Archive for June, 2010

Just A Voice In The Crowd

Voice talent with their own sound studios (usually home-based) have the freedom and limitless possibilities of working with anyone in the world. As long as there’s a high-speed internet connection, anyone can pay you instantly, direct you via phone patch or ISDN, (or not — leave you to “do your thing”) and download your files no matter what part of the globe they occupy. 

Agents, too — who are a clearing-house for projects looking for voice talent — and who, at one time, were very territorial about only featuring talent from their own area, see the benefit in expanding their rosters to not only talent based locally to where the agency is located — they can broaden their talent base to performers far and wide and give their prospective clients a wider choice of voices. Voice talent in other cities can — in many cases — actually produce their auditions faster than locally based talent, who are at the mercy of recording studio schedules, and also have the added logistical challenges of allotting actual time out of their day to physically go to the audition, find parking, etc.

Sounds like a win-win, yes?

Clients have more choice, agents raise their profile by having access to voices based anywhere in the world, and the voice talent can be submitted for projects which — even fifteen years ago — would have been unavailable to them.

The problem lies in that wider base of selection. Throughout the years I have joined countless online voice talent agencies — the process is usually no more complicated than e-mailing your demo,  and before you know it, you’re up there with all the other talent in your gender/style division. Some agencies act like an ersatz EBay of voice talent, where talent are  in a bidding war to see who will do the job for the lowest price. Some agencies ask for an outlay of cash for your listing; others ask for an even  *larger* outlay of cash, promising that you’ll be in their “premium listings”; a more elite and narrower pool of talent who are singled out for higher-profile and juicier opportunities. <cough>.

And then the auditions come.

Reams and reams of them. If you had nothing else to do for the day, and you were registered with two or three of these online agencies, you could do nothing else with your entire day but audition — from sun-up to sun-down. “Great!” you’re thinking: “Auditions equal opportunities to get hired! More auditions is a *good* thing, right..?”

If you’re a voice talent in the formative years of your career and you need experience in auditioning or need more practice to find your “voice” (or you simply feel you could use more opportunity to experiment further in front of the mic) — I think spending your day auditioning is the best expenditure of your time there can be.

For those of us with established careers — and an already full roster of clients who need recordings every day — auditions are time-consuming, and even more so when you come to the hard realisation that even if you have paid to be a so-called “premium” member, you are one of literally thousands of people auditioning for the job.

Ad agencies use a service called Voicebank.net, where voice-over projects are posted, promoted, and generally made public. Agents pick up on these projects and enlist their talent roster to audition for them — which explains why all three of the agents who represent me now (and even a couple of former agents who still keep me on their e-mail lists) will send me audition notices for the same project.

The agent, of course, is going to send as many of their people up for the job as they can (hedges their bets that one of *their* people will be hired), and that — combined with a limitless number of agents across the world picking up on the same audition notice and sending *their* people out for the job….well, you get the idea. You are literally a voice in a crowd.  And no matter how stellar an audition you’re turning in — the client will never have a chance to listen to all the auditions which have been uploaded for that particular job. They won’t even have even the slightest opportunity to listen to all of the “cream of the crop” auditions — the very best of the best auditions hand-sorted by the agents. (And how do you get into the “cream of the crop” list? Muffin Basket? Beats me.) Being the first to submit your audition as soon as you get it is also no guarantee that you’ll be listened to (you have no idea how many other agents — in other time zones — have already picked up on the audition have already had their talent submit).

It’s a pointless, frustrating, and losing game, and what bothers me most:  it erodes the confidence of many voice talent. I, myself, marvelled in the dichotomy of the fact that I work constantly — in all aspects of voice-over — and (thank my blessings) never seem to be at a shortage for work. By all accounts, I do solid work, and I’m completely directable. I’m even at the point where I can be selective and pick and choose my projects — which is an enviable position to be in.

I can’t get *arrested* auditioning through an agency.

