Working a Session: Defining Service

Talent generally believes that auditioning well is the primary skill in being a voice actor. But one voice over secret is that how a talent acts consistently in sessions is even more important than giving great auditions. Automatically, most performers probably think I’m referring to performing the copy for the producer but, in fact, I am calling attention to a performer’s behavior and their service within a session. For years I have made the claim that voiceover is no longer a “talent” business, but rather a service business whereby plenty of amazing talents are unsuccessful yet very few talents who give great service make the same claim.

So what does it take to provide great service? Whenever I think of a great service provider I first think of Four Seasons Hotels. Every Four Seasons is exquisite in it’s own way and for that everyone is paying more than most high-end hotels. What separates Four Seasons and allows them to charge great sums is how they treat their guests.   To the smiling faces greeting you when you check in to the maids nodding pleasantries as you walk by, every employee graciously treats you with dignity and respect without fawning or being over enthusiastic.

A similar grace with creatives is necessary when performing a spot. Here are some hallmarks of good service that can be applied to most sessions.

  • Offer Help by Asking Questions. In essence a performer’s entire job is to “help” the creatives find their voice and point of view. An actor can very easily frame their work by asking pertinent questions and making the creatives’ lives better or easier by demonstrating their willingness to aid in the process.
  • With questions come answers and really listening (instead of pretending) lets the producers know you are committed to the project.
  • Keep chit-chat to a minimum. Of course, there may be down time in which you realize you share commonalities, but generally everyone is very busy (including the actors) and by keeping the focus on pleasantries and project itself, you are demonstrating your appreciation for their time and energy.
  • Give Praise Where Appropriate. Everyone enjoys a little extra acknowledgement, but keep it short, precise and about the producers. For instance, a good piece of direction can be reacted to with a one word response; “nice, “excellent,” “that’s good,” The end of a session can be responded with a “that was fun” or “thanks for making my job so easy.”
  • Be sincere. None of the above is effective if you are “faking it.” Creatives have an uncanny knack of knowing when others are trying to “sell them something.” Instead, be genuine and do your job.

I will end this by making an audacious guarantee. If talent can provide all these five things every time they perform a session, I guarantee they will work more often and make more money.   Can I prove this? Of course not, but it is human nature to seek out others who are like-minded and provide consistent assistance. Four Seasons Hotels are successful because their guests consistently believe that their staff is collaborating on how to make your hotel experience better. You too can make an experience better and that is in the voice-over booth.

Banning Social Media

Last Thursday I was sitting at my child’s middle school assembly and the topic was “Safety and Bullying.” My child goes to a New York City public school and the school as well as the school system really appears to have done as much as they can to promote safe and positive learning experiences with one small exception; social media.

Let me start by saying as I was riding the MTA to the school, I listened as one male 6th grader said to another, “why didn’t you tag me in that photo”. My ears perked up because I’m well aware of the policies at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat as they apply to children and they each ban children until the age of the 13. I have written a bit on this subject before and I feel strongly against posting my children’s pictures or information, but that doesn’t mean I expect all parents to do the same thing. At the same time, I do believe that all parents should abide by the contractual rules and regulations of social media providers and keep their younger children off the platforms.

I know the ubiquity of social media has led some pressured parents to sneak their children onto social media and let them set up profiles prematurely. This is especially the case when it comes to younger children with older friends or younger children being denied the same opportunities as the older students within the same grade.   I also know that many parents will comply with their children’s request even though the children may not be remotely ready for social media.

Some children’s advocates espouse the belief that it is up to the platforms to monitor “suspicious” profiles (as well as inappropriate behavior) and act accordingly. I believe the platforms have no incentives to do so without local, state and federal laws nor should they be responsible.

That brings me back to the assembly. So much bullying and social animus doesn’t happen face to face, but rather on social media, which leads me to ask; “why don’t the schools just ban their students from social media altogether?” Our school for instance could simply say that no students are allowed to set up personal profiles and the children (whether them and their parents like it or not) would be forced to comply. After all, who would want to risk punishment when it is so easy to check who has a profile?

I am not sure this would be a fair solution in high school but in elementary and middle school (whether grades 6-8 or 7-9) why should the schools subject themselves to all of the possible liabilities and distractions? In addition, what are the real benefits of social media for a 12 year old? The great majority would still have access to telephones, email, texting and the internet. Aren’t all of those enough social stimulus?

The Urge to Merge

Last week I wrote how I believe the existing voice-over agencies need to seriously purge their rosters because they are all representing too much talent. As much as I think a talent culling would improve everyone’s bottom line, there is still an elephant in the room; there is not only too much talent in the system, there are also far too many agencies.   The solution would be for some agencies to fold or better yet to merge.

The Three Obstacles to Rivalry

If you look at the history and formation of voice-over agencies, almost every agency was begat by principals from a prior agency. As is usually the case, those circumstances created serious acrimony between the former and new principals and without exception that “bad blood” has lasted decades. Those rivalries and the egos fueling that bitterness are the first great impediment to any agencies merging.

The second dynamic working against agency mergers is the financial models for an agent’s pay. Every agency varies on formulas for agent’s salaries but usually the most important component is the clients that the agent represents so the most valuable agents represent the talent with the highest earnings. Of course, there are only a handful of agents who fit this criteria. The majority of agents rep dozens if not hundreds of middle to low income clients along with a small group (usually 20% of the overall group) who comprise 80% of the agent’s income.   The problem with any merger is what would be done with that enormous middle class of talent. Despite their modest earnings, middle incomes are still crucial to an agent’s bottom line. Merging therefore pits one agent’s “middle class” versus another agent’s “middle class” and creates immediate rivalries with agents and clients.

The final component is the buyers for voice-over talent. Every agent covers a group of buyers and depending on agency formulas is also paid based on the revenues booked by those buyers. Agents are well aware of which casting director or network is most apt to hire their talent and many have personal relationships with these buyers. Giving up control (and earnings) is incredibly difficult and once again creates a contentious atmosphere around collaborating agents.

Cooperate Or Else?

Here are my solutions on how the three obstacles to potential merger can be handled. Excuse me if some of the ideas appear to be flippant. They aren’t intended that way. 

