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VO Compensation: everybody talks about it, but…

Posted in For Beginners, For Pro's by Administrator on the October 31st, 2017

By Jim Conlan

You’ll find this discussion on any given day, in any given forum, online or in your own community: voice talent compensation is the pits.

I think we have a pretty good idea of the problem; my intention isn’t to go into that today. What we need are solutions.

For starters, I should mention that I don’t believe in win-lose scenarios. I’m not interested in fomenting rebellion. No T-shirts or shots across the bow. Instead, I’d like to suggest that perhaps we’re looking at the problem from the wrong perspective. Consider the following:

1. We’re in a relationship business: the clients who value us the most are the ones who know us best.
2. Those clients are happy to pay us what we’re worth.
3. Repeat business is much more likely from clients with whom we have such a relationship.

What’s the problem, then? Well, I can tell you what mine is: I still occasionally seek work through the painful and disheartening process of auditioning. And who are these auditions for? People I don’t know; people who often are looking for a deal first, good talent second. It should be no surprise that they don’t pay well.

So if you feel you’re underpaid, ask yourself these questions:

• When am I compensated fairly for voice-over projects?
• What sort of client generally compensates this way?
• How do I get booked for most of these projects?
• Where do the bulk of these projects come from?
• How can I increase the number of these projects and reduce the rest?

I can tell you what my answers are. I’m fairly compensated (paid according to traditional industry norms) by clients with whom I have a relationship. Meaning they know me and I know them. They have no problem paying me what I’m worth, because they know they’re going to get value for what they paid. In return, I make sure I stay in touch with them. And perhaps most important, many of these clients are local.

Conversely, the projects I don’t get paid well for are often (not always) those I audition for. They are not local. I’m an unknown to them and they to me. I may never work with them again, even if I do get the job.

This isn’t always the case, of course. I’ll audition for a project if the fee is posted upfront and it’s within my acceptable range. Naturally, given the huge numbers of talent with whom I’ll be competing, this is not a high-probability game. I audition and move on.

If you have an agent, you have an advantage; they will hold the line on acceptable fees. But remember, the job of getting work is up to you, not them. You can’t sit around waiting for the phone to ring. Luckily, I have a great agent: Pastorini-Bosby Talent. They make sure that, however I get hired – directly or through them – I get properly compensated. And my repeat business with these clients is exceptionally high.

The wild card in the business is, of course, audio books. Few of us happen to live in New York, or near an audio-book production company. If we’re serious about doing audio books and want to be compensated fairly, we’re going to have to market ourselves to the high-paying players. Otherwise, we’ll simply have to take our chances with auditions.

A note of “interest” to audio-book narrators

Posted in For Pro's by Administrator on the March 27th, 2017

What makes a story interesting? For years I’ve been saying that if what you’re narrating matters to you, it will matter to your listeners.

But how do you make it matter? Logically, you might say (and I’ve heard many say it) that you need to “be interesting.”

Well… OK… but have you ever tried to “be interesting”? I have. Any number of painful dating experiences comes to mind. By trying to be interesting I was putting the attention on myself, not on the other person.

But what if we changed the adjective a little: instead of trying to be “interesting,” how about being “interested”? Whether you’re narrating an account of the murder of Robert Blake’s wife (did that) or the ascent of Mt. Ararat (did that) or an hour-by-hour description of the taking of the Scheldt River Estuary in WWII (yeah, did that, too), you’ll keep your listener’s attention in proportion to how interested you are in what you’re narrating.

In practice it works sort of like this. Before you narrate a single chapter, adopt the attitude that you hope your listener will have: be curious. Say, “I wonder what this is all about.” Read each page with a sense of discovery – that you’re going to find out something new. Hopefully this will generate an undertone to your narration that has an unspoken “Huh!” at the end of each sentence.

The result is that, instead of trying to sound interesting, you’re sharing a mutually interesting experience. Who wouldn’t be interested in that?

Voice-over Math: Less than 100% = Zero

Posted in For Beginners, For Pro's by Administrator on the August 31st, 2016

In a previous life, when I thought I was going to be a painter, I had a breakthrough one day that I wanted to share with my painting professor and mentor. I proudly showed him the canvases and waited for the handshake. It didn’t happen. Instead, he said, “OK, I see what you’re trying to do here. But it’s a long way from the richness and depth you’re capable of. You need to take it all the way – one hundred percent.”

