How To Get Voice Work From The Big Time Agencies (Really, No Fooling!) - Part One

By John Pellegrini

One of the benefits of living in a larger (make that third largest) city is the greater amount of opportunities. Such as what my wife, Sarah, is doing. She’s been considering working on finishing her college degree, and she’s looking for the right kind of part-time job that pays extremely well and has minimal hours. I told her the best job in that classification would be for her to become a TV network news anchor, but she doesn’t want to be on TV. Next best thing would be to get some commercial voice work.

Here in Chicago you can actually take classes to learn the business of voice work and how to actually get some of that work. If you’ve been reading my articles over the years, you’ll recall that I lived here in Chicago over ten years ago, and during that time I tried to get voice work myself. It’s not easy. In fact, it’s downright frustrating. This is one statistic that I know to be true without even having to check references: Eighty percent of all the people who audition for voice work each year will get none. Ever. And, out of the remaining twenty percent, fifteen percent will get maybe two or three jobs before they finally quit. Now, as much as it pains me to say this, it is especially true if you already work in radio as an air talent, disk jockey, or production person.

In fact, the tragedy of the matter is, most of the people who have radio experience such as I have listed, only get voice work by opening their own studios and peddling their talents on the streets, pounding the pavement and knocking on the doors, calling on the agencies yourselves, becoming a production specialist for advertising agencies and other radio stations. That’s about it…unless you’re willing to tell people that you’ve never worked as a disk jockey, air talent, or radio production director.

That’ s not what this article is about.

This article is for those of you who still aren’t swayed by the statistics and still want to try to get voice work the old fashioned way, by auditioning through a talent agent.

You are aware of that fact, are you not? If you want to get voice work from the big advertising agencies, you must go to a talent agent. This is just one of the basic facts of voice work that you need to know.

Here’s the purpose of this article. There are many aspects to getting voice work with the big agencies (and I mean the huge ones with the jobs that pay huge amounts of money). I’m going to provide a basic outline of things you need to know and things you need to do in order to get a chance to go to auditions for those jobs. Now, there are smaller agencies around the country that are easier to get work from, but they pay considerably less money for talent. What we are going to discuss is how to get work for the big ones with the big talent fees so that you can have some kind of career at this with the eventual goal of not doing anything else for money if you don’t want to.

The single most important thing you need to know in order to get voice work with the Big Advertising Agencies is: you must live in the cities where the Big Advertising Agencies have offices. Primarily, we’re talking Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, in that order, by the way, because the majority of the voice work for radio and television is done here in Chicago. Some people claim that LA and New York are getting more now, but that’s only for established famous actors. If you aren’t one, you probably should come to Chicago. (By the way, for our international readers, this does apply too, but you just have to find out which big city in your country is the hot spot for voice work. In the States, it’s Chicago.)

Chicago is where the Big Advertising Agencies audition new voice talent. That’s you. That’s why you need to be here. If you’re not, you’re very likely not going to get much, because you must be able to go to auditions with about a two or three hour notice. Most times, however, you’ll get a day’s notice, but I’ve had calls to go on auditions with about two hours notice before, and it still happens today. Now, before you go calling me and expecting me to explain to you how the hell you’re going to quit your job and move to Chicago, I’m going to answer your question right now. I don’t know. And I mean that as nicely as possible. The fact is, Chicago is where you have to be to get voice work. I’m sorry if you’re not here now, but you do have the ability to do something about it. How you get here is your responsibility. Sorry if that’s not helpful, but that’s life.

Okay, so you’ve decided to bite the bullet and move. Your next step is to have a voice tape done professionally. Yes, professionally. Don’t do your own tape of you reading scripts from your station. Why? Because you don’t know what the agencies want to hear; and if you send out a tape that sounds like the majority of the tapes that come from radio station talent, it will wind up in the garbage. You see, the only way the talent agents make money is by getting you voice work. And the only way they can get you voice work is for you to have a tape that they can market correctly to the agencies. Like it or not, the talent agents aren’t going to spend any time on you if your tape cannot be sent out immediately to agency creative directors and casting directors, because it will only be rejected.

It’s a good idea to have your tape done professionally, and you should really consider getting voice-over classes with a professional coach who can help you put your tape together. By the way, make sure you refer to this as voice-over, not voice lessons. Singers get voice lessons. You need voice-over lessons. Yes, there are people like that here. My wife is going to one to have her tape done. It’s expensive, but it’s worth it. Most professional voice coaches will charge $250 to $300 for the classes and between $500 to $800 for your demo tape. This includes the studio time (make sure the classes are done in a real studio setting, and you get a lot of time behind the mike practicing; some classes offer only one hour of time in the studio for the entire course) in a professional studio where they do real voice work for advertising agencies, and anywhere between 50 to 100 copies of your tape on cassette that you can give to the talent agent or agents (more on that in a bit).

