Bootstrapping a Career in VO: Start Where you Are, Grow as you Go
If you're interested in pursuing a career as a VO Talent, it can be tempting to be a perfectionist and want to have everything just right before you get yourself out there and start looking for work. It can also be daunting and confusing to even know where to begin.
When I first started entertaining the idea of pursuing VO work, I did some research and came across tons of other talent who had impressive VO training backgrounds, years and years of experience, and huge lists of credits. It was super intimidating and made me question how I could ever compete for work against these people when I had literally zero VO experience or coaching.
I decided to take a shot anyways and despite my limited experience, self-produced demo reel, less than stellar performance skills, and empty credit list, I was actually able to land a gig after a few weeks of auditioning, and another a couple weeks later, and then things snowballed from there. All of that led me to where I am now, with years of experience, several demo reels showcasing actual work I've done, vastly improved performance skills, and a long credit list of my own.
The point I am trying to make is that I started. Sure there are a few things that you should get ready before you launch (which I'll cover in this post) but it's important to not fall into traps of perfectionism and over-analysis. You don't need to be world-class when you get started, you just need to get started where you are, and take comfort in the fact that it's ok to learn and grow as you go.
This post has also been formatted as a free e-book which you can download as part of the Resource Package by clicking the button at the bottom of the post!
The Bare Essentials
While the overall theme of this post is to get started where you are and not fall victim to perfectionism or over-analysis, there are still a few things you will need to get squared away before putting yourself out there, both tangible and intangible. First let's look at the tangible items you will need to have.
In the current state of the VO industry, it's pretty much mandatory to have a home recording set-up. You'll want to make sure you have a:
- Microphone (Ideally not a USB mic, but a more professional Condenser or Dynamic)
- Mic Stand (Unless you plan to hold your mic in front of your face at all times and have crazy arm strength, you'll probably want one of these)
- Pop Filter (This will reduce plosives in your recording, professional VO recordings don't have audible plosives, so you'll want one of these)
- XLR Cable (To plug your Mic into your interface)
- Recording Interface (A piece of hardware that takes the signal from your Mic and gets it into your computer)
- Computer (You'll need some sort of computer, be it a desktop, laptop, or tablet to run your audio recording software)
- Recording Software (The software that will run on your computer and allow you to capture and edit audio)
- Recording Space (A treated space where you can record in that will provide an acoustically "dead" sound)
Starting where you are with Equipment
While the above list may look a little daunting if you have no prior experience with audio or recording, the good news is that you likely have some of those items already or can put them together yourself. For the ones you will likely need to purchase, you can start out with lower end equipment when your are starting out. I'll give you some typical price ranges to expect. Let's take a look at each one and see how to get started with the least expense:
- Microphone: There's really no way around this one, if you don't already have a mic, you will need to acquire one. On a budget, you could reach out to any friends/family who may have an audio background and have a mic that you can borrow. You can also usually find good deals on used Mic's on places like eBay. But if you are serious about pursuing a full-time career in VO, this is probably a purchase that is worth making up front, something in the $100 range is a good place to start.
- Mic Stand: Again, there's really no way around this, you'll have to grab one. The good news is lower end mic stands can usually be found for only $10-15 bucks.
- Pop Filter: You can make one of these yourself with some stockings/leggings, but there are also low end ones that are quite cheap ($8-10)
- XLR Cable: Also can be found pretty cheap, depending on the length you need ($5-10)
- Recording Interface: This is also something you'll likely need to purchase if you don't already have one, or know someone who you can borrow one from. The good news here is that VO probably requires the least complex equipment of any type of recording, so you can get a pretty bare bones 1-channel interface and that should be a good place to get started. If using a condenser microphone, you will need to ensure you interface supplies "48v Phantom Power" to power your mic. This will likely run you around $100.
- Computer: Again, because VO isn't super heavy on resources, the computer you already have is very likely more than capable of recording VO. If not, any low end desktop or laptop should be able to do the job, and some people even use tablets, which is ok to get started, but something you'll likely want to upgrade from at some point.
