent first

Do sleazy talents exist? Of course they do just like in any profession. There are some sleazy performers who will willingly undercut other performers for their own gain. While I take issue with those individuals, as much as anyone, I am not concerned with them in the long term.

Why? A percentage of these talents will always exist and trying to convert them to act otherwise is usually fruitless. Instead, I look to the misinformed and the ignorant. The majority of misinformed, naive or ignorant performers will aspire to “fair wages,” but don’t realize that offering voice services at $5, $10, or even $50, is not creating a “floor.” It is one of multiple sub-basements below a market that few bother to participate in.

Groom yourself as a logical thinker

The only answer for the misinformed is education and one place to start is to burst this bubble of flawed logic:

  • “Well hey…It pays $10 dollars, but it only takes 10 minutes. So, it’s like making $60 an hour. Right?”

If that’s the only job in that hour than you are still making $10 dollars an hour. In the meantime, talent has to learn the going rates and SAG-AFTRA needs to make their rates searchable with a few clicks instead of needing to rely on third parties to figure out what to charge for a given job.

Now on to agents

I’m including managers here, but keeping things simple by just using the one term.

Here’s a secret for voice talent: If someone calls for a talent with a below market, but not insulting rate, it is NOT the agent’s jobs to turn down the voice-over work. It is the client’s (voice talent’s) job to say “no.” Here’s another secret: If the talent does say “no,” it is the job of the agent to offer the buyer a talent who will say “yes.”

How often does a voice talent actually say “no?” The odds are maybe 1 in 100. How often does an agent turn that low quote into a job for another talent? Close to half the time.

Is this business behavior unscrupulous? Absolutely not, but if you are concerned it is rigged against the performer, let’s just say it is definitely not in his/her favor.

The balance of power

So, what has maintained the balance of power all these years between talent, agents, and production? Now is the time to circle back to the performing arts unions.

Unfortunately, I think the union membership and its hierarchy have over-inflated their value and forgotten their function in the business. If they simply do their jobs and negotiate fair contracts, then the unions are successful. Personally, I believe a core issue is the fact that the unions are more focused on protecting talent “rights,” as if the unions’ members were working in 19th century coalmines, instead.

What is the solution? SAG-AFTRA, as well as their brethren in AEA, DGA, WGA etc., all need to negotiate as many contracts as quickly as possible and stop making excuses. The active daily market does not care about union committees and protocols. They only care about making deals, fast. If SAG/AFTRA does not reshape itself, then the market will evolve into greater and greater consolidations and talent will almost always lose.

In conclusion

Let me end by saying, when I started in the business focusing on on-air promos, I was considered to be working in the “Wild West” of the industry. The promo industry never had union support, and although agents may have been initially responsible for negotiating relatively fair rates, this is rarely true today.

The multi-nationals took over and set the floor. Today, rates are significantly lower than they were 20 years ago. I knew back in the 1990’s that eventually the networks would force our hand and make us commit to taking less.

Today, I see what’s happening in all facets of the industry and I know the same thing will happen again and again unless SAG/AFTRA cleans up the streets before the producers do.

Voice-Overs: Fighting the Race to the Bottom

Dilemma circa 1995

In 1995, I had a dilemma. I was a young, fairly successful voice-over agent specializing in on-air promos and was one of a handful of agents throughout the country specializing in the field. One of the dozens of networks I worked almost exclusively with was ESPN (prior to them being bought by Disney in 1999). They used a 24 year-old talent who ESPN somehow discovered. To my dismay, they paid him one of the worst rates in all of on-air promotion.

I had inherited the ESPN business when I arrived at the agency and I didn’t have a strong influence yet. The talent was making roughly $50K a year. I also knew the talent’s backstory. Only six months prior he had been selling plumbing supplies for minimum wage.

Regardless, I felt the rate was unfair . Over the next year, I established a relationship and carefully negotiated a $50 bump. The new rate was still below the market, but at least I was raising the bar I told myself.

Cut to… a year later

Through my ESPN on-air contacts, I was hooked up to the marketing department which had a job for someone to read dozens of international promos, twice a week. The catch? The rate they proposed was even lower than the original on-air rate.   It would have been really easy for me to say no except I had another young guy.

Let’s call him Tom.

Tom was really talented and I was working really hard on his development. He was also really struggling. The 20K they were offering would actually change Tom’s life (at least for the time being). After thinking about it I offered Tom to ESPN and they accepted.   The good news was Tom went on to work for them over the next four years and developed into one of the most successful under-30 year-old voice talent in the entire business.

I moved on and always had mixed feeling about Tom’s job. I knew I had done a service to the client, yet I wondered if I had done a disservice to the entire industry?

I would find out in 1999

AFTRA had asked promo agents to meet at the union to discuss rates. I was working in commercials at this point, but my colleagues felt that it was important for me to show up given my working history of rates.