If there is one moment in my work with voice-over students, one forehead-smacking moment that makes the difference in their professional development, it’s the realization that they aren’t playing full-out.

As we develop our talents and skills, there’s a tendency to say, “Well, that sounded pretty good.” But “pretty good” is just a milestone, not a destination. The mark of a professional is the ability to recognize these milestones as steps toward one hundred percent.

But often there’s a reluctance to go all the way, and I think I know why. I think it’s fear: fear of going too far, of sounding ridiculous, of going over the top. Well, from what I’ve been hearing, a lot of voice talent is a long way from the top!

So if fear seems to be holding my student back, I ask this question: “How passionate are you about what you’re saying?” Much of the time, failing to deliver fully is failing to connect fully to what you are saying. And connecting to what you’re saying depends on how you feel about what you’re saying. This applies, by the way, to any type of voice-over project, whether it’s a bodice-ripper novel or a punch-press training video.

What’s at stake? One hundred percent = a career. Less than one hundred percent = no career. You do the math.

What do you mean by “perfect”?

Posted in For Pro's by Administrator on the August 31st, 2016

There’s probably no group more devoted to perfection than artists – among whom I include voice talent. We’re constantly wondering if we did our best. In fact, back in the day it was an oft-heard comment that “I did my best take in the car going home.”

But what is perfection to you? Is it reading a script without a mistake? Is it the mythical One Take? Is it the painstaking process of recording take after take until everybody is deliriously happy? My opinion is… none of the above.

I have worked with a number of directors who really believe that if you record enough takes eventually you’ll get it perfect. What a recipe for disaster! It hardly ever works, and it often drives the voice talent nuts. More enlightened directors know that it’s the result you’re after, not how you get there. And since these days you’ll probably be your own director, it has become easier to focus on the result.

Recorded, not live

After all, this is voice over. That means it’s recorded, not live; it’s audio, not video. So there’s really no reason to get it all perfect in one magical take.

Let’s say that after two or three takes you feel like you mostly got it. Maybe there were a couple of glitches – a line or two you didn’t quite like, or it came in a bit long. But that take had something special about it. At this point you don’t really need to try for another take, hoping that the magic remains while you iron out the glitches. Instead, I suggest you do two things:

You, the narrator, you, the editor

First, listen to other takes to see if maybe the glitches in question didn’t appear in them; if so, a little cutting and pasting might give you a complete, seamless take. Second, if you don’t find what you need, do pick-ups and paste them in place.

If you’re good at matching tone, pace, level, etc. – and if you’re adept at seamless editing – you may end up with a “perfect” read. It’s something you, the narrator, created with you, the editor.

At that point, of course, how you define “perfect” is between you and your client. But at least you didn’t have to beat yourself senseless to get there.

Narrating Fiction: The Voice Isn’t Everything

Posted in For Pro's by Administrator on the May 12th, 2014

It’s understandable that, when you are narrating a work of fiction, you want to make the characters distinct. Sometimes, in the course of back-and-forth dialogue, it can get pretty confusing for a listener to keep track of who’s talking. So the narrator naturally thinks first about distinctions of voice – pitch, tone, enunciation, and so on. There may be subtleties of accent as well, not to mention vocal quirks – if you really want to get creative.

I don’t disagree with the importance of vocal distinctions. But I don’t think that’s where the narrator should start. I think the real distinctions between characters are in their personalities. And great differentiation can occur in this area, regardless of how distinctive the vocal qualities are.

The “Character of the Character”

Listen to a sample from some of the more popular audio-book narrators, and you may be surprised at how they approach characters. In some cases you may hear relatively little vocal distinction. Instead, they seem to brilliantly capture the “character of the character.” Some characters speak boldly, some hesitantly. Some speak haughtily, others timidly, others matter-of-fact (-ly?). Even apart from differences in pitch and tone, a child may have a lot more energy in speaking than her parent. And an older person may not really “sound” old, but they may be inclined to talk more slowly, more deliberately, perhaps even more whimsically.

