Sunday, February 14, 2010

If you're only talking for 30 seconds, why do I have to pay so much?

I was talking with a friend who is in the public relations business the other day. He's one of the most successful press agents in Boston, and specializes in getting his clients booked on TV and radio talk shows. As we compared notes, we realized we both faced the same obstacle: Clients who don't understand why our services are priced the way they are.

Not that we can blame them. To the uninitiated and those new to using the services of a press agent -- or in my case, a voice over artist -- it doesn't make sense. They wonder how a commercial that takes sixty seconds to do can cost so much to record.

A similar comment is one I used to hear back in my Top-40 DJ days: "I wish I had a job at which I only had to work four hours a day!" On the surface, it sounds about right, and believe it or not, there really are some DJs who only work four hours a day. But the fact is, they're not very good and they don't last in the business very long. The best radio personalities -- the ones who make it seem oh-so-easy have to work at it. And they work hard. The best don't put in a four-hour day, or even an eight-hour day like most of us. They'll spend hours preparing for their shows and trying to come up with new material. For the truly successful, it's more like a 10- or even a 12-hour day.

My friend the press agent? Sure, all he has to do is make a phone call to get his client booked, but again the truth is there's much more to it than that. He doesn't make one phone call, he makes fifty. And the only reason he can make those fifty calls is because before those fifty he made made 500 other calls to newspapers, radio and TV stations so he would know the producers and bookers, and what their tastes, interests, and preferences are.

Now since this blog is about voiceover production, let's take a look at what happens when a voiceover artist is hired to do a 60-second spot.

Even before the voiceover artist gets hired, he's already put a lot of work into the job. He's made phone calls to his agent, he's paid for and sent out demos, bios, postcards, letters, and maintains a web site too. He's probably called a few hundred potential clients on his own, and done every other kind of marketing he could think of. Along the way he's probably done fifty or sixty auditions -- maybe 100 -- that haven't resulted in any gigs.

Then one day the phone rings, or he gets an email from somebody who liked his audition enough to actually ask him to do their spot. They fax the copy over.

The first thing our voiceover artist does is read the copy to find out what it's all about. Then he reads it again, this time to get an idea of how the read should sound. Depending on the type of spot it is he may have to figure out who his character is, what his purpose is, even how he feels about it. In other words, he goes through the same preparation all actors go through when they land a part. But our voiceover actor doesn't have the length of a feature film or even a sitcom to develop his character and get his message across -- he's got 57 seconds, or even less.

He reads the copy again, this time marking it to note which words to emphasize and which to downplay, trying to find the most effective way to get it said.

By this time, he's read the copy five or six times, and hasn't even opened his mouth yet. But that's next. It's time to rehearse. Again he'll read the copy as many times as he needs to -- or, if he's working with one, as many times as the producer wants him to -- until it sounds right. So we're up to ten reads or more.

When the mike goes on, all that preparation hopefully results in a good read the first time. But, alas, that's rarely the case. Inevitably there will be goofs, mistakes, places where he rose in pitch when he should have gone down. Since he didn't write the copy, the words he speaks aren't his own in the way he would speak them, but in the way some committee somewhere wrote them, and he has to find a way to make that committee sound like one person with one voice, who's fluent in the English language.

If the recording is being done in a studio with a producer, engineer, and likely the client too, all of which are listening in on the session in the control room, our voiceover artist will have to follow their direction. Some of that direction may be genuinely helpful. Some of it may be arcane. "Can you make it sound like stardust?" or "put more electrons into it!" Hmmm ... electrons! More takes...

Eventually the tracks do get laid down and the recording session is finished. It's taken all day, and for his day's work the VO artist has earned $600. It may be the only job he'll do that week. If he's lucky, he'll get a check within 30 days as promised. If he's not so lucky he'll have to wait, track the client down, or maybe just not get paid at all. It happens.

So add it all up: The VO actor has probably read that script anywhere from ten to 50 times. And the money he gets paid has to cover all his administrative expenses and the costs of marketing, maintaining a studio, and going to auditions. Don't forget he has to pay his agent's commission too, if he ever wants to work again.

Do the math and you'll see that for all the effort to land and then produce that 60 second spot, our voiceover guy is lucky if he makes $10 an hour.

So why does he do it? Easy: He loves it.


BullShots! is written by Fred Pagano, and is published by Brown Cow Studios of Boston.

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