I reviewed my stats at one agency in which I was a “premium” member: in excess of 40 auditions submitted in a year — exactly *zero* times hired. I recently read a blog posting by a voice-over professional extolling the virtues of online agencies (he claimed to have amassed $800 K+  a year and a whopping 1:1 ratio of auditions versus jobs landed through one particular agency) — what he didn’t divulge is that he actually *owns* the agency. He submits only himself for the highest-profile/best-paying contracts. All “crumbs” which fall from the feeding frenzy get filtered down to his “premium” members, and the non-paying group (Lord help them) gets whatever miniscule crumbs are left from *that* feeding frenzy. What amazed me most were the comment postings after his article, made by voice talent who were frustrated to the core at not having that same success ratio; many were doubting their own talent and ability, and talking about throwing in the towel altogether.

My advice: throw in the towel. No — don’t quit voice-over; wean yourself off the agencies. This cycle of excitement at getting the audition notice for some very high-profile product; analyzing what approach they’re looking for; and delivering an audition that you hope will make all in the boardroom sit up and take notice — only to never hear about the project again or be updated on how your audition went over — and *now* — to ponder the idea that there’s a remote chance that your audition even made it in front of the client — I think your energies are better spent building up your own business. Cultivate your own clientele; do your own research into who produces what — whether it be ad agencies or sound studios — and make sure they know your work. We all fantasize about having an agent who actually “represents” us — who gets what an incredible talent your are, carefully cherry-picks projects specifically for you and submits you along with — maybe — half a dozen of your equally high-calibre peers for consideration.

Rather than presume that it must be you — that you submitted yet another terrible audition; that your gear must be sub-standard, that you have a quality which rubs the agent the wrong way, or that you just plain suck — realize that (obviously) more incredibly high-quality talent are passed over for a job than who actually gets hired, and that like me — despite having a full and rewarding voice-over career, you + agencies might equal a bad fit.

Take solace in knowing that many incredibly successful voice talent are in exactly the same boat — and that involvement with an agent should be considered to be an adjunct to your already well-thought out and executed marketing plan.

And no matter what: just keep doing that thing you do.

Next week: I’ll write about telephone prompts which I don’t necessarily regret saying — they’re just prompts which will come back to haunt me.

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Location, Location, Location!

Realtors have long understood the importance of accurately and engagingly describing properties to prospective buyers.

 Written copy describing the features of properties range from point-form, almost “hostage-letter”-style writing, to emotion-filled, detailed, and flowery listings which border on prose. The goal, always, is to captivate and tantalize buyers, making them add the property to their “must-see” list.

 Realtors have also long been advocates of hiring professional voices to “sell” their copy — whether it be in the form of a “talking house” automated telephone line on which buyers listen to a pre-recorded message to learn more about a given property (the number is usually posted right on the “For Sale” sign outside the property or in a print listing), streaming audio on various MLS-linked websites, or on actual TV channels devoted to featuring Real Estate listings around the clock — the use for professional talent in the arena of real estate advertising is an on-going and constant requirement. It’s a great time-saver for Realtors, who (like all of us) have limited hours in the day (although most of them do their best to stretch that workday) and have a finite amount of energy: having an automated description which play at any time of the day or night to a limitless number of people is an invaluable tool. (And if it’s done in a professional, warm, engaging tone, all the better.)

Conservatively speaking, I’ve voiced several thousands of house descriptions for real estate markets across North America — I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve uttered the phrase: “Location, Location, Location!” The properties have ranged from opulent luxury (I voice a lot of listings for the upscale exclusive enclave of Moon Valley, in Phoenix) to gritty, inner-city fixer-uppers — all markets can benefit from a personalized “tour” of the home.

Being a bit of a “house nut” myself, I always try to visualize an actual floor plan in my head of the house description I’m voicing — I love giving special treatment to details like: “18 foot vaulted ceilings”, “travertine tile flooring” “newly remodeled kitchen with stainless steel appliances” and my excitement is almost palpable as I describe aspects like “marble steps leading up to a spacious jetted tub”.