Start with the Personalities

So when I work with someone who is new to narration, my advice is to first approach the story from the personalities of the characters. Is this one basically an optimist or a pessimist? Is that one angry all the time? Is she a control-freak? Is he a submissive wimp? Are these two brothers constantly bickering with each other? Is the older guy frustrated or hopeful or resigned? Look for clues in the author’s description of the character. (Hint: you mat need to read ahead a bit to find full information.)
Starting with these personality traits will guide you in choosing an actual voice for the characters. They will also help you when the characters interact; because we all know that people act differently depending on whom they’re interacting with.

I hope that this is especially encouraging news to those who would be fiction narrators, but aren’t sure they have the vocal range for it. You may not need it.

The Demo Behind the Demo

Posted in For Beginners, For Pro's by Administrator on the September 10th, 2009

By Jim Conlan
Copyright Jim Conlan, Voice Overs 2009
To return to my website, just hit the “back” button on your toolbar.

Never before have newcomers to the voice-over industry had so much helpful information in putting their demos together. There’s lots of great advice out there on how to match your style to the work that’s available – and how to engineer your demo so it sounds national from start to finish.

But (you knew there was a “but”) there’s one aspect of putting together a great demo that I think needs more attention. I call it “the Demo behind the Demo.” When you submit your demo, the unspoken agreement between you and the voice seeker is that if they hire you, you’ll be able to perform as brilliantly and effortlessly as your demo suggests.

In my work with newcomers, I find that their eagerness to jump in the water sometimes outweighs their readiness to perform. They want to get that demo done and start marketing it as soon as possible. That’s OK, but I like to ask them these three questions to make sure they’re ready.

- First, did the voice tracks you’ve recorded for your demo require a lot of editing?
I’m not talking about the occasional lift from another take, or a pickup that will turn a great read into a showstopper. I’m talking about the cobble job that disguises the fact you couldn’t get the phrasing right, or the timing, or you kept stumbling over the same phrase all morning. Practice until your basic delivery is good in every respect – then work on making it awesome.

- Second, if you’re hired for a job, can you perform as well as you sound on the demo without coaching?
I’ve had a lot of nervous clients tell me they wish they could bring me to their first gig. I make sure they have enough practice under their belts that they have loads of confidence in what they do. Granted, there are times when you’ll be hired to do a job outside your core expertise. Even then, you should still feel good enough about your skills that you can tackle it with confidence.

- And third, can you deliver on demand – how the client wants it and when the client wants it?
How the client wants it is often the hardest part to master. How can you predict what the client will really want? You need to be sure enough of your skills to handle the script, then be open enough to take direction. If you’re not sure what the director is asking for, ask questions. Astonishingly, we directors are not always great communicators. Regarding when the client wants it – you won’t often be told to “get it done when you can.” Although there’s often some flexibility to the recording schedule, you need to be able to commit to a session time. If you find that recording schedules are interfering with your “real job,” you may have some tough career choices ahead of you.

I believe that putting together a great demo is a Truth-in-Advertising issue. You need to develop enough expertise and confidence to actually do what your demo implies you can do… not what some magician-engineer or voice-over coach has made you sound like you can do.

In my introductory class, I ask people if they play a musical instrument. If any do, I ask, how well? Good enough for your own amusement? Good enough for friends and family? Or good enough to get up on stage and get paid for it? Our approach to becoming a professional voice-over talent should be the same. It takes years to become a professional anything. Why should voice overs be the exception?

If you take the time to prepare fully, you’ll provide voice seekers with more than a great-sounding demo. You’ll give them the services of a real pro who will get the job done just the way they expected it.

Versatility vs. Memorability

Posted in For Pro's by Administrator on the June 16th, 2009

By Jim Conlan
Copyright Jim Conlan, Voice Overs 2009
To return to my website, just hit the “back” button on your toolbar.

When faced with the prospect of competing with literally thousands of voice-over artists across the country, many of us think it would be best if we were all things to all people. After all, we figure, the more versatile we are, the more auditions and projects we will qualify for.

Unfortunately, that’s not always how it works. Although our auditions might sound professional, too much versatility may not result in an outstanding audition. When a voice seeker is theoretically listening to 200 auditions (although I wouldn’t bet on it), it’s not the competent read that stands out, but the memorable one.

If you have a really unique voice, or habitually use your voice in a particularly unique way, you already know the value of memorability. But if you have a good, but fairly common voice, how do you stand out?

First, listen to lots of voice-over talent. Try to discover who else “sounds like you.” Many of the online marketing sites make this easy. Go to your profile, and chances are, the website will invite the voice seeker to listen to other voices like yours… not what you want on your profile page, but there it is.