You will also need to have a J-Card (that’s the card that goes inside the cassette case—the ones that usually say the brand of the cassette) done up with your name and phone number, and perhaps some neat looking graphics. You’ll also have to have professionally printed labels on each cassette, those you can get done at printers like Kinkos or others, but it’s still an additional expense. Depending on the talent agent, you may also need to supply a professionally done headshot (show biz portrait for those of you not hip to the lingo). Those can be expensive, too, because you have to see a photographer who specializes in theatrical headshots, and not the guy who did your high school yearbook picture. There is a difference. Suffice to say, you cannot send out tapes like you do for your aircheck demos with a file folder label on it that has your name penciled or typed. Well, you can, but they’ll just get thrown out, so why waste the effort?

Unfortunately, those are the going rates on all that work, and there’s no room for negotiation on them, not when the agencies are used to hearing stuff from people who routinely spend around two to three thousand dollars a year keeping their tapes updated and fresh. This is what your competition for voice work does, and you must look and sound, at the very least, as good as them if you expect to get noticed by anyone.

Okay, so you can’t afford to have your tape done professionally just yet. You can still do one in your station that can get you started. I know I said you shouldn’t, and I still say you shouldn’t; but I know some of you just won’t believe reality no matter what, so I’m going to try to save you some humiliation here. But, and this is very important, you cannot do your commercial demo like you’ve been doing your airchecks. Here’s what you must do for a suitable voice work demo tape; and there are no alternatives to this, either. Ignore these directions at your own peril.

First off, your tape must be no longer than a minute and a half to two minutes, maximum. Two minutes, actually, is pushing it; a minute and a half is best. And you shouldn’t have more than fifteen seconds of any one commercial on it. Absolutely no radio station promos. Nothing but commercial reads. Secondly, you must have a wide variety of reads. Not just hard sell, not just folksy, but every single style of read you can think of. If you can’t think of any, here are some standards: Hard Sell, Soft Sell, Angry Parent, Friendly Neighbor, Scholarly Person, Silly or Town Goof, Jazzy Hipster, Sexy, Important (if not Pompous) Business Person, Doctor or Lawyer, Reverend or Minister, Kindergarten Teacher.

WARNING! Make sure you do all these reads with your REAL voice (and not your “announcer” voice—more on that soon), the one you use the most often and the one that you are most comfortable with. Another important voice point: DO NOT DO CHARACTERS OR IMPERSONATIONS! The voice actors who do character voices have spent thousands of dollars going to dialect coaches and can outdo your character voices in their sleep. Character voice work is an entirely different category, and it’s even harder to get work in that area. The agencies are all aware of who’s had dialect coaching and who hasn’t, and they know who the legitimate dialect coaches are. If you haven’t had any training with the legitimate coaches (it will be on your resume if you have), they won’t even give you the time of day. Also, impersonators seldom get work because most of these agencies can afford to hire the real thing, which means they’re not going to hire an impersonator unless it’s someone like Rich Little. Again, the budgets are much bigger than you’ve ever dealt with before, so don’t bother trying to sound like Patrick Stewart, Kathleen Turner, or Jack Nicholson, because if they want those people, they can afford to hire them.

Now, a word about your announcer voice. Most of us who work in radio, especially the air talent, have a sort of on mike voice that sounds a little more impressive (at least we think it’s impressive) than our normal voice. The problem is, agency creative directors, most of the time, don’t want “announcer” voices. They want REAL voices. They want voices that sound genuine, and if you can fake that, you’ve got it made. You can maybe do a read with your “announcer” voice, but make sure the rest of your tape has other styles and sounds. If you’re not sure how to go about that, then you definitely need to take voice-over coaching. Some people might suggest you take acting lessons, but I disagree. Acting on stage has nothing to do with acting on mike. They’re two entirely different forms of acting, and I’ve seen plenty of stage and screen actors go into a sound booth and completely clam up and sound terrible. You need to have real commercial voice-over lessons.

By the way, here’s a scam warning: If you live in a smaller market and you occasionally get commercials that advertise “Voice Over Lessons” being given by some hotshot company or “consultant” who’s coming to town for a special one or two day seminar to teach you “everything you need to know about commercial voice-over work so you can make the BIG BUCKS,” stay away! Suffice to say you’re not going to learn anything more than what I’m telling you right here. These guys are a scam, and they’re only interested in taking your money. You’ll get as much voice work without taking their seminars as you would with taking their seminars, i.e. none.

Back to your tape. Make sure that your scripts are for nationally recognized commercials. Even though you may not have done any nationally recognized commercials where you are, you don’t want to sound like you haven’t. Do not include any scripts for any local advertiser you have on your station unless you know it could win a Clio Award (Addys don’t count among the big agencies). Go for the BIG name clients, and (THIS IS REAL IMPORTANT) make sure they’re word for word transcriptions of those national spots! Do not attempt to write your own national spots! Remember, your tape is going to be heard by the people who write the scripts for the national spots! You don’t want to offend them by fixing up or improving their work. Even if you could do better, you’re not the one being paid to do so, so don’t. Capice?

This is taking a lot longer than I thought it would because I’m trying to tell you some things that you would learn over a course of nine or more weeks from a professional coach. So, I’m making this article a two-parter. Next month: What to do when your tape is ready to go out. Until then, practice those reads, dudes and dudettes!

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