  1. Egos and bad blood - everybody feels like they have been wronged at some point, but potential partners need to put egos aside and do what is best for their business. In the end, no one should be completely satisfied nor should anyone be angry either.
  2. Clients- here is a radical solution… have a draft. I am being serious. If two agencies come together they can decide on a cap for their overall list (both male and female) and then each agent can take turns and choose who they should represent - one person at a time until they reach the cap.
  3. Buyers - After the clients are accounted for, everyone can do a similar draft with the buyers/casting directors. Given the client draft, the buyer draft will take a new meaning as certain buyers will suddenly be stronger or weaker due to the combined clients and the agents can evaluate accordingly.


Mergers are the Future

Agents have watched for years as Fortune 500 companies, ad agencies, media companies and even SAG/AFTRA merged.   Has every merger worked? Of course not. The one undeniable fact is that while consolidation has happened in virtually every industry, the union voice-over business still has almost the exact same number of agencies as it did 20 years. The market suggests that some of the lesser or bloated agencies will fail but I do not think that will help the current business climate. Instead, I think the agencies need to start thinking about potential partners and begin courting.

Purging Talent

I couldsubtitle this piece “How to Make Voice-Over Talent Hate You” because I know this is a painful and controversial perspective.   Next week I’m going to offer somewhat of an alternative… “How to Make Agents Hate You” but let me dive right in and say union voice-over agents need to perform a talent purge.   Not a small purge of those various clients that no one really knows or really likes but a dramatic purge… anywhere between 25-50% of their current rosters.


Today, there is an enormous gap between the supply (high) and demand (low) for union voice-over talent at the talent agencies. 25 years ago, there was an opposite gap—only a couple hundred men and women throughout the country were capable of performing at the highest level, so talent agencies were all clamoring for the same small group of performers. At the same time, the 80/20 rule (80% of your sales come from 20% of your clients) held firm so that “small group” was more valuable to the agents and more valued in the marketplace.

This is where things get complicated, so stay with me and hopefully I can explain. Over the last 10-20 years, as rosters have expanded, the 80/20 rule has still held firm. The difference is that 25 years ago, between 25-50 performers per agency were responsible for 80% of the earnings. Today those numbers have expanded across the board whereby 100 performers at some agencies now comprise the 80% and five times more total clients are represented over all.


While rosters have expanded there hasn’t necessarily been a corresponding change in demand and, in many cases, agency revenues haven’t expanded at all.   Even worse, with so much added talent per roster there is a market perception that the added performers are equally talented. What does that do? The roster expansions have created the idea that the top tier talent is no longer as valuable as they once were. The end result is that the elite 20% has consistently seen their earnings wane over the last several years.


Anyone who follows me knows I’m a sports fan, and in team sports there is the sometimes controversial concept known as “addition by subtraction” (BTW… if you are really interested, check out the “Ewing Theory” for a very humorous take).   The thought goes that sometimes you have to get rid of some players to let others flourish to their potential, and that that potential is significantly greater than the production of those you eliminated. Usually “addition by subtraction” is applied to “bad apples” or “negative influences,” but that does not have to be the case. Sometimes there is just better talent waiting in the wings that need to be set free.

I experienced this myself years ago when I lost a woman at the top of her game from my roster at ICM. Initially, I didn’t think her money could be replaced. But almost instantly, I had three or four other women swoop in and not only replace her lost earnings, but surpass them by over 25%. Is it possible that if that specific talent hadn’t left those other women would have still done just as well? Of course, but what I observed is that the “other” women suddenly had opportunities they obtained only because I needed to sell someone else. Inevitably, the collective not only rose to the occasion, but surpassed the expected production of a single star.


Obviously every agency is different, but instead of looking at percentages, I think the agencies need to just decide on what number is right for them and then make cuts to get to that cap. Once the process begins, what I think the agents will discover is twofold: First, they represent many more people than they think they do, and second, they service several “shadow clients” who they only quasi represent. Of course, some very difficult decisions will then need to be made but unfortunately, that is the nature of business.

What do I think the results of the hard cap would be?   I see 25-35% of the talent pool culled from the union agents roster. Is that too harsh? It might be, but all I can think of is an over grown garden. In order for the garden to survive, the plot will need to both be “weeded out” and other plants eliminated so the remaining plants can get the sunlight, nutrients and water that they need to flourish. In the end there is a healthier more productive garden for both agents and clients alike.

Feedback? Who Gives Feedback?

One of the most frustrating elements of the business today is how opaque the audition process is for voice-over agents, managers and performers. Everyday, I will have someone ask me in some way, shape or form… “how I am doing?” In reality, I know the talent is “competitive” based on two decades of experience. Beyond that, I know very little because there are virtually no market signals except when someone is hired.

Casting Directors Provided Clues

Before home studios, the business was a bit more transparent. When casting directors controlled the majority of the commercial process, we knew that if someone routinely auditioned among a spectrum of casting directors, they were likely going to work. How much he/she would work was a debate, but casting afforded us an opportunity to at least gauge a talent’s “popularity” within the market. We also had the opportunity to ask the casting directors how talent was perceived, and a good casting director could even shift our perceptions of a performers skill with constructive critiques.

The Real Decision Makers

Where casting directors usually lacked access was the actual decision process within an advertising agency. Unless the agency had an internal casting office whereby the casting directors were included in the process, usually a free-lance casting director would make recommendations of their “selects” and then ship a tape, cd or mp3’s of their casting session to the creative(s) who hired them.   After that, the process was a mystery because every agency culture was different and the actual decision maker(s) varied depending on the products, personalities and politics inherent among the creatives.

Modern Casting and the Internet

When Voicebank was introduced in the early 2000’s, the idea of creative feedback evaporated. By 2005, Voicebank was fully integrated into a voice agent’s day-to-day workflow and, whereby a casting director would cull an entire cities talent into a group of 50 performers (and often less), Voicebank afforded agents the opportunity to submit dozens by themselves. Multiply dozens by the number of agents submitting on a given project, and in a five-year span, a typical voice-over audition multiplied into often hundreds of performers.   That change in the number of submissions meant that even if the agent had a great relationship with the producer who was working on a project, asking for feedback on an individual performer was pointless as the likelihood of remembering a “voice” enough to provide an opinion was overwhelmingly slim.

How Do Performers Cope?