Next, try to determine the unique characteristics of these artists. Then listen to your own voice samples and try to determine how you’re different. You may need outside help to really figure this out.

Understand that your style is more than your voice. It is a combination of that, plus your innate talent, your experience and training, and your personality. These four characteristics almost automatically will make you different from anyone else on the planet. But you need to become fully aware of those characteristics to develop and get the most out of your style.

This might help: of all the types of scripts you encounter – either to audition or to practice – which seem to be the easiest and most natural to do? You might even try ranking these types. The ones near the top are the ones you should concentrate on.

Remember that even if you think you can do a pretty good job with a script, there are plenty of other people auditioning the same script who are more than “pretty good.” So for now, better pass by the “pretty good” scripts and concentrate instead on bringing all the wattage of your particular style to a script that calls for it.

If you follow these suggestions, my guess is you’ll still have a fair amount of versatility in what you offer. But it will be more focused. You may not do quite as many auditions, but you may improve your chances of being chosen.

Ultimately, you’ll know which auditions are closest to your style. The more you concentrate on those, the more you will acknowledge yourself as the unique – and competitive – voice-over talent you are.

What Happened to All the Commercial Work?

Posted in For Pro's by Administrator on the February 13th, 2009

By Jim Conlan
Copyright Jim Conlan, Voice Overs 2009
To return to my website, just hit the “back” button on your toolbar.

Lots of professional voice-over talent, including me, have a long history of doing voice overs for radio and television. As you may have noticed, though, that long history is pretty much… history.

Why? The immediate answer is, lots of advertisers are abandoning traditional media in favor of reaching their markets online. OK, but that answer ignores an obvious point: There’s still plenty of advertising on radio and television! So how come you’re not getting those gigs? Here are three big reasons why:

- There are fewer local advertisers
- Local media is retail-oriented
- Most local advertising is produced for free at the station

Disappearance of local advertisers

Let’s start by acknowledging that for most of us our commercial gigs were with local advertisers – barring the occasional national Budweiser job (Oh… that wasn’t you? Damn, it sure sounded like you).

Sadly, many of these advertisers have disappeared. There are two main reasons why. First, with the exception of cable, the local media have boosted their prices beyond the affordability of many of the smaller advertisers. And second, many companies that used to be independent and locally owned have been either swallowed up or driven out of business by larger regional or national companies.

Think, for example, of all the banks in your town that used to be locally owned. Or the hospitals. Or the restaurants. Gone! That means that the advertiser pool itself has shrunk – and the ad agencies that served them have shrunk or disappeared. The voice-over opportunities to serve the local market have, therefore, also shrunk.

Skew towards retail

But what about those locals who are still advertising? For the most part, they consist of larger retail companies such as furniture stores, car dealers, and so on. They’re still willing to put money into broadcast media because on any given day their price-item message will attract buyers.

The problem is that most of these large retailers have a set formula for their commercials that usually requires the services of just one or two lucky voice-over artists – and sometimes those few artists keep those gigs for years and years. There are no term limitations.

Cost over quality

That still leaves a pretty good number of miscellaneous local companies who are on the air at least occasionally. Why don’t we approach them? Well, there was a time when many such companies were ambitious enough to hire local ad agencies to write and produce decent commercials for them… and hire decent talent to voice them.

No longer. To save money to pay for the exorbitant media costs, most advertisers have their spots produced for free by the station. That means that, although the actual production will be OK, the spot will be written by a person who doesn’t know how to write, and voiced by whatever station personnel are available under the crushing deadlines stations impose on themselves. I don’t have to describe the result: just turn on your nearest radio or TV.

What this means for us

So is it time to pack in your RCA Model 77 and say, “Goodnight, America”? Well, I haven’t. As many of us have found, more and more non-commercial work is developing all the time. We simply have to be more flexible about what we do.

I believe the true gift of a great voice-over artist isn’t only to help make a great commercial: it’s to bring even ordinary copy to life in a way that makes people pay attention. That gift can be applied to any voice-over project: corporate, institutional, technical, narrative, instructional, on hold – whatever.

So if you’re not getting many commercial jobs anymore, and you haven’t yet gotten into non-commercial work, you might still have a rosy future ahead of you… maybe on the Budweiser website!