I’ve learned, additionally, that there can be a significant amount of “code words” — probably well-known in the Real Estate industry — which might save you a trip from seeing a property which clearly won’t fit your needs.

Watch out for the following:

1. “A Real Fixer-Upper”

Code for: “It’s been cleared for habitation again!” Visions of workers in hazmat suits clearing out the remnants of a fully-equipped Meth Kitchen come to mind. Or perhaps, several dumpsters have been filled with the spoils of an out-of control hoarder, and it’s now ready for your love, care, and attention. Whatever circumstances have led up to the “fixer Upper” designation, tread warily and ask the right questions. No, in today’s sociological climate, it’s *not* out of line to ask your Realtor if there has been a history of a grow op or Meth Factory operating out of the house. It speaks to the toxicity and general safety of the dwelling, and it would be prudent to at least investigate into the possibility. As well, Realtors are not legally obligated to disclose (and yet are obligated to answer truthfully if asked) if a death has occurred in the house — another question I might be inclined to ask, if for no other reason, but to keep my own wim-wam quotient low.

2. “…..in a growing, up-and-coming neighborhood!”

Just follow the sounds of a bulldozer to locate your future creampuff, and be prepared to follow a plywood “gang plank” to the front door — and look at the mountains of soil for the kids to play in! Newness can be a great thing — and there’s nothing quite like having the artistic controls over a home that’s being built to your specs. But if you encounter adjectives like “burgeoning” “growing” or “developing” to describe a prospective neighborhood, be prepared for the detritus that goes along with it: dust, dirt, construction noise, and an undeniable “featureless” homogeny that accompanies a neighborhood until years later, when it develops an identity and personality.

3. “…..this historic home needs your touch!”

…and mounds and mounds of your money. Everyone loves a beautifully-restored vintage house, updated skillfully and tastefully. Practically no one anticipates what a financial commitment it will be to get it to a level which is livable and up to code (at the very minimum) and to take it further — comfortable and aesthetically pleasing; workable to your modern standards and yet still paying homage to its roots, structure, and historical intentions. Do some research of similarly-restored properties in the area and get a clear idea of what you can expect to part with financially and emotionally.

4. “Quaint”…….”Cozy…”

It’s small, folks. They can conjure images of curling up in front of the “sweetest little fireplace you’ve ever seen!” with your mug of tea and a good book — but it’s quite possible that “curling up” may the only workable position to maneuver around the place. Decide how much living space you need — and don’t fall for adorable, diminutive descriptors unless all you want is a rambling 750 square feet in which to contort yourself.

Next week: I’ll tackle the conundrum about agents — specifically those who are in the position to procure work for voice talent. If you’re a voice talent who feels lost in the sea of hundreds of other talent submitting auditions and you’re just not seeing results — you’re not alone. I’ll try my best to explain why this happens, and why — if you’re like me — agents may not be the best fit for you.

Thanks for reading!

The Myth of Competition

There's Enough Pie for Everyone!

 

When I was an acting major at the University of Calgary, I remember a librarian on the Fine Arts Floor and I trying to solve a mystery: despite the card catalogues proclaiming that several compendiums of monologues were catalogued as having a specific monologue I was looking for, (I was an after a unique audition piece for upcoming general auditions which would be one that the panel hadn’t seen before or hadn’t tired of — I wanted to avoid being the fifteenth “Saint Joan” they’d seen that day…) —  none of the compilations seemed to have the audition piece despite a careful scan of each page…until the librarian pointed out a razor cut near the spine — and the specific page containing the monologue was missing. Someone had taken out an X-Acto knife and had removed the monologue from the book — not due to a shortage of photocopying change. The librarian had seen it before in the law library: so fierce was the competition among law students to be the only ones familiar with obscure law cases, (and the perceived importance of no one else being privy to that case) that they meticulously removed them from law texts to give them that extra edge. 