I think of voice-over performers today like an Olympic athlete in an individual sport. The voice-over studio is like a gym, track or playing field and while a performer may occasionally work out with others, they are usually alone and only motivated by their intestinal fortitude and ambition. Coaches can help, but coaches will only push talent so far.   It is up to the performer to keep scaling new walls and hurdling various obstacles.

Can it be frustrating? Of course, but there is a reason why an athlete gravitates to a sport or a performer seeks out voice-overs… they love what they do and the only real feedback they need is knowing they are competing in the profession they chose.

Do You Need a Voice Over Agent?

On Friday I had a great lunch with an amazing producer and aspiring full time voice-over performer and the subject came up… “Do I need an agent?” That subject is coming up more and more often these days and the answer is incredibly nuanced. So how does a voice-over performer know when the time is right or whether they need an agent at all? Hopefully, this short guide can help. I am going to ask some rudimentary questions and depending on how you respond, you will have your answers.

Are You Just Beginning Your Career?

If you are, you generally do not need an agent. Agents don’t have time to develop careers like they did in the past, plus you are likely to only see very narrow casting specs which you fit. Instead, you will need to “beat the bushes. ” Fortunately, you have the Internet and social media so you can ask others what they recommend.

The exceptions to this rule are if you are roughly between the ages of 20-30, sound your age, and have fairly good technical skills to audition at home. Agents all over the country are always looking for the next “big thing,” and those are usually men and women who can “grow into their voice.”

Where Do You Live?

If you are in NY, LA or Chicago, you have an advantage, because the agents in those cities are handling the lion’s share of the most lucrative business. By living in those cities, you have an opportunity to meet those agents personally, and develop relationships and build your business. If you don’t live in those cities, I would pursue agents in smaller voice markets like Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, San Francisco etc. They will not necessarily have the “biggest” jobs, but they will have some excellent opportunities while being more tolerant that you are not local.

Are You Making Money?

Whether you are working consistently with PTP sites or smaller agents, almost any agent wants to know if you are having success. Demos, regardless of how great they sound, are often misleading. As much as I trust my own ears, for instance, I’d rather know what the market has to say about a talent than bet on my instincts alone.   Past and present earnings end up being a vital barometer for future success, so make the leap when you are ready.

Are You Looking to focus on SAG/AFTRA commercials and/or Promos?

Both high-end commercials and promos are dominated by the NY, LA, and Chicago agents. In fact, so are narrations, and to a much smaller degree, trailers. If you believe you are ready to jump into those incredibly competitive waters, then you have no choice but to pursue the big market agents.

Are You A Collaborator?

This is a final point. If you micromanage your career and want undivided attention paid to you and your future, you don’t want an agent (nor will agents likely want to work with you). Having an agent is a collaborative process but your relationship is at best a 90/10 partnership.   Agents are generally consumed with hundreds of clients and they do their best to service as many as possible. If you can’t accept that kind of relationship, then you will always have “problems” with your agent and may not want to even go down that road.

Political Advertising: The Next Great Voice Frontier

Last week Politico reported that pro-Israel groups spent $11 million on a TV adblitz “aimed at scuttling President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.” Regardless of politics, what does this have to do with voice-over careers? That type of spending is the next growth opportunity in voice-overs.

How Political Ads Have Changed

For years, political ads were construed as small potatoes. Most political ads ran in a single market and paid a single session fee. Compared to most products, political ads paid a fraction and--even worse--there was a long history of losing candidates that were running out of money and never paying their bills. Compound that with talent and agents not wanting their commercial voices associated with political causes, and voice talent had every right to be weary.

The Supreme Court’s decision on Citizen's United and the rise of the Super Pac changed everything.   No longer is money limited to only candidates, but every issue under the sun. For instance, AIPAC, the American Israel Pubic Affairs Committee, is one of the key groups mobilized against the Iran nuclear agreement. AIPAC, along with similar groups, is spending millions to oppose the deal.

Every Candidate Has a Super PAC

Candidates themselves also have Super PAC’s. Jeb Bush has stockpiled money for his presidential run, yet at the same time, Right to Rise USA is a Super Pac supporting him. Bush is already gunning for and dramatically outspending his Republican opponents.   In the meantime, he continues to hoard cash, and will begin spending when he deems the timing right and the market ready for his “personal” message.

What Does It All Mean?

The rise of Super Pacs means a greater volume of political spots in all mediums. Television is still important but the Internet has widened the market further and specific spots are customized to target certain audiences. The end result is that a single voice-over talent performing one spot for a broadcast market has morphed into two or three spots catered to a more narrow audience on the Internet or within a local cable system. Of course, a greater volume of work means more money, and unless we see a dramatic change in the law, there is no end in sight.

Why Promos Matter More Than Ever

I published a post a few weeks ago titled The Demise of the Promo Agent, and interestingly enough I have had some promo agents take offense. For sake of clarity, the point of the piece was to discourage the point of view that promos are no longer important. In fact, my title last time could have easily been “Why Promos Matter More Than Ever.” Instead I am using it here.

A Little More History

As mentioned in the prior piece, voice-over departments have always been built on the backs of advertising. Building on-air promotion departments in the 90’s was a natural progression for three reasons:

1) Promos are in fact advertising and branded entertainment

2) Every New York and LA agency at the time had talent working on-air,      regardless of whether the agency focused on promos.

3) Cable and broadcast networks were expanding

Advertising Entertainment Versus Products

I have made an argument for several years that while promotion may advertise content, on-air promotion is not necessarily in the advertising business. Instead, while promos, interstitials, and trailers may serve as advertising and branding, they are direct extensions of network and studio entertainment. SAG/AFTRA recognized this a long time ago with trailers, as the union trailer rate (as well as TV spots for movies) has been negotiated under the theatrical code instead of the commercial contract for decades. Keep in mind too that promo agents as a rule have also been responsible for documentary and reality-based narrations, so they have been constantly contributing to entertainment properties.

Advertising is Contracting - Entertainment is Expanding

The last decade has seen a contraction in union scale commercial work while internet entertainment (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu), in combination with a dramatically more competitive landscape at the broadcast and cable networks, has expanded the responsibilities of promo agents. Today, there are not only more promos, but the narration market has exploded due to the maturation of reality programming as well as the documentary market growing alongside the internet platforms.

