Point/Counterpoint: Thoughts on Cracking the Voice-over Market

A Response To The Two-Part Article by John Pellegrini, “How To Get Voice Work From The Big-Time Agencies” - [Jan/Feb 1999 RAP]

By Bettye Pierce Zoller

First, let me clearly state what this article ISN’T: It isn’t a personal invective written by someone who thinks she knows absolutely everything there is to know about the voice-over biz. Although I’ve been a working voice-over pro and teacher/trainer for a long time, our business is continually growing and changing. Next, please know that this article is not meant, in any way, to cast Mr. Pellegrini in the role of my adversary. Far from it! I respect Mr. Pellegrini, and I read his articles with great interest. I shall use the information he provided to teach my broadcast hopefuls. Through the years, I’ve helped lots of folks get started in the voice-over biz. Creative Services Director of WLS-AM in Chicago, John Pellegrini possesses a vast storehouse of knowledge on the broadcasting business. If you, esteemed RAP reader, have not digested his two excellent articles (in the last two issues), I urge you to do so—hopefully before you read my response or addendum.

Second, let me explain what this article IS MEANT TO BE: It is information of which, I believe, RAP readers should be aware—information I’ve lived by for twenty-eight years in my full-time career as a free-lance voice-over talent, jingle singer, audio producer, audiobook author, copywriter, and business woman—and as voice coach and corporate trainer for the company I founded with veteran broadcaster, Hugh Lampman, in 1994, ZWL Publishing, Inc./Professional Training based in Dallas, Texas.

As I said earlier, I’ve helped many get started in the lucrative field of free-lance voice work. My students are working all over the US. They keep me informed about the biz, in every city in which they live and work. What’s more, over the years, I’ve been represented by agents in six US cities, and I’ve voiced projects for advertising agencies nationwide (and in England), all the while living in Dallas. ‘Nuff said. Now, let’s proceed to the meat of this friendly retort:

Chicago is not, as Mr. Pellegrini asserts, the only city outside of Los Angeles or New York which gets its share of big-money advertising agency voice-over work. He suggests that moving to Chicago would be a good idea for someone who hopes to enter the free-lance voice-over field. If I lived in Chicago and was a voice-over talent there, I would be forming a posse to get Mr. Pellegrini’s neck in my lasso right now. Hope that too many folks don’t take Mr. Pellegrini’s advice and move in droves to Chicago. A market can take only so many talents, no matter how large a city is. Can your talent pool stand a large influx of new talent and survive? Doubtful.

Cities’ Rankings: In today’s “ratings” of cities where voice-overs are done, most who profess to know these things rank Chicago third (after New York and Los Angeles) when discussing the cities in which major advertising agencies have established offices, or when rating cities which receive a goodly share of voice-over work. Dallas used to be ranked in the number three position. Most broadcasters and agency folks rank Dallas in the number four spot now. That’s primarily because in the late 1980s, four or five major production houses here either went belly-up or moved their corporate headquarters to the West Coast. That hurt. However, Texas is a huge state. Houston, San Antonio, Waco, and Austin get their share of voice work, too. Dallas isn’t the only place in Texas broadcasters are getting lots of great work in our great state!

Besides, Dallas voice-over talents don’t rely on local advertising agency work. The top broadcast agents in this town handle voice-over work from agencies in New York, LA, Chicago, San Francisco, Nashville—everywhere in the US. One need not live in a particular geographical city in today’s market to get major agency jobs. One must, however, as Mr. Pellegrini states, be signed to a major force in the industry—a broadcast agent with big advertising agency accounts.

Know this: Agents are basically people who answer the phone when it rings. The person on the other end of the phone (a producer or advertising agency creative) asks the broadcast agent for particular voice talents by name or by type. (“Send me some guy who sounds like a cowboy.”) If the voice-over talent has not self-promoted, if his or her voice-over demo tape is not known to the producer or creative, the talent obviously will not be requested by name. The agent may sometimes recommend a voice-over talent for a particular job, but everyone’s chances of working are improved ten-fold when a talent has mass-mailed his or her demo tape to a zillion producers, casting directors, production houses, and advertising agencies. Ask your agent(s) for their list of clients and get those demo tapes in the mail. Then, do follow-up mailings periodically. A postcard always works well. Tell the recipient about some of your recent work. Perhaps you can invite them to a theatrical performance in which you’re appearing. Suggest that they listen to you on the radio or television if you have an appearance in the future. Keep your name in front of them!