Not long ago, I was in the roster of an online voice talent agency which had a web interface where talent could upload their auditions — but any approved talent, after logging in, accessed a page which displayed *all* the talent’s full names, e-mail addresses, and audition files — which could be listened to by other talent; but more importantly — and more sinister — could be easily corrupted, deleted, or replaced by anyone who chose to. After numerous problems with just that kind of thing happening, the interface was changed to be more insular, compartmentalized, and private — and the agent being more aware of the sometimes cutthroat nature of competition among artists. 

In every industry, one must realize that no matter how specific your skills; regardless of how much experience and acclaim you may have earned doing your job — there’s someone else out there doing it too. Maybe no so well or with not so much flair — or perhaps more, who knows? Especially with what I do — the voicing of telephony systems — I tend to feel, well, *rare*. I work alone; I transact with my clients, and generally keep my head down. It’s an unusual and oddball profession — an instant hit in every “what do you do for a living?” conversation — and along with its uniqueness comes with the feeling that I’m on an island. Nobody does what I do. And certainly: nobody shares my “niche”.  And then, just this week, I stumble across a website of a colleague of mine — another well-known telephone voice whose name I’ve seen on talent rosters we’ve both occupied — and her client list (while different) is as vast as mine. Her testimonials crow of her talent, professionalism, and reliability, much as mine do. Her demos are strong; as are mine. In short, we’re both doing the same thing, at approximately similar levels of skill, and enjoying roughly the same amount of success in pursuing our careers. 

Nothing wrong with that, is there? 

Actually, there’s *precious little* wrong with that. That she has a bounty and I have a bounty simply reinforces the notion that there’s enough to go around. (And we’re not the only two telephone ladies out there.) We’re both able to cultivate and retain clientele — and invite new ones in weekly. Her successes don’t detract from mine, or the converse — and there’s probably room for twenty more just like us, and we’d all be able to make our way.  For the same reason that there’s a gas station adorning all four corners of every intersection of a typical large city, and why there is an unexplainable cabal of *seven* Starbucks all within a three-block radius in the city where I live — and they all thrive — there’s room for everybody. 

I tend to err on the side of minding my own business (literally) and not spending too much time keeping track of what my “competition” does. The corporate mentality is quite counter to this: companies monitor very closely the activities of competitors — to analyze what they do and improve on it. To make sure that their company’s information, procedures, and practices are proprietary and guarded and to make the best use of all of those key aspects which your rivals have left unguarded. 

While I’m not recommending a free and unlimited interchange of secrets — and fully acknowledging that I, myself, am a little miserly with sharing contacts and lucrative leads with other voice talent (especially female) — I do fully realise that there’s enough pie for everyone. And it may not involve literally handing over leads or sharing information — it might be as simple as working honorably alongside each other respectfully, in an open-hearted way. There’s room for everyone to prosper, and a monologue which was spared the knife and stayed attached in the book; and was memorized and expertly performed by a wide range of actors will be different in each performer’s treatment of the material. Even the sixteenth Saint Joan they’ve seen that day. 

Thanks for reading, and next week, I’ll explore the considerable uses of voice-over in the arena of Real Estate — I’ve described more “adorable split level bungalows on a quiet cul-de-sac” than I’ll ever occupy!

“You Are *Not* The Next Caller in Line…”

"Hhhallo...?"

While recording the “serious” Asterisk prompts for Digium one day a couple of years ago, I got creative and threw in a “joke” prompt which had been brewing in my mind for awhile: what would happen if — while patiently waiting to talk to someone in a company — they truly *did* forget that you were on hold? We’ve all had thoughts that the staff have hung up their headsets and moved en masse to the coffee room for a smart two-hour break to discuss the series finale of “Lost”, while you — represented by a lone red light blinking balefully on a console — are clinging to hope that they really *are* almost finished untangling another customer’s issue and they’re *this close* to pressing your line and asking if they can help you…instead of disappearing to Starbucks or worse…..signing off for the day and heading home with dozens of other similarly discouraged lights still blinking on their consoles.