So, how have the majority of talent agencies responded to the growth in entertainment? As mentioned in the prior piece, two prominent agencies have actually contracted their promo departments despite entertainment’s growth, while the majority of agencies are taking a wait-and-see approach. The problem is they are waiting to see what is happening in commercials before committing additional resources to promos.

A New Commitment

Of course, not everyone has been so blind to the new entertainment paradigm. A small group of Hollywood based agencies have recognized the change in the voice business and their recent and enthusiastic attendance at Promax attests to that.

Everyone else has a choice. Either commit additional energy and resources to promos and narrations, or stop trying to compete. As a fellow colleague once routinely proclaimed, youre either in or in the way. Right now, there are a bunch of agencies “in the way,” but not because of their staff or the voice talent. Instead, their management chooses to be non-committal as the evolution of the voice-over business transpires without their input or influence.


I had a great question posed by ACM voice-over performer Joe Cali in regards to my recent post Voice Agents: The Need For Speed.   His question was “is speed more important than quality in the new paradigm of voiceover?”  

Of course, that’s a complicated question.  In our case, our clients have consistently excellent equipment and technical skills, so if they then submit an audition on their iPhone, they really stick out among our submissions.  While I would make the argument that “sticking out” can sometimes give talent a competitive advantage, I don’t believe that you want to do this with your “sound.”  Inevitably, I think it just makes the talent look unprofessional.

What Do I Do When I’m Away From Home For a Few Hours?

So what does talent do when they know they are going to be away from their home studio and a professional portable system is not feasible?   For instance, say you are a coach on your son or daughter’s soccer team and a last minute audition pops up during a game.  Here are a few of my recommended purchases to help you in that type of situation.

Recommended Purchases for the VO Pro

1) An iPad or iPad Mini.  I actually recommend the Mini in this case because it is easier to handle and offers everything the regular iPad does without the bulk.  

2) A USB mic compatible with an iPad.  For instance, Apogee and Rode make very good portable USB mics for Apple OS products.  Are they your Sennheiser?  No.  But they are more than passable for auditions.

3) Twisted Wave - Everyone raves about the app, which gets exceptional reviews on the App Store.  Better yet, it’s only $9.99.

Test Everything

With any microphone, I do recommend you test everything.   The Apple Store and Amazon both offer very generous return policies and given how personal sound is, I would recommend you take advantage of them.  Buy a couple of mics, test them side-by-side with various reads, and return the loser(s).  

A Portable Insurance Policy

A final point to consider is that a truly portable system is an insurance policy if your system ever breaks down.  Whether your laptop bites the dust or your mic shorts out, you are protected from scrambling to find a local studio just so you can return that after-hours Ford Trucks or voice of ABC audition.  Better yet, because you are secure in your backup solution, the producers on the other side won’t hear the last remaining tinges of panic that you can’t seem to eliminate from your performance.  

Two final points:

1) I would recommend you keep the ensemble in your car or in your briefcase so you always know where the kit is when you need it.

2) Keep it away from your kids.   Your children can always get your leftovers when it is time to upgrade.

Voice-Over 2015 - The Demise of the Promo Agent?

Last week a prominent promo agent left his agency after 15 years.  Three months ago another promo agent did the same after a decade.  Keep in mind there were only about 20 promo agents in the entire country starting in the new year.  That means that 10 percent of the work force is now gone in 2015 which begs the question… is this a trend or a historical blip?


I lean towards a possible trend.  Why?  I can attest from personal experience that promo agents are often discounted within their agencies because they do not sign and develop the young and upcoming clients that commercial departments thrive on.  If they do sign young talent, promo agents are immediately put into a two-tiered quandary.  

1) Promo agents can’t service young talent in the area they are most apt to be successful in… commercials.  

2) At the same time, there are few opportunities in promos for young talent as there are only so many networks and without commercial opportunities, young talent lack the requisite skills to be successful in promos.  


Instead of developing talent, promo agents are left to poach clients from their competitors.  In fact, some of the largest promo departments have been built using poaching as their mission.  As you can imagine, the idea of poaching amongst agents is incredibly sensitive, yet the technique can often be successful.  The problem with poaching is that it can also produce an often times calamitous Catch-22.

1) Poaching only works when talent has ongoing work, but work tends to be cyclical and the talent is usually poached towards the end of his or her work cycles.

2) Prime targets tend to be older talents meaning they are known in the marketplace, therefore “repackaging” them doesn’t necessarily work.

3) The art of poaching and pitching is incredibly time consuming and for every success, there are a handful of failures representing enormous sunk costs of time and money.


So if developing up-and-coming talent is so difficult, and poaching has a different set of problems, how does a promo department grow?  Every agency has their own unique set of problems but they also have their unique positive attributes as well.  From the top down to the lowest position in the promo departments, every agency needs to address what their mission is and how they are going to combine sales and marketing with that philosophy.

Unfortunately, that philosophical change does not work unless there is a change of heart about how promo agents are perceived within the companies as well.  Virtually every predominant principal or partner in the world of voice-over cut their eye teeth on commercials and cling to the antiquated notion and prejudice that commercials are their foundation.  That foundation has eroded since the commercial strike of 2000, yet no new infrastructures have been built.   A reexamination is in order for the entire voice-over business and I am confident that with a closer look and careful scrutiny, promos will be revealed to be either the lifeblood or vital organs of an overall healthy body of work.  

Voiceover Education - What is it? What should it be?

I have written about this more extensively but I want to start a real conversation about talent development.  Obviously anyone can comment, but as my questions lead to other questions, feel free to email me as well if you do not want to share your thoughts publicly. Anyway here goes.


More and more recently, we at ACM have been reliant on a handful of great coaches out there to keep our clients sharp.  I have always been an advocate of good coaching as a means to stretch an established talent’s skills, but more often today basic coaching is needed to groom younger talent (men and women between ages 20-35).  The reason for this evolution?  Young talent is no longer getting enough at bats from their primary agents and no longer being developed like they used to.  

How does this manifest for ACM?  Over and over we receive demos from younger talent, and whereby ten years ago there were plenty of great men and women to consider, the opposite is true today.  In fact, we receive only a handful of submissions each year that we believe have the potential to take advantage of ACM’s opportunities and expertise.


At some point there will be a legitimate voice-over academy offering talent an education that hones individual skill.   For decades these were acting schools, both at colleges and universities, and well-known conservatories.  In fact, that may be the future, but right now they don’t exist for voice-over.