- Recording Software: While there are a lot of options here, to get started you can definitely make do with a free piece of recording software, Audacity is a popular one.
- Recording Space: While a proper recording environment is hugely important to your recording quality, you can get by at the beginning with a space you likely already have. Setting up a DIY recording booth is another entire post in itself, but many people use closets, or corners of rooms when starting out. You will want to "deaden" the space as much as possible, which is the process of removing reflections, reverberation, echo, etc... You can do this through the hanging and placement of thick, absorptive material - popular DIY options include: Comforters, Pillows, Clothing, Moving Blankets, and Mattress Foam.
In addition to having the basic equipment you need to get started, you will also want a few intangibles in place, before getting yourself out there:
- Skills: Sure you aren't going to be a world class talent out of the gate, but you should at least have spent some time reading up, listening to the work/demos of top talent, and practicing interpreting and reading copy. That's the bare minimum, but it definitely wouldn't hurt to have had some actual coaching/training as well. A lot of people would say you shouldn't think of auditioning or putting a demo reel together without proper training/coaching first, and that's probably good advice. I didn't go that route though, so that's why I don't go quite so far as to say it's mandatory to have coaching before you start getting out there. But I don't mean to take anything away from the value of a good coach, if you can afford it out of the gate, it's probably worth the investment.
- Patience/Persistance: Auditioning and marketing is a numbers game, don't expect to land a job right away. At the beginning, auditioning should be viewed as much as practice for you, as it is the opportunity to land a job.
- Work Ethic: While VO may seem easy and good way to make quick money, anyone whose done it for any length of time can tell you that it's not. Be prepared to put in real work and effort if you want to see results.
- Business & People Skills: As a VO Talent, you are in the service business. You need to handle yourself in a professional manner when dealing with clients and potential clients and make sure you are prepared to provide quality service.
If you're planning on pursuing a full-time VO career, and improving as you go along, then you will not be quite at your best when your starting out (or ever really, you should always be growing and improving) and this can impact the first impressions you make, so there are some places and people I would stay away from reaching out to for work when you are at the beginning and inexperienced.
An obvious one is agents. VO Agents only bring on talent who are proven to be marketable and are already doing work on their own. When you are just starting out, you are not ready for an agent. If you reach out to them too early and have a poor quality demo or unimpressive list of work, they may just discard your submission and forget about you, and then if you reach back out down the road they may take another look. But it's also possible, they remember that they weren't interested the first time, and don't even both to check you out the second, especially if they are very busy, which agents usually are. So submitting to VO Agents really shouldn't even be on your mind when you're just starting.
High End Production/Casting Companies
When you research companies that you may want to market yourself to, you will likely come across a wide variety of types of companies. Some do lower budget web videos, some do national commercials that you see on Primetime TV, and there are companies that do everything in between. When you are just starting out, you're not quite ready for the top-tier production companies, and while they may not remember you down the line, it's probably better to save your first impression for when you have a little more to offer. So if you check out their web site and see a lot of recognizable big brands and high profile work, it's probably a good idea to hold off for now.
Places Where you can Get Started
Some good places to start out looking for work are:
- "Cattle Call" Casting/P2P sites: While these sites will be very competitive with upwards of 100 people auditioning for the same job (I mentioned VO wasn't easy), you can get access to lower end work on these sites that will help you build up your experience and credentials. You will also have the opportunity to audition for clients who don't have the budgets for top-tier talent, so you're helping them while they're helping you. There are fees associated with these sites and there are a lot of arguments for and against them, so do your research prior to joining and decide for yourself if it's something you'd like to try.
- ACX: This is a service to match up Audiobook Creators with VO Talent. Audiobooks are pretty intensive projects, but new authors without giant budgets have no problem using new talent to narrate their projects if their auditions and demos sound good to them.
- Craigslist: A quick search on Craigslist for VO related postings can often turn up some audition opportunities, usually these are for lower budget and smaller projects which can be a good place to start.
