Wednesday, December 13, 2006

How to become a Voice Over Artist

Every single day, the postman delivers dozens of CD's to the radio station.

There are the latest singles from the hottest artists. There are tracks from aspiring pop stars and local bands, desperate to get on air. There are the latest production music CDs...

And then there are the CD's from aspiring Voice Over artists, looking to break into the world of commercials.

Which is why these CD's end up on my desk.

Now, with all the production CD's I get, plus the hectic schedule of writing ads and sending them off for production, the time I have to listen to aspiring VO's and their home made showreels is limited. But I work with Voice Over artists (via the production gurus in Nottingham) pretty much every day, so I thought I'd present some advice on how to get into the Voice Over game.

What is a Voice Over?

It sounds like a cushtie gig, being a Voice Over artist. You sit in a studio and read off a piece of paper. Your voice gets recorded. You receive a cheque and toddle off to the pub. Then, while you're waiting for your kebab, you hear your voice over the radio.

And that's pretty much it. Somebody has to read the commercials for Koi Carp and Dodgy Sofas. And if you've got a decent voice, why can't it be you?

If that's what you're thinking, you should be aware that plenty of other people have thought it as well. That's why getting into Voice Over work is a surprisingly difficult and competitive business.

But it can be worth it.

Established voice over artists can make quite a respectable income through voice work. The VO's we use tend to record five or six commercials in a sitting (for transmission to several different stations across the country) and get paid about £20 for each. Depending on the size of the station, this rate can go up quite sharply. Your voice on a national advert, or broadcast on Capital FM in London, could theoretically earn you an Equity rate of several hundred pounds.

Before you get too excited, though, be aware that the rates for Voice Work are only as high as the production companies are willing to pay. It's such a competitive business that if you're not willing to work for the fee they're offering, the chances are somebody else will. So don't get dollar signs in your eyes when I tell you about Capital FM and Equity Rates. If you're able to get into Voice Work, you can expect about £15 to £20 per commercial you record.

Top Ten Tips for Breaking into the Voice Over Business

1: Produce a Show Reel CD. This is a bit of a no brainer. Unless you get your Show Reel out there, nobody will hear your voice and 'discover' you. But the biggest mistake most aspiring Voice Overs make is sending out crap.

Radio stations get hundreds of CD's sent to them every day. A blank CD burnt on your home PC, with 'Dave's Showreel' scrawled on it in marker pen, is going straight into one of those mysterious filing cabinets all radio stations have (which are full of crappy CD's dating back to the early nineties.)

If you're trying to convince a producer that you're a hard working, professional Voice Over, make sure professionalism just drips off your CD. Invest in some smart jewel cases and CD labels and produce something good looking. A cost effective method is to buy some of those plastic wallets and print out colour CD labels. That will look neat and professional.

Make sure WITHOUT FAIL that your name, email address and telephone/ISDN number are printed on your CD. Because your letter and jewel case will go missing. Guaranteed. Even if your CD gets played and your voice is good, nobody is going to root through the trash for your telephone number.

A picture is a good idea, too - even if you have 'a face for radio.' Just try to avoid the kooky gurning or red-eyed, blurry pictures of you in the pub. You think it's unique and original. So did all the other chumps who sent in practically identical photos.

2: Invest in ISDN. ISDN is a high quality phone connection that enables you to link directly to a production studio and talk in real time at CD quality. Most professional VO artists have ISDN set up in their home and work from a 'studio.' (This studio often doubles as an office, bedroom or landing!) If you don't have ISDN, the only way to record your voice at the required quality is to actually go to a studio at a radio station or production company and record your work there. That is expensive and inconvenient. For that reason, producers will never normally select a VO artist unless they have ISDN at home. So don't shoot yourself in the foot. If you can afford it, invest in ISDN. You'll find your opportunities severely limited if you don't.

3: Get some Experience. It's a catch 22 situation. Producers want a voice over artist with experience, who knows what to do and can deliver it quickly and efficiently. Producers are incredibly busy people (hell, I know ours are) and it's often unwise to risk an untested Voice Over when recording ads. An experienced Voice Over can shoot through a script in a couple (more like a dozen) reads. An inexperienced Voice Artist will need to be led through the script line by line. Producers don't have time for this, so they'll always take an experienced voice over a green one.

So to give yourself a head start, get some experience. You might have to bite the bullet and offer your VO services for free at first (in which case a producer might be more willing to give you the guidance you require.) Alternatively, a great way to practice can be found at your local library, where they often accept volunteers to read newspapers and books onto CD or tape for the visually impaired.

4: It's a Numbers Game. The legendary Gif Gifford put sales into a very simple equation. If you ask 100 people to buy your product and one accepts, you've made one more sale than if you asked nobody. When soliciting for VO work, you're basically selling yourself and it's exactly the same numbers game. There are 500 commercial radio stations in the UK, plus lots of RSL (temporary radio licences awarded for short periods) and plenty independentant production companies (like Mutt 'N' Jeff.)

Send out your showreel to all of them. You can get the addresses from www.yell.com or other places on the internet. And once you've mailed them your showreel, don't be afraid to pick up the phone and give them a call.