Instead, there are institutions, such as Edge Studios, which appear to do some really nice work.  My only problem with Edge and similar institutions is I just don’t know who they are.  That may be my ignorance or hubris, but in general I have a direct connection or a connection once removed from almost every successful agent, talent, producer, and engineer in the business.  

 Another thing I understand is that some of the best and most dedicated teachers do not necessarily have great educational pedigrees.  You can see this over and over with acting coaches who are well known in the industry but also appear to have neither the credits nor educational background to be as well thought of as they are.  Regardless, it seems to me that there should be a way for talent to learn from the best-of-the-best like the students at a good law or business school do.  


I guess what I’m proposing is to possibly have a voice-over Julliard comprised of top tier teaching and professional talent. If so, what would it look like?  This is really what I want to know.  Please let me know what classes you think would be offered, where it would be located, who would be in charge, how much it should cost, etc..  I will likely share all your thoughts in a future post but I wanted to get the conversation started.

Voice Agents: The Need for Speed

If you talk to successful people on PTP sites, almost everyone will make the same point—if you want to book, you need to submit auditions as quickly as possible.  

On the surface this does not make any sense. As there are deadlines attached to every audition, it would make sense that “producers” would begin listening sometime around that deadline.  In fact, a different paradigm has evolved, whereby producers begin listening early so as to not be overwhelmed by too many choices.  Deadlines are therefore constantly moving goal posts and performers are left hoping they will be heard.


I discovered a similar dynamic with Voicebank years ago when I was an agent.  I came in one Monday to discover a national network Ford audition due on Friday.  As it turned out, they were looking for 30-ish men and I already had my guys coming in that morning.  I attached Ford to their packet of scripts and submitted roughly 15 voices to Voicebank around 2 PM. At around 5 PM, I received a call.  “Was “X” client available to do a demo tomorrow afternoon?”  Keep in mind I was very used to booking Voicebank jobs and I knew our speed and efficiency correlated with success.

This particular job was posted in the morning, due on Friday, and it was still Monday afternoon. The story does not quite end there.  As it turns out, they called the following morning and went with “Y” client instead of “X,” and booked the same time that PM.  In other words, they had time to debate, make a choice, and book a talent before my competition even submitted their clients.  And what was the result?  “Y” client made roughly $40,000 on that particular job and has made at least three times that in future earnings based on his relationship with the ad agency.


As far as I can see, the speed dynamic has not diminished, and may indeed be still intensifying.  What does that mean for talent?  A couple of things:

1) Any performer who is relying on Voice-overs as a primary source of income needs a home studio.

2) Performers who are relatively mobile (actors for instance) need mobile solutions as well. This applies to everyone, including celebrities who have consistent work.

3) Talent should have dedicated mailboxes for auditions.  I realize that everybody has smart phones, but there is nothing more frustrating then missing an audition because you failed to notice it among Groupons and school announcements.

4) Double check deadlines if it appears that you can’t complete an audition in time.  We at ACM for instance, create deadlines based on when we can listen, not necessarily when the producers are requesting auditions back.  Sometimes, we can sneak auditions in at the last minute if we know it is only a couple.

5) Be prepared to audition several times a day.  I suggest that talent should create a schedule whereby every three or four hours they are prepared to belt out whatever auditions they have.  In between, they can run errands and manage their personal lives.  

The “need for speed” calls attention to one final fact that I think all performers need to keep in mind: Voice-Over isn’t just a talent industry anymore.  The business is a combination of talent and service, and just as you appreciate your oil change or a haircut being done in a timely manner, the same goes for producers receiving their tracks.

Agents and Expectations

Since assuming the role of a manager ten years ago, it is inevitable that I hear complaints about agents.  Some come from current clients, others from prospective clients, and many from never-to-be clients.

While certain complaints are valid, 90 percent of the perceived problems stem from the lack of understanding of an agent’s role and his or her priorities.  More troubling is that even when some of these “issues” are addressed, rarely does talent reexamine their point of view and adjust accordingly.  Instead, they sublimate their “unhappiness” until an opportunity arises and they can blame the agent for a different slight.

 Here are the most common complaints and my responses to them:

 “My Agent Doesn’t Get Me Work”

My first question here is does your agent get you opportunities i.e. auditions? If the answer is no or incredibly infrequently, then you need to first examine what an appropriate number of auditions per week for your age group is.  Keep in mind, that 75-80 percent of all auditions call for men or women in their 30s and early 40s.  If you are not in that age group and you are getting five or more auditions a week, you are doing exceptionally well.  

 “My Agent Is Not Making Me Money”

See above, but also remember that if you are not making money then neither is your agent.  I admit that’s a simplistic argument as agents may book other talent instead, but generally if a performer cannot capitalize on auditions, then they are likely taking opportunities from others who can.  Given the circumstances, talent who are not booking should feel very fortunate that they have agents who maintain faith in them despite the market signaling otherwise.

 “My Agent Can’t Get Me Promo (or Trailers) Work”

Commercial talent especially have a completely false sense of how promos work, because they assume there are auditions.  Remember, there are tens of thousands of products and services being sold every year so there are plenty of commercials.  How many networks are there?  While there may be a couple hundred, over half already have a “voice-of,” so auditions are few and far between.  If talent is receiving an audition every couple of weeks, then their agent is likely doing a passable job.

After assessing the points above, if you are still unhappy, then you should look elsewhere—but remember, voice-over is a highly competitive world and rarely is there a difference in activity when moving… only different agents.


Long time voice actor Mark Avery wrote an interesting piece ( about Promax and why voice talent should attend. While I appreciate Mark’s point of view, I’m going to lay out several good practices for voice talent attending the event.  

On the plus side, Mark makes it clear that the conference can be inspiring as well as educational, and I absolutely agree.  The conference also does an excellent job of putting voice-over in perspective as it pertains to the overall process.  

Here’s where Promax gets complicated: while there is obviously networking involved, the conference is designed to be mostly an educational celebration of the promotional arts.  On top of that, marketers in general do not necessarily like to be sold.  They know a pitch and do not appreciate being put in that position.  

So while I am not discouraging voice talent from attending Promax, I have some conditions and practices that should help them get the most out of the event.