Here’s the file of “You Are *Not* The Next Caller In Line…”:

You Are Not The Next Caller_NOV19_mixdown

It was an immediate cult favorite in the Asterisk community, and circulated wildly. The idea that a normal-sounding telephone voice eventually cracks under the pressure of endlessly having to reassure callers with empty rhetoric, and does a complete psychological loop-de-loop; confessing that no, actually, they will *not* be helped by the next available caller (“In fact”, I rant in the recording, “the next human voice you hear will probably be the cleaning lady! At 11:30 a night! Picking up the reciever and saying: ‘Hhhallo?””) It’s a fleeting thought which has likely hit all of us as we are silently calculating the likelihood of our call actually getting answered; estimating whether or not we’re bigger fools by sticking it out on hold (“But I already have 12.34 minutes invested in this call!”) or if you should cut your losses at 12.34 minutes, hang up, and go live your life.

Obviously, you want to be able to keep people interested in your company and make sure that even those who are *waiting* to interact with your company are made as comfortable as possible and a “engaged” as they can be — especially in those first formative minutes of limbo before they actually interface with your agent. On Hold is really just a “waiting room” — so what aspects of an actual waiting room contributes to the onerous nature of waiting?

Time. Being kept waiting for an extended period of time. It’s crucial to ensure that your cutomer’s time on hold really is kept to a minimum. When I’m asked to read three lengthy pages of on-hold segments for one system, my question (unspoken)  is usually: “How LONG are they expecting to keep these poor people waiting?” Sure, nobody wants to listen to the same three on-hold paragraphs looping over and over again — but a system which extends into fifteen minutes? Time to re-assess your number of call center staff. Back to the waiting room analogy: I don’t think I’ve ever read an entire paragraph in a magazine in my dentist’s office or could tell you what the wall color of their waiting room is — so prompt is their service. (My doctor? I pack a lunch and bring a couple of books. FYI: their wall color is Sherwin Williams #2933, “Cafe au Lait”.) Imagine that your client’s time on hold was so brief, they don’t even remember it. What would that be like?

Another waiting room pitfall you don’t want to duplicate in your on-hold queue? Boredom. Don’t be that dog-eared issue of People Magazine  “Spoiler Alert” edition from 1987, threatening to give away the season ender of “Night Court”.  Use your (already refreshingly brief) on-hold program to give callers succinct, current, and fascinating informational snippets about your company and why they’re incredibly smart to have called in the first place.

Imagine if — while waiting to see your doctor — the nurse made a grand entrance into the waiting room at perfectly-timed intervals and said something like: “We appreciate everyone for waiting. Your time is valuable. We’re busy giving another patient the same legendary service we look forward to giving to you…..when the next available doctor is ready to see you in just a few moments.” The first time, you might think: “Oh. OK. Nice.” Every five minutes? It might get on your nerves. I always tell clients who ask my opinion on their on-hold system: rather than using up even more time explaining how valuable our time is…..get us to a live agent faster. That’s all.

Brevity, keeping the information pertinent and interesting, and not wearing people out with apologies/platitudes/promises to serve them better as soon as you can — serve them better now. Just like time in the hairdresser’s chair or in an elevator — when you’re on hold, you’re in a liminal state. Waiting to live. Treat your customers in this suspended state as well as you can, and you’ll have designed your on-hold system well.

(PS: Another aspect which should be avoided in on-hold systems as well as waiting rooms is the antiseptic-yet-haunting musical stylings of one Kenny G. I’m just saying.)

Next blog: I’ll delve into the “Myth of Competition” — yes, voice-over can be akin to acting in its competitiveness……but believe me when I say this: there’s enough out there for everyone.