- Small Production Companies/Freelancers: Many smaller production companies that either only have a few employees or are just starting out can be a good place to market yourself as a new talent. If your demos or auditions sound good to them, they likely won't have any concerns about your lack of experience and would be willing to try you out on a project. Freelance and independent producers/directors/animators/filmmakers can fit this description as well.
First Paying Gig
When you land that first paying gig, it will be an incredibly exciting and motivating experience. Don't get too excited and expect the floodgates to open, and don't go spending all that money in one place. This post is about "Bootstrapping" and so the first money you make should be invested back into your business if you are serious about growing and building a career.
Where Should the Money Go?
Here's a list of areas you should look to improve and invest in when you start making some money.
- Your Skills - The most important element of your offering as a VO talent is your actual voice itself and the reads you produce. Invest money into improving your skills and ability as a talent whether through books and online courses, or a private coach, classes, or in-person seminar.
- Your Demo - While a lot of people will say you need a professional demo reel before you even get going, this post is about "starting where you are" and I think it is possible to start auditioning before you have one, that's what I did. But don't misunderstand - a demo reel is incredibly important and is essential to a successful VO Talent. It should be one of, if not the first things you invest in and acquire for you business.
- Your Space - Arguably more important than the mic you use, is the space you record in. If your recording environment is less than ideal, consider upgrading to a new spot, purchasing some professional absorptive sound material, saving up for an actual booth, or materials for a more professional DIY booth.
- Your Mic - Many people use low end microphones well into their career, but if you feel your mic is below the standard of quality you are hoping to provide, consider upgrading when some money starts coming in.
- Your Website - A professional website will serve as the "home" of your VO business online. While I don't believe it is essential to have one out of the gate, it is something you will want to have eventually and should acquire once your business gets going.
- Your Interface - While many talent operate just fine on simple low end interfaces, higher quality ones offer technical upgrades like better pre-amps, better converters, and higher sample rates - basically things that translate to overall better audio quality.
- Your Software - Again, you can get by on low cost or even free recording software, but more premium alternatives give you more options that can improve your overall workflow and productivity.
Even when your career starts taking off and you are seeing steady work, building a client list, and getting more and more high profile jobs, you should always be looking to improve and grow.
As you move forward, consider coaching, new books and online courses/tutorials to keep you sharp and help you develop skills in other niches. Consider upgrades to any weak parts of your recording chain, including the space you record in. Consider new services you could learn and begin offering to clients such as providing music, translation services, copywriting, or other related offerings. Also seek representation by agents if you don't already have, and if you do, seek representation from agents in new markets. There are always ways to improve and up your game, and you should always be striving to do so.
To sum up, it is possible to start a VO career with little experience and grow as you go. You don't need to be a perfect, world-class talent right off the bat.
By getting the bare essentials in order, in terms of equipment (Mic, Mic Accessories, Interface, Computer, Software, and Recording Space) and the "Intangibles" (Performance Skills, Patience/Persistence, Work Ethic, Business/People Skills) you can set out on that first step of the journey, and grow and improve from there.
Be smart in terms of the first impressions you make when marketing yourself to potential clients and try to gain work from clients "on your level" and seek better and more prestigious clients as you grow.
When you start getting work and making some money, look for the weakest parts of your overall business to invest it in and improve, whether that's your skills, equipment, or recording environment.
If you are interested in becoming a VO Talent but haven't taken any concrete steps yet, start now! Begin by working on your performance skills. Find some practice scripts online and record yourself reading them. If you don't have equipment yet, use a phone or tablet for now. Compare your reads to some commercials you see online and on TV and the radio and ask friends and family to help you compare and critique as well,. If you know someone in the business, that's a great person to ask for a critique too.
If you have already taken some steps to begin your VO career and have studied and practiced a bit, and have acquired the necessary equipment- then look through the "First Impressions" section of this post and research some of the areas mentioned there that you haven't looked into yet, to start marketing yourself and looking for work.
And if you're even further along, and have already booked some gigs. Look through the "First Paying Gig" section of the post and start deciding where the best place to invest your money is, and then do it!
If you've just started your career and are a relatively new talent, I'd love to hear how it's going so far - let me know in the comments!
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