1) Buy a Badge

I wrote last week that I was one of the first advocates of not buying a pass and just hanging out at the conference.  I realized that penny-wise it sounds foolish.  Overall, I strongly agree with Mark that the conference puts things in perspective, but I think having the badge shows legitimacy.  Attendees are rightfully suspicious of those without a badge.

2) Take a Realistic View of the Cost

If you can’t afford it, save up for the next year.  If you think you want to go, buy the early bird pass, get your airplane tickets early, and do your best to stay at the conference hotel.  

3) Do Your Homework  

There are a bunch of different types of people that attend the conference, and voice talent generally want to speak with the producers and creative directors in charge of producing spots.  With that said, there are an enormous amount of attendees who are focused on design and not broadcast.  Unless a conversation happens organically, there is little reason to solicit the designers.  While they may be polite, there is little a designer can do for you.

4) VPs Can Do Little for You  

While there is always a group of VPs who like to micromanage, the majority are where they are because they have a proven ability to delegate.  That delegation usually applies to voice-over, so don’t bother hassling them.

5) Have Something to Talk About

The best case is that you have a promo account or past experience you can reference.  If you don’t, think of something you can routinely cite, or there will be just too many awkward conversations.

If all of these points are understood, save up for New York, and start looking for flights.  If I remember correctly, the early bird rate expires December 31st.

Promax 2015: Twenty Years of Reflection

Upon arriving back in New York after Promax 2015, I realized it has been 20 years since my first Promax in Washington DC.  With the exception of some Promax’s I missed while focusing on commercial work in the late 90’s, I feel like I have been a witness to the modern evolution of the organization. I have various thoughts on some of the plusses and minuses of the changes.

Promax is in Good Hands

Steve Kazanjian appears to be a solid leader and appears to understand that the nature of the organization is the art of marketing.  That is not to say that some of the prior leaders did not, but there have been various times in the past where I have felt that the organization was exploitive and only concerned with generating dollars.  It’s refreshing to see that the value is returning.

The JW Marriott is the Conference’s Best Venue 

It is much easier for me personally when the location is in New York, but assuming the 2016 conference is at the Hilton again, I will be missing the JW Marriott.  The Marriott is excellent all around, from the rooms to the conference areas to the lobby bar, and the location at LA Live is an added bonus when I want to grab a meal or get a drink away from the hotel. 

Promax Should Consider Closing Down the Hotel

I openly admit I was one of the first to advocate going to the venue without necessarily going to the event (and subsequently realized that was a mistake), but there are far too many non-participants taking advantage of the venue without participating in the conference. I think it would behoove Promax to try to put an end to it.  Realscreen, for instance, has closed down the Washington Hilton to only Realscreen attendees. Promax should try the same thing if possible.  I realize that it may be impossible at the JW Marriott given the combination with the Ritz Carlton, but Promax should consider it for New York.

Promax is No Longer a Must for Voice-Over Agents

While there are still plenty of voice agents attending the event, several no longer consider Promax to be the priority it once was.  Of the five largest promo departments in the country, I only saw six agents of a possible 15, and only four were actually attending the conference.  Agency parties were also dramatically curtailed, making me think that the talent agents are seriously evaluating how Promax fits within their yearly budgets. 

Digital Platforms Still Haven’t Embraced Promax Yet

While there were representatives from Hulu and I am guessing some from Netflix, Amazon, and Crackle, the underrepresented digital platforms still have not recognized that they will need to do better and more creative internal marketing if they are going to build the platforms for their shows that the broadcast and cable networks have.    As of now, the digital networks appear to solely rely on production companies and trailer houses to manufacture their campaigns, which I do not think is sustainable.  

The Networks Still Do Not Appear to Have a Social Media Plan

Social Media was discussed, but I am still not sure that the majority of broadcast and cable networks have plans beyond throwing spaghetti at the Wall of Social Media and seeing what sticks.  I may not be privy to some of the greater problems and concerns, but I still get the impression that “social media” is viewed as “new” when it should be apparent that social may be just as important as traditional broadcast and print promotion. 

I Am Doing Too Much or Too Little: A Voice-Over Paradox

Scott Linder, who is one of the legendary commercial agents in voice-over, was once my boss and gave me a great analogy regarding voice-over.  He said, “everyone tries to do too much.  If they focus on one color in the spectrum and do it well, they will usually have a career.”  

Since Scott’s advice 20 years ago, I must have repeated that phrase at least a thousand times to voice talent, except I added my own personal addendum.  While focusing on one color can create a career, two colors will make a performer a success.  


Voice-over talent, especially actors, usually begin their careers trying to do too much.  Like a repertory theatre performer, many of these performers are prepared to play whatever role is thrown their way.   While that kind of commitment may be admirable, the results are usually ineffectual.   

This is where “keeping it simple” is so vital.  The voice is such a specific tool and the microphone picks up every nuance.  Strain and/or discomfort can be heard and recognized both consciously and unconsciously by a great majority of listeners, regardless of the talent’s gifts.  When talent levels are deep enough, rarely will a straining talent be chosen when there are more natural and believable options available. 


The opposite is true of radio performers.  They tend to do one thing very well… announcing. They have a very difficult time moving past their initial comfort zone.  To complicate matters, many radio performers are also stuck dead center within their “color,” adding very little shading to their reads.  To further the color analogy, if a radio performer is “blue”, he/she needs to learn how to move throughout the blue spectrum, whether the read is light like turquoise or dark like navy.


In the cases of the over performing actor or under performing radio personality, the solutions to both are the same.

1) Opt-out.  I do not generally encourage this, but there are times when a casting director or voice rep is simply wrong about someone’s capabilities.  In these rare cases I think it behooves a talent to try, but if they do not believe they are marketable then they should kindly explain that they need to pass on the audition.  Of course, if someone is paying for a talent’s time, the performer should be as willing as possible to perform in the manner being communicated. 

2) Get coaching.  For the actor, a coach narrows the focus and gives guidance on how to use inherent skills to make a read as believable as possible.  For the radio performer, the coach should constantly be pushing the boundaries.

It takes an amazing amount of self-awareness to realize if you are over performing or under performing, but that kind of worldview is inevitably a crucial step in building a career.  Once a talent realizes what is realistic, they have the ability to build upon their experience and begin creating better and fresher alternatives for their listeners.   