At the round table discussion ESPN was mentioned. We didn’t have clients at the time working at ESPN, so I was not up to speed on their current practices. I found out at that moment the rates had actually dropped below my former rates, and the rate I established for Tom was the bottom floor.

Was it a coincidence? My stomach turned as I sat amongst my peers and wondered whether I was responsible for the reduced rate. Intellectually, I knew it was very possible that another agent just undercut my former rates. This was fairly common at the time especially by one particular agency I knew who had a couple of talent working there. Emotionally, I was still incredibly bothered by my potential culpability.

Do we send mixed signals about acceptable rates and wages?

I never did find out the truth, but I realized that day how market rates never exist in a vacuum. No matter how insulated I felt from the rest of the market by accepting the job, there were still potential repercussions. My biggest questions were:

  • “Did I signal to ESPN that paying low wages was acceptable to New York talent and their talent agencies?”
  • “If so, did I also create a race to the bottom starting with ESPN and possibly the rest of the promo marketplace?”

I never discovered any answers regarding my direct involvement, but ever since that time I have been incredibly sensitive on the topic of accepting low wages. Yes, I have a responsibility to my clients, who may want the work, but I do feel a responsibility to the market and voice-over community as well.

Although, I might lose some work temporarily, I am convinced that the benefits are far greater in the long term and I will bet my reputation that I am correct.

What Does a Great Voice-Over Demo Cost?

Answer: Much More than You Think

I was speaking on the phone Friday with an interesting prospective client when the subject of (voice-over) demos came up. The prospective client had a handful of different commercial, promo, etc. demos. What he did not have yet is a tremendous amount of experience so I assumed that the demos were just that, “demos” and not “actual spots”.

The funny thing is I liked all the demos, which is a rarity for me. When I finally asked, “Who produced the demos?” he went on to rattle off five different productions companies each responsible for producing a single demo. When he finished off the list, I smiled.

Why? Because he figured out, perhaps by accident and/or stroke of good luck, that no one place is equipped to produce demos from scratch for all the different subsets of voice-overs, including but not limited to commercial, promo, trailer, narration, imaging, animation, political advertising, etc.

In my experience…

Before I begin and possibly ruffle some feathers, I should start by saying I have a lot of experience with demos. Not only have I heard tens of thousands, booked hundreds of voice-over jobs directly from them and personally produced over a thousand myself, I have also shared offices with recording studios. Therefore, I am pretty familiar with what an excellent facility and audio engineer are capable of accomplishing. I also know the hours needed to produce a demo from scratch and what demos should and should not cost.

Here’s where my point of view may get unpopular…

Did you know 95% of all demo makers are only capable of producing one subset of voice demos, usually commercial, and there is still a great possibility of incredibly varied results?

For instance, let’s look at commercials. The majority of really good commercial engineers are the following:

  1. Regional and 85% are based in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago
  2. Focus primarily on TV or radio, but not usually both
  3. Routinely charge $200 to $600 (USD) per hour
  4. As a result will cost $2000K (USD) at the bare minimum for a one minute demo.

So, who is producing commercial demos costing somewhere in the $1000-1500 range? I am not sure. I do know that the producer doesn’t have a lot of relevant engineering experience unless that experience is producing demos.

“It’s complicated”

Promos and trailers get even more complicated, so let’s start with trailers. Let’s start with the fact that very few people have actual experience mixing trailers. I am guessing maybe about 100 people nationally are skilled at mixing trailers, and 95 of them are in Los Angeles. While promos have significantly more experienced mixers, 99% of the production is based in five cities NY, LA, Washington, Atlanta and Denver.

What does this mean? Unless your trailer mixer is based in Los Angeles and/or your promo mixer is from one of the five above-mentioned cities, your demo is likely going to be substandard by comparison.

Talking costs

Given those facts, here are my guidelines to what a “real” demo should cost factoring in the following assumptions:

  1. You want the demo to sound national in nature
  2. You are producing the spots from scratch
  3. Each demo is roughly a minute
  4. You are not recording from home
  5. You are not getting a favor from the engineer.

Also, I’m not including animation on this list as effective animation demos can vary wildly and may or may not need significant production.

  1. Commercial: $1500-$3000
  2. Promos: $1500-$2500
  3. Trailers: $2500-$5000
  4. TV narration: $1500-$2500
  5. Imaging: $1000-$1500
  6. Political: $1000-$2000

Now, I know there are exceptions to every rule, but the exception is not the rule. I have often taken advantage of some of these resources throughout my career. However, the fact is the costs above are what the majority will likely cost given the five assumptions I made. Are those costs daunting? Of course and they should be because time and energy have real costs.

For everyone buying demos for significantly cheaper than that I say, “Buyer Beware”. My advice, instead, is to save up your money and do it right the first time.