About getting signed to a major broadcast agent: Mr. Pellegrini’s advice to phone agents and “quiz them” as to whom they represent and with which agencies and producers they do business is unthinkable and totally unworkable. Here’s why: Major broadcast agents will not divulge this type of information on the telephone. The major agents seldom sign voice-over talents who do not possess extensive experience and major broadcasting credits. Sign first with a “second or third tier agent” and start your voice-over career in a smaller market. Then, in a few years with a track record of jobs, look for agents in larger markets who are rated in the “top tier.”

Here’s another reason why Mr. Pellegrini’s tactics to get signed by a major agent won’t work: A wannabe—a caller—usually speaks only with a front desk office worker, a call screener, never a broadcast agent. The front desk person will be (or should be) highly skilled in delivering a standard text which has been written especially for “bothersome caller wannabes.” The information has been designed to quickly get rid of callers seeking information about the voice business or agent representation—callers who obviously lack experience. The stock retort is, “Send us your voice-over demo tape and resume. If we decline representing you, you’ll receive a form letter from the agency in about three to four weeks. If we’re interested, we’ll contact you for an appointment to discuss your talents further with no guarantees of signing you.”

Many U.S. cities are experiencing quite a bit of ‘action’ in the voice-over biz. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, San Diego, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Detroit, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Nashville, Memphis, Denver, Houston, Minneapolis, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, and various medium-to-large cities all over the states of California, New York, and New Jersey are all producing spots and other vehicles in which voice-overs are used (see below).

Let’s not forget the “new kid on the block”—something Mr. Pellegrini failed to mention—the voice patch. With an ISDN line, recording studios (be they commercial ventures or someone’s converted bedroom closet) can produce voice-overs for major advertising agencies in any city via phone. The voice talent hears the producer’s voice in his or her earphones. The producer hears the talent performing the voice-over copy in the earpiece of his or her telephone. The completed audiotape is then overnighted to the client. This is why many small towns are now being regarded as “new bedroom voice-over communities.” People have set up studios in their homes or offices and are doing a booming business with a telephone. Digital recording equipment, a fax machine, e-mail capabilities, and an ISDN line are all you need!

The “wave-of-the-future” promises to be doing voice-overs via “Real Audio” on the web. This new turn of events will further reduce one’s need to live in a major metropolitan area in order to do voice-over work. We expect this to become a reality in about two years as the sound quality of Real Audio technology is improved. It’s already being done. If you possibly can, put your voice-over demo online. Get a website! Then, producers can “click” and listen to it! Advertise your URL on all mailings to producers and agencies!

Mr. Pellegrini failed to discuss the fact that today’s voice-over business isn’t only commercials. In fact, commercials are but a small part of what we pro voice folks do! Other areas of the voice biz in which one can make a substantial income include voicing video games, toys, computer programs, CD-ROMs, telephone messages, tele-marketing scripts, cable TV projects, infomercials, audiobooks (non-fiction and fiction projects), large voice-mail systems, and narrating video and film projects. Most of these areas do not get voice talents through agents. They phone voice talents directly—yet another reason to self-promote and to not rely too heavily on an agent to promote you or get you work.

One last murmur: Mr. Pellegrini states statistics about the voice-over business. No sources are cited. Please let us know from whence these amazing figures came! One of my pet peeves is those who manage to discourage new voice talents by citing rather useless statistics about how few talents make a living in our business. One’s success depends first on talent, second on a killer demo tape, third on self-promotion, and fourth on perseverance!

Despite the fact that I don’t need more competition, I continue to encourage and teach newbees. I continue to produce killer demo tapes, which give new talents a good start. Why? It’s our legacy. It’s our duty to encourage a new generation of broadcasters. That’s how our profession will continue and grow stronger.

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