SAG-AFTRA - Paying Into Pension and Health

The last ten years have seen a dramatic decrease in union voice-over work especially as it pertains to the union’s middle class (who makes up this middle class is debatable, but I believe it pertains to earning somewhere between 25-100K). One of the great ironies with the decrease in earning is that theoretically there is more voice-over work than any other time in history especially with the increase of promos, narrations, corporate and educational videos, and audio books. So where is the disconnect? Much of the promo and narration work is non-jurisdictional and the corporate and educational markets have very few large corporate Signatories. The end result is a lot of work without union ties.

Attempting to Buy In

Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s when non-jurisdictional promo and narration work first evolved, there was a handful of talent with individual corporations who believed their corporation could act as a union Signatory. They, in turn, could buy into pension and health by deducting the fees from their non-jurisdictional work and pay themselves the remainder of the money. SAG and AFTRA were both rightfully concerned about the manipulation of the contracts as well as fraud and took a hard line to abolish the practice. Unfortunately, very little was done to organize the cable television networks and while a couple hundred million was dispersed to union talent, very little of that money ended up in the union pension and health fund.

New Frontiers in Corporate and Educational

As the web has become ubiquitous in our lives, so have corporate, educational and all manners of explainer videos on tens of thousands of websites including Youtube. The rates for this work vary dramatically from union scale to rates above and below, but the common denominator is very little is done under union contracts.

Why is so little work union? Three reasons:

1) Web searches very rarely lead to union talent agents and instead, non-union agents, individual talent and pay to play sites are creating one-time rates depending on what they believe the market bears.

2) The companies producing the work are generally very small production or graphics companies who are daunted (or unfamiliar) by union Signatory contracts as well as writing multiple checks for talent, state and local taxes, and union pension and health.

3) Many union talents look at corporate and educational work as a grey area and do not perceive working without a contract as working non-union.

Reexamining Buying In

There is very little reason to believe that small production companies spread throughout the US and internationally will ever embrace union rules and regulations yet that does not mean they will not pay competitive rates. Like the promo market, 25 years ago, there will very likely be little organizing of these production companies as well as few incentives for the production companies to sign off on union agreements.

If that’s the case, talent should be able to charge market rates and back end the fees so individuals can pay into their P&H.

In the end, buying into these kinds of jobs produces three results;

  • More union work for middle class actors
  • Higher rates as union talent and their agents will not have to navigate the perils of union versus non-union and can simply quote competitive rates
  • More money applied to union pension and health

Will buying in have unintended consequences? Of course but every compromise has its share of issues. Regardless, there is just too much potential money on the table and union leaders should immediately start thoughtful conversations on how buying in can be done without talent jeopardizing their union membership.

Ties That Bind

I wrote a piece last week about the lost decade experienced by SAG/AFTRA, and how specifically the voice-over business has faced radical changes that have endangered the union benefits and status of many voice-over professionals. In order to regain some of the lost work, SAG/AFTRA needs to incorporate several measures. One small solution I propose is a SAG/AFTRA voice-over only agreement with employers. Due to technology, voice-over is a relatively flattened international industry and very rarely do voice-over talent need to perform where the production is based. The opposite is true with on-camera performers and consequently, separate markets have evolved for voice-over and on-camera performers. Current SAG/AFTRA contracts, specifically for commercials, industrials and promos, link the two together, and I am proposing there are strong reasons to separate them.

Why Are the SAG/AFTRA Voice-Over and On-Camera Tied Together?

Initially, there were very strong reasons to have commercial, industrial and promo contracts incorporating both skills as they virtually guaranteed a 100% commitment to union talent on every production. In other words, if production wanted to hire SAG/AFTRA talent on-camera, they would also have to commit to union voices as well. The reverse applied to non-union work and in principal, that rule is supposed to protect union jobs by not allowing production to cherry pick union and non-union performers based on whims or reallocated resources. Unfortunately, a myriad of modern problems evolved as well.

Production Is More Local Than Ever.

One of the first problems that evolved was the evolution of hundreds of local productions.   A decade ago, if you were shooting a series of bank commercials in Colorado or Tennessee, you likely hired a director from New York or Los Angeles and possibly actors from there as well. Today, that’s usually not necessary as there are a slew of capable local directors, camera people and production companies who cut their teeth with easily accessible modern video technology.   Local production companies are most apt to hire local actors, and this is where things get complicated with 100% union contracts.

First, keep in mind, if you are Denver or Memphis there just are not a lot of available SAG/AFTRA actors to begin with and even fewer types to choose from. So unless your production wants to pay travel and casting costs, you are likely hiring from a local non-union pool. A second factor is that many of these jobs tend to have few, if any, speaking parts so they don’t need actors as much as types. As long as a handful look like bankers and another handful look like customers, the director will likely be able to get the performances he/she needs.

What is then missing? The voice-over that weaves the narrative thread. In this scenario, the voice-over is by far the most important performer yet a union actor is not allowed to be hired even when almost everyone involved is willing to spend the money on a union actor. A voice-over specific commercial contract solves this problem and also allows the possibility that the voice talent will be used in other mediums (for instance, radio) as well.

Animation and Graphics Has Also Changed the Landscape.

More and more commercials, industrials and promos today feature incredible animation and graphics, which were impossible a decade ago. SAG/AFTRA already has voice specific animation and interactive agreements yet there are none for commercials and industrials.

Why is this important? Take for instance, the rise of the “Explainer Video.” Before the Internet, an “explainer” was simply known as an “industrial film.” Explainers can be made incredibly cheaply… it’s not unheard of that $500 can get you a high quality explainer video yet what is often missing is a high quality narrator. In many cases, production is willing to pay voice-over union rates, but this is a circumstance where signing a SAG/AFTRA Industrial Agreement incorporating union on-camera actors as well is simply too binding for the producer. For example, any future hopes of incorporating local live action shoots would need to be seriously reassessed once SAG/AFTRA actors are accounted for.

What About Unintended Consequences?

I am sure there will be (and can even anticipate) some unintended consequences, but I still believe that separating some voice-over and on-camera contracts would create a healthier long-term industry. In the very least, SAG/AFTRA should consider it as a pilot program and then assess the results as they evolve.