5: Find a name. If you just write the station name on the envelope, your showreel will end up on that pile of mail the receptionist opens (at big stations) or the work experience lad tears open (and most stations.) If you can find out who does the commercial production, or the name of a producer, make sure to address the envelope to them. Then it will at least hit the desk of somebody who's in the chain. Try looking at the station's website for the appropriate name or, failing that, send them an email or pick up the phone.

One thing I learned in radio: Everybody has an ego. If I get an envelope with my name on it, I'll treat it with a lot more seriousness than just another jiffy bag marked: "Comm Prod."

6: Be Polite. One other thing I learned in radio. It's a small business and if you piss somebody off, it'll almost certainly come back to bite you in the arse. People swap companies, change stations... Whoever it is, if they stick around in the radio game, you'll run into them again. I often meet my old boss Tim Nice in Badger Farm Sainsburys.

So if you are lucky enough to get some voice work, do everything ask of you with enthusiasm and dedication. Be polite. Because I have it on authority that a difficult voice over will not be given more work if there's another VO available - and if this guide teaches you anything, it's that there are PLENTY of other people out there wanting to take your Voice Over contracts for themselves.

Producers are very, very busy people. Being professional, polite and flexible is the quickest way to establish yourself as a good bet whenever they need a voice.

7: Be Online. With broadband and ISDN, producers don't rely on piles of CD's to find their production tracks or voice artists. Websites like KPM and BMG Zomba allow them to download tracks at broadcast quality. One site in particular, Voiceovers.co.uk, allows them to do the same with voice artists.

If you are serious about Voice Over work, sign up to voiceovers.co.uk. It will establish your credibility and enable producers to find you quickly and easily. Signing up there wonnecessarilyily make your career as a voice artist - but it will get you some work from producers who don't know you and offer a useful route for producers who do.

Another option is a website with your information and showreel on. List your experience and update your showreel when and if you can. It's a good thing to include the website address on your showreel CD so producers can find out a bit more about you.

Like with your showreel CD, the more professional your website looks and sounds, the more seriously it will be taken. If you're not a professional website designer, think about using something like myspace.com to highlight your work. It will allow you to have a smart, clean looking presence on the web without a degree in HTML.

8: Be Good. This sounds like another no brainer, but it's not. Sure, you might talk all day long, but that doesn't mean you'll be a good voice over artist. Practice. Get experience. Take criticism and guidance from producers. Do whatever it takes to improve your voice. One good idea is to record yourself reading a passage from a book and play it back. If you listen objectively, you'll be able to quickly identify what parts of your delivery need work.

Newsreaders get coached on how to speak, so I don't see why Voice Overs shouldn't have to as well. There are courses available and you would be surprised at how much they can improve the way you perform.

9. Be different. I just broke all of the above rules. I called up a Voice Over artist. I paid him above the odds. And he didn't have ISDN. We actually had to bring him into the studio to record his lines.

The fact is, the guy had an entirely natural Caribbean accent and experience doing voice overs for the BBC. When I wrote a script for Southampton's only Caribbean restaurant, his was the only voice that would fit the bill. Because there's nothing worse than somebody pulling a fake accent and demanding to get paid twenty quid for it.

If you have a different accent or a unique spin on things, you may well find that your accent earns a premium. But be careful. The same reason your accent is in demand might well be the reason your voice isn't chosen for more mundane projects.

10. Be lucky. At the end of the day, there are so many reasons why some people make a good living from being a VO and some more talented people don't. But one of the major ones has to be luck. Luck running into the right scriptwriter or producer. Luck at getting your showreel into the right hand. In fact, it's an entirely arbitory process.

The sad fact is, voice overs get work every single day. Watch TV? Each advert has two or three voice overs on it. The same for radio. But the truth?

Nobody got famous from voicing a washing powder commercial. And if one voice wasn't there. Wasn't good. Wasn't affordable... They weren't picked. Somebody else was.

Well, that's not strictly true. Remember Tony the Tiger? They're Grrrreat?

The guy who voiced the commercials was called Thurl Ravenscroft. And he did the voice over for the world's favourite tiger since 1951.

So maybe I'm wrong. Maybe somebody did get famous from voicing commercials. And maybe the next Thurl Ravenscoft is you. So get up and get your showreels into the postbox.

6 comments:

jodi said...

he also sang the grinch song, didn't he? Your a Mean One, Mr Grinch.

Dave said...

I thought this was very helpful. I'm thinking about getting into the voiceover business in the US, and this posting presented a very realistic (yet encouraging) picture of the entire process. I've worked with VO artists in my career and even I wasn't aware of the importance of ISDN (although living in Manhattan, maybe it's less of a requirement...there are studios everywhere). Anyway, thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts. Hopefully, many prospective VO artists can benefit from your experience on the other side of the process!
Cheers,
Dave

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chizoba said...

hi. i trully appreciate the tips above. i am new to the career and wish to start up. i have not got any show reels yet....can anyone give me some insights please? i live in the uk and any cost saving tips will be appreciated.

thanks