The Lost Decade: SAG/AFTRA and Commercials

Last week, SAG/AFTRA in New York held a special caucus for commercial performers. My understanding of the meeting was for working actors to hopefully come up with ideas to resurrect lost work and wages. I think the overall idea was excellent, but I believe there are too many false narratives about changes in the industry and I wanted to add some thoughts.

On-Camera Actors Were The First Casualty

For years and years, there were actors who were known in the business as commercial actors. 99% of these actors lived in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, and they made their living doing SAG/AFTRA on-camera and/or voice-over work. Somewhere in the last 10-20 years, the majority of commercial actors working solely on-camera were no longer making a living. Strategic ad buying as well as diversified casting spread the money out dramatically, and on-camera actors were the first casualties in the commercial evolution.

While on-camera work was drying up, commercial voice-over was still consistent, but that has changed dramatically as well. While the same factors (strategic ad buying, diversity) applied, technology really skewed the new paradigm.

Technology Changed Everything

First, came Protools and other digital audio suites, which leveled the skills of audio engineers. As a result, ad agencies no longer needed to spend weeks in the “big city” mixing their spots when someone locally would do. Without the recording studios acting as a hub, actors did not need to be in NYC, LA and Chicago either, and local actors like local engineers became more common.

Second was the advent of advanced graphics. The graphics revolution has led to less and less live action shoots, which obviously has affected on-camera but has also created a dramatic shift away from voice-overs. Whether title cards, animation or CGI, graphics have completely changed commercial story telling. Check out this Coca-Cola ad from 2012 ( With the exception of the announcer in the beginning, there were likely no voice-actors in the entire piece. As animation has become cheaper, these kinds of spots have been produced more and more often, and voice-over jobs have slowly waned in conjunction.

The third factor was online casting. Voicebank opened the door for every ad agency in the country to initially have efficient access to thousands of mostly union performers. Voice123 and then allowed smaller ad agencies and production companies to audition mostly non-union actors for their work.


The key result of all three technologies is that talent can be located anywhere. In fact, because so many people work from home, being located outside certain crowded urban areas has distinct advantages in both audio quality and cost of living.

SAG/AFTRA has suffered with decentralization as well because the union’s incentives to join (wage floor, health care and pension) are no longer as important. For instance, the wage floor (scale) is great but reflects life in the larger cities. Significant portions of the US do not need scale to sustain a reasonable lifestyle, leaving no incentive to push for union wages. The Affordable Care Act has also created issues, as voice performers no longer need to worry about completely losing heath care if they work non-union.

Finally, decentralization has led to more and more work being done in Right-to-Work states. Check out this map at the top. The states in green are Right-to-Work states. Performers from any of those states can work on union jobs without ever being compelled to join while still being paid the same and afforded the same rights as union members.

So, is there a solution to any of these factors? It’s hard to say, but I am interested to hear any opinions outside New York, Chicago and LA on how SAG/AFTRA can serve them better.

Thinking Like a Voice-Over Freak

I have been heavily influenced by Freakonomics. Whether the books, the podcast or the website (, I am always checking out Steven Leavitt and Stephen Dubner’s latest works to give me a fresh perspective, forcing me to examine my own business paradigms. One example of my “thinking like a freak” was motivated by an excellent blog postby Beth Melsky over the weekend.   She related a story concerning an on-camera casting job for a small market and the frustration that ensued.   In order to understand the nuances, you should definitely read the piece. But, I wanted to examine some basic tenets based only on mathematical estimations, and then put on my agent’s/manager’s hat and reconfigure the equation. Keep in mind, this may be an on-camera example but, of course, everything below applies to voice-over as well.

Here is the gist of the job: One SAG/AFTRA on-camera commercial running in a small market for a single quarterly cycle. The first question is: what does this pay? I am making various guesstimates based on dozens of factors, but in a nutshell, I think the talent should estimate they would gross roughly $750 while factoring in a 10% plus/minus on either side. This does not include any agents and/or manager’s commission, which also has to be factored in.

The next questions involve costs. Beth is very specific that the product is a very low conflict area so the opportunity costs are essentially zero. That brings us to hard costs such as travel, paying for a babysitter, missing a few hours of work etc. If you live in New York City and you do not have any additional costs, the audition is a no-brainer. The most the audition should cost is $5.50 or a round trip on NYC’s subways and buses. Talent should also factor in a Call Back so double the cost to $11.00. In the end, this scenario dictates that an actor needs to spend $11.00 to make $750.00, so it appears to be a sound investment.

What if you do not live in NYC or your costs are significantly more? For instance, is it worth to drive in from New Jersey, pay for a sitter for three hours or to skip that lunchtime shift?

Here are some of the more “Freaky” things I would think about. For instance, how many people is she (Beth) likely seeing for each role? Keep in mind, talent really can not ask that specific question for a myriad of reasons, but instead of passing or taking him or herself out of the running by asking for more money, the talent can ask how long the session is going. Assuming casting will take roughly 10 minutes for each appointment and the session is going from 10-5, the talent can assume there will be roughly 56 people seen (7 hours x 6 appointments).   Factoring in normal attrition for any audition, I would guess the actual odds are roughly 1:50 (without factoring in talent which is impossible for this exercise).

If we divide the $750 return by the fifty people she is seeing you come up with the number 15. Based on a quick calculation, that is the maximum amount that should be spent for the audition given the odds. In other words, I feel an economist would suggest passing on the job if the costs were over $15.00.

This is now where an agent’s or manager’s experience and savvy is crucial. Beth specifically mentions the director is not only an award winner but very loyal. She also mentions that the spot is comedic and takes “amazing actors.” If an agent believes an actor is truly exceptional, then those odds likely drop dramatically where they range from about 1:15 to 1:25.

Loyalty and future work with the director calls for a separate calculation, and this is where things get really speculative. If I had to guess how much subsequent loyalty is worth after an initial job, I would say somewhere between $5-10K. That’s a broad range, but using the new figure of $5K in additional work with 1:25 odds for the initial job, I think it is worth roughly $200 in costs to pursue the small market job.

In this case, without even talking actual calculations with the actor, I would suggest that actor take what appears to be relatively large risk $200 for what is initially a small return $750. In my experience (and apparently Beth’s as well), important careers are built with far greater risks, so I would recommend the audition to anyone I believe is talented.